#OCCUPY the Ballot Box

The conundrum of the Occupy movement’s “missing list of demands” is the key to understanding what has to be done.

Protest in a democracy represents a conundrum. Do we want change or do we want to complain?

Who doesn’t realize that our modern world is not serving the majority of us? Probably not even 1% – do you know anyone? We all know the banks have gotten away with theft. We all know politics has been, and is being further, corrupted by money. It’s not difficult to understand that burning millions of barrels of oil into the air every day and dumping tons of man-made chemicals into our waters is affecting our environment detrimentally. Let’s not do ourselves a diservice: we all know that “things ain’t right, and something’s gotta change”.

Our predicament is not in dispute. The solution is.

The fundamental obstacle to a solution is complexity. The reality of our modern world is that it is complex: the banking system is complex, sovereign accounting is complex, the interdependencies of our environment are complex. To understand why writing down half the value of some debts in one of the smallest economies in the modern world could affect the political stability of the largest country in the world is complex; to understand why the largest country can’t just step in a fix that problem is even more complex.

There’s a perfectly natural resistance in the Occupy movement to adopting a “simple set of demands” because, consciously and unconsciously, we all understand that our predicament will not yield to a simple solution or short list of demands. Matt Taibbi, one of the most dogged and brilliant journalists on the financial beat, recognizes this even as he offers a short list of key changes that could be made to address the specific problems resulting from casino capitalism in our overweight financial sector; but, good as his list is, it does not address why we have an overweight financial sector in the first place.

The Occupy movement is a protest movement. It takes its name and its inspiration of the occupation strategy employed by the revolutionaries in Egypt this spring, and it is stirring the wider public to more open consideration of changes that seemed inconceivable only a few years ago. But the difference is that the Egyptians were revolting against a dictatorship and they could coalesce around the simple demand that the dictator be removed; in contrast the Occupy movement is almost exclusively active in wealthy democracies, and cannot reasonably demand the removal of a government chosen by the people a few years ago and available for replacement in a few years time.

The lack of a simple set of demands is not a purposeful tactic of the Occupy movement, it is the manifestation of an understanding that the problems are more complex than a simple list could address. Housing, healthcare, tax policy, the environment, social security, employment and inequality are all prevalent issues expressed in the Occupy protests, and such a broad agenda does not lend itself to a simple list of demands. The protestors can point to the simple manifestations of the problems in their lives, but they also know that any real solutions are going to be complex.

To move forward we need to remember that what appears as complex is in fact just lots of simple things seen at once. And while you cannot solve a complex problem with a simple solution, you can solve a thousand simple problems with a thousand simple solutions. This is the key to system change: it’s not one big solution, it’s a million small solutions.

Self-evidently: every aspect of human society has been created by us, and so it can be re-created by us. But we did not arrive here in one stroke, we are where we are as a result of the culmination of millions of small and simple decisions taken by people like us. When democracy arose it was the next vital step in enabling the broadest possible collective application of decision making to complex problems; and it lies before us now with the same urgent potential that drove its early advocates with such zeal. The short list of demands can be replaced with one: “Occupy the Ballot Box!”

We do not need anyone’s permission, we are not dependent on anyone else’s favors or attention – we are the ones who can bring about the changes we need, one decision at a time. We already have what the Egyptians in Tahrir Square died for: the right to select our own government.

If you support the Occupy protests you must take the next decision and vote for real change. If there’s no one to vote for, you must stand for change yourself – you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to know it all, you just have to care enough to be one of a million decision makers who will contribute to the long list of solutions. If you want to stand for election but need a broad platform that fills in and addresses the complex issues raised in the Occupy protests, take what you want from the Standards of LIFE and make it your own. We will vote with you, we will stand with you and we will bring change to our world together.

Wake up!

Sleep-walking would be a particularly tragic way to go. After all that evolving, developing and civilizing, to just sleep walk into oblivion would hardly seem to do those millennia justice. The good news is that there some fairly sharp jabs to the collective ribcage happening, and there seems to be some awakening.

