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, December 4, 2013

Picture Puzzles and Future Images

I have always liked puzzles, especially picture puzzles; 500 pieces, 1000 pieces, 5000 pieces (I don’t do them any more, too many other puzzles to put together, but did once): fitting together the interlocking parts, gradually exposing the image, gradually discovering its final form. 

Shapes, patterns and colors are for me a bit of an obsession; I discover/make them out of tile floors, arrangements of trees on a hillside, books on a shelf or papers strewn about my desk.  And I try to arrange, into interlocking motions, the myriad actions of the social, political and economic world using what I assume to be the same tools of observation, pattern recognition, organization and intuition used by my evolutionary forbearers to make child’s play of responding to the most genetically clever instinctual evasions and deceptions of the organisms with whom they lived.

Only today’s patterns, the means used for prediction, are not coming from yearly astronomical cycles, seasonal animal migrations or the instinctual protections and aggressions of our living prey, competitors and neighbors; they are coming from the wildly variable needs and methods of our own species: the ‘picture puzzle’ has a great many pieces indeed.  And to add to the difficulty, the pieces are, many times, cut by design so that large sections of the puzzles can be put together in different ways depending on what the puzzler thinks the picture should look like in the end.  This is an altogether unsatisfactory situation given that finally the image that we construct must fit in as a coherent segment of the larger earthy puzzle.

Facile minds have created, from this overwhelming reality, tidy images of ‘..isms’, ‘..ologies’, ‘..cracies’ and ‘..tions’; really small sections of the larger puzzle hammered together with at least some degree of fit to the pieces; sections that are ultimately arbitrary and that will never fit together when attempting to combine them into a whole image.  The frustrating part of this understanding is that those finally artificial sections must be completely broken up and rearranged for there to be any chance to make the whole image complete.

The damning part is that humans dedicated to what their section of the image is to look like will fight, kill and die for that image. No one is willing, or even can be willing, to stir all of the pieces, of a seemingly finished section of the puzzle, back into the mix and begin again – as one must from time to time with a cardboard puzzle – keeping only those fragments assumed with the greatest certainty to be correct.  In fact, those of our fellows who have suggested such a need with clarity and strength have often had their lives destroyed.

The present, so-called, liberal political model assumes that every segment of the puzzle, no matter how poorly made, has meaningful value and must, therefore, fit into the larger image in some way.  The, so-called, conservative position seems to be that “conservatives” are correct about just about everything and have, as a result, the right and obligation to use every possible means, fair and foul, to sustain their designs, demanding that all the other puzzle segments conform to theirs. 

Looked at from the metaphor of a picture puzzle, both views are incorrectly assembled from a similar set of the available pieces.  In essence, the so-called liberal view tries to include pieces that don’t fit and the so-called conservative view rejects pieces that do fit. The acronym SNAFU seems almost invented to be the appropriate description.

To be clear, it is my view that there is but one final dynamic image that all the pieces can and do construct.  It is only humans who have shaken the puzzle pieces loose, stirred them and therefore must make an attempt to put them back together.  If humans can achieve that, if we can reassemble the sections of the universal puzzle – that we have scrambled, rediscovering patterns, forms and functions that integrate with the whole puzzle – then we will have gone a long way in fully developing the remarkable evolutionary and adaptive tools that define us. And if we do not, then the puzzle pieces that define us will be boxed and put away on a shelf in the evolutionary closet.
* * * 
I have taken to reading the wide range of media as I would examine the individual pieces of a picture puzzle.  Some pieces can be immediately classified by a single element of shape, pattern or color and need not be looked at further (until perhaps later) while others need to be turned round and round, studied and placed for continuing evaluation as the assembly of context grows; too quick a judgment leads to the assembling of false starts.

The main outline of the puzzle currently being constructed is the preeminence of the organizational structures that we have been calling corporations or international corporations, but are really new organizational forms supplanting nation-states: organizational structures ‘freed’ from moral, social or fiduciary responsibility to the human species populating the earth.  And ‘freed’ from even the tiny remaining sense of obligation to the physical world found in the developed nation-states.

This separation requires that the boards of directors, CEOs and the other central functional parts of the leadership of these new entities see themselves as qualitatively different than the rest of humanity and that their belief systems be imbedded in economic ideation utterly unsupported by biophysical Reality.  Assembling the many individual puzzle pieces of (so-called) corporate and nation-state government action with these design principles in mind allows the pieces to fit together very nicely – much too nicely for human comfort.

The relationship of nation-state governance, including actions of social responsibility, to their populations is clearly being driven by these new organizational entities.  The new model is not the simple model of capitalist competition – long since abandoned, really still born from its 18th century intellectual birth – but a monopolistic economic totalitarianism in which the new plutocratic entities attempt to control every aspect of life’s possibilities and withhold them for a price.  Living space, food, water, breathable air, medical care, movement and association, recreation, activities of creation (both intellectual and biological) are all intruded upon to greater or lesser degrees and charged the price of dictated productive activity chosen by and for the benefit of the plutocracy (really the stealing of work and the value of human life).

Such an assembling of a section of the human puzzle will never fit either other sections of the human puzzle or the larger puzzle into which ours must finally mesh.  But, there is no telling that to those who are committed to their own small segment and who can and will see no other.  It is an over simplification, but plainly put, their puzzle construction must be taken from them, stirred and reassembled on principles that include all of the parts of the human puzzle and in recognition of the total puzzle already assembled by the living earth.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Conspiracy Formula: A bit of tongue and a bit of cheek

The argument that conspiracies do not, cannot, exist is foolish; worse than foolish: insane and foolish.  Conspiracies exist everywhere.  The best ones are made up of two people, they easily keep each other in check, often with strong mutual interests and very little persuasion needed.  But, as the numbers involved increase, the requirement for incentives to maintain the silence of conspiracy also increases.  And there is a limit for how many people can be involved without the certainty of exposure.  Most conspiracies collapse because the incentives don’t keep up with the numbers of people who have relevant knowledge, but many conspiracies do pay attention to the needed incentives. 

