Saturday, August 23, 2014

Education: An Existential Crisis

© Charles D. Hayes

I’ve always thought that America’s Founding Fathers made a mistake by focusing on the pursuit of happiness. If, instead, they had prized the pursuit of wisdom, we would likely have many more reasons to be happy.

Just about everything we create comes with an owner’s manual. Everything, that is, except us humans. For nearly four decades, I have been in pursuit of self-education with a goal of learning, to the best of my ability, the value of having been afforded the life of a human being. The older I get, the more I think I understand what is wrong with our educational system.

The core of the problem lies in our belief that it’s okay to leave the study of human behavior to professionals. The specialization of knowledge has resulted in what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called “a general imbecility.”

Deep down in the primeval recesses of our brains is a condition analogous to a software program containing malware. This innate disorder exists because we human beings are unique in the animal world. We alone become aware early on in our lives that we are going to die, and this sets us up for a subconscious emotional roller coaster ride. The reality of our mortality stalks us throughout our lives, making shadowy appearances in all manner of disguises like change, uncertainty, and especially otherness—metaphorical cousins of death that are subtle reminders of our inevitable nonexistence.

The essence of what I characterize as an existential education is achieving a level of knowledge equilibrium that offers us maximum coping capability with the emotional angst that comes with the human condition, an intellectual ability for anxiety dissipation that enables us to live without the need for distractions from our mortality by scapegoating those whose very existence reminds us that we are going to die.

One has only to examine the condition of planetary human relations to understand that the core educational components missing in our species worldwide are Human Behavior 101, a course of humanities representing the acquired wisdom of our global culture, and enough knowledge of anthropology to put one’s tribe in meaningful perspective with the rest of the planet’s occupants.

Addressing this civilizational short circuit was supposed to be the goal of a liberal education, but its advocates never seemed able to get enough people to agree on the value of liberal arts or how incredibly important it is to be able to cope with uncertainty and not feel threated by the existence of people whose beliefs and customs appear strange or foreign.

To accept the premise that the known fundamentals about our species form a body of specialized knowledge suitable only for experts undermines the long-term sustainability of civilization. We have achieved the technological capability of wizards, while the nature of our social and political relations ranges from narcissistic adolescence to Stone Age tribalism. 
The history of human conflict is steeped in ignorant assumptions and misunderstandings based on superficial observations, uninformed gossip, and conspiratorial paranoia about other people, whose differences are perceived as threatening because they serve as reminders of our mortality.

Pointing out differences and making fun of unfamiliar customs is a bonding ritual in which in-groups alienate out-groups. The process of bonding through the alienation of others offers a false curtain of security in which genuine knowledge of the other becomes verboten in order to keep the curtain closed and to maintain one’s sense of patriotism.

Our educational deficit is readily observable by focusing on those whose lives are sheltered by a narrow sense of identity, a regional, local, or tribal view simplified by relating to all of those outside their group in terms of us and them. All that should be required of a thinking person who views a tribe or clannish group with a restricted worldview is to ask if one’s own outlook is thus similarly constructed and constrained.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of rider and elephant to describe our reasoning ability, with reason being the former and our emotional subconscious the latter. I am not suggesting that an existential education will enable our rider to boss its elephant around. But if we are to have any chance of taming the elephant, we have to be able to dispel the fears born of ignorance that naturally occurs at the borders and dividing lines where the differences of our respective national and tribal associations are celebrated, exaggerated, and reviled. A better understanding of human behavior doesn’t trump our fears about mortality, but it can help dissipate the angst associated with otherness which so often serves as a preferable distraction to reality. 

The essence of an existential education is a learned predisposition for getting beyond ignorant assumptions and for refusing to go along with the vitriol of tribalistic small-mindedness. When we are young, we are totally dependent upon family and local culture in developing our sense of reality. As we grow older and mature, our exposure to other cultures is bound to grow as well, unless our respective cultures restrict our access or discourages our pursuit of knowledge outside our borders, real or imaginary.

There is a fork in the road on the path to adulthood: One path leads to one’s local culture and the shelter of identifying oneself as a member of the association that offers a form of protection that will trump all threats. In other words, the truths or arguments of enemies do not really count in closed associations because one’s culture is assumed to be ideologically correct by nature of its identity. Moreover, clinging to group identification reduces the need for critical analysis and self-reflection about the problems one’s society faces. All one has to do is choose sides, go about one’s business, and substitute loyalty for thinking.    

