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

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Proposing a Maximum Income

It is really really simple: there is just not enough to go around if a few are going to have a great and increasing amount more than everyone else; this should be an easy thing to understand, even given the overwhelming flood of sophistic propaganda from those who have so much.  If the great mass of people, billions of them, are to have enough to live with some dignity and safety, then the “economic elites,” those with a 100 times the wealth of the world’s poorest people – and especially those with hundreds and thousands and millions of times more – must give up a significant amount of what they have…and they don’t want to…and will do just about anything, to anybody, not to.

It is like this: one person who is taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources would rather that another person’s children die than that they should have to live on a $1000 a day or $500 a day.  Oh, there are a thousand reasons thrown up as to why this argument is foolish – and some of them are, in fact, difficult technicalities – but the final force that drives the human world is that the wealthy would rather remain incredible wealthy than reduce their riches for the benefit of their fellow humans and the earth’s biophysical stability.  This has been being going on for so long and so obviously as to be without question.

And what is the justification for taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources when billions of people are taking only $2 a day (a 365 day year, not a 250 day work year)?  Why… that someone else is taking $4,000 a day or $20,000 a day or $200,000 a day! The richest of the obscenely rich are even taking as much as $12,000,000 a day, which is $1,500,000 an hour; this is assuming a normal work year of 250 days at 8 hours a day.  (Calculated for 365.2 days, 24 hours a day, etc. the figures are: $8,215,000 a day, $342,000 per hour, $5,700 a minute and $95 a second; that last is the daily compensation of the average US wage earner every second for 86,400 seconds a day, day in and day out.)

Back to simple: people with the power that a million dollars a day affords don’t have to think of others.  And more obvious still when the propaganda drugs have worn off: no one should be allowed to be in the structural position where it is unnecessary to consider the consequences of their actions on the lives and the world around them.

Take a look at this table; where on it do people begin to stop caring about others in a sort of structural way, at what point do they begin to think of other people as “beneath” them, as unworthy, as inconsequential, as disposable to economic interests?  I’ll tell you what I think toward the end of this piece; don’t want to bias you.

number of

people this

times greater
income could
income for 250
income per
than $2/day
support at
day work year
hour/8hr day
living stndard
$40 a day

equals $2/day


A few things to notice that might not come to mind without the table: a person with a million dollars a year income (I know I’m not considering taxes, but at present rates in the US taxes don’t change the general picture very much), if they took a $250,000 a year income, and redistributed the $750,000 in some thoughtful scheme, it could allow a hundred people to make a societal contribution with about the $30 a day level of income.  Imagine the dignity and security that could come with the change from $2 a day to $30 a day.

If we look at the income of the whole top 1% in the US (taking 23% of national income per year), their income above $250,000 per year would fund 70 million people at $31,250 a year as either total salary or addition to salary; the top 1% would no longer have astronomically more income, but they would have a significantly high income none the less. (I know this feels wrong given the propaganda that the wealth of the rich is just too little to matter in the overall.  Here are the numbers: total US personal income $12.8 trillion; 23% of that is $2.944 trillion less $775 billion, for a maximum income of $250 thousand each, equals $2.169 trillion; this divided by an income of $31,250 equals 69,408,000.)

Admittedly, such a drastic change in income for the wealthy would deny them the impunity with which they presently live.  With no changes in present costs and the obscenely acquisitive persons reduced to incomes only a few hundred times the average poor, no one would be able to act in isolation from their fellow humans. Medical services for serious conditions would be too expensive, the loss of property to natural and manmade disasters too overwhelming.  No one could buy their way out of the effects of the human abuse of the earth’s biophysical systems and living things.  Everyone would, to some extent, have to overtly depend on the community of all others.

The argument that unless wealth can be unlimited the wealthy would just stop doing the productive activities that define their role in society is foolish.  If there were, as there has been through out most of our history, limiting social mores and even legal limits on wealth, then acquisitive sociopaths will structure other ways to attempt to dominate the social, political and economic spaces.  The difference is that their efforts could, with the proper designs, have an overall social benefit rather than the destructive effect currently.  This is how communities have been structured for tens of thousands of years [1].

