Introducing America’s Highest Purpose

September 2, 2015

This week I launched a new blog: America’s Highest Purpose: Liberty and Love Will Show the Way. I hope you can join me on this journey.

Almost everyone I know is concerned about the state of the world and wants to do their part in making the world a better place. Many see more Love as the necessary ingredient to our problems, while others see more Liberty as the change agent. In my view, Liberty without Love or Love without Liberty is not enough and my new blog will explore economic and social issues through this lens.

My inaugural post explores the rise of Trump and Sanders and asks: Are We Entitled to Our Bitterness?

I will continue to blog at the new Giving up Control site; new posts will appear at that site soon.

Giving up Control Has Moved

January 12, 2012

The new blog site is

As I begin to post at my new blog site, I thought it would be interesting to look back at over 4 years of posts at WordPress.

There were over 200,000 visitors for my over 250 posts. I’m grateful for the over 1500 thoughtful comments that readers made at this blog. After a few months away from blogging, I’m looking forward to a renewed dialogue with my readers at the new site. I hope you can join the conversation.

Giving Up Control on Facebook

January 12, 2011

My new Giving Up Control page is now live on Facebook. The page supplements both my longer blog posts and my Twitter page.

If you do visit my Giving Up Control Facebook page, please consider clicking the “like” button at that page. Your support is much appreciated.

Barry Brownstein on Twitter

January 3, 2011

For every blog post I write, there are many partially written posts you never see. On average, my blog posts are about 1,000 words. Many other pieces are begun but, as time passes, not completed. Yet, I often feel that I come across information that might be of interest and important to you. Twitter is one way that I can bridge the gap, and I am now tweeting.

Twitter is a perfect outlet for micro blog posts—a sentence or two with a link to an article and I have sent off a tweet. You can expect tweets on economics, leadership, the spiritual journey, health and more.

You can follow my tweets at

The website to support my book The Inner-Work of Leadership has been recently revised. More interesting new content will be coming in the coming weeks and months. You can subscribe by email or by a reader in the sidebar at the site:

Keeping Our New Year’s Resolutions: Part 1

January 2, 2011

Whether or not we make New Year’s resolutions, the relative stillness at this time of the season fosters reflection. We may think we see clearly which of our habits or behaviors need to change, yet the only thing that seems to occur without much effort is our easy slide back into habitual patterns.

A few days before Christmas, my wife went online to enter her final grades. Having trouble logging in to the university portal, she asked me to take a look. She uses the portal daily, so no doubt she had the correct username and password. Initially I considered two possibilities, either the portal server was down or someone had hacked into her account and changed her password. There was no sign that the portal server was down, and I quickly realized that the odds that someone had hacked into her account were infinitesimally small. I realized that my mind had limited itself to considering two almost certainly incorrect causes for my wife’s problem; and literally within seconds, a new possibility popped into my mind: Had my wife accidentally turned on the cap lock key? Indeed, she had; she restored the cap lock to its default position and was able to enter the portal.

That same evening at dinner, my son asked me what I thought of inductive reasoning. “Funny you should ask.” I said to him. “Just today I was again reminded of how inductive reasoning can get us into trouble.” Inductive reasoning often fails us if we are certain we are itemizing all possibilities, when in truth, we are not. Using inductive reasoning in this matter, we try to solve the problem where it is not. In my wife’s case, initially I was trying to solve the problem by considering external causes. Given that I initially believed the cause was external, I almost advised her to call the university’s help desk. Yet, because I had no real attachment to the incorrect causes to which I had attributed the problem, I was able to drop my story quickly and to be open to having the real cause revealed to me.

The real cause, the real problem, was right in front of my eyes. This whole “computer problem” was over in mere minutes, but it illustrates an important principle: Problem solving by individuals, organizations, and societies is often futile because not all the possible causes of problems are considered.

Consider an individual making a New Year’s resolution. A person may resolve to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. That person may have acquired a new technique follow, and may be eager to begin. Yet, most techniques fail because a technique will not address the real cause of the problem.

