The Path to A Future: The Great Gamble

We, as a species, are engaged in the greatest gamble of our brief existence. The outcome will affect all of us, but not everyone has a place at the table nor is everyone playing with the same hand.

The gamble we are taking is embodied in two questions. Questions we have to answer if we are to consider ourselves masters of our own destiny.

  • Do we need to change the fundamental structures of our societies and our economies to avoid catastrophe?
  • If we do, when do we need to start making those changes?

The easiest answer to both questions is that we do not have to make any fundamental changes, that peace and prosperity will be ours without changing anything very much. This answer demands the least from us and would seem to have the least impact on us, assuming the answer is the correct one.

For the majority of this world’s inhabitants, that answer would be inconceivable. Most people can see their environment changing, their water being polluted or disappearing, their crops yielding less, their opportunities diminishing and their freedom out of reach. They do not live in peace and prosperity today, and they know that something’s got to change fundamentally if they or their children are going to have any chance of either peace or prosperity.

If you live in peace and prosperity today, you probably live in the “developed” world or are a member of the ruling elite of any nation. If this describes you, then you are sitting at the table and you are taking the gamble; you are a card player. As the lucky recipient of peace and prosperity today, you have the greatest stake in and influence over everyone’s peace and prosperity. Your fate, your peace and your prosperity are the bets on the table, and you are doing the gambling.

If your answer is that nothing substantial needs to change, then doing nothing is a bet that will pay off. But if fundamental change is necessary to protect your peace and prosperity, and if the necessary changes are going to take a few decades to effect, then doing nothing today is a very poor strategy. The risks of being wrong go up every day, as the odds of being able to make the changes in time go down.

“Doing nothing” encompasses a range of different positions and actions, all of which are the equivalent of doing nothing, because they waste time not making changes.

Doing nothing includes trying to prop up or resurrect the status quo; it may feel like action and it may look like action, but it isn’t making the necessary changes; so it’s the same as doing nothing.

Fatalistic abstinence is doing nothing. Deciding that nothing can be changed is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a failure to be here now, to live in the place that you exist in. You’ll never know if action could have changed things if you don’t act. Predicting dire futures that are rescued by the indeterminate resurrection of some amorphous possibility may be a satisfying justification for inaction, but it is still doing nothing.

Doing nothing includes going about your day doing lots of things, being busy and accomplishing the goals you have set yourself. But if you don’t change anything, if you don’t see a need for change or aren’t supporting change, then you are doing nothing too.

In the face of mounting evidence that something needs to change, doing nothing, in all its guises, is supported by two arguments: we can do something later, and doing something now will be just as deleterious as doing nothing. These arguments are only relevant if you’re on top of the heap today, a card player sitting at the table.

The risk of leaving change for tomorrow is that you need to have an accurate notion of how long it will take for changes to take effect, and of how much time is available. If it takes longer to make the changes, or if the time available is shorter than you expect, it will be too late. So if your bet is that change can be forestalled, then you better have a really good grasp of how long it will take to implement the changes required, and how long you’ve got to complete them in. Your risks are compounded by the fact that neither of these variables are really knowable with any degree of certainty. Fundamental changes to the world’s societies could take decades to complete, and there’s a big difference between two decades and five decades. The impact and timing of climate change are also unknowable; we can have a good guess, but the planet is a massively complex system with a myriad of feedback loops. So a strategy of wait and see is extremely risky, because there’s no way of knowing whether waiting even one more year will be too long. You just can’t tell, and the downside of being wrong is that it is a game loser. Betting on this option is the equivalent of putting all your money on one number, for a single spin of a 1,000,000 slot roulette wheel.

The other reason to do nothing is that you are doing so well right now, that virtually any change is bound to reduce your prosperity, your security or your advantage. You may be tempted by the advantage you have today, to feel that under almost any circumstances you’re better off without fundamental change. The political leadership class of virtually every society in the world falls into this group, and that represents a serious obstacle to change. These are the high rollers at the table, the players with the most to lose and the most cards in their hands.

These high-stakes players are crucial determinants of how the game will play out. There are two factors that can influence how they act: control, and mutual results.

In a democracy, these high rollers are there by the choice of the people they represent; if the electorate develops a different view of how important fundamental change is, they can replace the players with other representatives who will act for change. The same replacement process can happen in societies that don’t have democracy; it just tends to be bloodier and messier.

The probability of mutual results could also influence those high rollers that retain their political control. Mutual results is the reality that however the game plays out, we are all affected in the same way, in the end. The high stakes players and the lowest stakes players will all experience the consequences of getting it wrong. If fundamental changes are needed and not enacted in time, the resulting chaos and destruction will affect everyone everywhere on the planet; no matter how rich, how clever or how remote they are.

Mutual results may influence the big players, but it may not. It may seem to them that the odds of a negative outcome are not as bad as they appear to be for the vast majority of other people. In this situation, wresting control away from them will be key to our mutual survival.

A big part of this gamble is the assessment of risk. To stand a reasonable chance of a life lived with peace and prosperity, we are going to need to make accurate and clearheaded calculations about the odds of success for any course of action we take. There are risks inherent in the decision to make fundamental changes to our societies, but the odds lean towards a favorable outcome for the vast majority of us. If we start making the right changes now and we’re too late, we won’t have lost anything. Probably the biggest risk we run is that we make the wrong changes and exacerbate our problems. But if we focus on improving our decision-making processes while reducing the environmental impact of our economies, the chances are good that we’re doing the right things anyway. Nevertheless, what to change and how to change them are very important things to get right; and that’s what this book addresses.