Furthermore, the rich owner class assumes that workers will have to work no matter what they are paid; there is no reason to assume otherwise for the owner classes.

Heterogeneous communities have always contained a wide variety of human personalities and types; it was, in part, this great variety that gave the communities adaptive power in the environment.  Extreme types, if they were to become dominant, would be toxic to their communities, but in socially limited roles they added possibilities to the total community behavioral repertoire [2]

The social, economic and political upheavals begun by agriculture and increased by the synergies of population increase and technical discoveries have let community influence on the more extreme human types weaken; little community influence on them remains today, especially as they become concentrated in like-minded groups and independent, through wealth and other forms of power.

Using today’s sense of what, in the US, money amounts can buy I think that some people begin to feel the first inklings of social impunity at about $50,000 per year.  This increases, with $100,000 or so being a major benchmark.  These levels of income in the US in no way confer economic safety, but can purchase many of the contrived symbols of wealth.  What drives, however, these lower income pretensions to impunity is the real impunity of the much higher incomes.

Capping legal income at $250,000 a year and wealth at a million or so would have a vast array of unintended consequences, just as not capping income and wealth does [3].  We would need our best and brightest rational, non-psychopathic economists to suggest the form of the limits and processes of implementation.  But first the people must begin to understand that this is desirable and ultimately essential.  These arguments must become part of the discussion from the academic conference table to the kitchen table.  The politicians beholding to the extreme elites (that is almost all of them) need to begin to hear the rumble of a new force growing from the understanding that no one should be allowed to take so much material wealth that they can use it to act with impunity.

The understanding and language must change from presenting these issues as a poverty problem and begin to make clear that it is a wealth problem: excess is the issue, not insufficiency; a culture of greed is the issue, not dissoluteness; concentration of wealth as the consequence of our economic and social institutions is the issue, not the piddling attempts to redress inequity by redistributing wealth morally belonging to the Great Many.

No one should have more material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the poorest in a community.  No one should have less material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the richest in the community.  This is the standard for a healthy society; ultimately this is a maximum ratio of about 10 to 1.  Our present situation divides humanity into the immune rich and the enslaved multitudes; human history is the story of the failure of that design. 

Our imminent confrontation with a humorless environment has made continuing on with that old model impossible without the near-term large-scale extermination of the poor by the rich (small scale extermination has been going on for a long time).  Our only other option is the distribution of the excess accumulation of real wealth held by the rich into actions that will reconfigure humanity’s relationship with each other and biophysical reality.  The first step in that direction is to make clear that the problem is wealth and not poverty.

[1] Another argument is that the rate of development will slow, as if that were a bad thing.  Flying cars, implanted computers, nanotech surgery and a thousand other things have been held out as the raisons d'ĂȘtre for our existence; this is simple madness.  My greatest pleasures in life, and I suspect for the vast majority of people, have been with us for thousands, even millions, of years: being with my children, walking in wild country,  watching the clear night sky.  Of the technologies, I love riding a bicycle and using a fountain pen; I use some of the most ‘up to date’ stuff, but it is not as useful as a bicycle.  We have been a pretty barren landscape for really valuable “new” things for all the hyperbole devoted to them.

[2] We have in our cells structures called lysosomes that contain the most powerful digestive enzymes.  Lysosomes are essential for cell function, but if they are not strictly controlled they immediately kill the cell in which they were formed.  Other examples are stomach acids, the behavior of special-forces soldiers, race car drivers… and come to think of it, thousands of activities that we expect to be limited and regulated to their appropriate places. Greed for material wealth is definitely one that has escaped and needs to be put back into the box.