Clearly this a math problem: how many people; how much incentive; what defines the limits?  Here is my simple minded offering for this under-explored field of inquiry.

‘F’ (amount of fear) plus ‘C’ (compensation) divided by  ‘n’ (number of people needed for an action) = ‘M’ (a constant, the total motivation required to remain silent).  This number might marginally increase if people are added who have moral principles.

(F+C)/n = M

What this means is that if you need 20 people to run a conspiratorial operation, then the level of fear and compensation must be increased over a conspiracy that requires 5 people:

(5 + 10)/5 = 3  ;  (25 + 35)/20 = 3

Another feature demonstrated by the formula is the interchangeability of fear and money: “I will fire you if you tell, and I will also give you a thousand bucks for not telling.”  Then, there is “I’ll fire you and deny you future employment if you tell.” vs. “I’ll give you $20,000 if you don’t tell.” Displayed in formulaic form as example:

(17 + 13)/10 = 3 for the first situation, (27 + 3)/10 = 3 for the second (there is almost always a salary base) and (5 + 25)/10 =3 for the third (there is always an implied threat).

Clearly, there is an upper limit for how many people can be involved before either the amount of fear or the amount of compensation will produce a value that falls below the constant, M, and the conspiracy is exposed.

For the sake of the argument let’s say that the threat of death (it has to be real) is 90 and the threat of death, torture and the death of one’s family is 120.  Monetary compensation becomes progressively less effective as the numbers go up – that is the amounts have to increase exponentially as the measured effect goes up arithmetically – such that the power of $5 million (score of 150) is only marginally more than $4 million (score of 144).  So, in our model, with a constant, M = 3, a conspiracy could contain with efficiency: (120 + 150)/n = 3, gives n=90 as the largest number of people that could contain the conspiracy.

But there is more.  The cost would be $450 million on top of the cost of making the threat of death and dismemberment of hundreds of people a reality.  If the monetary side is removed the conspiracy could include, (120 + 6)/n = 3, n=42, (the 6 represents base salary).  If the threat side were removed, (12 + 150)/n = 3, n=54, (again, always an implied threat) hardly changing the situation for maintaining the conspiracy, but changing greatly the dynamics of the situation.

Leaving the detail, but retaining the concept, of this model; what are the arrangements of threat vs. compensation powers in the real world.  There are 3 major seats of power: commercial/corporate, governmental and criminal.  If we define them conceptually by the ways that they might attempt to hide a conspiracy, we get: (small value F + large value C)/n = M, for commercial; (large value F + small value C)/n = M, for government; and (large potential value F + large potential value C)/n = M, for criminal.  Therefore, if we identify a conspiracy as, (9 + 60)/n =3, n=23, then we would suspect that it was formed out of the commercial sector of power. If the incentives were reversed, we would suspect the government; and if they were more equal, we would suspect criminal origins, especially if the fear and compensation components were large.

But what would we think or say about a discovered conspiracy that clearly originated in governmental offices with the form, (100 + 140)/n = 3, n=80, and another originating in corporate suites, (120 + 90)/n = 3, n=70?  If we followed the conceptual definitions, then they both would be criminally based rather than defined by the room from which they were directed. (A note here: the n value is the maximum number that could contain a conspiracy under the defined circumstances, it is not required for the model that that number are always involved.  Especially grievous actions might want to be protected by over-funding both the threat and the compensation.)

Some real-life examples: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Bradley – AKA Chelsea – Manning and several others, not so regularly reported on, have exposed conspiracies that originated in government/military offices.  Manning has been tortured (by Geneva standards, if not by the reader's) and his freedom taken from him; this would get a very high F score.  Assange and Snowden, both, have their lives threatened and freedom limited.  Snowden has lost considerable income and Assange has been attacked economically.  In their cases they would get high F and high C scores.  The display of the consequences for breaching the conspiracy curtain is clearly intended to fix very high F scores in the minds of the other members of the conspiracies and it can be assumed that compensations are being quietly discussed by those remaining with damaging knowledge. 

The military, surveillance and “diplomatic” conspiracies exposed clearly increased their n value over what the F and C values could contain to match or be more than M.  It would be expected by the model that the n value would be lowered and that perceived F and C values reconsidered.  Another way of saying this is that the attempts to control and contain information would take on more and more of the criminal model, out of what would appear to conspirators to be necessity – the thought of doing away with the secrecy of conspiracy would not occur as an option (see Gen. Keith Alexander’s responses).