So we have a high-stakes game in which our chances of living in peace and prosperity, maybe even our survival, is at play. The game is mostly being played by a few of the people in the room, and even amongst the players there are those with significantly more cards in their hand. Everyone in the room wins or loses together. The cards represent changes we can make. We can keep them close to our chest, only putting out the minimum number we need to keep the game going; or we can play big, put down a royal flush and go for it. Because everyone wins together, the royal flush strategy has very little downside, but it does mean that the pot will have to be divided amongst all those present in the room. The alternative of a cautious game, favors the players who are at the table, because they don’t have to share their stakes while they have them on the table and the game is still going on.

The risk is that the game will end without anyone playing their winning hand, and everyone in the room loses.

So if the game clock says that there are about five more minutes left to play, what would prevent the players at the table from putting down the strongest straight in their hand? This is where we are. This is the risk we are running.

We, the players, have to look hard at the clock, and ask ourselves if we really think it’s too early to play our strongest hand.

Apparently, we haven’t decided to play our hand yet. Apparently, we still think there’s time and that it serves us to keep our cards for now. I say this because we have not collectively summoned the will to align our actions with a different outcome. We are still on basically the same path and the same trajectory that we have been for the last 100 years: industrial growth that will ‘float all boats’. That’s the equivalent of keeping all our cards in our hand and if we’re wrong: we’re screwed, along with everybody else. Just in case that is the wrong strategy, let’s look at the facts of our situation and review the state of our game today.

Are we relying on our instincts to make the right choices for survival? Are we making choices today that will deliver the results we want tomorrow? These are important questions if we are betting our lives on them. Never mind doing the right thing, have we fundamentally miscalculated the odds? Have we even calculated the odds at all? If not, we could be making a dooming mistake on an evolutionary scale.

In our daily lives we routinely select making better choices tomorrow, in favor of easier choices today. We select personal safety, over the rights of others. We select not looking, over knowing. We select the safety of established opinions, over the dangers of an open mind. We select how it was, over how it could be. We select low price, without recognizing the unincorporated violence embedded in that price. We select personal enrichment today, over the consequences for others tomorrow. In most cases we don’t really think about the choices we are making, our gut tells us that these are the right choices. But are they?

We have a hard time choosing between peace and money. You probably don’t think of it that way, but many of our conundrums can, and should be, expressed as peace versus money. We equate money with security, and that is the phraseology we consciously use to justify and rationalize our choices. We say to ourselves that we are choosing security, not money.

We accord money with the equivalence of security because of a gut level instinct that money should bring us personal security from hunger, hardship and deprivation. This is quite likely true for many of us in the short run, but we would do well to note that our real desire is for security with peace, not the money itself. The money is the means that we believe will enable us to create the security which will allow us to live in peace. We actually desire peace, it’s just that we believe money will give us peace.

We are attracted by the notion that we can own money, that we can possess and protect our money. Whereas peace is not a tangible asset. We understand that peace exists only in the moment of time, dependent on our mutual intention that it should.

When we choose money over peace we do so because it seems more likely to reach us personally than the notion of peace, which we are dependent on others to attain. We choose money over peace when we support oppressive regimes for access to minerals. We choose money over peace when we buy products made from those minerals. We choose money over peace when we make drugs illegal, and buy them anyway. We choose money over peace when we begrudge paying taxes to help others. We choose money over peace when we build more prisons. In every case we argue that our aim is our security. What we mean is our personal security, a very close and narrow view of our personal security, right here and now. The security of our supplies, the security of our morality, the security of our low prices and the security of our lifestyles.

But we are not choosing peace.

We really do desire peace, but we do not actually choose it. We know that helping to oppress the freedom of others is not a choice for peace. We know that poverty does not foster peace in our communities. We know that locking people up does not lift them up. We know all of this, and yet we still choose money over peace. And guess what? Our choices beget our rationale. The oppression, the poverty and the violence that we create, and now see all around us, are further fodder for justifying our decisions to choose money over peace. What d’ya know? Whodathunkit? Our inward facing, narrow, personal logic (aka instinct) has led us to create exactly what we feared all along.

But we still want peace. That hasn’t changed. All the money in the world is no good to us if it does not bring us the security of peace. We know that too. On some level we know that we are taking the great gamble. We are gambling that the personal security we purchase, will last the longer than it will take for the un-peaceful consequences of our choices to catch up with us.

We know that the unfree will seek freedom, that the impoverished will seek their own security and that the put down will rise up. We know all this because we know that that is what we would do if we were there. So we can even see the circular counter-logic of our own arguments, but we still choose money over peace. We are engaged in the risk-reward gamble that has defined our evolution, and which is a fundamental, natural part of our most basic makeup; what we call our “gut instinct”. A set of animal reflexes designed to ensure survival from one moment to the next.

So let’s work with this a little. We choose money over peace because our basic instinct tells us that money is a safer bet than peace. The reward of security bought with money now, feels like a safer bet than the risk that peace will become unattainable where we live, within our lifetimes. We are betting that the wars will happen somewhere else. The poor will not steal from our kitchen to feed their children, and that if they try that we will be able to lock them up and put them away. We are betting that the wars and the poor can be kept at bay, at home and abroad.

