Discussion: The Decay of an Empire

As some of you may remember I am a big Isaac Asimov fan.  There was a passage in his book “Prelude to Foundation” that struck me as similar to what we might be facing here in the U.S.  I have found Asimov’s observations about society very astute.  Keep in mind this is in the future and in relation to a galactic empire.

Seldon:  Surely people don’t sit around and say “We’re decaying.  Let’s let the Expressways fall apart.”

Hummin:  No they don’t.  It’s not a purposeful thing.  Bad spots are patched, decrepit coaches refurbished, magnets replaced.  However, it’s done in a more slapdash fashion, more carelessly, and at greater intervals.  There just aren’t enough credits available.

Seldon:  Where have the credits gone?

Hummin:  Into other things.  We’ve had centuries of unrest.  The navy is larger and many times more expensive than it once was.  The armed forces are much better-paid, in order to keep them quiet.  Unrest, revolts and minor blazes of civil war all take their toll.

Seldon: But it’s been quiet under Cleon.  And we’ve had 50 years of peace.

Hummin:  Yes, but soldiers who are well-paid would resent having that pay reduced just because there is peace.  Admirals resist mothballing ships and having themselves reduced in rank simply because there is less for them to do.  So the credits still go – unproductively – to the armed forces and vital areas of the social good are allowed to deteriorate.  That’s what I call decay.  Don’t you?

It struck me that this is, at least in part, what we are seeing here in the U.S.  Of course it’s not the whole story, but it made me think about how institutions, not just the military can grow fat.  Once we build up an institution in a time of need, we rarely shrink it back down.  In fact what usually happens is that the government just works to justify the bloat.  I think this phenomenon might even be true for private industry as well.  The blog I re-posted on my blog last week is kind of along these lines.  Capitalism has its benefits, but as corporations (sort of representation of a bloated private entity) grow they begin to have to justify their continued existence and work to convince people that they need whatever they are selling.

We hear phrases like “too big to fail” and maybe it’s all true.  Maybe there is nothing to be done about it, and maybe that’s why empires are bound to fail.  But I tend to lean towards the idea that a lot of it is based on the conceit an empire has in itself, but maybe that too is inevitable.  I mean how can one easily learn humility when they’ve been on top for so long?  Doing so would require an admission of mistakes, and empires are terrible at admitting those.

Thoughts?

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As an aside –  to give you an idea of why I like Asimov so much, I wanted to share the Afterword he wrote for his novel “Currents of Space”:

The Currents of Space was written in 1951 and was first published in 1952.  At that time, comparatively little was known of the astrophysics of nova formation and my speculation concerning “carbon currents” was legitimate.  Astronomers know much more now and it seems quite certain the nature of the currents of space have nothing to do with nova formation (though, as it happens, the analysis of interstellar clouds of dust and gas has become far more interesting now than ever I imagined in 1951).  This is too bad, for my speculations concerning the currents of space were so clever (in my opinion) that I feel they should have been true. Still the Universe goes its own way and won’t bend merely to pay homage to my cleverness, so I can only ask you to suspend your disbelief in respect to nova-formation and enjoy the book (assuming you do) on its own terms).

The beginning of the sentence starting with “Still…” is my own emphasis in bold.  Wouldn’t it be nice if more people thought like this?

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What the World Might Be Like

I was watching Monty Python on Saturday and as always I am just captured by their brilliance.  But a thought occurred to me and it showed me how much I have changed from the 16 year old Monty Python addict I used to be.  I watched these 6 comedy geniuses and wondered do I only know them because at the time they made the show, it wasn’t possible for 6 female comedy geniuses to share the airwaves.

When I look at the figures in history who have amazed and inspired me.  All of them are men.  Then I thought about all the many scientists who have changed the world, the famous artists and musicians who we still herald as the greats of all time, the great and wise leaders, philosophers…99.99% of them are men.

