For my entire working life the conventional wisdom seems to have been that only a mug would pay their full share of taxes, and that it was every citizen’s duty to reduce their responsibilities in this area to a minimum. Those who succeeded in paying the least amount of taxes have generally been lauded as heroes.
The Path to a Future: The Mind of Production
To support super-democracy, super-security and build a thriving super-economy we to need to make substantial investments in our societies. To make those changes to our infrastructure we will have to leverage the strengths of private enterprise to help us reach our public policy objectives.
We struggle with the interface between public initiatives and private enterprise, and the debate tends to be rather crudely proposed as pitting right intention against effective action, as if they were incompatible. In fact they are mutually complimentary, and both absolutely necessary if we are to reach our goals.
Continue reading “The Path to a Future: The Mind of Production”
The Path to a Future: LOVE Thy Neighbour
If we are to make the urgent progress that we need to on The Path to a Future, we need to do it together. Areas of blight and conflict will be a drag on all of our progress, because they will suck resources away from more effective uses. The people in conflict are unlikely to participate in the global initiatives needed, such as tackling climate change. We need a coherent policy structure that protects the progress of those that are already building The Path, and provides on-ramps to The Path for the victims of oppression and conflict today, but who will join us tomorrow.
One of the more curious spectacles of our time is the apparent futility, cluelessness and impotence of the world’s governments, especially of the richest countries, in developing coherent strategies toward so-called “rogue states” or “failed states”.
The Path to A Future: The Indian Highway problem.
I was sitting in the waiting room of a garage the other day with my son, while I scribbled notes for this book. I reached the end of a section and, looking for inspiration, I turned to him and asked him what problem in the world he thought we should think about next.
“The Indian highways.” was his response.
We had just returned from a three week tour around India and obviously the many hours we spent dodging death as we traveled the roads, at one end of the country to the other, had left an impression on him.
At first I simply threw up my hands and said that I didn’t think that was truly a solvable problem. Then I remembered that there isn’t a problem we’ve created that we can’t also have a solution for.
During our vacation we had traveled by car along a section of India’s new “National Highway” and
encountered the normal array of miscellaneous traffic from pedestrians, to ox carts, to huge over laden Tata trucks. But what made this particularly incongruous was that this was a toll road, and for at least a mile either side of the tollbooths there were fences to prevent the entrance of non-vehicular traffic. In remembering this, it struck me that if you build a highway through an area that has no paved local roads, this was bound to happen; people will find a way onto the highway. So the answer is that you have to build local roads for local traffic, first.
“Local roads first.”
An interesting analogy for building The Path to a Future, eh?
Part 20 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 www.standardsoflife.org/thepathtoafuture.
The Path to a Future: The Digital Kimono
One of the most shocking developments today is the proliferation of digital surveillance and identity profiling, with little or scant regard for the protection of individual liberties or the sanctity of our society as a whole. What makes this particularly galling, is that despite there being so much wellrespected, high quality and widely read literature on the subject, both our governments, and we as citizens, have failed miserably to contain or manage the risks associated with the digital theft of our real freedom.
The greatest tragedy of this abuse of our digital identities is that it erodes our confidence in the very technologies that we need to forge our Path to prosperity. We need digital communications technology to drive the blossoming of microeconomic activity, the super-economy of our future. But this is only going to happen if the average citizen can trust the technology to be their asset, rather than an instrument of those that might oppress or manipulate them.
The status we have now is rather like wearing a kimono. If we really wanted to maintain our privacy we would have to abstain from virtually every aspect of modern life: no credit cards, no e-mail, no telephone, no taxes, not attending any major event or walking the streets of any town or city. But we don’t live that way, and who would want to live under those conditions? The trouble is that we assume that there is a rule of law in the digital world, just as there is in the real world. In actuality the digital world has streaked ahead of our legal protections, and operates in a space with about as much oversight and regulation as the credit default swap and derivatives markets, i.e. none at all. If you open your kimono even a crack, you may as well be naked. In the digital world there is nothing to prevent a whole host of people and organizations from tracking your every move, snooping on your communications, storing private information about you, and correlating that with who knows what they think they know about your friends. To make matters even worse, they’re going to mix your identity up with the data they have about everyone else in the world with a name spelled vaguely similarly to yours, and whomever now has your old cell phone numbers.
Neither politicians nor the senior members of our legal establishment have had the technical understanding to be able to grasp the fibers of the digital world. We need to subject digital information to the same rigors and standards that we have developed in the pursuit of, and protection for, the liberty of the average citizen – liberties won at great personal cost to many over the centuries. The digital world needs the rule of law, just as much as the real world does.