[3] I pick these two values because they are understandable as truly wealthy, offering the opportunity to possess vastly more than less wealthy neighbors; I think these amounts are still much too high for social good and our relationships with human biology and the environment. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

All, Most, Many, Some

I have boiled eggs for breakfast.  I realize that this is an inauspicious beginning for an essay, but bear with me.  I peel the eggs, save the egg white and discard the yolk.  I used to give the yolk to my dog, when I had a dog.  This was an assuaging of an ancient guilt osmotically acquired from depression era parents, but today, sans dog, I just throw them away.  Since I have eaten egg whites every morning for many years, and the eggs have come from many sources, from the most chicken-like of chickens to the sad egg machines caged in foot-square solitary confinement, I have noticed that some eggs peel properly and some do not.

Skeptics may offer that I am inconsistent in boiling and finishing the eggs, but I can assure you that I am depressingly consistent.  The fact is that there are some eggs that peel and some that don’t.  In general, the wild ‘live it up’ chickens produce eggs that always peel and the ‘stay at home’ slave chickens produce eggs that must be chopped and scooped (I hope I am not being too graphic).  There is a range between these two extremes, and thus the essay title.

The scientifically minded reader will be wondering what makes one egg peel and another’s (paper thin) shell cling to the egg white in eternal partnership.

What makes the difference are the nutrients that the bird ingests and the physiology of the egg making process.  Eggs are not simply made in a tube with a bird wrapped around it, with every egg just a natural product of that functioning; the condition of the bird determines whether the egg will be fully formed or an egg-like thing devoid of certain qualities. When the shell membrane is improperly formed, the egg will not peel.

The exigencies of business have come to determine the physiology of the chicken egg.  It is an explicit decision made by the farmer (sic) as to how many eggs will peel when boiled.  The eggs of a healthy wild chicken all peel when properly boiled and finished. The eggs of an egg farm chicken that has some space, is given a little time each day in the exercise yard and a reasonably balanced diet produces eggs that mostly peel.  A caged chicken with a diet for an average healthy egg-layer, delivered by the numbers, produces many eggs that will peel.  And solitary confinement chickens feed exactly enough to keep them laying eggs with shells just thick enough not to break in the sorting machinery make eggs that will sometimes peel.

But peeling is not a disconnected quality of the egg.  Something is missing when eggs don’t peel.  I have to assume that the nutrient quality of a non-peeling egg is diminished.  And this observation must be generalizable to all manner of food products that are grown or collected especially in factory like operations.

It was, in our origins, a biological axiom that eating sufficient calories insured that all essential nutrients would be delivered in relative abundance; in what is an irony in the language only, today’s ‘essential’ nutrients are those that were so commonly a part of available foods that it was not ‘essential’ that the organism be able to manufacture them from scratch.  The most basic biological default position is to have pathways to make every molecule that the organism requires, that would ultimately be everything but  CO2, H2O and minerals, however, as certain molecules became commonplace, species began to lose as redundant the pathways that made them.

As economic motives, rather than biological motives, have come to be a vital determinant of the nutritional content of our foods, rather than traditional biological imperatives, we have ‘progressed’ from all, to most, to much, to some of our food being fully nutrient and wholesome.  I am reminded of this every time I peel a reluctant egg.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Should We Prepare For Emergencies?

Should everyone take on the personal responsibility for being prepared for emergencies?  Libertarians, various conservatives, people like Ron Paul, make that argument.  I would say that the answer, especially put this way, has to be yes, but, to use a tiresome phrase, let us drill down into the matter.

Taking responsibility for emergencies can mean that each individual prepares to handle directly, with their own skills and resources, the emergencies most likely to affect them.  At the opposite extreme it can mean that everyone gets together to produce a plan to handle emergencies that affect communities and individuals with common action.  It seems, at first blush, that some potential emergencies might best be handled with the first and others might best be handle with the second.  It also should be noted that the types of preparation and the mind set for the two approaches are very different.

There are two sources of information and idea that need to be, at least, briefly explored as context and possibility: the history of how people have dealt with emergency and the measurements and limits that actually confront our actions.