And finally, the model tells us that all conspiracies would tend to move toward the criminal form over time and the inevitable dribble of exposures.  F scores would increase as would C scores and n values decreased as much as possible – fitting the criminal model exactly. The conclusion has to be that, in terms of this model if nothing else (and I think there is plenty else), commercial/corporate, government and criminal enterprises are melting together into a toxic stew that cannot be un-stewed by any presently legal or societally sanctioned actions.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying, nothing wrong with probing the legal system for its possibilities, nothing wrong with whistle-blowers falling below the value of the conspiracy constant M and blowing the whistle – accept that the F scores are increased along with the C scores and the criminality goes up.  It is even possible that a synergy of action could reinvigorate the government sector of power with the will of the people; again, worth a huge try.  But, at the same time I’d be looking at plans for that ark.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Creeping Encroachment

As I look around both the physical and the social space in which I live, I sense an encroachment, a creeping (and sometimes more than a creeping) in on the limits of those spaces.  My physical space has long felt invaded: my growing up began on a farm in east central Ohio as a limestone strip-mine nibbled away at the corn fields, eventually coming hard against the barn and other outbuildings, finally driving us out.  We moved to a tiny farming/fishing village on the Florida west coast: tomato fields cut into the sandy soil, surrounded by the river fed swamps, bayous and salt flats of south Tampa Bay.

Serious land development began in my early teens.  The draglines, dredges, bulldozers and other movers of the earth and reshapers of the waters cut roads, drained and filled land, dug canals and estuaries and generally remade miles of wild riverine and ocean coastline into marketable chunks of reclaimed (sic) land.  Locked gates blocked long used paths; river access points were closed. A hiking slog through pine barrens, river swamp and deep wading in the river itself, rather than taking one into the prehistoric convolutions of the mind, would more and more often end at a construction site for a new housing development or apartment complex: great piles of muddy sand with the dead bodies of trees strewn about; the wild smell of the swamp replaced by the concentrated smell of swampy rot as though a natural body had been opened up into its bowels.

Perhaps from this experience in some of my most formative years, I am particularly sensitive to the forces of encroachment.  I don’t know, but I do know that while the form has changed, the feelings that I have are well known to me and just as distressing as ever. 

What is different now, however, is the lack of clarity of motive.  The land developers in Florida were after the money.  They might have talked about public good, recreational opportunities, growth of the area, employment and all the rest, but their tongue was obviously in their check: only those who chose to be fooled were fooled.  The developers were tight with the county commissioners, and often were the county commissioners.  Deals were made in the proverbial backrooms, zoning and permitting were fixed; there was all the normal graft that goes with small time money rubbing elbows with bigger time money and power.

The encroachments I am feeling today are not so straight forward; perhaps it’s just that there are so many more of us to get in the way, but it also seems that what is attempted is being done for more obscure or carefully hidden reasons.  That there is money and the impunity of power at the end of the several chains of actions I have no doubt, though the machinations are more complex than ‘dig it up, level it out and sell it.’  And it is these machinations that we must better understand – just as in a war, which this increasingly is, the strength, deployment and intentions of the opposing force must be known or well guessed at.
* * * 
Here is a model that may help with understanding why the sense of encroachment is less clear today: imagine a small town that a bandit band wishes to control, not just raid and steal from episodically, but to have a means of dominating most, if not all, of the town’s political, commercial and social activities.  The bandits know their own interests and plans; it is important to the bandits that the town’s people not know until the bandits have so organized and fortified their position that little can be done to stop them – or so it is their desire.

If you were advising the bandits, what would you suggest? Here are some possibilities:

1) Avoid being recognized as bandits

a) Steal from other towns to gain operating funds, especially those that either have or can be made to have an antagonistic relationship with the town you want to control. 

b) Blame any local raids on the other towns: enemies (supports #1a and is aided by #1c)

c) Bribe influential people in the town beginning in small ways and eventually compromise them in larger ways; especially try to have leverage with opinion makers and media.

2) Take over the functions of law enforcement

a) This would be a natural for bandits and would also put the physical tools of repression in bandit hands.

b) People who might begin to recognize the creeping encroachment of control could be more easily criminalized, especially by doing a “J. Edgar Hoover” and actively seeking ‘dirt’ on as many people as possible.

c) Have opinion makers promote the argument that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” from institutional powers.

3) Place members of the bandit gang in commercial, social and institutional organizations

a) Bandit members could report on attitudes and individuals, as well as guide discussions in directions useful to the bandit’s narrative.

b) Either so thoroughly co-opt existing civic leaders that they become bandits or place appropriately groomed bandit members in positions of leadership.

c) This is not nearly as difficult as it seems in the telling since the natural cynicism of leadership lends itself to dishonesty by stages from misrepresentation to all forms of lying and corruption (see also #2b).

4) Be ruthless in the prosecution of essential goals

a) Any town’s people who find out about, seriously speculate about or stand in the way of
the bandits and their plans would be eliminated by any means necessary.

b) Self-serving opposition to bandit actions, even though unaware of the bandits and their plans, would be co-opted or eliminated.

c) All such actions would be blamed on others (“outsiders” and enemies) or made “legal” (see #3b).

5) Create a connection between bandit goals and community goals

a) Support and magnify any distrust and fear of outsiders natural to humans and suggest that enforced community interests (actions that support bandit goals: surveillance, enforced class stratification, institutional secrecy, speech limitations, etc.) will be protective.

b) Equate increased bandit control of economic interests with the economic wellbeing and safety of especially the average to better off members of the community.  And, if necessary, actually increase the economic security of those people for a time (see #4b).

c) Create a rhetorical scapegoat class to be blamed for those times when manifested bandit goals conflict with community expectations.  This can be both outsiders and the least powerful town’s people.
* * * 
If the bandits were to follow such a plan, not get impatient or revert to older patterns of direct raiding, then the consequences would look much like what I seem to be seeing and feeling about today’s politics and economy.  The bandit’s underlying goals are simple: steal what can be stolen, especially the good stuff; take as much as possible and live with impunity – these are the same goals as the highwayman, the pirate or the jewel thief.  It is the more resolute method that leads to so much confusion from the “town’s people.”