We must start by accepting that digital identity is part of our present and our future. Once we’ve done that, we can move on to purposefully create a secure digital identity system that has our privacy and the protection of our freedom at its core. It’s not too late, but we really need to get on top of this one right now.
We need a founding legal framework that enshrines our right to privacy, and includes the right to review any personal information held by any other party. Once we have codified the concept of digital privacy and enshrined the rights of the individual to that, we can move on to use technology in ways that will truly serve us.
A secure digital identity system is possible, and we already have all the technology necessary to build one. The security of the system and the protection of our freedom are not to be found in the technology itself, but in how it is structured and deployed. By separating identity from information, we can control our exposure and simplify the system. Imagine if your medical records at your doctor’s offices did not have your name on them; they have all the information about your health, but only a key to your identity. That key only links the information to you when you turn the key in the lock, using parts of your private identity. That is how digital identity should work.
Here are some of the vital elements of a functional digital identity system, to give you an idea of what we are going to have to build in order to harness the benefits of modern technology to serve us all, as we travel down the Path.
- One of the most important standards, is to avoid the collection of large amounts of data in one place. Data should be dispersed, as much as possible, into separated storage silos, each with their own security and access controls. This limits the exposure of any security breach, and makes it almost impossible to mine for information without the appropriate permissions.
- A functional digital identity system will also allow the individual to disclose only those parts of their identity that they wish to, for any given transaction. Buying a train ticket and cashing a check can require completely different levels of identity verification.
- All this can be done without obliging anyone to carry any form of digital identity card, certificate or token. It can all be achieved with a combination of biometric and biognostic information. If we value our freedom, we can never let it be an offense to be peaceful in public without a form of identity.
- Another important feature of a secure system is that it requires the buildout of a secure network that is used to transmit sensitive information, separate from the general access Internet.
Interoperability between the distributed systems is required for the overall functionality of the system, and that means that we need universal standards for the basic elements of digital identity. Without such standards, the systems and the data they contain will remain veiled behind the barriers of commercial intellectual property.
The xID standards developed as part of the Standards of LIFE provide a framework for the key elements we need, including:
- The content of a digital ID record
- A mechanism for verifying the quality of an identity match
- Audit, search, investigation and management processes
We need to start building a secure, privacy-orientated, public, global digital identity system now.The timescale to implement this is a minimum of three years, and is more likely to be five years, which is half the time we have available to turn our societies into functioning super-trio environments.
We can, and must, start building different aspects of The Path now, and implementing a digital identity system is a keystone element that will make full super-trio functionality both easier and faster.
The reason why all of this matters, is because we need to be able to trust digital systems. Digital communications are vital to enabling the new micro-economy, essential for an energy-efficient future and necessary for administrating our new super-democracies. So we need to reach a place where we can be reasonably assured that allowing our identities to be digitized is not sacrificing our freedom. We need underwear under our kimonos.
Part 19 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future – published 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.
The Path to a Future: Middle East Peace
The touchstone or the tombstone of modern politics, depending on your perspective. Finding a solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and for peace in the region more generally, has been the avowed intention of many a politician, inside and outside the region, for many a year. But as I write this, the arc of this particular history seems to be bending further and further down.
To quote an editorial leader in one of my favorite political magazines du jour, although quite frankly this could be found in just about any piece written anywhere about the Middle East, “only a negotiated agreement between strong and unified leadership on both sides can provide the security and peace that the Palestinians and Israelis deserve.” Really? A top down solution? I guess if either side really had a strong and unified leadership then maybe they would be able to negotiate a peace, but the reality is that neither side does, and they haven’t and quite possibly, now they can’t. But if we set ourselves up with an insurmountable barrier at the start, how do we expect to make any progress?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a situation that is repeated in many parts of the world, and perhaps that is why it holds such a fascination for so many. The migrations and movements of people are inevitably accompanied by tensions around the matters of political control and resource allocation; this is especially so when they happen in a short period of time, and are accompanied by military might. So finding a solution in the Middle East also provides a guiding light for solutions in many other parts of the world.
Probably the reason that there hasn’t been peace in Israel or Palestine is because the obvious solution is not in the interests of any of the parties, except the people that actually live there. There are also many factors that result in external actors having their own interests in the outcome. These distortions have resulted in almost every single state in the entire region having a dysfunctional power structure, and some of those states are also deeply threatened by the obvious solution for Israel- Palestine.
