My List: Five Books +Plus One

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Origins of the Book: Nag Hammadi Codex Collection. Among the Earliest Known Codices Extant (Book Binding rather than Scroll). Dated to ca. 200 C.E. Discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, December 1945. Photo: PD.

Well, here you have it.  My list of “Five Books +Plus One.

Sometimes having to live by your own rules is harder than one would think.  This was one of those cases.  I realized that a few of the choices I easily could have included were not books but articles from periodicals or chapters from books.  As tempting as it was to cheat, I didn’t.  I’m not even mentioning them here as kind of a back door way of saying, Oh, by the way, these were the “also-rans” and here’s why. The other issue, as I’m sure not a few of you have also encountered is the sheer volume of books we have read during our life-times. Thousands is not a stretch of the reality.  How do I winnow all those down to just six?  It was not an easy process. I even resorted to staring at my bookcases and mentally inventorying what was there.  It turned out not to be all that helpful.

Here’s my list, roughly in chronological order as I read them.  It may surprise you; to some degree, it did me:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson
  3. The Church by Hans Kung
  4. Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman
  5. The New American Standard Bible

My “Plus One”

  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1951.

This is the cover of my first copy of "Foundation."

I have often said that Isaac Asimov taught me how to Think (capital “T”). Other than the Bible, I have read it through more than any other book.  I bought my first copy from a grocery store book rack when I was 15 or 16 and it changed my life.  Foundation is an unusual story in the Science Fiction genre because it is about a group of people, facing the collapse of a galactic empire, who Think.  Calling themselves “psychohistorians” they developed a complex logic and math-based system of predicting events in the future.  No magic, no Force.  Smart people thinking about almost hopelessly complicated assumptions and outcomes.  Did they get it right?  You’ll have to read the book.

I wanted to be a psychohistorian, not so much for the ability to reason out the future, but to be able to explore human behavior in its most deep and subtle implications.  To that end, I pursued psychology.

I can describe two huge influences Foundation (a series Asimov stretched into fourteen novels) had upon me.  First was the inspiration of learning how to Think, to stretch my mental capacity through creative and logical thinking and education.  Once you learn how to do that, all of life in its almost infinite variabilities becomes fascinating.

The second impact was to ask the question: What does it mean to be human?  Isaac Asimov in his nonfiction works said that was the central theme of Foundation.  He was a humanist, but an optimist who saw that through our common humanity we have the ability to overcome the many inhumanities we inflict upon one another and make ourselves into a better species—even if he did use robots to help us along that journey.  That optimism struck me as a teenager, and I carry it as a core of who I am to this very day.

Identity, Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. Published in 1968.

Thinking about all of the books I read as an undergraduate as a psychology  major (even though I graduated with a major in Biblical Studies, with minors in Psychology and General Science, due to the Northwest Christian College curriculum structure in 1976), I had the hardest time narrowing this chapter in my life to just one book.  I decided, finally, on Erikson’s Identity, Youth and Crisis, for three reasons.

First, Erikson’s idea of human development and epigenetic life stages has been a key part of my professional life, even today. Though the stages have been modified, the essential concepts have stood the test of time.  Other authors, including those writing about spirituality and religious development have built on Erikson.

Second, out of a handful of books that shaped my self-identity as a “psychologist,” Identity, Youth and Crisis rightly belongs at the top of that list.  That was not an easy decision to make because the also-rans were very influential as well.  But as I thought about which of them I had returned to over the years, Erikson came in first.  The only way I can think of to describe its impact is that after I read this book, I “became” a psychologist, and through it, as I entered first seminary and then my masters in counseling program, Erikson continued to be of special importance.

So, third, I returned to Identity, Youth and Crisis in my masters in counseling program at the University of Oregon (1981).  My second year, I elected to do a reading and conference course, and chose to read Erikson as my topic.  Even though I read six of his most influential books, I started again with Identity, Youth and Crisis.  It was the anchor for the term.  I still keep my copy handy on my book shelf.

The Church by Hans Kung.  Published in 1968.