Often, a clue to the real cause of the problem can be found in the stories we tell about our problems. It may be that we do not tell these stories to others; we may simply recite an internal monologue in our mind. Perhaps stories like these sound familiar: “I am overweight because an uncaring parent fed me junk food as a child.” “I don’t exercise because my career is too demanding and I don’t have the time.” “I am justified in holding a grievance against my sister-in-law because of the unforgiveable way she treated me a few years ago.”  “I feel unfulfilled at work because I have never had a boss who gave me latitude to make any decisions.” Yes, some of the facts in our stories may be accurate, but they are rarely the cause of our problem.

We have confused cause and effect. The causes, or I should say justifications, we have in our mind for why we cannot change are really the effect of our decision to not change. They reflect where we are stuck; they tell us the exact situations in which our “cap key” is locked.

In his book Bonds That Make Us Free, Terry Warner writes: “The parts of our psychological history that make a difference now do not reside in the past. They are present. It is our presently held story of the past that is our bondage or our freedom.” In other words, it is not the story, but that we are still holding onto our story that is the source of our problem. Our habits are entrenched, because our stories about what causes our habits are entrenched. To change a habit we must be willing to question and then surrender our story about the habit.

Who would we be without our story? We can’t imagine—and we are frightened to find out. That is the real reason why we don’t lose weight, can’t find time to exercise, or don’t drop our grievances. Rather then drop our story and discover who we really are, we hold on to our current identity as someone, for example, with a weight problem caused by an uncaring parent who fed us too much junk food as a child.

When we see how much we love our stories and how frightened we are to give them up, we understand why we so quickly break our resolutions.  To change, we must be aware of this simple and unpleasant truth: If faced with the choice between giving up our habit and our story or keeping our habit and our story, we will choose the latter most of the time.

This is Part 1. Look for Part 2 in a few days.

Ghosts of America’s Past

October 19, 2008

Today was a wonderful fall day in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and we set out for the summit of Mt. Israel. We were in the mood for a long circuit hike; so instead of retracing our steps, we descended via a trail that led us into the backcountry; and then we returned to our car via Sandwich Notch Road.

Sandwich Notch Road runs about eight miles from Center Sandwich to Thornton, New Hampshire. This road is the only one of its kind in America. Both its location and character have been unchanged from the early 1800s, when it functioned as a critical part of the heavily traveled trade route from the seacoasts of New Hampshire and Maine to the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont.

Sandwich Notch Road

Sandwich Notch Road

At its peak, over 300 families lived along the road. Once there were farms, sawmills, stores, taverns, and schoolhouses. Now all that remains is a cemetery and old cellar holes. Where once was open space, now is the densely forested Sandwich Range Wilderness of the White Mountains National Forest.

Life was hard. The Halls lost Ada, age 7, and Willie, age 11, within a month of each other in 1869. This photo is from a cemetery, in the woods off Sandwich Notch Road, that is protected by the American Antiquities Act of 1906.

One of the surviving stone cellars of a home.

One of the surviving stone cellars of a home.

America’s First Billboard? The writing carved on an overhanging rock on the side of the road advertises a general store and reads: P. Wentworth 6mls 1838

A Quaker minister, Joseph Meader, spoke on fair-weather Sundays from the top of Pulpit Rock to his congregation which would assemble below.

What happened? After the Civil War young people began to leave for an easier and more prosperous life in the mills of Massachusetts. The forest began to encroach on the cleared land until nothing remained. The value of a homestead fell to zero.

Talk about an impact on the community—but, there was nobody to bail them out. Of course, this cycle of the birth and death of a community was played out all over America. It was played out as technological innovations and industrial changes favored some communities over others and as preferences of consumers changed, and it played out for reasons that can never be fully understood.

To try to prevent any of this would have been sheer insanity. The thought probably never crossed anyone’s mind.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Too Big To Continue

July 16, 2008

If the public was unaware of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they have received a quick education in the past few days. Unfortunately, the education that they are receiving can be summed up by the hypnotic mantra that has been repeated ad nauseam by politicians and financial commentators alike: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are too big to fail.

These comments by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, are fairly typical:

If the government hadn’t moved and Fannie and Freddie failed, the cost to taxpayers and the overall economy would be enormous. If Fannie and Freddie were unable to play their huge roles in financing new mortgages, the housing market would only suffer more, not to mention the turmoil for the financial institutions around the world that invest in Fannie and Freddie’s debt securities.