So what is this obvious solution? Democracy. Not 20th century Western-style democracy, the solution here has to be super-democracy. Super-democracy has a multi-layer structure based on the foundation of Community constituencies. Each Community is fundamentally and constitutionally in complete command of its destiny. Each Community voluntarily associates with other Communities around it to form the larger constituency of a Region, which provides a mechanism for collaboration and sharing. Regions have their own elected governments, and also voluntarily associate with other Regions to form States. All of this is spelled out in a universal constitution adopted by all constituencies.
This solution requires that everyone agrees that peace is the supreme objective. Peace is necessary for our mutual survival, but if we cannot steal ourselves to promote it to the top of our agendas, we cannot have a solution.
The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for the people to first divide their land into Communities. Then each Community conducts their own election and forms their own government. Each Community is a voluntary association of residents and must be geographically reasonable (meaning with a population of about 10,000; but not greater than 100,000 or less than 1,000). It can only include land actually inhabited by residents, or land which is closer to a resident than it is to a resident of any other Community. No Community has the rightof- way through any other Community, nor any authority over the people of another Community. All this must happen within the framework of the rule of law so that the use of violence or force is impossible (here is a role in which parties external to the conflict can provide useful assistance as guarantors of the peace, by staffing a “peace force”).
This brings us to the first contentious issue: defining who is a resident. This is a key factor in the resolution of these kinds of situations, and must reconcile the desire to make progress immediately, while avoiding the reward of recent aggressions. If a principle is established that recognizes recent displacement, it only encourages displacement in other conflicts. So we pick a date that does not reward recent changes in population placement, and does not seek to redress history. This is known as the Determination Date (D-Date). All those displaced between the D-Date and the current time can claim residency at the place they were on the D-Date. For Israel-Palestine, 1st January 2000 would seem about right, as it reflects the last deadline from the last major peace negotiation, Oslo.
There is a subtlety to this process that we should note explicitly. Those with legal residency of a place as of the D-Date, are those who have the right to select their membership of a specific Community. This does not mean that others currently living there have to move immediately. D-Date residents define the boundaries of each Community, and are automatically citizens of the new Community. As citizens, they are the only voters in the first election for a Community assembly. Once the assembly has been elected, it has authority over the recognition of residency, and the criteria for citizenship. Under the Constitution, residency and citizenship cannot be revoked once established or granted.
Once elected, a Community assembly may grant residency to anyone they wish to, provided they can supply the basic services to them, as is their responsibility under the Constitution. At this point those living within the boundaries of that Community but without residency, will have to move to a Community willing to accept them. Let’s pause for a moment and imagine the state of the process at this point. All the land that is currently defined by the borders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories is operating as a suspended state with a caretaker administration. That administration is charged solely with the maintenance of vital infrastructure and social services, with the aim of minimizing the disruption of people’s ordinary lives. Over the caretaker administration there is a “peace force”, consisting of Israeli, Palestinian and international forces charged with the enforcement of law and order, and the prevention of violence. So the people are effectively living in a suspended political environment that will last until such time as Community, Region and State elections have been held. This period of suspension should be less than two years.
As Community boundaries are defined, those Communities proceed immediately to the election of their assembly. As soon as the Community governments have been elected they can assume control of policy within their boundaries. One of the first matters that the assembly has to attend to is the business of establishing their Regional affiliation, bearing in mind that they must be geographically contiguous with any Region they wish to be a part of. Each Community can start making decisions about what aspects of law they wish to retain unto themselves, and what they want to promote to higher layers; as well as establishing a court system and local police force tasked with the maintenance of basic law and order inside that Community.
Within a few months it should be possible to draw the boundaries of Regions based on the self-determined, voluntary associations of the Communities. Once Regional boundaries are established, there can be Regional elections to form Regional governments. At this point the Communities and their Regions can begin the important work of building their infrastructures, and assuming responsibility from the caretaker government for the provision of core services to their constituents. Much work can be done on formalizing the Variable Law structure so that, by the time that state elections are scheduled, each Region has clarity about those aspects of law that have been promoted to them by their Communities, and therefore which aspects they have the option of promoting to their State. This is important because what the States will have authority for will be critical in shaping the manifestos of candidates for the State assemblies.
At this juncture, the Communities will be in control of their own environment; including the definition of their migration policies, and responsible to their constituents for the safety and functionality of their Community. The Communities have made their initial selection of Regional association, although they are at liberty to change that association at their own election. As each constituency elects its own government, and assumes control of its specific area, the role of the “peace force” will be diminished. It becomes solely the guarantor of peace between Regions, until such time as State elections have been held.