America makes for a good example because its big, and when a giant is sleepwalking, you can see the others in room scurrying to get out of the way. Mr Obama is a nice enough guy, and that guy Ryan looks decent, but they are both selling a load of twoddle. A 10% cut or a 20% cut? Either way the giant’s pants will fall down, and he’ll trip. Last week Obama warned the good people of the USA that in 14 years from now (2025) the amount of taxes paid would only be enough to cover pensions and medical costs for the poor and the elderly. Wow! Except that: the taxes paid today (2010) are only enough to cover pensions, medical costs for the poor and the elderly, interest on the debt and the other mandatory programs – the entire military and discretionary budgets of the US are uncovered! No education, no transport, no infrastructure, no defense! See for yourself.

This economic model doesn’t work, it simply cannot add up; no matter how many cuts are made or how many taxes are raised. Total Economic Awareness (TEA) is bust – not everything can be priced in dollars and paid in dollars. The TEA Party are the only honest ones about this: their solution is to disband society, every dog for itself, and devil take the hindmost. That’s the only economic model in which TEA works, and it’s not a world I want to live in, do you?

“Can’t we just go back to where we were a few decades ago?” (Old liberals ask some version of this simple question, born of a lifetime fatigue of fighting the good fight and a nostalgia for less urgent times.) No, we can’t. We can’t because we no longer live on borrowed infrastructure, with swollen productive demographics, and easy exploitation of a ‘third world’. Sorry, those times have expired and now we have to deal properly with billions of people, a finite planet and honest respect for everyone’s rights.

We didn’t pay for what we’ve got.
We’re not paying for what we’re using.
We haven’t saved for what we need.

This not a budget balancing problem, this is a philosophical realignment problem.

If we don’t want to live in a TEA-dog-devil world, what’s the alternative? The only real option is a universal-social-love world. It so happens that that is also the cheapest, most sustainable and funnest world to live in!

Let’s get some clarity about the world we do actually live in, so we can be clear about why TEA economics doesn’t and won’t work. We live in relative peace, with fairly good healthcare and decent nutrition: that means that our society has a “balanced demography”, in which less than half the population is out of school, able bodied and under retirement age. We live on a warming planet, on which the next 50 years of climate instability are already locked in by our actions during the last 100 years: a healthy, sustainable society has to have the kind of infrastructure that we will have to work really hard for several decades to build. In a multi-polar, mutually-respecting world, a prosperous economy cannot be dependent on the exploitation of other people, stored energy or the waste of resources: that is going to require a really fundamental reorganization of our society and its economy. We need to be able to rebuild our global infrastructure for sustainability while we support a majority of our contemporaries, without exploiting each other or the planet.

Is it starting to get clearer now? Are we going to get to where we need to go, in the time we have available, with spending cuts and tax rises? No, tinkering with the percentages simply won’t do it. Universal Social Awareness (USA) is the route to understanding how we can rearrange our social and economic structures to achieve what must be done in the coming decade or so. As we wake up we will start to see that our mutual promise of social support is not properly represented in a cheque, and when it is delivered in kind instead it liberates our economy, empowers our democracy, and liberates our nature.

Go to the wiki and read about how simple changes to the way we deliver social security, organize our democracy, and pay for it all, provide a path to a future we want to live in.

Peace, love and awakening.

The Path to a Future: Security

Part 5 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future. Real security.

A new section will be posted every 2 weeks during 2011. Enjoy!
If you want to get a free PDF of the book go to http://www.standardsoflife.org/thepathtoafuture.

To reach our destination we need the full participation and maximum contribution of every person. When we talk about security on The Path to a Future, what we mean is the personal, material security of each person. Our personal participation requires that we are not wondering where our next meal will come from, or if we will have a roof over our heads when we get too old to build a house. If people are insecure about their own futures, they will not lift their sights enough to act in the best interests of everyone and the planet.

Population control, mutual cooperation and environmental management are all dependant on the personal security of each and every person in the world. The cessation of violence and focused attention on transitioning to sustainable economies are also dependent on the personal security of people everywhere. So personal security is a vital component of our Path.

To provide this security, every society will need to provide every member with the bare necessitates of life as a right of citizenship. Everybody needs to be freed from basic need; this is not the same as free from want.

We’re not talking about 20th Century social security benefits here; we’re talking about a 21st Century personal security underpinning for the whole society, what we will call “super-security”.

No cash, just services.

The security we need must come from a mutual guarantee to each other that, no matter what fortune befalls us, we will each ensure that the other has the bare necessities for life, and the opportunity to make what we can of our circumstances. Of course, the extent, breath and quality of the services will depend on the capacity of the particular constituency we live in.