Zandi’s comments are exactly the opposite of the truth—if the government continues to bailout those who made bad bets on the housing market, the cost to the taxpayers and economy will be catastrophic, not just enormous.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have engaged in fraud, have helped to corrupt the political process, and have helped to raise the price of housing. Their debt holders should not be made immune from the same sharp decline in the value of their securities that their shareholders have already suffered.

First, the fraud and corruption issue: In May 2006, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), released a “Report of the Special Examination of Fannie Mae.” The report covered the years from 1998-2004 and found that top management at Fannie Mae were engaging in fraud: “By deliberately and intentionally manipulating accounting to hit earnings targets, senior management maximized the bonuses and other executive compensation they received, at the expense of shareholders.”

Fannie Mae is a prolific giver of campaign money to candidates of both political parties. Instead of responding to the serious accusations in the OFHEO report, they had the temerity, according to Bryon York, to lobby “Congress to cut OFHEO’s funds unless it got rid of the top official in charge of investigating Fannie Mae.” Further, they continue to spend much money lobbying Congress. In the first quarter of 2008 alone, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spent about $3.5 million on lobbying and hired 42 outside firms in this effort.

And how have they pushed up housing prices? Mish Shedlock looked at the mission of Fannie Mae: “We are a shareholder-owned company with a public mission. We exist to expand affordable housing and bring global capital to local communities in order to serve the U.S. housing market.” Mish pointed out:

Fannie Mae exists to expand affordable housing. Clearly Fannie Mae has failed its core mission. All government sponsored corporations fail their mission. The very nature of promoting housing makes prices go up, until the final blowoff top which we are now on the backside of, having reached Peak Credit.

And who is really being protected? London’s Financial Times reported that “Bill Gross, whose Pimco Total Return fund is the world’s largest bond mutual fund, has tripled his bet on mortgage debt, which now comprises about 61 percent of the fund’s assets. ” Gross commented, “Government policy is moving to sanctify the status of the government-sponsored agencies. It became a question of which institutions would be sheltered by the government umbrella.”

In other words, the taxpayer is bailing out the investors in Gross’s bond fund and others who bought securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are in trouble because they helped finance too many low quality mortgages; and in so doing, they pushed housing prices up to unsustainable levels. Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, commented, “The prospectus for every GSE (Government Sponsored Enterprise) bond clearly states that it is not backed by the United States government. That’s why investors holding agency bonds already receive a significant risk premium over Treasuries.”

Thus as Harry Long points out: Any bailout of the GSEs would not be about homeowners. It would be about charity to financial institutions and investors who have not behaved logically and stand to lose terribly due to sloppy decision making. I like to call it affirmative action for the rich and stupid.“ Bill Gross makes more in a year than most taxpayers will make in a lifetime—it is hardly in the interest of taxpayers that they subsidize him.

There are a few politicians in Congress who understand all of this. Just yesterday, during Senate testimony by Ben Bernanke, Senator and Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Bunning said,

The Fed is asking for more power. But the Fed has proven they cannot be trusted with the power they have. They get it wrong, do not use it, or stretch it further than it was ever supposed to go. As I said a moment ago, their monetary policy is a leading cause of the mess we are in…

Now the Fed wants to be the systemic risk regulator. But the Fed is the systemic risk. Giving the Fed more power is like giving the neighborhood kid who broke your window playing baseball in the street a bigger bat and thinking that will fix the problem. I am not going to go along with that and will use all my powers as a Senator to stop any new powers going to the Fed.

The Fed is not the only institution getting bigger bats—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are too, and they are destructive bullies. Giving the bullies bigger weapons will only ensure that the once great American economy will continue to be destroyed.

Be Kind

June 4, 2008

Plato advises us to always be kind, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It is easy to forget this advice; it is easy to assume that others should have known better or that they should have made a better choice than they did.

Consider the heartbreaking story of Tom and Betty West reported on in the Wall Street Journal and summarized in this short video. In 1959, Tom and Betty placed their developmentally disabled three-year old son Richard in a state institution in Oregon. Richard, who was deprived of oxygen at birth, was diagnosed as severely mentally retarded. The doctor told Tom and Betty that Richard “would always have the mentality of a three-year-old and needed 24-hour care;” he urged that Richard be institutionalized at Oregon’s Fairview home.