If we have got this wrong, the consequences of our choices will destroy our peace before we can experience our purchased security. That would be a mistake that money would be unable to redeem for us. A cool-headed evaluation of the odds is necessary here, before we simply accept our assumptions.

Perhaps one of the first and easiest rationales that comes into our heads, is that we are simply doing what anyone else would do. But even if we can argue that everyone else would make the same choice, that isn’t really relevant, because it is only those of us that have the opportunity to make the choices that are actually defining the consequences. It may be true that others would do the same, but we are the ones making the choices and taking the gamble. It is our choices that are actually determining the outcome. Besides which, mutual poverty of rectitude is not an assessment of risk; it’s just an excuse for inaction.

So let’s evaluate the three primary mechanisms that we believe tilt the odds in favor of money being the right choice for us. Those are:

  • any consequence of war or conflict will not visit us personally,
  • the poverty of others will not directly affect our lives
  • we can erect a system of legal protection, that will insulate us from any risks that escape from the first two assumptions

Wars will Stay Over There

That wars will stay over there, is the first part of our gamble. Certainly this used to be true, but increasingly we can glimpse the chinks in this armor. We call it “terrorism”, and it is abhorrent to target civilians, but we would be well served to recognize that to others it is the globalization of freedom fighting. The same technologies and facilities that smooth the flow of modern commerce are being used by the disenfranchised and the oppressed to spread war outside the pretty confines we would prefer them to stay within. Terrorism is the last resort of the ignorant freedom fighter, but maybe we should figure out that when we see terrorism, it means that some people may have reached their last resort. It would seem pretty obvious to conclude that suicide bombing is the very last resort of anyone, and if we dismiss it as merely the act of a lunatic, then we are not making a cool-headed assessment of the situation. The reality is that war is now mobile, it will not stay over there.

Your own intuition, and every security professional in the world, will tell you that you cannot prevent the manifestation of terrorism, you have to act on its root causes. On the whole we can keep the affects of remote conflicts out of our everyday lives with ever more secure border controls. But the risk that they will spill into our lives through any one of countless opportunities for disruption, from hijacking our transport to poisoning our food supply, is very real. Even if we can keep the actual wars away, can we keep the violence out of our lives?

The Poor can be Kept at Bay

This is the second factor in our calculations of the odds for our gamble. Implicit to this is the acknowledgment that there are poor people (intentionally); so it is not the existence of poverty that is our risk metric, it’s our ability to mitigate the impact of their poverty on our lives. Fundamental to this calculation is the ability to “manage” poverty. That is to say: to control the depth of the poverty, and the location of the poor. If the poor aren’t actually starving, if they have at least something left to lose, then they are less likely to be a threat to our security. Also if they aren’t close to us, the less of a risk they pose to our security, however deep their poverty is. So keeping the really destitute as far away as possible, and the poor that are closest to us out of total despair, would seem to be the tricks to maintaining the odds in our favor. Or, to put it the other way around, the risks are: that the really poor will come over here, and we will not sustain sufficient hope in our local poor.

Of course this gets a little difficult, because the more we help our local poor, the more attractive it becomes for the remote poor to move closer. Even this is manageable, if we can stop the poor from moving around. The trouble with that is that really poor people, denied the ability to improve their situation where they live, tend towards migration and revolt. Those feed into the aforementioned terrorism and war problem; which is another relationship we will have to factor in, when making our final calculations.

So “managing” poverty is a little more complicated than it might appear to be at first. There is no doubt that the local poor represent the most immediate threat to our security, so we have to make sure that we use some of our money to keep them at bay. We can improve our odds if we can keep them from starvation, hold out an advertisement of opportunity and, at the same time, keep their life expectancy low. Just enough support to keep bellies full of cheap food, just enough glitz and glamour to provide the illusion of opportunity, mixed with low levels of education and healthcare to keep their actual ability for progression to a minimum. This formula to create a “happy poor” has worked pretty well for the last hundred years, but it is not actually new. The Romans, the Mayans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the English and the French have all given this strategy a jolly good go in the past. The trouble with it, as a stand-alone risk mitigation strategy, is that it doesn’t deal with population growth; poor people have a tendency to have lots of children, as a means of increasing their personal security. Unless you can reduce the average life expectancy of the happy poor below the age of reproduction, you can’t stop their numbers growing. The more of them there are, the more of your money you have to spend on keeping them happy. Sooner or later the balance is going to tip, so you won’t have enough left to buy your own security because you’re spending too much keeping the poor happy. Past attempts at fixing this conundrum have included sending the poor off to die in wars before they can reproduce, or sending them off to reproduce abroad in colonies. The former has reduced potential nowadays on account of prohibitions against using children in the military, something that wasn’t a problem anywhere only a hundred years ago. The latter is problematic today due to the lack of places left to colonize. So the risks posed by local poor are more difficult to mitigate these days and, to make matters worse, we have to face the fact that any version of “happy poor” has its limitations; because even modest levels of education and healthcare are going to result in larger populations and higher demands.