This devolution of power and control down to the individual Communities will greatly empower the large majority of the population that seeks peace and sustainable prosperity. Admittedly, there is likely to be a concentration of those people that would seek to impose their worldview on others into certain Communities of like mind; however they will be dependent on the cooperation of surrounding Communities, and this is likely to influence their positions over time. This process does not force any Community to change its mind or take up any particular position, so those who wish to maintain extremist or isolationist attitudes will be free to do so, within the constraints of the rule of law and the Constitution.
Eventually there will be State elections. Each State will cover an area defined by those Regions which choose to associate into that State; this may be a single state, it may be two states or it may even be multiple states. By this stage in the process, the Communities and Regions will have determined for themselves those aspects of power and control that they wish to retain unto themselves, so the eventual governments of whatever States are formed will have a much narrower remit than we see in the typical nationstate of today.
At the end of this process of building up layers of enfranchisement, starting at Communities which self assemble into Regions, and then Regions which form States, there will be democratic institutions in place which can assume the full range of governmental responsibilities from the caretaker administration. The final map will not be drawn until after the final State election. Even then the map will remain fluid, as Communities and Regions retain the right to change their associations at the behest of their citizens.
The next logical step would be for the States to form a Transterritory with other States in the region; however this will require that those other nations go through the same enfranchisement process that the peoples of the former Israel- Palestine will have completed.
It’s not a particularly bold solution, nor is democracy a new idea. What it is, is the determined application of a system that is inherently natural and just – that is the hallmark of The Path. The two greatest challenges are likely to be restraining the violent tendencies of those who would rather not be subject to the rigors of democracy, and restricting the interference of external actors of every hue, from every corner of the world. The solutions to problems in an area must be developed by the people living in that area. This is a plain, obvious and unavoidable fact. Those outside the area must accept the consequences of true democracy.
Does this solution require that Israel and Palestine have “strong and unified leadership” today, before they embark on this process? I don’t think so. Only to the extent that it is necessary to make the decision to start down The Path. One of the beauties of the super-democratic path is that it removes the need for small elites to negotiate extremely complex and intricate resolutions to the many and specific problems on the ground. It does this by devolving those responsibilities down to the individual communities most affected. They are the ones most able to arbitrate the minutia contextualized in the benefits of the peace that they seek most urgently, and will feel most keenly.
The basic question that is resolved through this process is: “Does this piece of land belong to that country or this country?” It’s really a nonsensical question because, of course, the answer is: it belongs to the people that live there, and it’s up to them to decide what country they want to be part of. All that the superdemocratic process does, is provide a mechanism that allows people to determine their own future, their own identity and to make their own associations.
There are those who call this solution naïve. They point out that on the extremes of both Israeli and Palestinian opinion there are those for whom peace is not the ultimate objective. They are right. The question is whether we wish to be held hostage by the shortsighted. There must be a solution that leads to the cessation of hostilities and provides the opportunity for all to focus on the future, because we are all mutually dependent on reaching that destination. What this solution does is emphasize the dignity of self-determination, and in so doing provides a path out of the quagmire. It does not pretend that today’s reality is anything other than what it is and it does not describe a way forward that will not have difficulties, challenges and complications. But this is a realistic framework that builds on the humanity of individuals in their communities to create a structure that allows differences to live next to each other. For surely, a way forward must be found and it must be found now. Inaction and despair are not solutions. There are children in every corner of the land who will thank their forebears for persevering through the clouded landscape to bring peace to their lives today.
On a wider note, it is almost inconceivable to believe that the enfranchisement of Israeli and Palestinian communities to determine their own futures will not have ramifications for surrounding states, and perhaps the entire world. Those who are interested in navigating The Path to a sustainable future must be ready and willing to help those states, their governments and their people, make an orderly transition to super-democracy themselves.
Everybody everywhere in the world should live in a super-democratic system, and if we’re serious about reaching the destination of a sustainably prosperous future, we need to set about making this a reality where we live… now!
Part 18 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future.
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.
The Path to A Future: Politicians!
Politics has become a dirty word, and politicians the definition of an untrustworthy profession. It’s not hard to see why, from blatant corruption to obvious incompetence the world is littered with good reasons to distrust anyone linked with politics.
Yet everywhere we still yearn for effective action, and nowhere more so than in the political arena. We don’t envy anyone the job; either because it is dangerous, or futile, or thankless, or all of those.
Being the chosen representative of your peers in the affairs of state should be an honorable and respectable position, a job that our best and brightest aspire to hold. We need to make being a politician a respected role, if we are to attract the quality leadership that we will need to guide us down The Path.
A politician is a representative of the people, selected to provide executive leadership of the government apparatus and civilian leadership of our societies. This is one of the most important roles that anyone can serve in our society. We not only want, we really need people of character, ability and integrity to provide leadership for our societies in this time.