This is the choice that surprised me.  As I pondered which books have had the most profound theological effect on me, it came down to three.  One was out of my heritage as a Disciples of Christ, two were written by Catholics.  Hans Kung, one of the Catholics, won.  Why? Similar to what I noted above, it is the book I have returned to most often over the years because it is the book that was most transformational in my personal and professional development as a theologian.

Hans Kung, a German theologian has been in trouble with the Catholic Church for nearly half a century.  He’s an iconoclast of sorts, and writes things that are transparently Protestant, and therefore the Holy See takes a dim view of his views. I have read that Kung and the current pope are not on good terms.  Nevertheless, when I read The Church, I could hardly put it down.  Kung’s grasp of the history of the church, the context from which doctrines and practices arose were so eloquently explained that by the time I got to the end of it, for the first time, I finally had a clear concept of “Church” in my head, and one from which I could see how Disciples’ theology clearly fit into. The “Church” and “the church” finally made sense, and that is saying something.

Little did I realize at the time that the chapters on Catholic sacraments and things like the priesthood and Apostolic Succession, would be a necessary reference in my work, but even now, The Church is my first reference when I encounter another confusing Roman Catholic belief or practice, which after 15 years still occasionally happens.  We don’t have to tell the pope I’m using Kung to check his facts.

Organizational Ecology by Michael Hannan and John Freeman.  Published in 1989.

  I spent eight years working on my doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, studying Higher Education Policy and Management and graduating in 2002.  One would think that at least one book in higher education would make this list.  Two almost did.  When I got to my dissertation research, however, the foundation of that work took an unexpected twist.  Blame that on my advisor, Dr. Paul Goldman.  He took a kernel of an idea I had and put it into a context that ended up with my not only getting to do cutting-edge research, but also got my dissertation published in the internationally renowned Journal of Educational Administration.  That twist was Organizational Ecology.

In a nutshell, Organizational Ecology is a branch of Organizational Theory that examines how institutions survive in the ecology of their organizational environment.  It assumes that organizations either thrive or wither depending on how well they can access the resources that “feed” their mission and productivity.  It is a very organic model, parallel to biological ecology.  It also assumes that institutions have a life span, and theorizes how they can replicate themselves across generations.   This very developmental perspective for me was a perfect fit.

Organizational Ecology changed the way I think about the institutional world.  It was a touchstone in the process of researching and writing my dissertation that changed how I think.  Literally.  The greatest moment of amazement I experienced as I finished the dissertation manuscript was the realization that the way I think had been organized into something completely different than when I began.  In one respect I had this sense that I had taken a step toward being a psychohistorian.  It was the last thing I expected to gain from earning a PhD.

The New American Standard Bible.  Published Originally by the Lockman Foundation in 1960. Authorized Updated Version Published in 1995.

It is a well-known aphorism in biblical studies that every translation of the Bible is a collection of compromises.  This is true and generally accepted, even by those scholars who believe the Bible is literally the Divinely dictated words of God. For the rest of us, the issue takes a different path.

I find value in reading a variety of translations because I understand the nature of the compromises that went into each version.  Knowing that different translations and paraphrases reflect the theological perspectives of their editors makes each a much more interesting read.

For me, I find The New American Standard Bible my version of choice.  I got my first copy of the NASB when I was 16 years old.  I still have it and use it frequently (which is a testament to the quality of its manufacture and binding, as much as to my affinity for its text).  The NASB was designed to be a Bible that was as close as possible to being a literal translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, to also be as theologically neutral as possible, while at the same time being written in excellent English.  To be honest, they got the literal and neutral parts better than the English.  The readability, however, was significantly improved when the bible was updated in 1995.  To this day I have yet to find another translation of the English Bible that does a better job of presenting the first two, even as they work on getting the English part more polished.