We are dealing with a new kind of bandit today; smarter, more patient, more psychopathic and more ruthless… and not to forget more organized and institutional in planning.  No more Valentine’s Day Massacres with .45 caliber cartridge casings littering the floor.  Today it is the lone gunman, a crazy loner bent on some unfathomable twisted notion of revenge, that removes an impediment.  My neighbor’s economic failure is not to be seen as the crime of a CEO sending factories to another country, but as the result of immigrants taking American jobs.  A hundred questions and concerns are hidden in a thousand prepared, often intentionally contradictory and focus-group-tested answers, all misdirecting, all lies.

The result is a creeping encroachment on every aspect of our lives.  We must be weakened in every way possible so that we can be stolen from in every way possible.  Just imagine what the bandit gang might consider a danger to their goals.  Here is a partial list:

• direct, unafraid communication between people;
• the expectation that a sound basis in knowledge informs actions;
• an unbiased, data driven and systematically challenged source of knowledge;
• critical thought applied to political, economic, social and martial events;
• the expectation for clear and honest public statements of political intent;
• social mores, principles and laws that protect community interests and the Commons;
• the expectation for in-depth investigation of wrong doing by public officials;
• the right to gather in public spaces, to speak and to protest;
• a political design that ultimately vests power in the people;
• the social value that privacy resides in the people and not in institutions.

There are more, the reader can add their own at their leisure, but it is easy to see that the bandit gang would benefit by negating all of these if the people are to be stolen from without their direct knowledge or by so confusing and frightening them that they accept being stolen from as being protected from even greater dangers.  It takes very little critical thought, only a small amount of knowledge and a modicum of expectation for honesty to realize that every item on this list is being weakened, even destroyed, by today’s dominate political and economic classes. 

What the model of the bandit gang points out is just how far along the real bandits have gotten in taking over our political and economic structures.  We are literally being (or have been) taken over by organized criminal gangs at the highest levels – this is what kings and barons actually were; this is what warlords are.  And this is what corporate conspiracies and political conspiracies are; they are criminal gangs that have worked their way into the positions of power, and so control the laws that make their stealing legal.

When the general public tries to make sense of their behavior, confusion and cognitive dissonance withers the efforts.  We try to see our leaders as extensions of our own habits, beliefs and needs – and the leaders often try to appear so, but ultimately their actions harm us, stealing our wealth and our dignity.  The confusion is ended, however, when we realize that these are bandit gangs that have worked out ways of stealing without our being clearly aware of how, or even if, it is being done.

It is possible to get the impression that I am suggesting that all the people involved in destructive corporate and governmental activities – sophisticated bandit activities – are equally aware and equally conspiratorial.  I am not so suggesting.  Again, the completely understood nature of bandit bands is a useful model: psychopathic group leaders create the psychological standards for sociopathology so that otherwise normal people act in accordance with the gangs ‘local’ expectations, as well as drawing in compatible personality types for the specific behaviors useful to criminal enterprises.

We need to realize that it is in the interests of such gangs, as listed in the suggested behaviors above, to confuse and overwhelm the populations that are being stolen from.  Not only did the Industrial Revolution produce a great deal more wealth from which to steal, it also produced revolutionary sources of power and reach of power with which to do the confusing and the stealing; and an industrial level of destruction to the lives impacted by the theft.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Real Austerity and the Austerity of Theft

The two pervious essays discuss the ‘real austerity’ that the human animal must begin to accept and adapt to: the austerity of living within the limits of ecological reality.  These limits are composed, broadly, of two parts: the productive capacity of the earth and the absolute requirement that all living things be integrated into the ecological economy (see the essay ‘Taking Without Compensation’). 

The austerity being argued over in today’s quarrelsome politics is not austerity at all, but the more tiresome concern of who can steal from whom with the sanction of society.   It has become standard that when a poor person takes from a wealthy person – almost always such stealing is limited to some direct method – that the act is defined in law as theft.  However, when a wealthy person takes from one person, or many persons, the method has usually been sanctioned in law as proper.

The present attempts to impose “austerity” on society at large is, of course, not really “on society at large”; it is the imposition of austerity on the weakest members of society (or those who can be made weak) so that more of society’s production can be collected into a few very wealthy hands.  In the present Story that we tell ourselves it is the ‘natural’ right, even the obligation of an “owner” of a business to take as much of an “employee’s” labor as possible giving as little of the employee’s productive contribution to the employee as possible.  If the employee’s contribution is twice his or her compensation, or three times, the owner gets the benefit.  The employee is not even supposed to know the value of his or her contribution.  If the employee can be made to believe that there is just not enough wealth created by his or her activity to warrant compensation, then the employee can be made to agree to be stolen from.

The argument is not especially ingenious, but is effective: there is not enough to go around (which is true in the ecological sense).  So, everyone (meaning everyone but the rich) must do with less….  And then the real slight of hand: since government is taking, with taxes, from everyone and spending the accumulated wealth on services for everyone, then ‘you’ are paying out of your tiny incomes for everyone when ‘you’ should keep ‘your money’ for your own uses – the government is stealing from you and giving your money to other people.  Ergo, no one should have to pay very much in taxes, including the rich.

I take it back; it is a pretty ingenious argument.

Of course, it is a complete fabrication.  The very essence of human success as an animal and as a force of nature is the economies of scale that banding together in collective action have provided us (and of course the rich band together to act as predatory communities).  When a society pools its resources it can provide for the needs of its members with far greater efficacy at far lower cost than “every man for himself.”  It is, however, when the distribution of wealth becomes distorted that the human mind becomes distorted in relative proportion.