If we are going to make being a politician a truly meaningful job that garners the best candidates from our constituency, and which commands our respect and trust, what do we expect that job to look like?
Here are some elements of what a political job description should include:
- First and foremost, it has to be a position that allows the holder to get things done, to change what has to be changed and align the priorities of the government with the needs of the people. A politician has to have sufficient power and freedom to make decisions, and hold the civil service responsible for enacting those decisions.
- They need the support of a legal framework that describes the extent and the limits of their authority clearly, so that they can be held responsible for that which they are responsible for, and not for what they’re not. A framework that also frees citizens to be responsible for their own actions, as partners in the process.
- We want politicians to be dealmakers, but not consummate dealmakers. We want people who can put a manifesto in front of the electorate, and then go and get it done. Preferably with the support of as many as possible, but where a majority is a mandate.
- They need to be paid well. Well enough to be comfortable, and well enough to make holding the job a reasonable prospect compared to other leadership positions in a constituency. Well enough to want to hold on to the job without other income or taking bribes, but not so well that they can afford to pay bribes!
In summary, a politician should be a leader, with the weight of their popular support behind their executive decisionmaking, operating in a clear and supporting legal framework, with sufficient pay and administrative support to allow them to focus on being the best representative of their peers that they can be.
Creating that is going to mean changing the political system. These changes are entirely possible in a democracy, and you quite probably live in one. They just require that you, the voter, demand them.
Let’s look at some of the attributes of a political system that will attract the kind of candidates that you would be proud to call your representative. Below are some of the facets of such a system, the kind of super-democracy discussed earlier in this book and laid out in detail in the Standards of LIFE.
In a super-democracy, a representative actually has the decision-making power of the voters that support them. A representative who wins 60% of the vote can get things done without the support of another who won 10% of the vote. At the same time, our representatives need to represent us in all our dimensions and diversity. To resolve these two requirements we need an assembly for each constituency in which all voters in a constituency vote for the same slate of candidates, and the elected representatives vote in their assembly with the weight of the share of the vote they received.
For instance, in a state election, everyone in the state votes for the exact same candidates; no subdivisions, no geographic areas and no sub-constituencies. One constituency and one list of candidates that everyone votes from. When all the votes are added up, the candidates with the most votes occupy the available seats in the assembly. But when the assembly votes, each representative votes with the full weight of the number of voters that supported them in the election.
Politics has to operate within a legal framework where the rule of law is paramount. The law protects the people and describes the limits of the power of the politicians. Part of this framework is a requirement for transparency, which is essential to restraining corruption and keeping the citizenry informed. This is what a constitution is for.
Aspects of a helpful constitution include:
- A legal structure that accords each layer of government with the authority for their particular constituency. Power needs to originate close to the voter in local government, and only be promoted to regional and state layers by choice. This system allows for differences and provides harmonization. It uses a legal system called Variable Law, which allows for the promotion, and retrieval, of aspects of law between layers of government.
- Election to office must be open to all citizens who wish to be candidates, and must provide equal access to mass media for all of them.
- No presidents, no upper chambers or lower houses. Just one assembly for each constituency, full of elected representatives voting with the power of their direct electoral support.
- No term limits: if someone’s good at their job and retains the trust of their peers and wants to carry on, they should be able to. (Obviously subject to fair-access election system, see above.)
- No constitutional recognition of political parties. People are free to organize, join and support parties, but individuals are elected irrespective and independent of their party affiliations.
- The assembly needs to be the highest authority in the land, under the Constitution. All civil and military services must report to, and be subservient to, the assembly. All management positions of those services that report directly to the assembly should serve at the will of the assembly, who may appoint replacements as they see fit.
- Public funding of mass media access for campaigning to control the influence of money on elections and politicians.
- No funds from outside the constituency or corporations.
- All representatives should be equally compensated and their pay should be proportional to the income of their constituency – something between 5 and 10 times the average income of their constituents would be about right. This links the personal interests of the politician directly to the interest of the majority of their constituents.
- Administrative support and expense should be provided to each representative. It is in everyone’s interest that they are well-informed, able to order research and provided sufficient support that allows them to focus on the decisions.
A political system built on these principles, and working within this kind of framework, would be a lot more responsive and responsible to its voters, and would attract candidates who have the desire and ability to effect change.
If we can couple these changes to the job description for a politician with election campaign funding reform, will lay the foundation for the quality decision making that is so vital to our progress through the difficult times ahead.
Not only can we make politics a clean word again, we must. The changes we need to make to our societies and economies require quality leadership in our democratic systems. We need systemic change, and that means changing our system of representation.