I guess I don’t doubt that many of these historical greats would still rise to the top, but what would history look like if, through millennia women were allowed to compete too?  How much more textured would our world be when the other half of the population were actually allowed to participate?  So many opportunities for competition and collaboration lost.  Right now our world is shaped by men, and I think that a history in which women had an equal say in it’s direction would have been a better one.  I hope humanity does make it another 10,000 years at least so at some point someone can look back as I am doing now and see a much more pluralistic history.  One that has been truly shaped by all that humanity has to offer.

Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral?

To finish up my discussion of greed I want to talk about the moral implications.  In the first part I quantified the disparity, but is disparity the most important aspect?  I mean if I could live a life that gave me a good education, lots of opportunities, health care, feed my family…should I care whether or not some billionaire exists on there?  If perhaps the lowest economic status was as I described, maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine this to ever be the case.  Wealth is only acquired because of other people.  And the value of what is made, what is labored for is decided by people.  It’s a zero sum game, and while it’s possible to spread the wealth more equitably, it’s also possible to siphon the wealth away from the bottom and funnel it towards the top.  Please don’t lose track of the fact upwards of $21 trillion sits in off-shore tax havens.  If we have wealth beyond our basic needs, what is such a person’s moral responsibility in a world fraught with people who are without homes, without basic access to education, health care, or even enough food on a daily basis?

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Philosopher Peter Singer argues that our moral responsibility to save lives is not relegated only to situations where we see someone suffering.  For instance if you passed by someone who was drowning you would immediately act to do something about it.  But what about the knowledge that someone is in peril on the other side of the world?  Do we not have an equal moral obligation to help our fellow human?  I psychologically understand why the two situations are different, but from a moral point of view I can find no flaw in Singer’s argument.  We do have a responsibility to help those we can help.  I am not saying that I am absolved of this responsibility due to me making less than 10 million a year or anything.  There are people like philosopher William McCaskill (by the way he’s single ladies…or maybe guys…who am I to make heteronormative assumptions) who has stated that any money he makes over £40,000 a year he will give away.  Few of us have that kind of commitment I imagine, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.   The fact still remains that there are people in this world who make more money that they could ever use and could do far more to help people than I could ever do in my lifetime.  Would putting all the wealth towards people who need it solve all their problems?  Probably not.  But this shouldn’t be the goal.  For any action we do to help others, we are under no illusion that the problem will go away everywhere, but we help when we can.  I mean if a friend asked me to help them move, do I say “I’m sorry I can’t help you because there are a lot of people who need help moving and since I can’t help them all, helping you doesn’t really make much of a difference”.  This would be a laughable argument at best, but more likely callous.   When I see the level of wealth inequality in the world, I personally find it morally reprehensible that so much wealth exists in the hands of so few while so many suffer.

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Now we can argue that hoarding wealth is a mental illness, or that their years of economic power have eroded empathy, and that such people can essentially do nothing but continue to hoard their wealth. These are likely valid arguments, but if our goal is a more equitable do such people have a right to such excess wealth?  Please keep in mind that I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any income inequality, but rather there becomes a certain threshold of inequality where society becomes unsustainable or at the very least has more suffering than it needs to.  But then what is the solution if people with unimaginable wealth are mentally unable to part with it?  In an argument I had with a conservative about this subject he argued that the only reason so much money exists in tax shelters is because they don’t want corrupt governments to get their hands on it.  And it’s true that money corrupts government officials as much as heads of corporations.  But I think we can agree that this does not excuse those with so much wealth from just using it themselves them to do good as a matter of moral responsibility.  Especially since so much of that wealth ultimately comes from investors, consumers, laborers, etc.