At the most basic level, shelter and sustenance must be guaranteed globally, to all, at every age. Fully implemented, personal security services include healthcare, education, transport and information. These services need to be provided free of payment, at the point of need and universally to every citizen and resident of the constituency, without means testing.

This concept of personal security is, at once, so simple and so shocking. We tell ourselves that of course we wouldn’t step over the bodies of those less fortunate than us as we walk down the street; but we also tell ourselves that we cannot possibly provide everyone with free food and shelter. We think we can’t afford it, and that it would cause our whole system of commerce and labor to disintegrate.

The reality is that we can afford to do it, it’s not expensive and it creates the platform on which to build the most productive society that human history has ever known!

A same basic rate of income taxes we pay today of between 25% and 30% will fund these services, in full, in the average industrialized society. The mechanism that makes providing personal security affordable is linking the costs of the services directly to the tax system; such that an average earner is paying sufficient taxes to pay for the services they receive. Many of us in those societies already pay those rates of taxation (federal, state, local, social security and health insurance), without receiving the benefits of the personal security that could be provided!

Guaranteed basic personal security does not destroy incentives. We all know for ourselves that as soon as our most basic needs are met, our next level of desires arises, and those are every bit as strong an incentive to all of us. The difference is that in the pursuit of our higher needs we make our more valuable and unique contributions, greatly enriching the fabric of our societies, far beyond the desultory contributions we make for mere survival.

As we move forward to describe other aspects of The Path, just keep in mind that we need the maximum contribution and the full participation of everyone, if we’re going to make it to our destination. The personal “super-security” of everyone is the key to unlocking the energy and focus we need to build The Path.

Reimagining our options

Why borrowing, taxing, printing and cutting are not our only options.

Why we don’t have to tax, borrow, print or cut.

Has it occurred to anyone that these are not our only options?

The prevailing logic (we won’t call it wisdom) goes something like this, and I’m sure you’ll find this very familiar.

We understand the need for a social safety net, especially important in urbanized societies where the poor cannot “return to the farm” in bad times, and the value of certain investments in our social infrastructure that sustain our economy and our social fabric, but we cannot afford to pay for them – meaning that our government does not raise enough in taxes to be able to pay for the services.

Here, below, are the reasons and rationales offered for why this problem is only resolvable through austerity measures, meaning reductions in social services and investments.

1) We cannot raise taxes to create more revenue because those taxes will destimulate our economy, resulting eventually in lower tax revenues. In other words, raising taxes is a self defeating strategy that will only require yet higher taxes in the future, until the economy is so deteriorated that it cannot create sufficient wealth to support the burden of the social infrastructure at any taxation rate.

2) We cannot borrow any more because we have already tried that and now carry so much debt that simply servicing the debt we have is the best we can do.

3) We cannot print money, or at least we cannot be seen to be printing money for very long, because that will devalue our currency and create inflationary pressures in our economy. We all know what happened in Germany before the Second World War.

4) We have no choice but to cut our expenditures, and that means reducing our social services and investment in our social infrastructure.

Now, before we go any further, let’s deal with the objections that have already arisen in your mind.

1) “Taxes can be raised.”
It is true, we could be more effective in our tax collection practices and we could probably tax certain activities more than we are. In most countries, that have income tax rates at or above one third and sales taxes of between ten and twenty percent, there is actually relatively little room to raise taxes without deflating economic activity. However, the most important point here is that it would take really high rates of taxation, high enough that almost everyone would agree they were too high, to raise sufficient revenues to cover an even moderately ambitious social investment program. When you do the math you realize that you cannot tax your way out of this problem. If anyone tells you that you can tax your way out and that there are examples of countries that are, you can safely tell them that those examples, and that math, is dependent on borrowing demand from another society, i.e. unbalanced trade. There is no sustainable taxation solution to the problem of affordable social infrastructure.

2) “We can still borrow more.”
As I write, in the Spring of 2010, this only true for an increasingly small number of countries, rapidly dwindling to only one, and soon to be none. There are counties with vast (unsustainably) exploitable natural resources who can borrow, but they don’t need to.