A full description of how “super-democracy” is structured can be found at: http://www.StandardsofLIFE.org/Representation. The full text of the current LIFE Constitutional template can be found at: http://www.StandardsofLIFE.org/Constitutional+Template.
Part 17 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future.
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.
The Path to A Future: Economics 001
The economy, and implicitly the development of wealth, is a core issue that too often suffocates the debate about our options for change. Many of us come to the table with assumptions about the relationship between wealth and prosperity. We need to reevaluate these assumptions if we are to develop solutions to our problems. In this section we will revisit the basic constructs of economics and wealth creation, to make sure we are operating from a realistic and accurate foundation when we formulate the framework for our economies.
The typical policy debate today is about the balance between the social ills of the free market, and economic ills of a state-controlled economy. This suggests a built-in assumption that we must compromise our social security to let markets be free.
Why is that true? Why is it that market freedom is a function of social insecurity? What is it about economic theory that stipulates a need for the population to be prepared to pay a piece of their personal freedom, in order to get to a piece of the market freedom pie? The conventional answer to this is that the labor force needs an incentive to work, and that sometimes the appropriate incentive is survival. Apparently, without the threat of destitution, people will not take the jobs on offer in a free market!
Which leads to the next question: why would a free market create work that only those threatened with starvation would want to perform?
Oh I see, a free market doesn’t necessarily create undesirable jobs, it’s just that the free market rewards low cost, and low cost means work and reward conditions that only the potentially destitute would agree to work in.
This cyclical assumption that low cost requires undesirable work, which demands an insecure workforce, is fairly deeply embedded in our current cultural psychology, especially in the West. In fact it isn’t really challenged, because it is so widely held and so subtly integrated.
As I will show, the opposite is actually true. Secure populations, working voluntarily in jobs of their choosing, is the most productive economic model available. The “market” is not a policy model, it’s only a mechanism; it is no more an economic, or political, model than the explosion in a cylinder is a car.
Our desired outcome is prosperity. That is the destination everyone understands we are aiming for; everything else is just a means of achieving prosperity. The free market is not the destination, any more than collective bargaining is. So the first link to unhinge in our minds is that the “free market” is what we need. Keep your eyes on the prize: prosperity.
The “market” is a set of mechanisms that naturally directs resources to meet needs. While its principles are simple, in operation it accommodates a bewildering array of inputs, influences and outcomes. It’s like our brains: we know the principles on which they work, but that doesn’t mean we know how to work them.
Cost is a significant input to market mechanisms. When all else is equal, cost drives decisions to the most efficient outcome; that is the raison d’être of the market. But we should note that, almost always, cost is the last criteria in the decision tree; the item has to be fit for purpose first, and affordable second.
What about trade? Within a given market, does the locality need to be the lowest cost producer of the good or service? If trade is possible the answer is no, because if equal and lower cost items are available through trade, then trade will fill the need. Unless… unless the item is so vital to the survival of the population or the basic functioning of the society, that a breakdown of trade, for any reason, would be a strategic threat to everyone. There are certain items that are so strategically important that higher cost is not a barrier to local production, and the market must necessarily be modified in order to accommodate the higher priced, locally secured items.
This leads us to an important place on our journey and we would do well to stop and clearly annunciate our conclusions:
- The market is a great system for almost everything.
- The market is not an appropriate mechanism for the most important things.
Whoa! How did we get here? I’m a freemarket capitalist and I’ve been around for a while so I know a thing or two about the world I live in, and this doesn’t sound right at all! I’m going to have to go back and read those last few pages again. You’ve used some crazy commie logic to trap me into believing that the free market won’t solve these problems. Wait here while I reread.
Okay, back again. Well, um, I can’t see where I could disagree. It’s not like it’s complicated, right? There’s just some stuff in the world that’s too important to outsource. I can see that.
Now the other news: if there is no strategic imperative, there’s no reason to interfere in markets. This is where some get caught up in a different false linkage: they think that we can intervene in markets to make them produce social welfare and justice. In fact, the basic social welfare of our societies is not an output of markets. Markets do not have “well-being” as an output in any of their functional logic. Markets efficiently direct resources to fill the needs of consumers, that is all they do. The welfare of society and our quality of life have to be outputs of human endeavor, they are a function of choice. We do not have to choose the common good or a high quality of life, and we certainly won’t get either if we wait for markets to deliver them.
Let’s be fair to markets while we’re here: they don’t know how to benefit society, and it’s extremely unfair to ask them to do so. Markets, especially those catalyzed by modern banking systems, are good at creating wealth; but wealth is not the same as prosperity. Prosperity is a mixture of wealth, peace and freedom that delivers a high standard of life. So if we want prosperity, we have to mix the output of markets, with the output of our choices to promote peace and freedom.
