A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Crime of Wealth

Just as we have concentrations of wealth, which imply concentrations of poverty, we have concentrations of security, which imply concentrations of insecurity.  Of course, these are not amounts of fixed-quantity objects, but there is a strong general tendency to put effort in one place and relax in another; leading to the implication that ‘if more here, then less there.’  “More” everywhere has proven to be a myth in service of having only localized concentrations of “more.”

The idea that both wealth and security have been increasing in the world is largely an illusion of truncated measurement; it comes from measuring only how high the stick (or building) goes and not bothering so much with how deep it goes on the other end (the real and full costs).  Measuring the developed world, calling that world standard and ignoring the rest as aberration, incompetent, unnatural and even sub-human is the great biological crime of the post-Medieval Period; it is perhaps the greatest crime ever committed on the earth [1].

Apparently humans have been exterminating competing species, as well as competing cultural traditions of our own species, for a long time – at one time there were at least 3 and perhaps 5 species of the genus Homo on the earth at the same time.  Any one of those species probably had significant adaptive advantages in its environment and would have done very well without the marginal pressures of another aggressive form of the genus reducing, even ever so slightly, their range and resource base.  But this was evolution in action – a particularly rapid evolution driven, as it was, by the incipient Consciousness System of Order (CSO) energizing adaptations to greater and greater environmental detail: biological evolution none-the-less.

The transition from a Homo sp. world to a Homo sapiens world was, and is, as ‘tectonic’ an event as the break up of Pangaea, the K-T event or even the recovery of liquid water surface temperatures following the snowball earth of 700 million years ago.  Nothing has ever changed the surface of the planet so much in so short a time.  These changes have been driven primarily by the way that wealth accumulation has interacted with the present iteration of human nature and process [2].

I make the assertion that there is no more degraded or damaged (and damaging) condition of the human species than an individual or a collective entity that has accumulated from the environment and the labors of their fellows more material wealth than is required to allow them to be reasonably safe from the most basic challenges of life.  Regardless of the rhetoric used by those who take solace in wealth, such accumulations always come at the expense of others: other humans, the living world or biophysical integrity.  I make this assertion with some considerable trepidation since, in such stark form, it is not well supported by the accumulated wisdom of human thought.

There is a vast literature, complex and interwoven systems of belief and behavior and a physical, economic, political infrastructure – a Gordian Knot of cultural tradition – supporting and energizing “wealth creation” and accumulation.  I prefer to visual it all as a giant hair and bone pellet strangling us as we both try to retain it and expel it from the body-humanity [3].

But this strangely comforting image does nothing – beyond tying together the loose ends of the cat-o’-nine-tails flogging clear thinking – to actually ease the torment of human lives delivered by the distortions of wealth values.  They are inescapable; they are insidious.

Wealth accumulation has been questioned and argued over from its earliest iterations: Buddhism recognizes, quite simply, that in the normal course of life some people will accumulate material goods and some will not; it speaks not to the accumulation, but to human spirit and potential and the positive and negative role both wealth and poverty have on that potential.

Present day interpretations of these ideas, steeped as they are in a wealth besotted society, often focus on statements like: “Clearly, the Buddha saw prosperity and financial security as a good and appropriate activity for laypeople;…” (Lewis Richmond, Buddhist teacher)  What fails to receive sufficient attention and understanding in much of our present interpretation is that wisdom must guide (regulate) abundance rather than the remarkably self-serving belief that abundance will both create and guide wisdom.

Taoism (which strongly influenced Indian Buddhism as it traveled north on its way to Japan all those many years ago) produced this argument from the Tao Te Ching (The book of the Way and Virtue):

Ch 46 (translation of a very early version by Robert Henrick [4])
Of crimes – none is greater than having things that one desires;
Of disasters – none is greater than not knowing when one has enough.
Of defects – none brings more sorrow than the desire to attain.
Therefore, the contentment one has when he knows that he has enough is abiding contentment indeed.

It should be noted especially for the narrowly capitalist reader that the writing of the Tao Te Ching began about 2500 years ago as both an observation of the psychology and ethics of Chinese society and an attempt to construct the Way (Tao) for how human beings should most effectively behave, act with virtue (Te), in the world.  The writer(s) was (were) not driven by envy!

The early Greek view, from the same period of time (and, I think, from very similar motive forces), is more analytical while the Chinese are more prescriptive, though they both deal with the same issues.  Wealth is treated as a behavior requiring understanding and limitation.  For the Greeks wealth is based on desire; it is the desire that is suspect rather than wealth.  The way that the polity organizes and uses wealth is a major issue for Plato and defines political states as plutocracies, tyrannies and democracies.

H. P. P. Lötter makes the case for Plato arguing in The Republic (1) that justice, in the sense of the morality of individuals and societies, is far more important than the acquisition of wealth.  (2) that moderate wealth is important for its function to enable humans to live a moral life.  (3) that poverty and excessive wealth have negative consequences for both individuals and societies, and  (4) that desiring and possessing excessive wealth disrupts and destroys moral integrity and internal harmony in individuals and societies. [5]

The ideas around wealth were remarkably similar in that seminal period when human beings were forming the first Neolithic/bronze age societies out of the Neolithic agricultural communities of the last several thousand years.  These people, east and west, were confronting many of the same forces of population growth, technological change, the formation of governing institutions (in both domestic and military forms) and the possibility and actualization of the accumulation of material goods.  These forces and changes were more starkly contrasted with long established human community and social tradition than ever before or since.

The basic elements of the issues have been in human thought, therefore, for millennia, but wealth has been changing in its relation to both humans, their institutions and the ecosystems from which it ultimately derives.  For most of post-agricultural civilization the “average” human economic unit (family, extended family, clan) and the wealthy economic units (religious order, political entity) had functional wealth differences of the order of perhaps 10 or 20 to 1.  But also during these times most places in the world had an underclass or a slave class to do the really dirty and dangerous work; those people have always tended to live in poverty.