The reality is that a certain percentage of each individual human production needs to be collected into the community pot for economies of scale in the building of infrastructure, education, healthcare, energy, basic biological needs and other natural monopoly functions.  If one person’s production is 100 units and they are expected to provide the community with 20 of those units, but they are only compensated 50 units, and if laws are created to protect from taxation the 50 units collected by “owners”, then the worker is being stolen from.  The owner gets to amass the productive labor of the worker without contributing to the community wealth intended for community needs.

If there are 100 workers being compensated at 50 units, being taxed 20 units and supplying 50 units each to the owner, the owner is receiving 5000 units.  Assume the owner takes a reported income of 500 units (without ever being required to demonstrate that the amount is appropriate to his or her productive contribution) and then pays 100 units in taxes.  This means that 4500 units of production have not been taxed for the community services.  The true tax bill should be, at a minimum, 1000 units with an additional 20 percent for the owner’s legitimate productive addition to the total activity.  The worker’s tax contribution should be 10 units on their 50 unit compensation (progressive taxation is easily derived from this simple model, but that will have to be for another time).

But, owners have accumulated access to wealth at such levels that politicians and other community service people can be bribed to protect both the owner’s wealth and methods of stealing from workers.  The rentiers, the nature of many ‘owners’ today, have little need for the community services – actually seeing such services as competition in their efforts to extract more wealth from the exchange transactions of the populace.  The power of wealth constructs the laws as well as having outsized influence on population attitudes through the control of the society’s Stories about itself: the impunity of wealth requires that wealth be increased without limit.

The theft of worker’s labor is not allowed to be a prominent or even acceptable Story theme.  The old fairy tales about the dangers and evils of greed have been largely disappeared or are considered quaint vestiges of an unenlightened past.  The new Story is that the rich are smart and deserving – that proof of virtue is found in the wealth accumulated.

There are really only a few ways to accumulate wealth above one’s actual productive contribution and they almost all involve taking more from transactions than one’s contribution by using some form of power to reduce the legitimate compensation for contribution of the less powerful.  The present drive to enforce so-called austerity on the non-wealthy is really just the same old game: create a Story to support an asymmetry of power, hide those actions that would violate the population’s expectations and use power to generate laws and governing authorities that will allow theft.  And if the non-wealthy can be convinced by the Story that they are somehow “enriched” through some contrived association with the truly wealthy, so much the better.
* * * 
I am not suggesting that every person contributes the same productive effort or result or that everyone should be compensated the same.  I am saying that just as the production of the worker is measured, that the productive contribution of all contributors should be measured and compensation made contingent on objective contribution.  This would require that power imbalances be corrected and that the present inequity in our economic design be reduced to the point that one group could not so overpower another that theft can be carried out with impunity; people will still steal, but it should be called theft and not earnings.

The first step is to challenge the present Story and to spread a new Story that supports the form of society that we want and must have if we are to survive.  Revolution without a new Story would only change the players, not the play.  And it is unlikely to lead to anything reconstructable into a society we would want to live in. Large scale violent class warfare that would almost certainly spiral into an economic and ecological conflagration of unimaginable horror, depth and longevity involving the very capacity of the life sustaining space to support complex life forms.

As it becomes clearer that destruction of almost unprecedented proportions is the likely endgame for failure to come to grips with the kind of animal we are; if we can begin to realize both the dangerous capacities we have for illusion and the constructive capacities that we have for communities of biological integration, then just maybe we can, under the pressure of literally undeniable biophysical forces, awaken to the Story that tells of our sense of fairness, our desire to see worth in others, our rejection of thievery and our reverence for the living world.

It is no coincidence that the world’s mystics, prophets and enlightened thinkers have lived austere lives.  It will be from living with the real austerity of ecological integration that the Story of our successful adaptation to biophysical reality will form.  Otherwise the story telling species will cease to tell Stories.

Of course, there are monumental difficulties, obstructions to our needed travels greater than the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China or the expanse of oceans – all of which, I will remind, have been crossed.  The breaching ladders are there: the Internet and its kin, as well as the more traditional devices of the printed page and word of mouth.  The elements of the needed Story-of-Ourselves are there in the best of our moral Stories and in the growing science of our nature.  The world to which we must adapt our aspirations has been clear to many thinkers for centuries, but is now becoming clear to scientists and more and more of the general population.

But, there is also the terror of an uncertain future and the human capacity for denial, distortion and illusion in the face of danger: even though humans can organize experience into vast landscapes of time and space, troubles narrow the focus.  This narrowing is an effective way to survive in a savanna landscape as a gatherer/scavenger when the focusing is on the moment of danger, but not when the comprehension of big-picture reality is needed, when restraint and organized action are required.

The Stories that we must tell are of how we live together with each other and with the other life on the earth, no matter how seemingly insignificant or even annoying.  Our Stories must see us as participants, not as possessors; and contributors, not as takers.  We must tell that ‘property’ is not a right, but a responsibility; that wealth beyond one’s contribution to community success is theft; and success must be defined as integration into the sustaining flows of environment.  We must clarify in our Stories that making the most enjoyment of life, with the least extraction from the ecosystems in which we live, is life’s best goal.  Our Stories must celebrate the reward of living with material simplicity and with emotional and intellectual opulence and depth.

