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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Two Plus Two Does Equal Four

I have heard it said – from spokespeople for the oligarchs, what we often call Dempublicans – that the wealth of the few is just not enough to make any substantive difference if it were distributed among the vast many.  If, in the US, the income of the top 1% were to be taken and spread out evenly to the 99% there would be a one-time bump-up in income of $9,000 dollars per capita… and then the lights would go out because the engines of progress would have been turned off.

I don’t think that $9,000 was admitted to, but that is the figure that I get when I take the total personal income figure, $12.5 trillion, times 23% (the amount of total personal income taken by the 1%) divided by 310 million less 3.1 million [1].  But even that amount, as a one-time infusion, doesn’t seem so terribly significant.  It will not buy a house or even a new car.  If it were used wisely, much of personal debt could be paid off.  And then famine and ruin since all the “job creators” would be in breadlines.  But wait! This argument is so foolish as to fall into the category and reality of bullshit.

We must look at the income distribution and see what happens when various numbers are tweaked, not what would happen if the income of one year were to be taken in total from the one percent and distributed to everyone else.  For example:

personal income range -- $US
100,000 +
75,000 – 100,000
50,000 – 75,000
25,000 – 50,000
25,000 or less

This distribution of income from 2008 gives the average income for each of the percentages of the population; the top 7% includes a lot of people who take about $100,000 and a tiny few who take some billions – and so forth.  This distribution of income equals a total of about $12.8 trillion and represents a per capita income of $41,000.

Suppose we change a few numbers:

Average personal income -- $US
(note: I have used averages for each percentage rather than a range.  Just imagine that the $80K has a range with lots of $75K incomes and a few multimillion $ incomes)

This hypothetical distribution of income equals a total of $12.5 trillion and a per capita income of $40,000.  The rich have not been savaged and sent to the soup kitchens and the lowest income level has increased about100%.  It is important to note quickly, since I can imagine certain readers turning red faced and experiencing dangerous medical symptoms, that these are per capita INCOMES – incomes: money made from working; and in the case of especially the bottom 30% this means actually working at jobs essential for the continuation of civilized life.

There are other optional futures that make more sense if humans are to survive, and allow the rest of life on the earth to have a chance, but the changes are so dramatic that they are very unlikely to be taken on willingly.  How about this distribution with half the total income – and therefore about half the ecological footprint (but still more than the earth can support)?

Average personal income -- $US
(note: again, the top 1% on this table would be represented by a lot of people with incomes of $47K and a few with multi-hundred thousand dollar incomes)

This distribution of income totals to $6 trillion with a per capita average income of almost $20,000.  But you will note that it is the top percentages that have the most dramatic changes, and even these still could show some amount of conspicuous consumption.  Compare this table with the first table, real distribution for 2008, and notice that there would be small relative change in the lower percentage incomes.

There are many other issues involved in these potential income distributions, like taxation, types of work to be done, private versus public work, wages and minimum wages, consumption levels versus levels of meeting personal needs by private action, land distribution, meaning of success and a host of others.  But they are just that, issues requiring consideration and action.  What I am pointing out is that there are realistic ways to consider our economic situation other than demagogy.

What we have today are a few people desirous of and positioned to obtain huge amounts of the earth’s productive capacity.  They are using their advantaged position to take more and more.  The psychological consequence of their separation from the rest of humanity and the biophysical realities of the earth’s functioning is the special madness of privilege.  It is nothing new, but has, in the present ambience of incredible power, reached a level of danger unprecedented and perhaps beyond hope.

But at least we can see our way out in an honest accounting of the numbers even if the actual applications of power and force reject such solutions.

[1] Yes, that is right, by these calculations the 1% collect $9,000 in income for (from?) every man, woman and child in the USA.  It is certain that quite a number of the 1% are using the tax code to collect it for them and to redistribute it to them as various tax loopholes, bailouts, sweetheart Government contracts, rebates and other devices.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

First Principles

There are only a few things left that I don’t understand.  Which is good since I almost died today, my mortality floated out in front of me for the rest of the drive, and it was once again brought home that one should not waste time [1].

The car came around the curve toward me much too fast, lost its footing and began to spin, white smoke rising up from the tires. It was quickly sideways in the two-lane road and just as quickly in my lane.  A big car, black, long and low, like an older Pontiac muscle car, but I don’t know; identifying it was not my first priority. 

I could feel my mind calculating and I let it go.  I didn’t hit the brakes.  It seemed there was only one option: get passed before the approaching car cut off the road entirely.  It had come into my lane completely out of control at maybe 60 or more miles per hour by then.  I aimed to pass just in front so as to stay as much on the road as possible since the ditch was filled with rocks to prevent erosion.  I expected to be hit on the driver-side rear quarter panel as I shot in front of the car’s trajectory toward the ditch on my side of the road, but was not – it must have been a matter of inches.