The Law will Protect Us

This brings us to the third risk mitigation factor in our calculation: legal restraint. If we can’t get the poor to voluntarily restrain themselves from rudely interrupting our purchased security, we can always try using a legal system to control their unsociable activities. We can increase the odds of our successful use of money to buy personal peace, if we use some of our money to keep the most troublesome poor out of circulation. When we can’t keep them away or happy, then we can lock them up. On paper this looks like a reasonable strategy, but it has some real problems that limit its effectiveness. First and foremost amongst these is that it requires that we pervert the natural course of justice; the consequences of this have an insidious inclination to detrimentally affect the quality of our own peace and security over time. If we are to use the legal system to keep the poor down or out, we have to develop a legal structure that specifically discriminates against the poor. It has to target crimes that the poor are more likely to commit, and attach penalties to those crimes that are sufficiently punitive to keep the guilty effectively repressed. To support those two objectives, it will have to include a legal process that ensures high rates of conviction by suppressing the poor’s ability to use the system to defend themselves.

Now, while those are all well and good on their own, and we have shown that they are perfectly possible to enact, they include a fundamentally unbalancing consequence that bodes ill for our overall odds: they don’t make the poor happy. While we are trying to suppress the top tier of troublemakers, we are actually increasing the dissatisfaction of the great majority of the rest of the poor. Again, this is only a risk factor and it can be managed by upping the quantities of cheap food and distracting illusions of opportunity. But it does have its limits, and sooner or later you reach the point where you just can’t afford to keep putting poor people away, and down, at the same time. It all costs money, especially putting people away – it’s far cheaper to kill them, but that avenue is increasingly closed as a realistic option, especially in large quantities.

So how do the odds look now? What are the chances that our choices to buy personal security with money will outrun the consequences of selecting against peace? I’d say that the odds look a little short, and they look to be getting shorter every day. Obviously it has worked in spurts over time, but we live in a different world today where the opportunity to mitigate the risks is very different than it used to be, and even those opportunities that do still exist have very definite time constraints. Populations are growing, weapons are proliferating and people are starting to evaluate the quality of law against the justice that it delivers.

It really comes down to time. There’s obviously a fuse on this stick, and the gamble comes down to how long you think it’s going to take to burn down. Is that enough time to make choosing money over peace now the right choice for you? And even if it’s the right choice for you today, how long will that remain the case? Do you perceive that at some point in the future the scales will tip, and it simply will not be possible to buy personal security while ignoring the consequences for peace around you? If you do think that that time will come, when will that be? Next year? What about a decade from now, or when your children are grown? And then how will the transition happen, when the odds flip the other way? What will be the consequences of your choices today, when the time comes that those are no longer the right choices? Will the consequences of today’s decisions magically evaporate as soon as you start making different choices? I think not. Right? I mean, you are still the same person and you did make those prior choices, and you could reasonably be held personally responsible for having previously chosen money over peace. Even if you aren’t held personally responsible, French Revolution style, you will still experience the consequences, unless you’re dead.

So how long is that fuse? This is the heart of the gamble. For how much longer is it going to be the right choice to have selected money as the option that delivers you the rewards, and when will it become the choice that only compounds the risks and blows oxygen on the sizzling fuse? I would argue that that time has already passed, but I am obviously in a minority, albeit an increasingly large one, on this matter. I think that every day we continue choosing money over peace we exacerbate the situation. We sponsor more wars, we create more poverty and increase the violence of our societies through oppression, subjugation and deprivation.

Now let’s throw in a relatively new factor: global climate change. Again, this is possibly subject to a discussion about timing, but its reality is no longer the subject of debate. What climate change does, is throw all of this into stark contrast. Not only are many of the historical avenues for mitigation already closed, now the pressures on our global society are going to increase from every angle. Climate change directly and negatively impacts all the significant factors used in calculating the odds of money being the right choice over peace. Climate change puts pressure on resources, increases the likelihood of mass migration, and these in turn increase the likelihood of war, poverty and erosion of the rule of law.

Given that climate change, by itself, threatens peace everywhere; what does that do to the odds for making decisions that further reduce peace in the world right now? It makes matters worser, faster. I think climate change changes everything. The time scale for the impacts of climate change are short; maybe a decade, maybe five, but anyway you look at it, they fall into the bucket of now. Now, because we all know that having chosen money over peace for centuries, it is not going to be reversed in a few months, or even a few years. The consequences of our past choices are going to take decades to be mitigated, let alone stopped. Reversal could take many decades. We know this, it doesn’t take a brainiac to figure out that getting to peace, from where we are today, is going to be a lot of work and take quite a lot of time. The harder we work at it now, the less time it will take; but it’s still going to take some time. This is relevant, because if it’s going to take, let’s say, 30 years to move our societies onto a peaceful footing (the equivalent of extinguishing the fuse) then we, personally, have to start choosing peace over money 30 years before the flame reaches the stick.

Here’s the choice we face today: will we extinguish the fuse before it reaches the dynamite? Will we figure out that the odds have changed and that choosing money over peace today is the wrong choice? Can we see that we are almost at the point where it is no longer a question of risk that we are making the wrong choice? We are entering a time when it is a certainty that peace over money is the only survival choice we have. If we can’t lift our heads up for long enough to look out over the landscape of our consequences and discern the changed nature of our times, in time, then we will let the fuse burn down and the stick will ignite. Our wildest fantasies of greatest dread will pale in comparison to the reality of the times after that event.

I, for one, am for extinguishing the fuse, turning the corner, recognizing the reality of the odds, and choosing peace over money now. There are those, I know, who would say it’s too late, that we have already passed the moment when the fuse was extinguishable; and now there is naught that we can do, save prepare for the explosion. I am not one of those. I can see a different future. I want to gamble now that choosing peace today is the right choice, the survival strategy, the best chance I have. That is the gamble I want to take. I choose peace over money, and I choose to do that now.