The lives of the wealthy were distinguished by such luxuries, plainly obvious to everyone, as being carried or riding rather than walking, servants, more abundant food, larger more secure dwellings, more desirable clothing and a variety of ultimately trivial symbols of status.  The lives of the wealthy, however, were part of the direct and daily experience of the ordinary, and vice versa.  The differences, while clear, were not so stark as to be beyond understanding.

Today we have a different set of circumstances.  The dangers of wealth recognized by the ancients have come to pass in their own abundance.  And along with the increasing amounts of difference have come whole industries to both define and hide the differences.  The seemingly benign and even useful ideas associated with property, wealth, economic growth and work have become the tortured servants of the concentrations of power and material: narrow property ideas beget wealth; wealth desire begets growth; growth requirements begets distortions of the idea of work.  And together these movements conflict with ecological and human reality.

A universal desire ‘to be rich’ drives this paradigm and serves especially well those who break out of the average levels of acquisition and actually become rich.  Becoming rich and maintaining wealth requires that many people also want to be rich; because of that desire, which has a small positive probability of coming true, they behave in ways that support the actual rich.  Large wealth requires the constant movement of tiny increments of wealth, from which those strategically placed can extract small amounts from each transaction.  A society in which the great mass of people have no desire for personal surplus abundance and who are self-sufficient and conservative in their uses of material, energy and other people produces lowered opportunity of amassing great wealth.  A society in which the great mass of people feel the desire to be rich and who, therefore, can be led to behaviors that mimic the truly rich are a ripe source of those transactions that produce great wealth for the few.

Such is the reason for the incredible deluge of propaganda in support of riches as the goal of life.  Fifth grade boys no longer want to be firemen; they want to be rich.  We all constantly see and hear in our daily lives the media devised images of wealth’s benefits and persuasions.  Arguments and real data questioning wealth accumulations are credited to ignorance, insanity or criminal political beliefs.

But when we look at the arguments supporting “getting rich” we find them of basically two types, and questionable: 1) I want wealth so that I can do and have whatever I wish (it is a relaxation of responsibility) and 2) wealth is a social good since it functions as a motive for progress, discovery and increases in material wellbeing.  A third argument, based out of the second, is often heard, that wealth is a (the) solution to poverty.  But this one is disingenuous since, in fact, wealth accumulation, more often than not, is about extracting surplus in material and labor from the impoverished under the claim that they are being ‘given’ employment.  Such employment is actually forced by disrupting historical land-based and sustaining cultural economic systems. Finally, the “God says it’s right to seek wealth” and “becoming wealthy is a measure of God’s favor” are variations on the ‘I want it’ argument by asking permission for what is desired to do from an imaginary friend.

The first argument is easy.  It is selfishness, a common human condition that we are supposed to outgrow as we assume adult responsibilities in the community; though this is less so in the infantilizing conditions of modern life.  The human capacity for selfishness-driven sociopathology, especially when formed in intelligent “adults”, is very nearly beyond normal comprehension; it grows, explores and expands as we speak.  But it is ultimate mundane, like plants in the tropics, it simply responds to positive conditions of nurturance.  The second is the big lie, the sophisticated lie.

The calculus is all wrong for wealth building as an indisputable social good: damage the lives of many thousands of people to accumulate a fortune so that the lives of a smaller number can be “improved” to some varying extent; the entropy relation always has to come into play.  And just what do we mean by ‘improved’ or progress, discovery and wellbeing?  I would agree that the drive to wealth is an important engine for the speed of our “progress,” but would also contend that much that we call progress has been so labeled by wealth-drive’s passion for controlling the message as well as the more difficult task of creating new things.

The simple fact is that the discovery and creation of material benefits have not been made from the desire for wealth; only the exploitation of those discoveries is driven by the wealth motive.  In other words, the speed with which we humans change the world around us by our inventions would be reduced by social expectations that wealth be limited and that ecological and community values be held as superior to personal wealth accumulation, but the arts and science would continue, technologies discovered and changes made for the better and the worse, and all at a slower pace.

In total, the kinds of and the way that wealth is held in the control of private individuals and entities may drive our rates of change faster and faster, but also in less and less beneficial and responsible directions.  The vast amount of stuff that we make, the great digging and leveling, burning and cutting, polluting and poisoning is the product of wealth-drive, not real human need.  The collective human intelligence wouldn’t stand for the world having its habitability reduced for the benefit of a few, who driven by greed and especially the competitive greed of the rich, trying to be richer,… if that collective human intelligence still had or could find its voice.

[1] Crimes come with the CSO.  The imaginings of future outcomes, the planning and execution of those outcomes in grievous violation of the “other” principle, better known as the Golden Rule, are the bases of all crimes.  When the outcomes are the wholesale destruction of cultures, ethnicities and genetic traditions (human and non-human), the crimes are substantial.

[2] It is patently absurd to argue that humans do not have a nature derived from their evolution, the complexity of that nature or the role played by the CSO in creating its almost endless constructions notwithstanding.

[3] Birds of prey ‘cough up’ pellets of indigestible materials that accumulate in their stomachs.  My image is of some birds hunting and eating insatiably, trying to rid themselves of the more and more massive pellets and gluttonously trying to hold to them at the same time.