Historically, people have not ‘gone it on their own.’  In the nearly 200,000 year history of our present species and the millions of years of history of the primates and then hominids, the vast majority of emergencies have been taken on by the community; even individual illness and injury have been organized into community response, and the group actions in response to external threats are obviously collectively organized behaviors.  Almost always the first thought when experiencing any kind of trouble is to “get help.”

The most strict libertarian view is that these millions of years of evolutionary habit are incorrect; people should take individual responsibility for emergencies (failures) and for successes.  It is not my intention to argue this fully here, just consider such a view in light of the reality of the interrelatedness of all of our actions – even more today than in times past – and the foolishness, danger and madness of such ideas begins to materialize.

But, even if we are not to consider ourselves completely isolated units with total responsibility for all of life’s outcomes, there are still responsibilities that fall on us individually.  And if this was the basic notion that was being championed by conservatives, then I would be right there with them, but right-wing conservative/libertarian policies are deeper than that and have to do with power, domination and control more than the details of how we should live with each other: what leads to their power is valued, what does not is demonized; these things change with circumstances and so are difficult to argue.

My focus here is how do we best prepare for emergencies: public emergencies like weather, geological and industrial events and “private” emergencies like medical, accident and social/relationship events.  The libertarian answer is notable for its simplicity: you are on your own; if you have prepared, you will get your reward, and if you have not, your “punishment” is deserved.  No one “owes” you any concern.  The age-old primate/hominid response is that there are no truly private emergencies since all members of the community are the community and cannot be abstracted from it: That is the judgment of history.

What about the numbers and possibility? It is here that we must go in today’s world of fast approaching limits (in fact, the libertarian position is really a small-minded, mean spirited response to those approaching limits).  What I prepared is an arithmetic presentation of two extreme positions, one in which everyone is expected to prepare for emergencies on their own and one in which the whole population acts in concert to provide a response to the call for “get help.”

There are several variables to consider: they are primarily income, income distribution, emergency cost, emergency frequency and environmental cost (ecological footprint) of the wealth used for general living and for emergency preparation.

I have simplified the models to the bare essentials.  Such things as administrative costs that have been left out, but these are small in government run programs.  If such a plan were to be put into effect many details would require evaluation, but I believe that the overall view would remain the same.

I am assuming a population of 310 million with a average per capita income of $40,000.  This will make for easy and direct comparison with our present situation.  I am also using a simplified income distribution for 2008 as a reasonable facsimile of present distributions.  I have not made distinction among the young, the old or the infirm, using only the average figures for income and costs; this should make no difference in the functioning of the models.  Some of the numbers are estimates, and some of the estimates could honestly be called guesses; but, as you will see those numbers can be changed greatly while producing the same general outcome.

Emergency Preparation costs for a whole community insurance model:

The basics: if the total population had a 7% major emergency rate with an average cost per emergency of $50,000, the total cost would be one trillion dollars a year.  The per capita cost if this was spread evenly over the population would be $3500 per person, 9% of per capita income.  The ecological cost (at $5000 per global hectare) would be 217 million hectares of the approximately 2.5 billion hectares used to produce the whole US economy.

It is clear that an emergency tax could be more equitably spread with progressive taxation, and that a well designed system could handle, within both our economic and ecological means, the emergency needs of the population within a reasonably broad range of change in these figures.

[Many readers will not be familiar with this method of reckoning economic activity, so a short primer: the earth has only so much productive capacity – that it renews every year through biophysical cycles driven by solar input.  This productive capacity has been measured in global hectares (one hectare equals about 2.5 acres): the surface area that produces the energy, material, food, water, sequestration services and other uses upon which living things depend.  There is only so much productive capacity per year as you would expect. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas” for a range of informational listings)

Global biocapacity is about 13 billion global hectares.  This means, quite simply, that if the total bioeconomy (all living things) of the earth uses the production of 13 billion hectares per year, the system can go on “forever.”  If it uses less than that, living things will soon find a way to increase to that use rate; and if it uses more, then the total biocapacity will decrease year by year until the squeeze is on living things to reduce that amount of use of productive capacity.  Human activity has increased the total use rate to about 18 billion hectares per year.  The observation that a 5 billion hectare yearly deficit will not sustain would be correct. (This doesn’t mean that we only have 3 years to live.  The overshoot gradually degrades the capacity to recover each year.  If you use all of your energy in one day and are completely exhausted, you don’t wake up in the morning dead.  But if you do this day in and day you will significantly shorten your life.)]