If you’re serious about choosing peace, then the next question has to be: how do we get there from here? What do we need to change and what are we aiming for? Those are the questions addressed in this book. A path that leads from where we are now, to where we want to be. It’s not for the faint hearted and it requires that you have decided to choose peace; but if you have, it provides a map for changing the world.

You take your first step, and we can go the rest of the way together.

 


Part 16 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future – originally published in 2009.
A new section will be posted every 2 weeks during 2011. Enjoy!
To get a free PDF of the book go to www.standardsoflife.org/thepathtoafuture.

 

Sustainable Economics paper published!

We have just completed our paper showing a practical path to reaching a sustainable state. This paper brings together various aspects of the Standards of LIFE to focus specifically on why and how universal services are the key to saving our environment. This is an important document – please read it.

Armed with the knowledge in this paper you will be able to explain to others how we can get to a steady state economy and why it will be fantastic once we get there. Truly the next stage in the development of empathic civilization, there’s on need to return to the “dark ages” to save ourselves.

You can read the paper at http://www.standardsoflife.org/Sustainable_Economics as well as download both an ePub version for iPad/iBook/kindle and a PDF version.

The wiki pages are open for adding comments and you can always give feedback via our Facebook page and email to feedback@standardsoflife.org.

Enjoy and educate!

Option 2 : Everyone is right

We need to cut our debts down to size. We need to invest in our infrastructure. Taxes reduce incentives, and need to be held to a minimum. Without education and research we cannot build a peaceful and prosperous society. The political system is unresponsive and corrupt, and needs fundamental reform. The financial industry is overweight, and needs to be regulated. Without enterprise we cannot afford our lifestyles, so we must support and encourage businesses. There are bad people in the world, and we need to defend against them. There is oppression in the world, and we need to support the rights of the oppressed. We must balance our budgets. We need alternative energy sources. We are too selfish, ignorant and introverted. We are empathic, loving creatures who all share common ancestors and a common planet.

All of that is true.

And there are the truths we dare not speak aloud because no one has their answers:

  • Capitalist economics is fundamentally dependent on a social safety net for its survival.
  • Humans have never before inhabited this planet with today’s atmospheric configuration.
  • Human-scale is not an option, for humans it is the only option.

In the face of all these seemingly conflicting truths many of us are dazed and confused. How do you lower taxes and spend on infrastructure? How do you regulate banking and enable commercial enterprise? How do you survive in a world of differences without a massive army? How do we get from the mess we’re in, to sustainable prosperity? Confused?

Confusion is only a very short term option. When you are walking in tall grass and you hear a rustle, you have a moment to decide whether you will change direction or speed; after a short time you have made your decision, even if you have not acted. Confusion is not a valid state, it does not appear anywhere in Nature except in the human mind. Confusion is the nexus of choice and contemplation, and it exists within the unyielding contexts of time and consequence. It is the curse on the flip-side of the luxury of choice. We cannot remain confused in our thinking and about our options for long.

It’s time to stop taking sides and start deciding.

Option 2

The choices we face are simple:

  • Option 0 : There’s nothing wrong and nothing needs to change (Ignorance)
  • Option 1 : Things need to change, and I don’t know what to do, but I am ready to support someone else changing them (Confusion)
  • Option 2 : Things need to change and I am changing them now (Action)

Which option are you taking?

In order to take “Option 2” you have to move past describing all the things you know to be true, and decide what to do about them. Everything in the first paragraph of this article is true, there is no sense in splitting one set of truths from another. Identifying with one set of truths might provide you with identity, but it does not move us closer to resolution.

It’s time to start talking seriously about what we’re going to do differently, about what we are actually going to implement in the next few years. We need to engage with solutions: real, practical changes we are going to make in our social, political economic structures now that will actually lead to a sustainable existence.

That’s what we are doing at Standards of LIFE – and we need you to join in. Take Option 2!

Infrastructure has never been commercial

Great civilizations require great infrastructure, and great infrastructure has never been a commercial endeavour. It’s time to face reality and get on with the job.

The great societies, those that have spawned the great advances in learning and development, have been built on great infrastructures. Those infrastructures have never been built by commercial enterprises operating in competitive markets. Great infrastructures (like the Egyptian, Chinese, Roman, Indian, Euro-colonial and American) have been built with public funds subsidized by socialized labour.

The greater Los Angeles area has over 20 million people, with less than 20 days’ food supply – if it were not for the roads and other infrastructure, built with public funds and socialized labour during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the entire LA basin could not survive for long: no food, no water, no power. There would be nowhere in the world to land a jumbo jet, if it were not for publicly funded infrastructure.

Now the world needs to move to a new energy infrastructure that complies with our planet’s laws of thermo-dynamics. This infrastructure, where it does get built in time, will get built by the societies that leverage public funds and socialized labour.

What is “socialized labour”? Socialized labour is labour that is provided at below market rates of monetary compensation, and it is available in three varieties:

  • forced – involuntary labour coerced by violence and manipulation, such as slavery and prison labour
  • reluctant – marginally motivated by meagre rewards and the threat of ostrification
  • cooperative – willing labour provided as part of a mutually recognized common purpose from which all will benefit

Which one of those models for socialized labour is likely to yield the effort required to build our new infrastructure?