I suppose some of my readers are wondering why I didn’t talk about how the Bible has been the spiritual bedrock of my faith. The answer is simple. This is a list of books that have influenced my life, not a spiritual autobiography.  And why didn’t I make it my +Plus One choice?  Doesn’t it deserve that special distinction?  The answer again is simple. It was a compromise.  I wanted to highlight The New American Standard Bible as the translation that has profoundly influenced my faith and life for over forty years.  Therefore, I decided it belonged in the list of Five, those books that have been my most important standards for shaping me as a person and as a professional.

As for my +Plus One.  I’ve decided to put that in a separate post, as Part 2.  I listed it above.  Now you can ponder why I might have chosen it for that distinction.

Radiation Sniffer: On Alert for the Nuclear Option

In my post of July 3, I made the bold suggestion that the various Big Medicine groups could very well be planning to “drop the bomb” on the whole effort toward Universal Health Care, either before the legislation was finalized and voted on, or perhaps even after.  I called this the “Nuclear Option.”

Do not assume for a micro-second they have given up. They are preparing the Nuclear Option. One all-out attack on universal health care, with no regard for collateral damage, just the health of America. In the Board Rooms of the Insurance Megacorps, Big Pharma, Corporate Hospitals, and dozens of other stakeholders firmly anchored in the Status Quo, they are planning to bring this down. Once and for all, to obliterate the very notion of universal health care so completely, that it will never threaten their companies and profits again.

The question is, in all fairness, even though my hypothesis using organizational theory predicts the likelihood of an attempt to prevent UHC from becoming law, or destroying it after it is passed, is there any evidence to support it?  I also stated,

The door for the Nuclear Option is now open. Why? Because the real-life environment to which we are applying my theory is not just one company; we are applying it to a multifaceted industry that has for decades successfully resisted and obstructed the move toward universal health care. And they know that by conspiring together and pooling their resources, they can potentially create a huge wall of resistance. This strategy has a flaw, however. A significant percentage of companies in the industry are supportive of UHC, and are already changing the practice of their organizations to successfully ride the transformative wave. This fact only serves to increase the opponents’ anxiety. Who has the most to lose?

The political and economic environment is volatile and turbulent.  What I needed was a “radiation sniffer,” so to speak, a virtual monitor that would look for “leakage” that might be evidence of the Nuclear Option being planned.  At the same time, I needed an operational definition for “sniffing radiation” that would naturally provide boundaries against my finding “evidence” under every rock just to prove my hypothesis.

That set up two basic choices.  One would be to look for evidence that claimed outright that this group or that was planning to use their version of the Nuclear Option.  The other was to look for evidence that the players known to be facing the biggest losses were playing their game very close to the vest; in other words to look for evidence where what was not being said was more important that what was.

I chose the second.  This is why:

Therefore, if the individuals on the [Big Medicine] Boards and their Executive Management fail to manage their anxiety about the turbulence and the implications of transformative change in motion, and as they realize their historical resources for influence (i.e., lobbying) are waning, they will tend to take the most conservative stance to defend the survival of the organization, and that stance will tend to be to preserve the status quo at all cost.

And, the status quo has been for decades to work politically behind the scenes through lobbying and other forms of influence.  The job of the Public Relations department is to create a public face for the organization that oozes altruism and the common good over the corporation’s true mission to make as much profit as possible using every Machiavellian principle in the book.

Preparing the Nuclear Option requires planning, stealth, subterfuge, and sleight of hand.  In Board rooms around the country listen for the clink of glasses filled with expensive hooch, accompanied by the toast, “They’ll never see it coming!”

Am I skeptical and mistrusting of organizational motivations?  Of course I am.

Here is my first example for possible radiation, in a piece written by David Herzenhorn and Sheryl Gay Stohlberg for the New York Times, July 7th, titled “Health Deals Could Harbor Hidden Costs:”

Rather than running advertisements against the White House, the most influential players in the industry are inside the room negotiating with administration officials and leading lawmakers, like Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee.

“The very groups we have been talking to have been the most vocal opponents of health care reform; they are now becoming the vocal proponents for health care reform,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

How very “chummy” of them.  Sniff, sniff.