When we can clearly see these distinctions, and the properly differentiated roles for economics and politics, we can formulate more coherent policies that are more likely to deliver our intended outcomes.
Economic policy should concern itself with:
- the maintenance of markets
- the management of the monetary system
- the administration of strategic resources
Political and social policy should focus on:
- the cessation of hostilities
- the protection of liberty
- the general welfare of society
Let’s look at each of these policy areas in turn, so that we may more clearly demarcate their boundaries. Once we have separated them in our minds, we will be better able to act in the right places to produce our desired results.
The maintenance of markets involves trying to ensure that they function as freely as possible by correcting naturally occurring defects as much as is possible. The two most common defects in market function are the imperfect distribution of information and the exclusion of external costs.
- Making as much information as possible available to consumers, with the lowest barriers to acquisition, is the best we can hope for; you can take a consumer to information, but you can’t make them know.
- External costs, “externalities” in official parlance, are those costs that can be directly attributed to the lifecycle of a product or service, but for which there is no one to demand payment during that lifecycle. Nature is a good example of a non-payment-demanding party to many transactions. When these externalities are recognized, the proper maintenance of market function requires that these costs are imposed on behalf of the non-paymentdemanders, usually in the form of some kind of tax, duty or other loading of the item’s cost profile.
The management of the monetary system is primarily about preserving the value of the currency. Given that there is no real basis of tangible value in a modern currency unit, it is important that the quantity of money in circulation be managed in line with the output of the economy. Furthermore it is essential that the banking system charged with the care of private deposits, debts and equity be regulated for stability. Modern economies based on monetary systems require a trusted banking function in order to operate, and so the maintenance of that system’s stability is paramount. (Banking is entirely different than investment management, which is not really a banking function at all, and should be kept separate from banking. In fact, the term ‘investment bank’ should be abolished.)
The third leg of economic policy is the administration of strategic resources. As discussed earlier, there are resources that are so important to the sustenance of a society that trade cannot be relied on for their procurement and distribution. These resources must be identified and their supply purposefully managed, such that their availability is as guaranteed as it is possible to achieve. Chief amongst these resources are shelter, food, healthcare, education, transport, energy, information and the legal infrastructure of democracy (the same services that form super-security). In most situations only a subset of the total market for each of these resources is strategic, and only that subset need be the subject of public policy. For example, the availability of clean drinking water is a matter for public policy but this does not need to extend to the bottled water market. Similarly the provisioning of primary health care as a public service, does not preclude the availability of specialized procedures in the private market.
Those are the elements of economic policy and maybe you’ve noticed certain absences that you might normally expect to be part of contemporary policy portfolios. Before going further, let’s do a quick review of the complementary political policies that accompany our economic policies, to shed some light on those absences.
We have said already that political policy should concern itself with the establishment of peace, the protection of freedom and the provision of welfare. As regards the economy, the establishment of peace and the rule of law are precursors to enterprise and trade. The freedom of the people is necessary for proper market function, the development of business and the fostering of innovation. Indeed, the freedom to choose and the freedom to fail are essential to the fluidity and effectiveness of market mechanisms.
The provision of public welfare is commonly understood to be the primary function of government, but the policy framework to deliver effective results has eluded most, if not all, to date. Public welfare policy has been colored by our history and has yet to free itself from the shackles of our legacy perspective. During the last century or so we have developed levels of efficiency and productivity that have created the capacity to provide universal welfare. The capability of the population to sustain itself, without reliance on the grandesse of a ruling elite or the magnanimity of magnates, means that we can truly deliver the bare necessities of life to all, at a reasonable cost to all.
The cost of universal shelter, sustenance, healthcare, education, transport, information and democratic freedom is about one third of the total output of modern economies. That’s right, for about 30 cents on the dollar we can afford basic housing, a healthy diet, primary health care, reasonable education, local public transport and universal digital information access for everyone. Not everyone is going to want or need every service, but if they did, we can afford to provide them today; with the same tax rates we are already paying.
So why aren’t we doing it? The primary reason goes back to the starting premise of this section: the idea that the provision of such welfare would fatally undermine the economy, the very system that produces the wealth that makes it all possible. And we’re back to the same logic we questioned at the start. Do we believe that the motivation to work, to innovate and to be more productive will disappear if we aren’t afraid of starving to death in the gutter? This is not reality. It misunderstands human nature, and the meaning of “welfare”.