With such a Story or Stories as our underpinning and using sound ecological economics and science, choices could be made to develop technologies that support our Stories and to reject both the technologies and behaviors that violate the Stories… just as we do now for the present destructive Stories we are telling.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Real Austerity, part 2: Significant Questions

There are several places in the previous essay where I would expect the reader’s incredulity button to be pushed.  Anyone reading this blog, quite far into marginal social, economic and political thinking, will have a finely tuned sense for recognizing those moments when the writer is sliding past some difficult or inconvenient bit of reasoning or data.  The subject, the whole region, of austerity as a necessary human condition is especially filled with such difficulties.

Reading part one of this essay again, after letting the silt settle in the glass, there are suggestions and assertions that stand out as begging for either explanation or revision.  The following are answers to my primary concerns; I challenge the reader to inform me of theirs.

In the forth paragraph, the one that begins with “Get this straight,” the sentence, “This can only be done by becoming self-sufficient,…” sets my bells to ringing.  In fact, the whole process by which the Great Many might bring about an adaptive necessity toward a reasonable relationship with biophysical reality is mighty blurry.  And worse, I try to slip away by claiming, that while self-sufficiency and “reducing” living standards are essential, such changes will not happen by thoughtful human action.

First, without getting into how these things might happen through some actually possible adaptive process, here is a proposed scenario: a percentage of the general population of adequate size, say 20%, reject the consumption culture.  An important part of their active day is spent providing directly for their personal and community needs from primary sources: growing, storing and preparing food; collecting and producing building materials; designing and producing the local use and control technologies and energy sources to meet a variety of needs [1].

People living in this way could not be coerced by normal economic means – the threatened withholding of food, housing and general protection from deprivation.  The “standard of living” of such a population could be called ‘lower’ than their consumption-driven neighbors if measured by the amount of material and energy consumed, but by other measures, it might be considered higher – sense of purpose, economic and material security of directly supplying needs, community support and commitment.

(The economic elite would fight such a movement, tooth and nail, by criminalizing self-sufficiency, by embargoing regions and life-styles, by designing any number of “legal” restraints and by all manner of attempts to undermine any positive perception of these ways of life by the larger population.  This will be discussed later.)

One of the consequences of any large scale rejection of the consumer society would be an increase in the unemployment of those in the Great Many who service consumerism – just about everyone.  In this way the general population is held hostage to the present economic design; and there is no way out but for individuals and community groupings to take on the task of meeting basic needs.  A natural pressure toward either abject misery or self-sufficiency would create a positive feedback: a certain percentage of those rejected from servicing consumerism would, by opportunity or fortuity, add themselves to the change community.

As such communities became more common in the experience of the consuming society, as someone’s uncle or daughter or friend turned to living with greater freedom from the oppressive demands of the money-consumption paradigm, the route to and ease of such a transition would be more clear an option to more people.  The positive feedback would be further facilitated and the flows of wealth to the economic elite would be reduced by the simple expedient of there being less fungible wealth in the pipeline; people would be trapping real wealth in their immediate actions of self-sufficiency, wealth that could not be stolen from them.
* * *
There are a number of quite difficult to attain needs required for such changes as well as
dramatic consequences that would arise:
  A self-sufficient community-based society would require enough land to supply the majority of food needs as well as construction materials, energy sources and other comfort and protection accoutrements.  This should not be looked at as some isolated Medieval village struggling to pull enough food from the ground so as not to starve.  As the center of economic strength shifts from the non-productive economic elite to the self-sufficient communities, a demand would be created for the tools to maintain such communities.

  The population supportable by these changes would have to be smaller than the population of the consumer society.  This is less an issue than it might seem since the consumer society has grown beyond its reasonable limits and economists are talking about ‘surplus people,’ numbers of people with no use in or to the consumer culture. These “surplus” people could become an adaptive force. 

  There could still be industrial, transportation, communication, various professional and agricultural sectors in a larger interconnected economy, but (with the balance of power shifted to the self-sufficient communities because they cannot be easily coerced) this larger economy would exist to service the communities, not the other way around.  There would still be the pressure from the players in the larger economy to dominate and monopolize activities, but that pressure could be balanced by the ability of communities to reject the offerings of the much reduced economic central players.  Organizations of communities would have the power to limit the amount that the economic elite could take from the larger economic system and to define what were reasonable economic processes and what was theft.

  There would be a great human cost of transition. Many people would not be in a place or in a frame of mind that would allow them to become self-sufficient in the necessary form.  Many would try optional means, like creating parasitic economic models – criminal enterprises – the immiserated stealing from the immiserated.  It is unavoidable; if the route were obvious to all, then we would already be on it.  This has to happen by a process of adaptation; it may appear to be driven by agency (planned, consciously driven action), at least in part, but it cannot depend on agency.  A synergy of social (including economic) and biophysical forces playing out on the little acts of human agency is how it would have to happen, if it is to happen.
* * *
There are two other options for the future. One is that the economic elite continue to concentrate power and continue to become increasingly more insane (in denial of biophysical reality) as they connive to find and extract more and more remote sources of wealth, eventually driving the biospheric bus off the ecological cliff into the abyss of a major extinction event.  The second is that the economic elite continue to concentrate power, but are informed by enough sanity to attempt to reduce the total human take from the earth’s productive capacity so that a general ecological collapse is avoided.  This could only be accomplished by clandestinely, coercively, immorally and, eventually by all manner of force, reducing the numbers and consumption of the Great Many while maintaining enough economic activity to have wealth movement upon which to parasitize.  A third option, that the economic elite realize reality and contribute their concentrated wealth to bring about a rational solution that produces the greatest adjustment to ecological stability with the least human suffering – and in the process rejoin the human race – is simply too farfetched to consider.
* * * 
The changes that can lead to a stabilizing human relationship with the world’s ecologies, and, necessarily, to economic equities based on lower levels of consumption by everyone, cannot happen in the present framework of social and economic expectation or from the present rules of law; laws would have to be broken by those making the effort, social and economic violence done. 