The Radiation Sniffer is now fully operational and on-line.  Watch for more to come.  Or if you find something interesting, send to me and I’ll check it out.

Universal Health Care Confronts the Nuclear Option

The Nuclear Option (just for those of you who are stilled mired in Bush-speak, it is pronounced “new-klee-ur” not “new-cue-lar”).  In this case I’m not talking about the U.S. Senate rule called “reconciliation.”

No, in this case I’m wondering what is going on in the minds of those who have so adamantly and vociferously have opposed Universal Health Care in the United States.  Yesterday, Paul Krugman New York Times columnist, wrote in his blog,

Yes, we can

Get more or less universal coverage, that is. The CBO scoring on an incomplete bill sent everyone into a tizzy — and also led to an avalanche of bad reporting, with claims that it said terrible things about the public option. (There was no public option in the bill.)

Now the real thing has been scored — and it’s OK. Something like 97 percent coverage for people already here, at a total cost somewhere in the $1 trillion range. Bear in mind that the Bush tax cuts cost around $1.8 trillion over a decade. We can do this — and have no excuse for not doing it.

In the minds of the opponents of UHC, however, nothing has changed.  That’s what worries me.  In fact, as the evidence mounts that assuring every American has access to health care can be a reality and not doom the economy (as they have so desperately hoped), the opponents are realizing the End-Game is upon them.  They are losing.  Not only has every traditional method of obstruction not worked, or not worked well, the vast majority of Americans are solidly against them.  Heard any good anti-health care spin from Rush, Karl, John Boehner, or Mitch McConnell in the past couple of weeks?  If they were gaining ground with their argument, neither the election in Iran or Michael Jackson’s death could drown them out.  Not even South Carolina Governor Sanford’s adventures in Wonderland would diminish their clarion call for Big Medicine.

Their voices have faded to background static.

Do not assume for a micro-second they have given up.  They are preparing the Nuclear Option.  One all-out attack on universal health care, with no regard for collateral damage, just the health of America.  In the Board Rooms of the Insurance Megacorps, Big Pharma, Corporate Hospitals, and dozens of other stakeholders firmly anchored in the Status Quo, they are planning to bring this down.  Once and for all, to obliterate the very notion of universal health care so completely, that  it will never threaten their companies and profits again.

Am I paranoid?  Well, even if you are not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you anyway.

I’m not paranoid, actually.  I’m well read in organizational theory (it was the corner stone of my doctoral dissertation in educational policy and management), and I understand how organizations respond in unstable ecologies and economic turbulence.  When resources are threatened, the people running the organization will tend to react in predictable ways.  When the operational environment changes more quickly than expected, or in ways unanticipated, the predictable management responses are more and more stressed.  If those responses lack the ability to guide the organization through transformational change (like, oh, General Motors), the likelihood of the company failing is very high.

Keeping all that in mind, when the entire global environment, e.g., the country’s health care system, begins to collapse because of a rapid set of ecological changes so powerful the only way to survive is to change transformatively (an analog of the evolutionary concept of “punctuated equilibrium”), only those institutions that have the capacity to change at the same rate and direction required for survival will likely survive.

How, then, does the Nuclear Option fit in this model?  Organizations use their resources to influence and improve their ability to survive in the existing ecological conditions, and eliminate competition for both the resources they need to exist and to improve their chances for greater access to those resources.  But here’s the rub: Organizations are “communities of fate.”  They are actually aggregates of individuals whose investment (personally and professionally) in the success of the organization varies from person to person.  In a corporation, those who have have highest investment are typically the Board of Directors and the Shareholders.  But they have to rely on managers and workers, to both produce and protect their investment.

The managers and workers have a much different perspective on the degree to which they consider the company their community of fate.  When the organization encounters increasing turbulence in its environment, the willingness of the people actually doing the work to cast their fate to ensure its success is much less certain.  If the situation worsens to the degree the survival of the company is in question, the confidence the managers and workers have in the Board’s decision making ability to, specifically save their jobs, can change very quickly.  Some workers will leave the company and look for more stable employment.  Others will stick with it until the bitter end, if it comes to that.  But if you work for an Enron, the house of cards can collapse on top of you regardless of your loyalty.