Human nature is full of aspiration; that is what has driven our development over time. Once we have filled our bellies we desire taste; once we have rested we desire comfort; once we have seen color we desire lights and once we are satisfied we wish to contribute. The religions of the world are the ultimate examples of our capacity for aspiration, far beyond the mundane practicalities of life. Providing a roof, a bed and a bowl of soup does not satisfy the aspirations of anyone. Would it satisfy you? Wouldn’t you still want to see a movie, eat some chocolate or wear different clothes? Perhaps you’d rather own a mountain bike, become a photographer or grow some vegetables? To believe that providing the bare necessities of life to someone will blunt their motivation and dull their aspirations, is to negate what you know about yourself. It’s simply not a reality, not of anyone, anywhere.
So what should public “welfare” policy actually provide? The policy should aim to satisfy a basic, mutual social contract between neighbors: that no matter what fortune befalls you, you will have the bare necessities of life, and as much opportunity to make the most of your life as can be afforded. Viewed in this light, welfare policy is not a benefit that anyone is entitled to, it is a service delivered to the best of their neighbor’s ability.
Public welfare policy is really about delivering personal security and opportunity. As such it does not involve the transfer of payments, instead it delivers services that fulfill the social contract. Housing is made available to provide secure shelter, food sufficient to maintain health and medical services as can be afforded for all. Think of them as services, not dependent on the largess of some individual or group, but provided universally, as a birth right of citizenship. No cash, no luxuries and only what can be universally afforded from a reasonable tax.
Now start to imagine the impact of such a public welfare system on the economic system. No need for a minimum wage. Everyone has their basic sustenance taken care of, so they are free to provide or pay for labor at whatever rate they choose. On almost every level required for a flourishing market economy the situation is improved: workforce mobility, propensity for risk, innovation capacity, skills development, productivity, confidence and satisfaction. The implementation of universal personal security will have a dramatically beneficial impact on economic output, at the same time that it enables “low cost” production.
Because delivering universal services frees labor to be priced according to its marginal value added, the “cost” of labor throughout the economy is significantly reduced, especially at the lower skill levels. This in turn, has the knock on effect of reducing the nominal cost of delivering the universal services themselves, because a high proportion of the cost of delivering those services is labor related. In effect, providing universal services reduces the cost of delivering those same services.
A fundamental and progressive effect of universal personal security will be the stimulation and expansion of micro-enterprise. Freed from the pursuit of mere survival, the population will be able to use their more unique skills and interests to create micro-services and products that meet the needs of very small markets. This micro-economy has the ability to boost general satisfaction by allowing specific needs to be met more directly, at the same time that it further enhances the economy by dramatically increasing transaction volumes and efficiency. Child care that allows bicycle repair, that saves resources, that are diverted to power buses, that get people to work faster, that allows more family time. The feedback loops that reinforce the productivity, efficiency and diversity of the economy are endless. Additionally, as more needs are satisfied more directly by micro-suppliers, the dependence on mass production and long-distance transport is lessened, the resilience of local economies is strengthened and production becomes more environmentally sustainable.
When we can separate and distinguish between economic and political policy, we can make effective choices that will lead to the prosperity we desire. We don’t need an economic policy that creates jobs, we need a political policy that allows jobs to be created. We don’t need economic policies that encumber businesses with social responsibility; we need political policies that deliver real social security.
For our economy we need economic policies, and for our welfare we need political policies; each, unto their own. Far from economic growth resulting in social ills, or social growth resulting in economic ills; economic and social growth are mutually enhancing. Delivering universal social security will not erode productivity, it will enhance it. Unfettered markets will not drive social well-being into the ground, they will lift it up.
If we can just uncouple our unfounded assumptions about the relationship between enterprise and welfare for long enough to see again with clear eyes, based on what we know about ourselves, we can pave a Path to prosperity for all.
Part 17 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future.
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.
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.
The Path to A Future: Two Words about the Destination
It’s a simple description that will not get embellished much in the course of this book, hopefully because it is self explanatory. But it is worth taking a moment to clarify what is not included in that description.
- It is not utopian.
- It does not suggest equality of outcome.
- It does not speak to the veracity or ascendancy of any particular worldview beyond the simple context inherent in the word “sustainable”.
- It does not include any necessary configuration of peoples or places, nor does it to accord credence to a situation based on the history that led to the way it is now.
- It is not a guaranteed or self-fulfilling prophecy; it will require choices and work all the way there, on arrival, and thereafter.
- ‘Prosperity’ is intentionally modified by the adjective ‘Sustainable’.
What the destination is, is wedded to practical outcomes in the natural world and it is, above all, realistically achievable.
Part 16 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future.
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.
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