[4] Lao-Tzu Te-Tao ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks from the Ma-wang-tui Texts. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989

[5] H. P. P. Lötter, The significance of Poverty and Wealth in Plato’s Republic, South African Journal of Philosophy, 2003, 22(3)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Welfare State, part 4

The preceding three essays make the case for the welfare state (for the welfare of the member/participants of the state being the prime responsibility of a community collective) more in the manner of a blind man playing darts than the laser-like incisiveness of a syllogistic argument.  Yet, the pattern of the argument is more honest in the sense that it models the complexity of this often contentious region of social concern.  What has been left out is the full measure of the attitudes, arguments and strengths of those people, and their supporting institutions, who believe (and those who purport to believe) that the function of the community collective, the state, should have little or no interest in the personal welfare of its citizens.

The basic argument is that the state should be a substrate, like agar-agar, for the society to grow on.  It should not interfere with what grows on it, but only supply the most essential conditions for that growth: a simple set of rules, protection from invasion, a means of adjudicating property related conflicts and an unbending enforcement of the simple rules and adjudicated consequences.  Much as a bacteriologist might put several different bacterium in a Petri dish, letting them grow to see what will happen.

Such a system is supposed to offer True Freedom to the individual to fully express potential without the inhibiting influence of an overweening and coercive state welfare apparatus.  Such a system recognizes the reality that the world is not fair, that personal talent and accident combine to make success or failure and that the attempt to interfere with this deep reality is a fool’s game, ultimately harmful to all the members of the society even as such a view may appear uncompassionate on its face.

If each person attempted to maximize the options presented to them in life, without regard to others and following the simple rules of a personally indifferent state, then the society would progress even as ‘the world’ sloughs off those who, through either accident or personal insufficiency, can’t keep up.  These would be the rules; everyone would know them and failure within them would be an individual and not a social issue.  In this way the resources of the agar-agar, the state, would flow to those who can best use them and not be wasted on those who…  At this point the argument begins to breakdown for me since I’m not sure what the goal of life – growing successfully on the agar-agar – is supposed to be in this model, but I’ll get back to it.

I think it pretty clear that those who are, by particular forms of talent and fortuitous accident, benefited by their position on the agar-agar and are able to collect to their own uses large amounts of nutrient, these people will find the above argument more compelling than those who are for those same reasons – nature of talent and accident – marginalized or even in danger of being sloughed off.  This alone should alert us to the potential difficulties with such a view, that the majority of the world’s people find it questionable at best. 

But, of course, the majority can be wrong, evidence the history of scientific discovery.  We need to clarify and, as well as possible, come to some common understanding of the purpose of being on the agar-agar in the first place.  But, of course again, this is a very sticky wicket.  Just as it is abundantly clear that there is only one reason for the earth in its orbit around the sun containing the property of life; one reason that among those things living at least one species is aware of its life; one reason that humans have attained their supremacy and immense powers of creation and destruction; it is exactly what that one reason is that is in the greatest contention.

The distinction is, however, not so much among the differing practices of the world’s religions – these are pretty uniform, regardless of underlying belief systems, in supporting the welfare of the members of their communities – but it is between differing visions of how to allocate abundance: if wealth is “naturally going to pile up”, then where should the piles be; in the commons or in the control of individuals?  I have made my case for the answer in the previous 3 essays and will not repeat those arguments here.  I will only answer that, I believe, we are on our agar-agar for reasons unlike why and how bacteria are on theirs: we are not on the earth to just grow as far and wide as we can before we use up the available resources and die; we have the Consciousness Order capacity to auto-adapt, unlike any other creature of which we are aware.  We can manifest relationships with each other and the natural world more complex and directed than a bacterium.  I contend that the welfare state is an essential part of such an adaptation.

Broadly there are two sets of initial concerns: 1) finding designs that might work with the practical realities of our numbers, technology, human nature and present relationship to the earth’s ecosystems, and 2) the present beliefs, habits, expectations and in-place human infrastructure that either can’t support or would actively work against changes that would allow the creation of an effective ecologically integrated welfare state (must be ecologically integrated and functionally adaptive in the environment as well as adaptive to economic realities or there is no point).

The first concern, finding designs that might work, has two conditions that must be met:

• The distribution of the human product must be done in a way that connects behavior with the meeting of needs.

• The human product must have guidance based on an ecologically sound ethics as to its form and consequences and not be completely open-ended, limited only by the technical capacity of the moment.

Our present conservative (reactionary) corporatists are right that people should not be given a “free ride,” but they then use the argument to further say that the people shouldn’t have a fair share of the human product at all; the reason is uncomplicated greed for having more of that product for themselves.  But the attitude complicates the deeper issue of how to distribute the gains of human action in the environment.

Which goes straight to the second condition: what should be the levels and types of gains that we make from the environment? It has become completely clear to all but those same reactionary corporatists (and may actually be clear to many, thus the speed of their greed) that we must slow and even reverse many of the impacts that our efforts at gain have had and continue to have.

In this formulation it becomes completely clear that these two issues are intimately related: what we do with the one will have powerful influences on the other.  They can work in synergy as we try to solve the real challenges to our survival and the continuity of the present biological assemblage of the earth; or the challenges from the forces opposing their understanding and influence on our behaviors can be allowed to disarticulate them and discredit the misrepresented pieces in order to maintain power and wealth.

Here are just some of the challenges to the second initial concern: the beliefs, habits and in-place systems that would function in opposition to making a state sized human collective in which all the members work together to support the community:

• No political system or economic system in use and currently available can support the welfare state that is required.  All current systems are based on private property in ways that drive individual accumulation of the human material product.  Belief systems and expectations are woven around accumulation in such a way that doing with minimum needs and focusing on the human non-material product is literally unthinkable.

• The organizational strength of the economic elite weakens the state’s willingness and capacity to protect all of its citizens, allowing the elite to increase both the amount and rate of their material acquisition.