Go it alone emergency preparation:

The basic principle is that each person (or family) save up enough money and acquire sufficient skills to handle likely emergencies; people who are profligate and do not prepare for emergencies deserve what they get.  This sounds, albeit a bit mean, pretty reasonable.  People should prepare for reasonably possible adversity.  The question is: should this be done individually, rejecting community help and obligation, or should it done within community structure?  The numbers are unequivocal.

What amount of liquid savings would be required to individually handle the likely, to possible, emergencies of life? Doing this individually requires a different calculation, not what are the likely emergencies, but what are the possible emergencies that would destroy me (and family) if they occur? 

After listing various emergencies and their costs I came up with the figure $300,000 as the minimum amount that someone should have saved away.  Others have thought $500,000 a more realistic number, but as an average across the population $300,000 would certainly go a long way toward making each person individually self-sufficient in this way.  There are, however, two powerful impediments: economic and ecological reality.

The incomes in America occur in a distribution with some people making a great deal and some not so much.  There is no alternative to a distribution of income, it can be taken as a law of nature.  The basic model distribution by which other distributions are evaluated is the normal distribution, a bell shaped curve created by random or uncaused events.  When we see that distribution the first assumption is that this is the random natural state.  When there are deviations from it, we look for causes.  Distributions of incomes always resemble the normal bell curve distribution, but with a fixed floor, an open ended ceiling, but still the most in the middle where one would expect.

If we look at the distribution of incomes in the US for 2008, we see:

percent of

Assuming that each income level did their very best to save up the emergency cushion, I calculate the $100,000 income level would on average require about 5 years (some would already be there and some would have to start from scratch).  The $85,000 income level would require about 10 years; the $60,000 income level would require 25 years; we don’t need to look lower in the distribution.  Requiring 25 years, if starting with no liquid savings, serves no useful purpose in this model, therefore, 87% of the population would be economically closed out from being individually prepared for emergency.

One might argue that the time lines are too long since money could be invested at a percentage return and thus shorten the times, but the very idea of emergency money is money that is safe, liquid and only protected, if protected at all, against inflation loss of value.

From the ecological reality: if it were possible for the population of the US to save up $300,000 each for emergencies, the ecological footprint cost would exceed the total use of the earth’s productive capacity used by all of the earth’s living things: 18.6 billion global hectares.  Money wealth, to have any meaning at all, has to be a call against the earth’s productive capacity.  93 trillion dollars is a call against that value of the earth’s resources; that is just more resources than the earth has.

This is no trivial matter just because economists and others are not using these measures.  That the earth is round is not a trivial matter for ocean travel even though when travel beyond coastal sightings began the common “wisdom” was that the earth was flat.

There are only two reasons for pressing for ‘go it alone’ emergency preparation: ignorance or avarice.  For some it is the special ignorance of ideology, but what makes all of this especially problematic is that there are pirates in these waters who are not concerned with the needs of individuals (other than themselves) or communities to prepare for emergencies.  They are drawn to concentrations of money or to “machinery” that will concentrate it for them.

A great pile of money for emergency protection protected by the government of the people is the greatest nightmare of the pirate – and has been since the beginning of the welfare state.  There is little opportunity to steal from the people since they are not holding significant amounts and the government often has well-watched and honest gatekeepers that make it hard to pull off more than the small theft.  

If the people feel secure from the dangers of common and likely emergencies they are more able to individually prepare for more personal emergencies, they are more difficult to cheat and they are more likely to recognize and organize against the pirates.  Altogether the pirate’s life becomes more difficult and not as rewarding. And we can expect them to fight back like pirates.