Some version of forced labour was the choice of ancient civilizations, and some version of reluctant labour is the option provided by today’s social and economic structures. What we will need is a cooperative effort, and that will require social and economic structures akin to those proposed in the Standards of LIFE.

Our current preference for giving public money to commercial organizations, that operate using market-priced labour, will NOT deliver the infrastructure we need at a price we can afford. There isn’t enough money in the world to pay for the infrastructure we need – this is a fact that would be much more obvious to those of us sitting on infrastructure built by our forebears, if we weren’t. Think about it: we’re broke and we haven’t even invested in maintaining the infrastructure we inherited. This is serious and immediate, we must act now.


Option 0: do nothing

Option 1: fantasize about a different future

Option 2: implement Universal Services and start building our 21st C infrastructure


Forest-re and REDD

The lazy lack of principled rigor in the immature scheming of self-infatuated Westerners and fin-dustrialists needs to be confronted with straight forward thinking based on simple principles, before we all disappear down the evolutionary chute of stupidity.

“Poor, ignorant natives are cutting down our forests and if we expect them to stop we need to start paying them to leave the trees alone.” That is the reason given by the good and the white to introduce a forest-carbon trading program (REDD) that will allow us to buy their forests from them, so we can stop them from destroying their forests, while we continue to destroy the planet. Because this brings “markets” in to the solution (“the way the world works today”) it is automatically brilliant and practical while being eminently sensible.

The reality is that the forests are being destroyed by commercial concerns and need to be protected by the people who live in them from those that would commodify them. The way to save our forests, and all their attendant flora and fauna, is to charge commercial interests an appropriate surcharge for their use of our common resource: the planet. Money raised from these taxes could be ploughed back into the indigenous communities to sustain them as Mother Nature’s protection force, and remediate the damage caused.

The incredible short-sightedness of well meaning but imperially minded white people like Saros and Goodall should not distract us from the obvious illegality of claiming someone else’s land and resources as our own, to do with as we wish. The forests belong to the people who live there and if they want to exploit them then they will have to pay the surcharges necessary to remediate the damage caused to our common habitat: the atmosphere. The politicians at the head of a nation cannot make agreements in their capitals to sell the contents of the trees growing on the land in their communities to some far off entity, and then pocket the money and impose restrictions on the lives of those who live in those communities.

Much better would be BLUU (Bluddy-well Leave Untouched and Uncommercial). The lazy lack of principled rigor in the immature scheming of self-infatuated Westerners and findustrialists needs to be confronted with straight forward thinking based on simple principles, before we all disappear down the evolutionary chute of stupidity. Stop painting the planet REDD and let’s have some BLUU sky thinking – that’s the way forward!

See www.standardsoflife.org for details on principled self-determination and practical carbon loading.

The Honesty and Courage of “system change”

Only those prepared to admit that we are fundamentally on the wrong course can help show the way to a different destination.

To proactively engage in change requires a reassessment of current motivations and norms. If the change has not occurred spontaneously up ’till now, it is because there are supporting mechanisms, rationales and motivations for the status quo.

Did you believe that late 20th Century mankind had reached a peak of civilization? That peace was upon the world, times were good and the economy was functioning properly? That democracy was producing quality leadership and decisions? That the economy was floating all boats? That a modicum of religious morality was a healthy guide? Because everything you see today is the result of those times, you might want to ask yourself how clearly you were seeing then and how clearly you can see now.

Change means admitting we were wrong. Until we can admit the flaws in what was driving us, we cannot have a different direction or a different destination. Reaching a different destination necessarily requires accepting that what has directed us thus far is flawed. If our politics is not representing us, if our economy is not serving us, if we are are destroying our environment, then we have to admit that the way we are doing things is not right. Our political system is not working well, our economy is not working for most people and our relationship with our environment is not working at all for our planet – which of our reasons for carrying on the way we are stands up in the face of these facts?

This is the honesty and courage at the heart of the ‘system change’ movement, to admit that we have not been getting it right. We cannot have a different outcome if we continue to harken after some golden age when what we are doing now was working, or if we continue to believe that we are basically on the right track and that a few simple adjustments will yield a different result. The courage to admit that we have got things wrong in a big way is the precursor to meaningful change.

Lets start with a short list of some the more obvious things we have been getting wrong.

  • Fundamentally wrong that top down is better than bottom up.
  • Fundamentally wrong that our society is a child of our economy.
  • Fundamentally wrong that religious morality is a decent foundation for law.
  • Fundamentally wrong that philanthropy is a replacement for taxes.
  • Fundamentally wrong that responsibility for long term profits motivates short term corporate decision making.
  • Fundamentally wrong that money is speech.
  • Fundamentally wrong that secrets are a good thing.

Only those prepared to admit that we are fundamentally on the wrong course can help show the way to a different destination. Beware the inside job, the man on the inside, the person in the know; for you are gambling with time, and time waits for no man.

The Clarity Deficit

Why deficit spending is more populist than practical.

Deficit spending. It’s all the rage in the US, from progressive politicians to populist economists the call goes out for “greater spending to offset the recession”. Money’s cheap, the need is great and history shows it can work, or so they say. But is it that true, and is that really going to help?