There is a great disconnect between what is needed to be known and understood and what is known and understood by the masses.  This was not always the case.  The masses have been the source for guidance of action through most of our history.  It is only recently (last few thousand years) that fate and future have been left to ‘leaders.’  Leaders in the past helped summarize and organize the informed opinions of the masses as opposed to today when they more often lie to the masses and act to empower an elite.  The conditions that move us to need leaders and to give to them authority of life and death have got to be reexamined.

• The critical mass of injustice in the world inures the people to all but that which falls on them and those close to them.

• The consequences of a fully functioning welfare state operating in an ecologically responsible manner would involve changes that almost everyone would initially be uncomfortable with, and that the wealthy would fight with all the considerable force at their disposal; with a significant number of the masses joining them. There would have to be an acceptance of the need to live within the boundaries of both ecological and community standards; and there would have to be knowledge-based ways of establishing those limits.

• The material and energy requirements for 7 billion people to live in minimum comfort and safety with adequate nutrition and logistical support for some level of equitable distribution of the human creative product, while leaving alone a sufficient amount of the earth’s productive capacity to maintain biodiversity and the integrated functional ecological relationships, is beyond the available energies, materials and processes, and the human willingness, currently available on the earth.  This would make huge demands on a welfare state to not only distribute the human product with some equity, but to also reduce that product with equitable distribution of those consequences.  Neither action has an available intellectual or behavioral model for us to go by in the present moment.

These challenges should make it clear that there is no “mechanical”, engineering or legalistic fix based on our present situation (laws, rules, expectations, habits and beliefs).  We cannot begin with our current position and design a path to an effective and reasonable future; if we could, we would have several such plans laid out before us.  We are “all in the same boat” with a mad captain and crew, frightened and cowering passengers who can’t run the machinery and whose only ‘hope’ is that the boat runs aground, offering the opportunity to start over with what remains, rather than sinking at sea.  There is no point in preparing for the worst, preparing for the best is the only sane option; that means to create the ideas that allow for a future regardless of how impractical they may seem in the moment. 

These ideas must be spoken again and again.  They must be first tantalizing and then understood; They must spread, at first as curiosity, then as imaginable; they must be embellished and then grown until they seem possible, for then they are possible.  And when they are possible the “same boat” that we are in is made anew.

Here are just a tantalizing few of the changes that could meet the needed conditions:

• Localization of economic action so that economic distance is reduced, so that the consequences of economic action can be seen and included in community understanding and adaptation.

• The development of the expectation that everyone will meet some significant proportion of their own personal needs (food, water, shelter, safety) by their own direct efforts; that these expected actions cannot be bought off, money would have no efficacy against this expectation.

• Property redefined into environmental commons (that which is not to be touched except as the human animal), public property (our community and social territory and the site for our technological and commercial activity), users property ( most present titled property, though limited to what a family like entity can actually use) and private property (that which we ‘put our hand to’).

• The reinvigoration of the expectation that no one would live in luxury while another starved, the forming of this value as a central economic tenet to replace the notion of unlimited desire as an acceptable human motive.

These will seem foolish to some, but only because they don’t believe them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Welfare State, part 3

“It is the caring of one person for another that matters: this is the easiest thing when it comes easily and the hardest thing when it comes hard.  We have been taken over in much, even most, of our ways by those for whom it does not come easily.  They fill those human needs with making it hard for others; they fill those needs by taking up as much of the world as they can, hoping that somewhere in all that they gather to themselves they will find what is missing, even as they deny that there is anything missing at all.” 

It works like this: I say the most stupid shit and you are required to include my smelly connivings in your presentation even if it is only to rebut them (there is a devilishly clever pun in there for those with a strong enough stomach for it).  Thereby, my terrible self-serving brain drool begins to take on some standing in the world of ideas.  If elements of my offerings are found to be useful, or even just fail to flush, they can become important in the support of some peoples’ immediate benefit – and so it is that bad ideas become institutionalized as standard wisdom.  Getting rid of them is like trying to stamp out worms.

Among the bad ideas with which we are currently infested: individualism, private property, wealth as a positive value, greed as an economic organizing principle, God-spirits as superior to human spirits, human exceptionalism in the living world, natural and necessary economic growth and ‘progress’, that communism and socialism are inherently evil and anti-human…  With these ideas as the forming basis of many of our actions, we can hardly go anywhere that isn’t wrong; to get to right we have to overcome the force of societal gravity.  It is amazing that we do as well as we do.

The natural outcome of these ideas working in synergy is unrestricted greed, war, enslavement of the masses and environmental destruction, in other words, modern life when we look worldwide [1].  The moments of weak and regional reprieve from the running of the Four Horsemen, times like several years following WWII in the US, Europe and Japan, come because the horrors are unmasked for a time – the bad ideas were seen for the floaters that they are, but only for a time and then it’s back to the Wisdom of the Fools.

In a properly functioning welfare state there would be some proportional relationship, and, vitally, a mechanism for the assignment of that proportionality, between the actions of the members of that society and its material community product.  Small “natural” communities do this as a major function of their design: “everyone” knows who works for the community and who works for themselves and the community as a whole passes judgment on each distribution of resources.  This can happen because natural human communities are small enough for everyone to know everyone else, everyone knows what excess looks and feels like and everyone knows what deprivation looks and feels like.  The tasks of community life are understood for their requirements of skill, perseverance and difficulty.  It could even be said that the community exists to give basis for the human experience and to distribute the material and spiritual resources that make that experience possible.

We have tried to do this proportionalizing with wages and prices in capitalistic economies, which have been rather well tested in various forms, and with various welfare schemes in socialist economies, not so well tested since they have been under constant attack by capitalist economies that see straightforward social functioning as a danger to the capitalist design.