3) “We can print more money, it’s not the bogey man many say it is. We’ve done it before, we can do it again now. We now have sophisticated financial control mechanisms that allow us to control inflationary pressures. A little inflation is not such a bad thing – it will help to reduce our debt in real terms.”
You can take your pick from those arguments but ask any central banker charged with controlling inflation and you’ll hear a real expert tell you otherwise. Liquidity in a modern economy is a difficult beast to control and playing fast and loose with it will get you in trouble, nine times out of ten. You might be able to increase liquidity inside the banking system for a while, but if that gets out into the general economy (which is where social spending has to occur) you’re going to get inflation.

4) “We can cut other expenses, such as defense, instead.”
A favorite of the passionately well intentioned, but unfortunately deeply flawed. The horrible truth is that the necessary social costs greatly exceed any savings that could be wrangled from waste and militarism. This is not to say that waste and militarism should not be targets for reductions in expenditures, just that even if you’re wildly successful in reducing these expenses you simply won’t be saving enough to pay for the social infrastructure required to make your intentions a reality.

And so we are returned to the matter of cutting expenses. It would seem, and indeed it is true, that we have no choice but to cut our expenses. We can only spend what we can raise from reasonable taxes, and the options to borrow or print our way out of our problems are but short term tactics for delay.

Stumped? Did I take you all the way here just to show you that we have no other options? No, I didn’t. We have to cut expenses but we don’t have to cut our social services. In fact we can increase our services and our rate of investment with the same or less money that we use now. How? Let me show you.

Social services aren’t, can’t, won’t and must not be measured in monetary terms. You aren’t paid in money to help an old lady get off a bus, to change your children’s diapers, pick up a piece of litter or care for an elderly parent. So long as you are secure in your own personal welfare you do these things for free. Well, not actually for free, just free of monetary compensation. You do these things because they are part of your social fabric, and you are rewarded in kind by a cohesive and supporting social fabric around you. Inside the appreciation of this simple mechanism lies the key to unlocking the door that leads to the solution to our problem.

As long as our basic social welfare is secure we make spontaneous and voluntary contributions without monetary compensation. Even those who think of themselves as selfish animals are unavoidably and instinctually engaged by this natural mechanism. We do not have to pay ourselves to deliver our social services, we just have to create the basic security that unlocks our potential for social contribution, by guaranteeing that basic services will be available for anyone who needs them.

The solution that we have not considered yet as an option is revealed to us through simple observation of ourselves in action.

There are still costs that must be paid for with money, but the remaining costs are within reach of a reasonable tax on the economic activity of a sustainable economy. To paraphrase a wiser man than I: pay in money what must be paid in money, and pay in kind what can be paid in kind.

The math adds up, I’ve done it, try it for yourself. Take a reasonable tax on people’s incomes and spend it exclusively on social infrastructure that will guarantee every citizen the bare necessities of life. We can afford to guarantee everyone basic shelter, sustenance, education, healthcare, public transport, access to information and legal services. Not everyone will want them all, most will only use some, and a few will use none at all. But a reasonable tax on economic incomes will generate sufficient monetary revenues to pay for the monetary components of a guaranteed basic social infrastructure for all. The enablement of this basic infrastructure removes the monetary cost of its own delivery through the liberation of natural human tendencies.

The mechanisms to enable this solution are already in place: democracy, tax collection and service delivery. All we have to do is subtly reorient our priorities and activities to dedicate income tax revenues to guarantee a basic standard of life. It would take less than three years to be fully implemented in most nations today, and would not require any dramatic upheavals to any of the basic economic systems already in operation. It will require us to reimagine the possible, but that is well within our grasp.

Here’s how it works. I, and you, are guaranteed by our compatriots at least the bare essentials for a reasonable life: a roof over my head, some healthy food, access to a doctor, education, local public transport and the Internet. Understanding that these basic services are available, I am free to seek whatever work I can find to supplement these services with cash, that I can use for discretionary activities like entertainment and comfort. There is no minimum wage because my basic life sustaining needs are guaranteed, and also I am not forced to accept any job just to keep body and soul together. In fact, I only have to work for as many hours as I need to meet my needs for discretionary income; I am free to spend the rest of my time at leisure or helping out in my community, should I choose to do so. “But what about those who choose to neither work nor contribute?” They would have no discretionary income, and everyone has discretionary desires – in time desire will lead to work and contribution. In this situation the monetary cost of our time is reduced and this same reduction makes the provision of the social services affordable from a reasonable tax. In fact, the more I help out voluntarily in my local community the lower the cost of those services and therefore the lower the rate of tax on my income.