What then should we do?  If the movement of large sums of cash are going to corrupt people along the way, what is the answer?  Some have suggested that instead of a minimum wage we should have a maximum wage, or raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  All of these are prone to the corruption argument. Universal Basic Income is another suggestion, but this is something that only helps in already wealthy nations.  The best answer I can come up with is what we shouldn’t do, and that’s nothing.  In the election last night San Francisco passed a proposition which introduces a small tax to companies making more than $50 million a year to combat homelessness.  This is expected to bring in $300 million in income to the city to deal with the homeless problem there both in terms of getting those people shelter but getting them mental and medical help.  Of course there were billionaires against the proposition, but some were for it, and that’s heartening.  The arguments against were again largely of the nature of oversight, and I get that this should be a concern.  But given the spirit of the bill, then shouldn’t you be working to make sure that process works better and smarter, rather than just saying “strike it down…it’s not perfect”.  No bill is going to be perfect when it is trying to help lots of people, but if the goal is worthy, like ending homelessness (in one of the richest cities in the U.S.) then shouldn’t those high tech billionaires be asking “How can I help?” instead?  One wonders if the expertise of themselves and their employees in technology would be useful in helping to implement a policy that would help homeless people.  It is too often the quest for the perfect solution leads to excuses for inaction.  Solving this problem is complicated, perfection is unlikely to occur, but at least some people will be helped if we try.

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Now you may argue that income inequality has gotten a bit better, and that those at the very bottom are doing better than they were 50 years ago.  And this may be true, but just because the ultra-rich are willing to keep more people at a basic level of subsistence, doesn’t necessarily lead to a better situation.  What many people face who are barely getting by is a feeling of hopelessness.  They can live paycheck to paycheck, but they have little opportunities to save, emergencies (like a blown furnace, medical emergencies or car repairs) wipe what little savings they have, and most importantly they work in jobs that have little opportunity for advancement, or chance to save to go back to school to be retrained for a better job.  Perhaps all the greedy are doing is to find a “sweet spot” where people aren’t desperate enough to revolt but still poor enough to be compliant.  In a consumer driven society, if people don’t have enough capital to buy goods well you don’t have consumers and so I am sure that the raising of the bottom of the poverty charts isn’t entirely out of the goodness of the billionaire’s heart.  Not surprisingly people don’t want to toil at a dead end job their entire lives.  People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

I’ve tried hard to objectively look at greed as well.  Is there a time when greed is good?  Is there a benefit to it in this world?  Sometimes even bad things have good consequences even if unintended.  The only positive argument I’ve been able to find is that people with large amount of resources are able to invest heavily and develop quickly technologies which might take far longer to develop otherwise.  Technologies that might even save lives. But such things are hard to quantify and must also be measured in against the suffering that greed costs.  It also assumes that technological advancement should be a priority over other things.  I wonder sometimes that even if some discovery save lives, does that mean we are actually learning to value life?  If I’ve made the world better, but only did so for more profit, is the world actually better? Or do the intentions matter for building a better future?

Image result for greed quoteIn this conversation I have not talked about economic systems much.  I don’t consider socialism vs. capitalism a battle of moral systems.  I think if our morals were in place both systems can be very effective.  Greed is the corruptor of both.  My personal feelings are that a dose of each is the best, although I’m still working out the proportions.  Fundamentally, to my understanding of capitalism it’s focus is the acquisition of wealth.  Socialism makes more statements about how society should have a stake in the wealth it produces.  For me, I will personally lean more towards socialism because it is the only system that demands that we think about how we allocate resources in a fair manner.  I realize this is a point of contention upon many, and I am not going to make a strong evidence case for my views here in this post as the focus is on greed. Suffice to say I am acutely aware of the positive things that capitalism has done.  I’m also aware of the many negatives.  Here is just one expressed by a fellow blogger and one of the most well read people I know.

I also want to be clear that  while I have spent a lot of time chastising those who have the upper echelon of wealth, the fact remains that most of not all the people who will read this post are in the top 1% globally (including myself), and thus we could all be probably doing more than we are.  We certainly can’t use a greater degree of greed as an excuse to not try to do what we can.  I am not immune to the comforts that having a decent living wage provides.  Perhaps the best way to prevent greed from destroying our society is for all us to adopt a philosophy that prevents it from taking a deeper hold in our own lives.

End Note

Please check out more about Will MacAskill in the link I provided above.  His projects towards effective altruism are truly wonderful visions and I think it’s a project we can all get on board with.

Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

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Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed

Discussion: Do you know yourself?

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Whether you are a Sam Harris fan or not, I truly recommend listening to the interview Sam Harris did live with Yuval Noah Harari (the interview itself is about an hour with an hour of Q&A afterwards.  The first hour is most valuable).  Harari is a brilliant man, and somebody who I think we should be listening to.  I transcribed this passage from the interview.