The pressure on the Board and the managers to keep the organization both alive and solvent can increase rapidly, especially in the situation where the environment and resources are changing at a rate unprecedented in history.  Even organizations that survived earlier transformational evolutionary changes may not survive the current one.  Because of the anxiety generated by the environmental turbulence, the shareholders put more pressure on the Board and managers to preserve their investment and continue to pay dividends.  The workers who are loyal to the company also put pressure on their supervisors to help preserve their jobs.  But loyalty to the community of fate by the worker is always much riskier, because the Board and the managers can, at  any time, cut positions that can eliminate the most loyal employees under the stated intent of protecting the viability of the organization by reducing personnel costs.  This trauma to the community of fate, however, is no guarantee the organization will survive the changing ecology.  It may, instead, guarantee its demise.

Now, here’s the part, as I build the case for the Nuclear Option, that I as an organizational theorist suggest sets the stage:  The critical decisions of the Board over time to adjust to the turbulence is a not a function of taking the most conservative stance in context, but is a function of the individual members of the Board and the Executive Managements’ ability to manage their anxiety in the midst of the turbulence, and at the same time abandon the mimetic* solutions traditionally used to control that anxiety across the organizational or industrial environment.  [*mimesis: from “mime.”  A concept in organizational ecology that says Company A will observe Company B, and adopt a successful process to “avoid reinventing the wheel.”  Over time this mimed process may become an industry standard.  The down side is that when the environment changes, continuing to adopt the mimed process may limit innovation and increase the chances of organizational failure.]

Therefore, if the individuals on the Board and the Executive Management fail to manage their anxiety about the turbulence and the implications of transformative change in motion, and as they realize their historical resources for influence (i.e., lobbying) are waning, they will tend to take the most conservative stance to defend the survival of the organization, and that stance will tend to be to preserve the status quo at all cost.  As organizational rigidity increases, adaptibility and innovation are stifled.

The door for the Nuclear Option is now open.  Why?  Because the real-life environment to which we are applying my theory is not  just one company; we are applying it to a multifaceted industry that has for decades successfully resisted and obstructed the move toward universal health care.  And they know that by conspiring together and pooling their resources, they can potentially create a huge wall of resistance.  This strategy has a flaw, however.  A significant percentage of companies in the industry are supportive of UHC, and are already changing the practice of their organizations to successfully ride the transformative wave.  This fact only serves to increase the opponents’ anxiety.  Who has the most to lose?

The portion of the industry that opposes UHC has powerful political and social connections.  The Republican Party, although reduced in its influence at the last election still has significant resources at its disposal, as well as a core of voters, who for numerous reasons at least state they don’t want to pay for UHC.

This set of circumstances, powered by huge finances, politics, ideology, and desperation creates the possibility that those who have the most to lose as they perceive it are going to try and “drop the bomb” on the universal health care.  Whether they make their move before the Congress acts, or, have a strategy to destroy it even after it has been signed into law, I can’t tell.  But I believe they are well into their planning and will indeed act.

A final note.  Another principle, not from organizational theory, but from psychohistory, is also undoubtedly in play in this situation.  Speaking not literally, but figuratively:  “Violence is the final refuge of the incompetent.”

Communities of Fate: Read the Abstract to my Journal Article

I have added a page to my blog that provides the abstract to my journal article and the ERIC citation, co-authored with Paul Goldman, PhD (my doctoral adviser) “Universities as Communities of Fate: Institutional Rhetoric and Student Retention Policy” published in the Journal of Educational Administration in 2005.  Just click on the “Communities of Fate” link below the header.

I remain deeply grateful to Paul for his support and guidance, both during my doctoral studies and for encouraging and shepherding me through the publication process!

Thank you Paul, and I miss our long sessions drinking very strong coffee, the great discussions about organizational and educational policy, and the hours working on yet another draft of the article!