We should have learned by now, and I think we have which is why it is so unrelentingly supported by the economic elite, that capitalism, unless strongly regulated by a socialist polity, will always resolve the distribution of resources into monopolies of abundance with the masses having nothing beyond what they can gain with the most incessant effort. 

The rise of the middle class in America from the 1940s to the 1970s was not the consequence of capitalism’s success, but rather a regulated capitalism running as the firebox and steam generator in the semi-socialist engine of the New Deal and the realized power of the ‘common man’ coming out of WWII.  But this was anathema to those humans who would be Gods in their own minds and Kings among their fellows.  The ascendancy, since the 1980s, of the capitalist lie that everyone can be a God and a King is producing the expected result: the middle and poorer classes have been stolen from and the material wealth of the community is collected into fewer and fewer hands.

A certain type of human aberration can, by violating the natural behavioral and emotional design of the human species, advantage themselves greatly for a time in a society that flirts with unfettered capitalism.  This ultimately destructive economic and “social” construction can, however, only either self-immolate or be replaced with a properly functioning welfare state.

A democratic socialist welfare state regulates everyone just as the chemical and physical reactions in a living body are all thoroughly regulated; just as every society regulates its members.  But the living body is not regulated by a totalitarian control center – it is regulated by the process of life; it is regulated on a model of collective sufficiency.  A cell that “wants to be free” of the restrictive controls of its parent organ and the living genetics kills the whole body by its “freedom.” 

This is the freedom that is cheered at Tea Party rallies, this is the freedom that is demanded by the corporate collective, this is the freedom that is cynically chirped by political marionettes.  There is no such freedom, there has never been such freedom and there cannot be such freedom – the freedom to do anything that one wishes with one’s ‘own’ body and “property.” 

The instant such a regime of this libertarian freedom is formed, the world is turned into those who serve it and those who are indulged by it – for the moment.  The poor, the untouchables, the immigrants, the black, the brown, the yellow, the red, the white, women, children, the sick, the displaced, the Muslims, the Christians, the Hindus, the Jews, the Irish, the Poles, the Gypsies, those who stray from sexual purity, all, and many more at one time or another, have been selected to act in service to the vision of someone else’s “freedom.”  If I have complete freedom of my own person, then someone must be designated to move out of my way.

What then can be, must be, the nuts and bolts of a proper welfare state in today’s reality? That is the question these words have been tracking down like a hunter stalking elusive game.  The beginning of that answer has to be that significant changes must be made.  The first and most important is the infusion of the idea that the only remaining repository of human sanity is in the masses.  The wealthy are hopelessly mad; they would destroy life on this planet to have a Bugatti Veyron, a bottle of Dom. Romane Conti 1997 and a supply of Yubari melons.  

The second is that, as dangerous and unreliable as it is, science is the only source of knowledge that can be counted on for the time being.  Studies show that the differences among human “races”, ethnic and other groups are all built from prejudice not reality.  The poor and other common folk are just as genetically gifted as the rich; almost certainly more so, since they are vastly more numerous and therefore the ‘tails’ of the normal distributions that contain them extend out much further [2].  There are thousands of well-established research findings that, if put into practice, would remake many of the difficulties that we face living, as we do now, in the thrall of a brutal and corrosive “tribal” economics.

If we can find, at least, some basis in sanity and some basis in knowledge, then we can go on to number three: Power needs to be vested in community.  Distributed power is essential, concentrated power will always go mad and bring suffering to the many.  Lord Acton was not the first to say it, but he said it well and true [3].  Only in fully formed communities can the psychopathic, the greedy, the antisocial and the mad, in general, function beneficially; in large groups they gather together and form governments, corporations and the clergy, and we can see the result of that!

These are devilishly difficult, even seemingly impossible, steps to be taken, but they are both essential and possible since they can be made just like real steps, incrementally, one at a time.  Each person who understands, each conversation that spreads the idea is a step.  If the Great Many can believe in their own value and power, if they have a foundation of knowledge that actually comports with reality and if some semblance of community begins to form (these are all the powers associated with unions and workers’ collectives) then the many can begin to demand and get something approaching their fair share of the community product. 

There is, of course, no perfect solution, if by perfection is meant that no one suffers, there is no injustice, virtue is rewarded and honest fully compensating relationships are formed with humans and nature.  But we can do much better as the power to initiate and limit action is more and more vested in the many and removed from the few.  It is only in the sanity of the masses and the knowledge revealed by the scientific method that veridical action is possible.  Properly compensating everyone and everything that contributes to the production of society’s wealth must be among the first goals for the application of these principles.  The next and last essay in this series will look at some problem issues not yet properly considered.

[1] Most (all?) reading this live in a bubble of exceptional abundance, but a dribble compared to the multi-millionaires and billionaires of global wealth, though still a highly distorted position in the world of $2.00 a day subsistence and utter powerlessness in the face of totalitarian political and economic conditions – the way of life for fully half of the world’s people.  More people live in greater distress today than in the history of the world, and the number will be greater next year and the next; this is also a measure of our progress.

[2] In a normal statistical distribution of chance probability the unusual is, of course, rare.  If a particular talent tends to occur in the population at about a thousand to one, then you would expect that among a thousand people there would be one person with that talent; among a million people there would be a thousand, but among that thousand a few would have that talent in some incredibly supreme form.  In a billion people a million would have that talent, a thousand or so would have it an incredibly supreme form and among that thousand a tiny few would have it in ways incomprehensible to all but themselves (since for every “wealthy” person there are thousands of poor and ordinary people, the greatest talent pool on earth is among the ordinary).  Wealth tends to select for the talents of mental compartmentalization and cruelty, not for the talents of compassion, intelligence and generosity of spirit; these remain among the poor and ordinary souls.