From the smoke and the fact that the car was sliding sideways and spinning round there must have been a good bit of noise.  My memory is of absolute quiet.

I took as much of the shoulder and grassy ditch margin as I could, bumping over only a few rocks – following a line to avoid the car was first, avoiding the ditch was second.

It was all over in a second [2]; faster than reading the first sentence.  I slowed and stopped, took a moment to measure how shaken I was, not very, and drove back to the spot.  The car was gone; I could see nearly a mile down the relatively straight stretch beyond the curve.  If I had lost control avoiding them, hit the rocks, run up the embankment and flipped over… they didn’t even check.

And now I am thinking that I’d better get on with understanding things.  I’ve figured out evolution, specieshood, religion, politics, economics and the basic mechanics of how our species is relating, dangerously, with the world; figured out the future.  Even with such achievements, I do not understand, and have come to also realize, that I will never understand how love between and among humans works.

What I do know is that this understanding has to come like a first language; it is learned when it can be learned and will always be a second language for those like me – the many millions like me – who are taught early on to get along without love.  I do know that love is like a contagious disease and can only be caught from someone who has it.  I even know how it is that the loss of love as a primary informing principle of human life underlies much of our human dilemmas and crimes; but only as an outsider, as observer.

Need is something else.  It is like ‘needing to speak the language’, but not knowing enough of it to make one’s self sufficiently understood; too often there is misunderstanding and then all the consequences of that confusion.

And so, at least for a few days, until the image of the spinning car, the smoking tires and slow motion driving lesson pale and weaken, I’ll wonder about this last great mystery.  Interesting how coming so close to dying brings the mind back to first principles.

[1] I know this doesn’t make sense, but that space between being able to think about things, taking pleasure in understanding them, and not being there at all is too vast to easily bridge with a few simple words.

[2] For the mathematically minded and because I wanted to know: with an approach speed of 120 MPH (~70 + 50) 176 feet are covered in one second.  That is about the distance at which I first saw the car come around the curve.  That means that only about one second transpired between first seeing the car and just missing it as it spun passed my car.  There was about another second used to get my car back out of the ditch without losing control.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Economic Growth Must End, More!

I dislike repeating myself, and yet, the several years I spent teaching taught me that repetition, constructed in many different designs, is essential for both acquisition and comprehension, to wit: 

It is the best considered opinion of the world’s biologists, chemists and physicists (and those specialties arising out of these in ecology, climate science, oceanography, etc.) that the earth’s solar energy distributing systems, as well as life support systems, are being changed extremely rapidly, primarily by human activity.  Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing the amount of solar energy being stored up in especially the oceans, but also in the atmosphere and the land. 

Chemical changes are taking place in surface waters and the atmosphere at rates to which most living things cannot adapt, and so, complexity in ecosystems will be reduced (this is a ‘polite’ way of saying that many of the earth’s most interesting species will go extinct leaving simplified ecosystems of smaller, fewer, more generalized species).

There is but one way to avoid these effects; it is for human activity to both reduce and change in response to ecological principles.  This is so simple that one wonders at the difficulty accompanying its understanding: if the sink is overflowing, turn off the water; if the car is becoming dangerously unstable as you speed up, then slow down.

If economic growth exacerbates all of the human activities that are driving the individual details of environmental abuse, then it must be turned off.  Where is the ambiguity?  If increasing human numbers and increasing per capita demand on the earth’s productive capacity are the culprits in climate change, extinctions and biodiversity loss, environmental contamination and disruption of geochemical cycles, then they must cease increasing and begin to deduce.  Where is the confusion?

And yet all I read is that we must return to “healthy economic growth.”  China has “experienced nearly 10% economic growth over the last several years” – and this is a good thing that we should desire.  The middle class is being destroyed by the “economic downturn.” 

People, whom I otherwise respect, compartmentalize on this issue: yes, we must slow the rate of climate change; yes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity will ruin the quality of life, now and in future; no, we can’t tolerate low economic growth. How crazy is that? And then there are those who say, “How can you talk about the middle class having less when the rich capitalists are the culprits? Aren’t you making the austerity argument for the economic elite? We need to return to the American Dream of economic growth for the common man, not just for the wealthy.”

But, I compartmentalize on this issue in my own life.  I have arranged to live my remaining years on social security (a wealth storage system partially based in the commons into which I have been paying since the late 1950s) – about $40 a day in a world where half the people (3.5 billion) are living on $2 a day or less – even though the very construction of the Social Security System is growth based.

I live rather grandly with ample to eat.  I am warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer.  I have a rather good selection of tools (and what I don’t have my children do – either mine “borrowed” or their own) to repair my old car – that I would rather do without, but the distances and alternatives in the western U.S., almost, require a car.  I have a wonderful old motorcycle that I can take apart and put back together on a park bench; and so can go anywhere that a filthy gasoline engine will take me.