The economic elite always turn to violence, repression and murder when their desires are thwarted – they call it law and order (when on the surface), war against an inhuman enemy or the actions of deranged assassins (when clandestine). When the Great Many begin to stand up for their birthright as full and worthy members of the species they are labeled, by the elite’s sophists, as communists, criminals and terrorists. 

If the Great Many turn to overt violence, the elite’s full asymmetry of propaganda and force is brought to bear.  This fact creates both a difficulty and an advantage: the most immediately obvious actions are generally too dangerous on the one hand, but the need to think through options carefully focuses action toward the more effective, on the other.  Laws must be broken in ways that generally do not excite a crushing response from elite power; violence needs to be seen as necessary and measured.
* * * 
Power in one’s life is a function of the ability to control immediate surroundings and to have final say about the supplying of primary needs.  This is where honest conservatives have it half right (but too often led astray by the economic elite’s sophists).  People must be responsible for themselves, but the other half of that is there must be actual opportunity for such responsibility… and the time and training (by real adult humans) to regain both the sense of and the skills needed for control of one’s life.  

The argument was made in the previous essay that the game is now rigged so that almost all efforts to take on personal responsibility are channeled into energizing the economic elite. Most opportunities to make contributions to primary needs are denied by laws created for the economic elite, forcing people into activities with a fungible reward which can then be skimmed or otherwise stolen from them.  The very action of trying to meet needs by billions of people funnels their “gains” into the hands of the economic elites.  Not only, then, are the people supplying the elites with wealth by their daily attempts to take control of their lives through increasing their own little piles of wealth, they are giving up their power by removing their life experience from the activities that would free them from the control of the elites.

Taking charge of one’s life is not about getting a better paying job, buying organic vegetables or joining a gym.  It must be realized that real human worth will only come with rejecting the consumption culture and creating the community structure that allows for the supplying one’s most basic needs with one’s own hand to the degree that weakens the power of economic elite and brings symmetry to the power relationship between the Great Many and those who will do anything, to anyone, for power and money.

[1] This begins to sound like a description of a slum culture, and it may be that one of the products of the vastly expanding slums surrounding cities will be self-sufficient community movements based in agrarian enterprises.  The shear force of numbers might allow such communities to take over land that is legally (sic) titled to absentee “owners.”  If such agrarian movements also are generated out of militias, commune seekers, collectives of small farmers on the Grange model and other sources of adaptive pressure, these various beginnings might begin to coalesce into something like the above scenario. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Real Austerity

What I am going to say will be unpopular, often misunderstood and generally rejected as, at best, na├»ve and, at worst, a justification of corporate interests and actions.  I know this because of the angry feedback I’ve gotten when I make even a turn in the direction of this argument.  But what makes this argument so devastating is that it presents the only solution to the monumental problem of humans living in some functional relationship with biophysical reality.  [Biophysical reality: the cycles and systems that make the surface of the earth a sanctuary for the living condition in a universe 99.999999999999999999999999% hostile to arrangements of organic molecules that are self-replicating and evolving [1]; a universe almost totally hostile to the simplest bacterium much less to a complex organic structure that can generate new forms of information manipulation capable of inventing stone tools, cotton gins, atomic weapons and ideas about its own importance.]
* * *
Most will have seen or heard of the sci-fi plot-line wherein the antagonist is an evil creature or entity that absorbs all the energies applied against it and increases in strength thereby.  Shoot it and it ingests the bullet’s momentum; dynamite it and the explosive force is captured and shunted into the powers of the entity.  All of the obvious actions designed to drive off or destroy the entity are actually the very actions that support its existence.  Ignore it and it will wither, fight it and it uses those very efforts for its own growth.  With some modification this is the nature of our present confrontation with capitalism, corporatism and governments.

The most important modification for our present situation is that the ‘evil entity’ we confront is not only grown stronger by many of our methods for attacking it, it is grown stronger by our simple acceptance of its existence in place; it cannot simply be ignored, but must be actively shunned.

Get this straight: the plutocracy doesn’t care if you protest as long as they still make money, and if they can make money from protests (either directly or through responses to protests), then protest away; god speed.  There is only one way to slow the present trajectory, only one way to get the human animal on a path that returns human action to functionality within biophysical reality.  That way is to starve the plutocracy.  This can only be done by becoming self-sufficient, by first not using the millions of “products” that are supplied by the present consumer society and, second, ultimately not needing those products as life-styles change to new standards of social valuing.  In other words, we can only starve the plutocracy by “starving” ourselves – that is the way it is set up. There is no other way. And that is why it is so unlikely to happen.

A fast-food worker gets paid $18,000 a year for full-time work (costs the employer about $20,000/yr) and makes $40,000 a year for the employer.  This worker does this because he or she has no access to any other way of getting food, water, fuel, physical space in which to live, transportation and so forth.  The employer has no incentive to share more of the gain contributed by the worker, has no incentive to aid the worker in becoming more self-sufficient or more personally powerful or more fulfilled as a human being.

The corporate “conservative” argument is that the person should take “personal responsibility” and work harder to get ahead.  This translates to: the person should do more for the institutional entity as the only means to increase personal power and safety.  Millions of people “trying to get ahead” thereby fuel the corporate malevolent entity and therefore increasingly must live within the social, economic and political order created by its needs, not their own needs.  The only way to “get ahead” is to give up one’s life to the needs of the corporate entity; “getting ahead” is primarily defined as consuming more and more stuff.  Contributions to the well-being of the corporate entity are socially and economically responsible; contributions to personal well-being that do not contribute to the corporate entity are, at best, frivolous and, at worst, criminal.