Within three years just about any community could build a community center with a canteen and build or acquire sufficient public housing to fulfill the fundamental elements of the required basic social services. This effort is easily within the grasp of most communities in the industrialized countries. While those are being built nothing else needs to change, and when they are completed and in operation the minimum wage can be abolished. Everyone is freed to work in whatever way they can and want to to earn monetary income. For many life will not have changed at all, they still have their job, go to work every day and earn similar incomes and pay similar taxes. For our governments the cost of delivering social services will have been transformed with plenty of workers delivering the services either completely voluntarily or at substantially lower montary cost, enabling them to balance their budgets while still supporting a vibrant and cohesive social structure.

The square can be circled. This is the option right in front of us that we have not seen. This is the solution, an alternative to socially destructive and ultimately self defeating cuts, that does not require unreasonable taxation, unsustainable borrowing or inflationary printing.

Rinse and repeat, until it sinks in.

After that, to find out more go to Standards of LIFE.

Tell me again, how is this all going to work?

The rationales for austerity and expansion fly in the face of the facts. We need solutions, not reasons to carry on doing the same things all over again.

We’re going to cut expenditures so that we can use more of our tax revenues to repay debts, that were based on projections of future growth we are not, and probably cannot sustainably, achieve? We need to do this because we cannot possibly repay our massive debts because they are equal to the total output of our society for about a year?

If we don’t repay the interest and this year’s maturing debt, we won’t be able to borrow more to repay next year’s maturing debt? The only way out is if, by some miracle, we manage to produce and consume more with a less healthy, worse educated, less transported and less informed populace? And even that assumes we can actually grow without causing a global environmental crisis – which would only be possible if we were to invest heavily in retooling our industry and energy infrastructure for a low or zero carbon future?

So, tell me how this works again?

We borrowed so much to buy the house we’re living in that we can’t afford to pay the mortgage without canceling our health insurance? On top of that, the roof is leaking and we’re burning the doors to stay warm. If we all pull together and work really hard for the next month, we will be able to make next month’s payment. Is that it?

“No! No!”, you say?
“It’s really not that bad because you own the mortgage on your neighbour’s home, and so long as everyone just keeps paying their mortgages, it’ll all work out in the end.”
What!?
“You should even consider printing some money and giving to the banks, so you can borrow some more to buy a car. That will stimulate the economy!”

Now wait a minute! Tell me how this is going to work, again!?

… It doesn’t look like this is going to work out at all, if we keep doing what we’re doing now. Everyone has borrowed more than they can repay. The growth that would theoretically make repayment possible is either unachievable or unsustainable or, most likely, both. Forget what the money was spent on, it’s gone now and whether we gave it to bankers, spent it on war or funneled it into the pockets of those who already had too much is irrelevant – this is everyone’s problem now.

Carrying on down the path we’re on now will simply lead to the disorderly and bloody breakdown of the current system, causing misery and chaos to most of us. Most likely the expenditures will get cut further and further, resulting in social unrest and without engendering further economic growth. The debts will eventually be defaulted on or inflated away. In the meantime environmental degradation will accelerate, and the necessary investments for a clean energy future will not be made. Is this where anyone wants to go?

So if that won’t work, what will?

Two moves. Socialize the social infrastructure and price in the environmental costs.

Just two moves? Really?

Yes.

The first, stunningly simple, change is to confine the expenditure of income tax to social infrastructure. The only things income tax revenues can be spent on are: shelter, sustenance, education, healthcare, transport, information and legal services. No debt repayments, no incentives, no foreign aid, no military spending – those all have to be paid for out of sales and corporate taxes. And no borrowing to pay for social costs, you have to raise enough income taxes to pay for all the social costs.

Step two: add a carbon or environmental tax to everything that degrades the environment sufficient to mitigate the environmental damage that thing causes. Not a penny more, not a penny less. Spend that money on mitigating the environment.

Not hard, not difficult. All within the existing capabilities of government accounting, taxation systems and market economics.

There’s more, but that will do for just now. Digest those two simple steps, think about how those two changes would impact your life, your society and the world we live in.

Then, when you’re ready for more, go to www.standardsoflife.com.