My wealth also includes, but is not limited to, two computers, several cameras, many many feet of books with the appropriate shelving, good guitars, two bicycles, a variety of secondhand furniture, camping and other recreational gear and a concession or two to media entertainment.  By my own choice I do not have heated water, cable or other connection to the media universe and have almost no association with the insurance or medical systems.  My children require that I have a cell phone with data link for my travels.

I am never bored or at a loss for how to spend my time; there has never been enough time in a day for me do, go, try, read, construct, repair, learn about, etc., all that I would like.  I would like to think that my accumulations of stuff only support my non-material interests, but that would be fooling myself; no, I am still part of the problem.

If most of the world’s people were to live at my level of “American” simplicity, that would require that either those wealthier than me would have to give up much or most of that wealth to those poorer than me or the world’s economies would have to more than double while devoting the vast proportion of that growth to the world’s poor; something that also has never happened before… and the world couldn’t stand in any case.

Which points out a seeming paradox of economic growth: even as the world’s total wealth has grown, the number of people deeply impoverished, to the level of being developmentally diminished, has grown faster.  So, not only has economic growth resulted in the abuse of the environment from which that growth comes, but it has produced and amplified the greatest tragedy of human suffering in human history.

These things are true.  There is no alternative data showing that people are actually healthy on low protein, vitamin free, low calorie diets.  Starvation in childhood is not an inconvenience that the highly motivated overcome.  It is time that we both realize and admit that it is the wealthy world’s pathological attachment to economic growth that is killing the planet and sustaining a measure of suffering that, if summed up as an audible anguished cry, would pierce the souls of all but the most dedicated psychopaths.

Now comes the hard part; so let us ease our way into it. The abuses being suffered by the world’s ecosystems and the abuses being suffered by essentially half the world’s human population are not natural occurrences like the weather, but result from the large and growing size of the human population and the technologically amplified uses of the earth’s productive capacity.  If ‘too many’ is the cause, then ‘fewer’ becomes an obvious solution.

But in a monumental and mad disconnection, agreement that ‘too many and too much’ is the cause is not followed by ‘less and less must be our goal’, rather the face goes blank, the eyes spin and pops from the mouth the recording, “We must grow our way out of this.”

Let it become an article of faith: we will not grow our way out of the economic and ecological dilemmas our incredible expansion has created.  The ultimate simplicity must become clear: the answer to too much is less, not more.

The only question is how to do less.  The tiny disturbance of our present economic systems is a clue; a system that has no way of dealing with slowing and reversing while continuing to perform its function is certain to fail with catastrophic consequences.  Just think of any physiological system: run and the heart goes faster, sit down and the heart goes faster, sleep and the heart goes faster, die and the heart tries to go faster!

If every human being who could do with less, essential 2 billion people who have ‘a little more’, were to consciously decide to use less; what would be the consequences?  If the great “Middle Classes” were to decide to redevelop the skills that being personally in charge of remaining alive required; what would be the consequences? [1]

The present tiny economic “downturn”, engineered by the economic elite for their own benefit, is a timely warning with these messages: The first is that most human beings are, by either acceptance or fact, at the (nonexistent) mercy of the present economic system; as long as people in general have no skills appropriate to meeting their actual biological needs, then they are at the mercy of who or what ever will supply them. The second is that the present economic system has no capacity for adjusting down, only up, and is designed to serve the interests of the most insane and inhumane among us.  The third is that most people actually understand this at some level and live in socially modulated states of terror (known as consumerism) as a consequence [2].

The forth is that there are no, zero, nada, efforts being made institutionally to understand or act on this most serious problem in the history of humanity.  Individuals, families, communities are on their own. The economic system, and increasingly the political system, is designed so that your own needs enslave you to them.  The first steps to emancipation are to use less – beyond tokenism.  And then take less from the economic world, less money, fewer products from the most economically and environmentally destructive sources.  Fill in the gaps with your efforts and skills.  Use and support the commons; parks, forests, libraries, public transportation.  Learn the skills to repair your house, your car and other things.  Grow a garden and learn to safely store its produce; use community gardens, or help create one if you have no access to land.

The goal is to free yourself from the economic system so that you are no longer a slave.  Even nations with more or less humane welfare systems still are growth dependent and require such a response.  If enough people try this with some small, consistent success, the economic system will adapt by either discovering ways to slow down without collapsing, or the attempt to be free of the economic system will be criminalized.  Either way the next step will begin to come clear. 

[1] There are, of course, the 1% users, the 0.1% users, who are taking the earth’s productive capacity at rates hundreds, even thousands, of times greater than the rest of us; these people are generally not right in the head and will never get with the program – the program will have to get to them.  As part of this understanding it should be clear that what we call the middle classes in the developed countries are in no way median or modal in the world.

[2] You say this doesn’t make sense?  Just think about the massive anxiety created by consumer-holidays like Christmas, birthdays, etc.  Think about the consumer-riots at reduced price sales.