The basic theory of maintaining demand in our economies is sound, but the proposal to spend borrowed money to maintain it has limited applicability (Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times, June 2010). To misquote the master of fiscal interdiction, the economy can stay rational longer than policy can remain illiquid. We cannot at the same time profess belief in monetary economics and propose to subvert it. In other words, we cannot propose to inject more liquidity, more demand, into the economy without also proposing how to pay for it and what kind of demand we expect to stimulate. The debate must be about what to do in our specific context now, not about competing theories of economic policy. Our reality is that we are carrying structural budget and trade deficits into it a period that requires very significant investment.

The rationales for deficit spending today rely on appeals to empathy and historical precedent, rarely is there rational analysis of how the imbalance that they propose to create would be corrected. While the desire to do something to alleviate the plight and suffering of those victimized by the recession is both honorable and understandable, the proposed solutions must have a stronger foundation in the reality of our predicament and the practical possibilities available to us.

Let’s look at the arguments proffered to support the case for further deficit spending at this time. They boil down to two assertions: one, that the spending will stimulate future growth and that that growth (along with a little inflation) will make today’s borrowing affordable in the future; and, second, that the historical lesson of the Great Depression is that fiscal rectitude robbed us of an early exit, only rectified by the splurge of deficit spending that accompanied the Second World War.

First, the idea that growth and inflation will make our debts affordable in the future assumes that we grow our wealth and that inflation is controlled. The anticipation is that growth will exceed 3% and inflation will be constrained to single digits.

Just how much growth can our current economies sustainably achieve? Our modern economies are basically tooled for 20th-century style industrial growth, fed by an unsustainable power infrastructure. Any increases in demand today necessarily feed fuel into an unsustainable, waste generating economic system dependent on limited supplies of fossil fuels. The real need in our economies is for investment in re-infrastructuring to support sustainable growth, but that is not where anything but a vanity veneer of the proposed deficit spending would be directed. The principle supporting argument advanced by the proponents of deficit spending is that it will stimulate demand today, and we have to ask ourselves if that is not simply sacrificing our grandchildren to feed our comfort now, while wasting the opportunity to actually invest in our futures.

Even if we put aside concerns about sustainability, the cost of primary inputs into our economies today, from foods to oil and just about everything in between, are rising and forecast to increase by 50% to 100% within a decade (Sir David King, The Guardian, June 2010). Increases in demand today automatically trigger rises in the price of raw materials that are primary determinants of the costs basis of our economy; for instance, the price of oil is directly related to the prospects for growth in the US, and as soon as there is a predicted rise in US demand the price of oil goes up. These cost increases suck wealth out of the US economy in most cases.

Inflation is dramatically more likely than growth, to a point of near assuredness, if there is no real growth in wealth. Monetary economic systems are completely dependent and finely balanced on the concurrence of money supply and real wealth, the former without the latter necessarily results in inflation. None of the proponents are arguing that deficit spending today will directly result in real increases in wealth, the proposal is simply to maintain demand on the grounds that real wealth growth will be stimulated by the demand. This has some limited validity, but it is important to note that the vast majority of the proposed spending would be consumed immediately by the social needs of the society, leaving increases in wealth substantially lagging behind the increase in money supply. This is a recipe for inflation and would be spotted by the would-be lenders way before it becomes a fact, resulting in increased borrowing costs that would sap any increase in wealth achieved.

So if the assertion is that we will be able to grow and inflate our way out of the debts we create, we are wrong on both counts. We are unlikely to generate net growth and we are very likely to create inflation. And the inflation will not mitigate our debts because the markets will spot the risk and inflate the cost of our debts to compensate.

Turning our attention to the historical narrative offered to support the importance of spending our way out of depression, we need to look at the circumstances of that history and ask ourselves if we are in the same context today. The example is that the Western economies only truly emerged from the Great Depression when deficit spending dramatically accelerated with the advent of a concerted war effort in the 1940s. That history is true, but is deeply flawed as an example of what we could follow to emerge from this recession. The number and variety of reasons why the history does not apply to us are great but let’s have a go at a few of the obvious ones.

Firstly, World War II left only one industrialized economy effectively untouched: the USA. As a result of this preeminent advantage the US was able to grow its wealth very dramatically in the years following the war and thus easily afford to repay the debts. The years following WWII were effectively a free-for-all for the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, because they had little or no economic competition. That is most assuredly and evidently not the case today. The world has many strong economies today and growth in US demand today will result in the accumulation of wealth over a much more distributed geography than was the case in the 1950s. In fact, deficit spending in the US today is most likely to result in greater increases in wealth abroad than it is at home, while the debt will be entirely American.

Second, the spending in the 40s was focused on production capacity, not demand enhancement. The equivalent today would be to spend all the money on greening our infrastructure, something we should do, but not the intention of the proponents of deficit spending. It is possible to invest without borrowing, as I explain later.

Third, the deficit in the 40s was funded from a basically domestic debt market when global fluidity was almost nonexistent. Today’s deficit must be funded in a highly fluid global money market, using international sources for at least half of the debts. This means that borrowers today are subject to the inspection and opinion of economic observers across the globe, who have a myriad of options for what to do with their money. Thirty, and even ten, year debt today is substantially more expensive than it was in the offered historical example.

Fourth, material input costs today are substantially more volatile than they were in the 40s. In the 40s and 50s the cost of many raw material inputs was still falling in real terms, as the effects of advances in the sciences of discovery and extraction increased available supplies, at the same time that speed to market and cost of production were reduced. This is most certainly not the case today; the cost of primary inputs into our economies today are only going to rise, especially energy costs.