Like most institutions at the time, Fairview was a cold, stark place. When the Wests brought Richard to Fairview, “an administrator recommended that Mr. and Mrs. West kiss Richard goodbye and leave quickly.”

The Walls Street Journal describes life at Fairview:

An old black-and-white film called “In Our Care” describes Fairview, showing a porch crowded with children clapping and rolling a ball. “This child spends most of her time tearing paper into shreds,” the narrator says.

Eventually, Oregon moved Richard to a different facility without informing the family of his new location. The family then went over 40 years without seeing their son and brother.

Now in their 80s, Tom and Betty had strong urges to find out what happened to Richard. Initially, the state resisted their inquiries. Finally, through the efforts of Jeff West, the youngest of the West siblings, the family found Richard. At age 52, Richard is living in a group home and has progressed far more than his original diagnosis had said was possible—among other things, he can dress himself, feed himself, catch a ball, and fish.

We can only imagine the immense feelings of loss and guilt that the Wests have suffered these many years. They have been fighting a hard battle.

The late Thomas Hora defined compassion “as understanding the lack of understanding.” We all lack understanding. Hora writes:

We have compassion for ourselves and we say, “Well, I may have these feelings and I may have these thoughts, but I don’t have to be involved with them, because there is something higher and better for me to pay attention to.” This is forgiveness.… This is important because unless we have compassion towards ourselves, how will we ever have compassion for others?

Now, Hora is not encouraging us to repress, suppress, or express our faulty ideas and feelings. Instead, he is asking us to recognize them and to reorient our focus of attention to a higher plane.

Polly Berends, one of Hora’s students, points out that we all allow unquestioned assumptions to live through us:

Day by day, year after year, we live our lives out of certain fundamental assumptions of which we are almost completely unaware. These assumptions govern our lives, yet they are so universal and unquestioned as to be virtually unconscious.

We are all fighting a hard battle, and we can all understand how unquestioned assumptions were expressed through the Wests:

  1. First, relying on one expert to tell them what was possible in Richard’s life.
  2. Then, relying on that same expert to tell them what was the best course of action.
  3. Next, allowing the norms of society to dictate their course of action.

I’m not implying that the Wests made a “faulty” choice—I do not know. Yet, I would not deny anyone the responsibility for their choices. Taking responsibility simply means we acknowledge that mistaken ideas and thinking have impacted our experience of life. In that, we are all in the same boat. Yet, we can take responsibility without blame. Blame is harsh—by condemning and judging ourselves, we keep our faulty thought patterns in place. Keeping faulty thought patterns in place, we will never make a better choice.

Instead of condemnation, we can feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and for others for the choices we make. Ignorance lives in all of us, and kindness is one antidote that should be liberally used.

You Call This a Team?

May 7, 2007

I won’t bore you with commentary on whether Roger Clemens is worth $18 million dollars playing, part of the season, for the New York Yankees. I also won’t comment on whether he will be able to lead them to another World Series title. My answer to both questions is no but that is not the point of this post.

Last time I checked baseball was a team sport. And the Yankees have not won much of anything in the post-season in recent years because they are not much of a team. Notice I did not say that they not full of talent, they clearly are; I said that they are not much of a team.

One quick way to destroy a team or organization is to set different rules for different members. No matter what the reason for these special rules, this expediency will corrode team spirit. Despite Clemens being the highest priced player on the team he will not be required to be on the bench for every game. He won’t have to make road trips when he is not scheduled to start and he will be allowed to fly home between starts. Basically he just has to show up for his starts and earn around $10,000 a pitch.

The spectacle at Yankees stadium on Sunday, when Clemens announced to the crowd during the 7th inning that he will return, reminded me of professional wrestling. In Clemens’ empty promises I heard the empty words of wrestlers’ promises to save the day. Most in the Yankee stadium crowd went appropriately delirious.

Of course, unlike wrestling, baseball is not fixed, but the Yankees have become mere entertainment and not a serious team. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, but I would rather watch the great Yankee teams of the late 90s. Players such as Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius and Paul O’Neil are retired but they were clutch, and they were a real team.

A real team usually plays above the mere sum of their parts; a collection of talents usually plays below the sum of their parts. A real team delights us because they frequently delight us with inspired and heroic play. A collection of parts almost always disappoints.


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