[3] The more complete text of Lord Acton’s famous observation: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did not wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”    Acton said many things of equal clarity.  This is both heartening and dismaying: the former that the truth can be seen and the latter because it has had so little consequence.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Welfare State, part 2

“A rich man can always find someone to tell him what he wants to hear; a poor man will always find someone to tell him what he doesn’t!”

The first part of this essay ends with these words: “Once it is fully realized that the wealthy, even those with social responsibility, have acquired their abundance by fraudulently taking from the efforts of a great many and, without proper compensation, from an environment which ‘belongs’ to all life, then the question is not whether to have a welfare state, but how to organize a state in which the contributions of all the citizens are appreciated and compensated.”

To further clarify our present condition, it is important to realize that the dominant belief systems do not realize the fraudulence of wealth accumulation, but remain deeply impressed with the sophistries developed over the years to explain what are – when viewed from sufficient distance and objectivity – unjustifiable inequities. We will never get it right until we think about it correctly.  As long as the sophistries of the rich form the basis of our thinking, the conclusions are foretold.  Since the first priests and kings began to create the explanations for their special privilege, ways of thinking have been honed that diminish the many in favor of the few.

The essence of our present situation is that a small group of people have taken advantage of essentially random opportunity to collect to themselves an inordinate amount of the community product – and then used that undeserved largesse to preserve and increase both their ability for gain and their justifications for that gain.  The greatest number in the community, in such a situation, have their powers diminished as greater and greater amounts of the community product is collected by the few. 

That a disproportionate amount of the gain goes to a few is related only to a combination of chance and a willingness to exploit the opportunity; it has no other natural explanation regardless of the post hoc justifications.  When laid out plainly such justifications ring hollow: God given right, more talent than others, really a hard worker, “our” sort are just better, more clever, sly and stealthy.  And then the always appreciated, “I’ll take what I want or kick your ass.” Any critical analysis always comes back to random opportunity, cleverness, ass-kicking and a willingness to act in self-interest over community interest, all allowed and supported by community infrastructure, social organization and the general environment.

Humans have the capacity to recognize opportunity, but not generally, especially as individuals, to recognize the need to compensate all the contributors, including the environmental resource base.  This results from the ability to see positive force, but not so easily realize the power of the loss of the services of the community or the environment, which are somehow seen as eternal.  The consequence is that human societies have been going through faster and faster cycles of growth and decline.  The sociopathic segment of a society gathers community wealth until the community (and/or the environment) refuses to continue supplying uncompensated services; at which time the society goes into decline with all the destruction that has become familiar to those with a knowledge of history.  A properly designed welfare state is, therefore, not a luxury, but a necessity if we are to slow the cycles of social disintegration which now endanger our relationship with the ultimate biophysical support of life itself.

Our present situation is further exacerbated by a new addition to the “game” being played by corporatists and their marionettes, that, for a variety of reasons, the little wealth given back to the masses is desired by the elites who are running out of places to gather wealth that is not well protected (also the ascendancy of that part of the economic elite that directly preys on the masses using the tax system and the structuring of the political system as a wealth concentrating device).  To this end the ‘self-reliant argument’ is accentuated: the pittance returned from the original theft is called a handout, the willingness to accept it is called moral turpitude and the anger and fear created by the threat of ending the “handouts” are being criminalized.

Self-reliance is made to mean that one should not ask to be compensated for what has already been stolen or what continues to be stolen by the economic elites.  It is a simple paradigm: I come to your house, take things you need to make a living and then yell at you for not being competent to take care of yourself.  I then give you back some little percentage of what has been taken from you, just enough for you keep going, and claim that your acceptance of the pittance is proof of your degradation.  It gets lost in the machinations of these processes that the originating engine is the theft of work in the first place.  It is this theft and the concentrating of wealth into a few hands that creates both the sense of and the reality of power to manipulate the economic system for even greater gains.

These facts leave us in considerable difficulty.  It is necessary to begin any attempted changes from presently existing designs and beliefs; there is simply no way to engage a number of people in structures that are entirely new.  Yet the present designs are almost all terrible distortions of the realities that have to be realized and built from.

The present design of the distribution of the community product is almost completely distorting of the incentive structures that would satisfactorily organize community life.  The antisocial rich gather an inordinate share without doing direct work in the production.  The actual producers have been led to feel that their contribution is insignificant – this as a way to justify the theft of their labor.  Those in the community who have been driven into extreme poverty are told that they are worthless, a drain on the rest of the community and are “given” what they themselves see as a grudging ‘handout’ that has no sense of compensation for their actual and existential contributions to the community product.  This is about as royally screwed up as any situation could be.

“The obstinate two-sided problem we face is this: how can we mitigate the penalties of misfortune and failure without undermining the incentives to effort and success?”  This is Henry Hazlitt’s (a founding board member of the Mises Institute) formulation of the issue from 1969.  The statement lays out the problem in the underlying bias of that and this time.  The chapter [1]from which it comes points out, not only the faults with the Negative Income Tax solution to welfare (which will be looked at in a moment), but, without intending it, the faults that are created by the bias itself.

Reframing the issue gives it quite a different complexion: How do we institute in common thought the clarity that the community product is contributed to by the whole community, that the distribution of the benefits of that product must be spread to everyone?  Misfortune and failure, as are effort and success, a misunderstanding of how the community product originates.

Hazlitt is certainly correct that it is the distortions of incentive that create these problems, but the incentive to get something for nothing attributed to those in poverty is not the real concern, it is the incentive to get and keep to one’s self, and private uses, the community product that drives the dilemma.