“…however complicated the humanity entity is, we are now reaching a point when somebody out there can really hack it. It can never be done perfectly.  We are so complicated, I am under no illusion that any corporation or government or organization can completely understand me.  This is impossible.  But the yardstick or the critical threshold is not perfect understanding, the threshold is just better than me.  Then the key inflection point in the history of humanity is the moment when an external system can reliably, on a large scale, understand people better than they understand themselves.  This is not an impossible mission, because so many people don’t really understand themselves very well. With the whole idea of shifting authority from humans to algorithms, so I trust the algorithm to recommend TV shows for me, and I trust the algorithm to tell me how to drive from mountain view to this place this evening, and then I trust the algorithm to tell me what to study and where to work, whom to date and whom to marry, and who to vote for. People say, no, no, no, no, no…that won’t happen, because they will say there will be all these mistakes and glitches and bugs, and the algorithm won’t know everything, and it can’t do it.  And if the yardstick is to trust the algorithm (or) to give authority to the algorithm it must make perfect decisions than yes it will never happen.  But that’s not the yardstick…the algorithm just needs to make better decisions than me.”

There are many ways I think one can know one’s self better, and I don’t think we spend enough time doing that.  Moreover he argues that this is even more critical today because the technologies out there are far more capable of hacking us than ever before.  Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes often talk about the importance of understanding cognitive science and neuroscience, and how the brain works…this needs to be a regular part of our education systems, because awareness is key.  But knowing one’s self should also come from meditation, introspection, and taking time to just unplug and think about who you are and what you want to be.  Find yourself.

Thoughts?

Discussion: Innocence and Knowledge

Unexpectedly, I am finding one of the hardest parts as a parent is to decide when should I tell the truth about the realities of the world.  I see the innocence and joy in life my son has, and it breaks my heart to tell him anything that speaks to the suffering that takes in this world.  There is a part of me that wants to preserve that innocence for as long as possible, and yet there is also part of me that wants to prepare him so he has the courage to face it.  I think overall I lean towards the former, because who am I to destroy such unadulterated joy in life?  Pain will find us all, and when it happens I’ll be there.  There is no rush.

But last night I started thinking, why can’t we all be more childlike and experience that joy?  What really causes us to “lose our innocence”.  I don’t think it’s death in of itself.  I don’t think sadness in of itself is what prevents us from experiencing a lot more bliss.

In trying to answer this question about loss of innocence, I started to think what a strange story the Garden of Eden is in Genesis.  The fact that eating from the tree of knowledge is what is referred to as the “fall of man”, the end of paradise (and innocence).  I don’t think knowledge as a whole is a problem.  For the most part knowledge makes me less fearful, less confused, and more likely to course correct in my life.  Life of course can’t be 100% bliss, but I imagined a world in which the only sadness we would experience would be when someone  we love died of natural causes, or natural disasters.  We might experience pain through breakups or moving away from home.  It is a dynamic world and there is an impermanence to all things.  I think such a world would be a more blissful experience, much more child-like.  What really causes us to lose our innocence is finding out the horrible things we do to each other.  That is a weight to bear that changes you forever; for which there is no going back.  If any biblical story in Genesis is going to represent the fall of man it should be when Cain kills his brother in anger (albeit anger due to God’s dissatisfaction with a vegan meal).  Anyway, I don’t really intend to get into a discussion about the Bible, only that as a parent the story struck as very odd even if I believed it was true.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the larger world that we live in, the only things that really break my spirit are is the harm that humans cause each other.  I’ve never sobbed and felt the world was a horrible place because someone died in a flood or of a heart attack.  I am curious as to what other people think about innocence and the loss thereof.  Could we be living in greater bliss than we are?  What does it mean to you “Loss of innocence”?  If you are a parent have you cried tears of happiness at the purity of your child’s joy, and have you also wept when you’ve watched them realized the horrors people commit against each other?  Any thoughts you might have on this topic are welcome.

Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?