The argument that the greatest number must take and use less is often seen as supporting the corporate goal of getting the same productive contribution for less compensation.  It is clearly recognized that unless people work, they will not be able get the means to meet their most basic needs.  And so fairness would dictate that people should be compensated for their actual productive contribution.  In other words, the Great Many should have more of the total output of the total human enterprise; the consequence of human effort should not be concentrated into the obscene wealth of impunity held by only a tiny percentage of humanity.

As compelling as this argument is, it misses two important points: (1) the world’s wealth is, in present fact, concentrated into the holdings of a tiny percentage of the population giving them economic and military power orders of magnitude greater than the multitude and (2) the human process exists in biophysical reality whether humans recognize it or not.  We have come to this distribution of the total human product by adaptive processes driven by a combination of forces that must be clearly recognized.  And the present total human product must also be realized as utterly unsustainable on this earth with its available energy, biophysical processes and “free services” budget.

Here are the plain facts:

  The consumption patterns of even the poor in the first world are too large to be sustained on the current distribution and demand for goods and services.

  Those with sufficient wealth to have even the beginnings of impunity will never, as a class, voluntarily reduce their “take” in either absolute or relative terms.

  The current process in which those with international impunity are engaged, the reducing of the wealth in the rich countries and the slight increase of the wealth in the poor countries, is intended to increase the consumer base for the low to moderate priced and minimal quality consumer goods.

  The economic elite see no advantage to having a large and growing international middle class of economically safe, well educated people.  Such a collection of people might eventually be able to enforce their desires, and those desires would conflict with those of the economic elite.
* * * 
The austerity (I chose this term with intention) that I am suggesting is argued against as simply playing into the hands of the corporate/economic elite who have taken an obscenely excessive share of the earth’s productive capacity and the productivity of the actual workers responsible for the capture of that productive capacity.  It is often presented that if we could properly distribute the bounty created by human work (socialize the economy) rather than criminally concentrate it [2], then all would be well; then everyone could have a stand-alone 2000 square-foot house on a 1/8 acre lot, a couple of cars, a boat of some sort, other adult toys and enough disposable income to duel with the neighbors for bragging rights.

Absolutely, the lopsidedness of wealth distribution is a major problem, but so is the total accumulation of wealth as the extraction and use of energy, material and environmental ‘free services.’  The lopsidedness drives the engine of wealth accumulation and concentration faster than it might go in a more egalitarian system, but ultimately the accumulation is the consequence of population and technology.

The life-style of the American middle class (the real middle class, $40,000 to $70,000 yearly income in 2010 dollars) is impossible as a general expectation for the future.  In a world of instant communication and international distribution of goods and many services, islands of great abundance will not stand long in a sea of deprivation – no matter how they are defended (the cost of defense alone will reduce them to sea level soon enough). 

The rich regions are only rich because they have been able to concentrate the natural unexploited wealth of the undeveloped and underdeveloped regions.  This can only go on for so long even if the people of the poorer regions don’t discover ways to fight back, but of course they will, are and have been becoming more and more successful at fighting back.  South America, South East Asia, parts of the Middle East and increasingly nations in Africa are challenging the supremacy of the US and Europe.  And the evil entity is growing from the conflict.

The northern Hemisphere is not endowed with specially talented and motivated people, especially talented and motivated white men, more than other regions.  Talent, motivation and ambition are normally distributed human qualities.  The northern Hemisphere, especially Europe, has an adaptation history that concentrated certain forms of power and that power expanded out over the earth (moving its center of gravity into the US, again as an adaptation to aspects of geographical abundance).  That power is in the process of retreat as the other regions of the earth respond and push back as they can.

But that power depends entirely (entirely, totally, absolutely) on the parasitical pathological overuse of the earth’s productive capacity.  There is no trick of redistribution that can solve this problem.  Only using less will prevent catastrophe.  If we are to survive in our present concept of civil society, using less will require both a far more equitable, and socialized, distribution of the benefits of worker productivity… and it will require that the average expectation for the material abundance of personal life – with its apparent ease, convenience and safety – be greatly reduced for much of the developed world.

Such changes are not optional, but how they will finally be implemented is the question of a lifetime (or species time).  You can be sure that the world’s most powerful and informed people are well aware of these realities, and are planning with them in mind.  The only way for the Great Many to be prepared with their own salutary actions is to become aware and informed also.  The strength of the multitude, supported by a generally accurate understanding of their realities is unstoppable.  The multitude without understanding is no more than the overburden of a strip-mine, easily swept away.

Clinging to the so-called American Dream of abundance supporting a near impunity of life-style (action without consequences –“If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it!”) will only feed the energy absorbing evil entity.  And we have all seen that movie.

[1] The calculation is a bit arbitrary.  I determined the volume of the living zone of the earth, about ~1.0 x1010 cubic Km, and compared that volume to the volume of the spherical solar system volume out to Sedna, ~1.2 x 1034 cubic Km.  Actually, life is a great deal more rare than the percentage calculated, but this is the region of space about which we know the most and serves to clearly indicate that, in essence, life wouldn’t exist at all if it required a positive probability of any size.

[2] I am aware that much of the process of wealth concentration has been rendered “legal” by laws passed by governments, but this is no more than pirates claiming that what they steal is their own and finding some host agency to agree with them.  Once enough has been stolen, the accumulated wealth becomes powerful enough to justify itself.