This clarification, however, doesn’t solve the problem; we are still left with all the issues that plague us. We have disconnected the natural relationship between the support that the many give to the production of community products and the wealth created by those products.  Wages and prices are the bones of the economic creature, but offer none of the flesh and nuance of the fully functioning economic animal.  Humans function as complex motivational systems, not as single function economic variables driven by greed (only economists and psychopaths seem to fulfill the conditions required of economic theory).

When the natural compensation due to people for their contribution to community production is withheld, siphoned off by an elite as their own wealth, and some small part given back as either the beneficence of the rich or as some grudging pittance to rectify the ‘incompetence’ of the poor, then the system is broken and cannot be expected to have ameliorative outcomes.

Because of these distortions, the critiques of the welfare state are often true, at least in the narrow perspective, though sweeping indictments of the poor are obviously false.  And the attempts at solutions consistently create disincentives for life success in one way or another.  The Hazlitt chapter cited above goes into detail pointing out the structural and incentive failures of the Milton Friedman version of the Negative Income Tax “free market” welfare proposal, the essence of which is a base income paid to everyone from taxes at about ½ of survival levels.  As the recipients of the payment do work to add to their income, the welfare payment is reduced in a progressive fashion that allows for an increasing income up to somewhat above poverty at which point the payments end; there is, in this plan, no minimum wage, unemployment or healthcare, and eventually all social services would be reduced to the bare minimum possible or ended.  It is the ultimate anti-welfare plan presented as a welfare proposal.

Current welfare systems all suffer from some form of potential for fraud, bureaucratic complexity and intrusiveness and disincentive for what is called productive work.  But these critiques are not all equal.  We have allowed productive work to be defined by the economic elite; work has come to mean an activity that increases elite wealth.  A family garden, repairing your own car, walking to store or work, performing as entertainment for friends and a whole host of other activities are not considered productive work no matter how beneficial to personal and community life.  An equitable distribution of the community product would allow such work to increase, reduce dependence on so-called productive work and make employers more likely to have to ‘sell’ their jobs to the masses; and so, are actively not supported in the options for welfare design.

The conclusion that I have come to is that there is no way to design our way to a reasonable welfare state without significant shifts in our underlying beliefs and understandings of work and the origins of production. Social Security, Medicare and a number of healthcare programs in other countries come about as close as we can get in the present paradigm – which is why they are under such unrelenting attack.

The corporate elites have gone to extreme lengths to control these ideas in the public space.  Economists and social scientists who understand these things must become like the climate scientists as they are beginning to move toward public activism.  Socialism and Marxist economics have to become again part of the common currency of ideas, to be measured and tested in the free flow of ideas.  This is primarily a matter of fearlessly speaking them as valid and meaningful contributions to the debate.

The welfare state is the only kind of state that can sustain: a community that is organized to support the welfare, the wellbeing, of all of its members.  We know how to do these things.  All the ideas are there.   We must understand, yet again, that individualist, free market economics is an aberration, an insanity that forms naturally in the human brain during an unnatural time of exponentially increasing excess, but that must wither and die when growth ends.  These transitions have always been and apparently will continue to be horrific.  The next essay will look more closely at our present transition.

[1] Man vs. The Welfare State (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969, pp 84–100; available in PDF

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Welfare State

The Self-inflicted Wound Theory of state coddling of the poor, that they are robbed of their self-reliance by handouts, is not entirely incorrect, but only in very selected ways – which will be gotten to.  The more important issues have gone, as is often the case, largely unrecognized.  If poorer people and the rest of ordinary folk are to be self-reliant, take the bull by the horns and ‘make something of themselves,’ just what is it they are to make?  What ‘bull’ is it that they are to take by the horns? 

It is obvious that those who make the ‘state coddling’ argument are suggesting that the common person should take a mercantile position; they should look for those entrepreneurial opportunities offered in their communities and exploit them.  In this way they are supposed to pull themselves out of poverty or at least climb up a bit from the lower rungs of the ladder, create employment for their fellows and supply goods and services to their neighborhoods and beyond. 

There is, however, an important caveat: the entrepreneurial activities must be done by the rules and laws set down by ‘their betters’ and must, therefore, support the superstructure that depends in large part, for its power and wealth, on the common folk remaining powerless and poor.  Most business building requires attachment to the banking system, meeting official standards and acceptance by some government authorization process – very often controlled by those already in the relevant businesses. The poor should become self-sufficient, but without actually gaining in the real power to control their own destiny because that would, of necessity, interfere with the elite’s control of their destiny: the poor and the ordinary do the work and the elite do the calculating – in large measure, calculating how to collect to their own uses as much from the work of the poor and ordinary as possible.  The poor and ordinary may be encouraged to become entrepreneurial in work from which the elite also gain, but only rarely should they aspire to the calculating classes.

I am reminded of an article from Life Magazine, it must have been in the 1950s.  (By way of context, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee had turned America into Paranoid Nation.)  I remember being upset by the article, knowing that I was expected to see its protagonist as a hero, but was only able to see him as a man without feeling and a thief.  It was supposed to represent the best of Americanism, to wit:

A successful businessman went out to live on the bum.  Dressed appropriately, he moved into the hobo ‘towns’ and adopted the hobo life.  This was not a story of growing empathy for and comprehension of, primarily, men ‘down on their luck;’ it was the story of ‘hobo makes good’ by applying the principles of self-reliant (anti-communist, thus anti-commons) thinking and practice.  Our hero noticed that the hobos left messages, on the equivalent of bulletin boards in the hobo jungles, about where to get handouts and other services.  He began to catalogue these messages; he reproduced the messages and began to sell them to the other hobos.  I don’t remember the details anymore, but it is not unreasonable that he might have begun to pay small amounts to both collect the information and, subtly, inhibit its free posting. 