Fifth, the demographics of the modern societies that host the economies of which we speak have almost exactly the reverse characteristics of the historical example. Today we have aging populations with high demands for social support within reproductively stable demographic profiles. Our futures promise greater social infrastructure burdens, not the larger contributing workforces of the 40s and 50s.

So, compared to the historical example: we have more competition for the benefits, greater constraints on activity and higher costs of borrowing, within a more globally fluid economy, with a completely different demographic profile.

The 21st century is not the 20th century, and we are not in the same position as our grandparents. The idea that we can spend our way out of this recession, like our grandparents spent their way out of their Great Depression, is both false and a disservice to the great pain inflicted on them by the worldwide war that created their circumstances. We must face our challenges with a clear understanding of the world we live in, and we must develop solutions in the context of our situation and with the objective of developing a sustainable future for ourselves, our grandchildren and the planet we inhabit.

Given the constraints on both the source and use of funds that we face today, it becomes apparent that rather than running up debts to fuel demand, we must invest in re-infrastructuring our economy while reducing our dependence on borrowing – a mighty challenge indeed! Which brings us back around to one of the motives for proposing the deficit spending: empathy for our fellow citizens and an understanding that our peace and freedom are dependent on a more balanced distribution of material security across our society. How can we reduce borrowing, increase investment and maintain our social cohesion simultaneously? That is what we need to do, and I doubt there’s a single proponent of deficit spending that would disagree, it’s just that they assume it’s not possible to do all three at the same time, and so they propose a remedy for one or two out of the three. In reality our social cohesion is doomed if we don’t do all three: debts, inflation and failure to adjust to climate changes are the three most common causes of social collapse.

In order to do all three there is one key factor that must be achieved: a reduction in real (aka monetary) costs. As we have just examined, this will not be a reduction in the cost of material inputs, nor a reduction in the cost of capital, so it must be a reduction in the remaining element in the cost of production: labor. The key to understanding how the cost of labor can be reduced is to remember that the “cost” we are talking about is monetary cost, measured in Dollars or Pounds or Yen. Monetary costs are significant of wealth, and costs paid in money are necessarily significant of the transfer of wealth. If costs can be met without money, then wealth does not get used to satisfy them, and wealth does not need to be borrowed to fund them.

There is a significant portion of labor costs that do not need to be satisfied with wealth transfer, these are the cost of satisfying what Maslow termed as “hygiene factors” in his Hierarchy Of Needs. That portion of labor costs that are made up of hygiene factors and can be satisfied with the transfer of labor instead of money, can be removed from the monetary cost equation. Those costs do not need to be funded with money, instead they can be “funded” by the transfer of labor within a social system. For instance, if transport is free to me, that reduces my need for monetary compensation commensurate to my need for that transport. Of course transport is not free, because there are material inputs to its provisioning and operation, but if that portion of the cost of transport that is represented by the hygiene needs of the workers within the transport system was satisfied in-kind, the monetary cost of the transport service presented to me would be similarly reduced. There is a cyclical and repetitive reduction in the cost of labor the more the hygiene needs of the workforce are met without monetary transfer. Because hygiene factors are nearly universal across the population, the exchange of labor as a replacement for currency has universal value and similarly reductionist effects on the cost of labor across the economy and society.

Even just the availability of hygiene services at reduced cost has the effect of reducing labor costs, even if many do not avail themselves of the actual services. Establishing the universal availability of basic services that satisfy the hygiene needs of the workforce at little or no monetary cost reduces the cost of labor in the economy significantly. The size of the cost reduction can be measured in that portion of income it is necessary to pay the labor component of satisfying hygiene needs; in most economies an easy indicator of this cost is some portion of the mandated minimum wage.

Analyzing the hygiene services in the modern economy (housing, food, health and elder care, education, transport and information access) suggests that 80% of the cost is attributable to labor, and of that about one third is the equivalent of minimum wage. If 50% of that is provided by in-kind services, the reduction in the cost of providing the hygiene services themselves is around 13%, a factor that is at least repeated throughout the private sector as well. If the cost of labor across the economy was reduced by half the minimum wage, sufficient monetary value would be liberated to invest in infrastructure without borrowing, and the cohesion of society would be enhanced. The impact on taxation revenues would be minimal because the hygiene portion of incomes is not usually tax burdened, and the hygiene services themselves are not typically subject to consumption taxes.

The move to universal hygiene services has the potential to negate the annual budget deficit of most industrialized countries at the same time as it enables development of a sustainable microeconomic fabric that generates real wealth across a broader spectrum of society, and enhances resilience against the turbulence of climate instability. Instead of increasing debts to increase demand which results in accelerated climate change, we can reduce debts to increase sustainable development that begins to mitigate our impact on the climate. If we were to implement universal services within existing budget constraints, reduce costs and invest in infrastructure, that would be a more relevant narrative for our current predicament than deficit spending to maintain unsustainable demand!

The 21st century is the birth of the global age and we must put away our 20th-century toys if we are to successfully navigate the waters of our modern world. Borrowing is a 20th-century tool that requires segregations and imbalances that are no longer sustainable, in the 21st century we must learn to live sustainably without borrowing from each other or from the planet. By definition a self-sustaining system prospers from its inputs such that its balance sheet is in equilibrium at the end of each cycle – that is the nature of the planet that hosts us, and it is a process we are obliged to align ourselves with.