The upshot was that our hero became hobo-wealthy selling information that was once, admittedly, inconsistent but free.  He emerged from hobodom having proven the superiority of capitalism, that you just can’t keep a good capitalist down and that there was something degenerate about those ‘others’ who didn’t seize the opportunity to raise themselves out of their miserable circumstances.  I remember seeing only a heartless thief taking information from the commons, hoarding it and selling what was once free.  His claims of having improved the lives of the hobos by giving them a superior survival tool seemed nothing more than happy-talk drivel intended for the impressionable masses [1]. There was, at the time, a growing recognition among the elite that the people had to be moved away from the ‘common man’ spirit of the New Deal and WWII; and Life Magazine was doing its bit for the cause.

The great mass of people are not capitalists; they are not hoarders; they are unwilling to ‘buy low and sell high’ when it harms their fellows.  A capitalist is some one who has collected wealth sufficiently, most often from the work of others, to use that wealth to gather more wealth by controlling the work of those others. This may be what we have become, but it is not where we began: The human animal is a cooperative species, the distribution of information, goods and services has been an essential survival behavior for the millions of years that our genus as been on the earth.  This is our context, this is who we are.

But it can be said that, today, the great mass of people live in a capitalist system which means, referencing the above, that their world is controlled by capitalists.  It is also true that the barriers to wealth are or have been lowered in capitalist systems for those who are willing, like the capitalist hobo, to violate human principles of cooperative life.  And so, our underlying habits of interaction have been under great pressure for a long time.

It is becoming clear: the bull that is to be taken by the horns is our human collectivist nature, our cooperative spirit.  Self-reliance is to be self-promotion over, rather than in support of, others.  We are to make something new of ourselves; we are to make someone who sees other people’s work as a source from which to extract some gain; we are to see other people as consumers of information, goods or services that we have brought, using inventiveness, stealth, the laws or raw force, under our control.  We are to see other human beings as a resource to be used for our own advantage.

Michael Dawson, proprietor of The Consumer Trap web site has been documenting this transition from human being to capitalist. Rather than attempt to replicate his good works, go there for multiple examples of this process in action.  My concern is the process and its toll on both those people who are unable to fight off their species humanity and those who can.

The myriad forces that have moved us to our present madness include all the usual suspects: the various forms and distortions of competition created by the direct and indirect consequences of population increase; the qualities and quantities of power available to individuals and small groups allowed by technological developments; the special influence on the human peculiarity, consciousness order, by communication technology; the sheer magnitude of the abundance of which human collective action is capable, and the depths of deprivation we are willing to allow (or force) others to descend into.

The great mass of people feel these pressures as disconcerting currents and eddies as they ply their way in life traveling with the humanity that still remains in our communities and our cells. But the allure of abundance, the distortions of competition, the outsized powers of communication and direct force, all in a world of millions and billions of people, are taken up by a small percentage of people who are not as well formed as most, who give up the birthright of species humanity.  

In a sane world the antisocial rich would be ostracized if they could not be persuaded to rejoin common society.  The central value would be the wellbeing of community, not the accumulation of material goods for private and often damaging uses.  The entire sophistry built to justify and glorify self-interest, material accumulation and antisocial behavior is deeply dishonest and flies in the face of the several million years of the development of instinctual intuitions and social habits of our genus. 

The bright and shiny attract us to be sure, and the ease and the power to do just as we wish when we wish.  But most of us outgrow such infantile motivations and become more farsighted and community oriented.  The best and the brightest of us become good human beings just as one might expect. Jack Welch, Angela Braley, Hank Paulson, Herbert Fritch and some thousands of others like them are not the best and the brightest; their salient quality is the willingness to ignore their humanity and the value of life for immediate personal gain [2].  Such behaviors that we would not allow at table are glorified as exemplary – how crazy is that?   “Isn’t is wonderful that Johnny is stealing food from his little brother? He is so talented!”

And so, with this context we return to the “coddled” poor.  First and foremost, the accumulations of the rich are really the accumulations allowed by community order and infrastructure, created by the community as a whole from the community commons; the wealthy are the beneficiaries of prior human achievement and the willing and unwilling contributions of their contemporaries.  That they have contrived ways to exclude a great many from the sharing in the abundance generated from the multitudes is their only real achievement.  Payments to the poor are, in most cases, a government enforced sharing of what should have been theirs in the first place.  The real question is not ‘should it be done’, but how best to fix a broken system in ways that cause as little distortion of natural human economics as possible.

An obvious solution would be for the social standard, enforced by the righteous indignation of the masses, to be that no one have a wealth accumulation in excess of about 3 to 10 times (the figure needs to be researched for efficacy) the average wealth of the poorest 20%.  Such a political and economic condition would have to be come to by a variety of routes, political, social and revolutionary, and I am not suggesting that it would be easy or even possible.  This is not a solution to our present issues, though it remains in my mind as a most effective eventual state that would contribute positively to many of our difficulties.

Once it is fully realized that the wealthy, even those with social responsibility, have acquired their abundance by fraudulently taking from the efforts of a great many and, without proper compensation, from an environment which ‘belongs’ to all life, then the question is not whether to have a welfare state, but how to organize a state in which the contributions of all the citizens are appreciated and compensated. This will be the topic of the next essay.

[1] It should be noted that there is an “ecology” to the sources of help.  The distribution of information would adapt to the rates at which the help could be delivered.  Spreading the information widely and rapidly would shift the patterns of attempted use and thus availability.  While our hero may have ‘enriched’ himself, it was almost certainly done with some level of destruction to the informal delivery systems that helped out these men.  But, when the goal is to exploit an opportunity, the consequences of the exploitation only create more opportunities; how lives are affected is not an important issue and only given lip-service.

[2] Just a few of the ‘billion dollar’ CEOs and related types.  Google “highest paid CEOs” or some similar search to become really annoyed.