The other path is respective of group identity but it’s also a posture of being open to experience, the pursuit of knowledge, affection for ideas and for achieving a critical mass of education in which learning becomes its own reward with the knowledge that the world is not made worse by getter closer to truths previously perceived as being inconvenient. To the contrary, life gets better as we get closer to an objective reality because our existential fears are diminished and we can make room for those who view the world differently without feeling threatened.

If we do not pursue a vigorous existential education for the pleasure of learning that follows and for an increased ability to deal with one’s own inevitable creature anxiety, we wind up as a species identifiable by the alarming fact that if the neural patterns in our heads don’t match, we will turn on one another. So far, this kind of learning has not been our priority. To see how well the alternative has worked for us, observe the news of the day.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Stone Age Politics in Cyberspace

© Charles D. Hayes

For years, I have vacillated between optimism and pessimism with regard to the future. More often than not, I've opted for the former, but now I’m having serious doubts. When I focus on technology, I'm optimistic. When I switch to politics, I'm not.

At times it seems that for every step forward we take in technical expertise we take a few backward in our ability to function politically. We are seniors of science and adolescents at best politically when it comes to getting along with others. Indeed, our inability to function politically as adults appears over the long term to be driving us toward economic disaster.

The Enlightenment led us to believe in Reason, and we have reasoned our way into a scientific paradigm that mirrors magic. And yet, all over the world, people still kill one another with persistent regularity over disputes that in historical context nearly always appear stupid.

The Enlightenment failed to acknowledge early on that human beings are, to the core, a tribal species, and although we are great at reasoning, doing so is not our default setting. We are emotional creatures to an extreme, especially when it comes to the tribal politics of us and them.

Primatologist Frans de Waal said something recently to the effect that he likes dealing with our primate cousins—meaning chimpanzees, bonobos, and apes—simply because they don't answer questionnaires. In other words, de Wall is appalled by our human tendency to offer reasons for our actions that are mere rationalizations that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with the real reasons for our behavior. More often than not, we are clueless as to why we do the things we do.

We are inundated from birth with words, looks, smiles, smirks, raised eyebrows, warnings, edicts, promises, and even prayers that suggest this is the way things are and so these things you must believe in order to be considered one of us. Numbering in the millions, these incidents occur day in and day out throughout our lives.

As we learn our respective languages, we internalize an amalgamation of metaphors which create the templates that we perceive as constituting reality. These models can be so powerful and so forceful that, in many cases, they will shape our political views such that the only things we will thereafter perceive as having value are those that conform to our internalized templates.

These metaphorical building blocks are fundamental to our ability to understand something from a previous sense of understanding, while laying a foundation as simple as the notion that up is better than down, warm is better than cold, that time is money, and the language of war is suitable for an argument.

In this way, we assume a worldview that seems like commonsense reality instead of the trumped-up cultural rendition that it truly represents. If we live in a community of bigots, acts of overt prejudice will be expected of us as a qualification for continuing group membership and proof of one's loyalty.

We assimilate our beliefs about the world from our respective social groups, and the process is so subtle that most of it happens beneath our conscious awareness. Many years ago, having always been fascinated with the nature of belief, I was struck by one of those epiphanies that light up the sky and forever change one's outlook. What I realized was the simple notion that my thoughts and beliefs had been formed just like everyone else's, that the reason I believed what I did about the world was the same reason all others view the world as they do, namely because of acculturation. This seems as though it should be a no-brainer, completely understood at a kindergarten level, but such is not the case.

One of life's biggest mysteries, in my view, is why, once people realize the arbitrary nature of how beliefs are constructed, it doesn't give them pause to examine some of their own hard and fast assumptions. I don't know whether most people just don't ever come to question their own sense of reality or whether they do and just prefer the bubble they already live in instead of trying to get a better idea of what's really going on in the world. Whatever the reason, it’s getting more and more dangerous not to make a serious attempt to understand the world and our place in it.

In every culture, people grow up with expectations of what the notion of character means in their society, what honorable behavior is and what it’s not. Most of us aspire to live up to our idealized sense of how we are expected to act. And yet, psychology and neuroscience clearly demonstrate that 1) our behavior can be short-circuited simply by changing the circumstance we encounter, 2) our likely actions are predicable with a fairly high degree of certainty, and 3) those actions will not be compatible with our ideals of character and neither will they be what we would have predicted we would do if we had been asked to guess.

These facts should both disappoint us and serve as an urgent warning that our education about human behavior is woefully incomplete. If others can predict our behavior in a given set of circumstances better than we can, then we might need to reexamine what we mean by the idea and exercise of freedom.

For Stone Age minds to have the technological capability of wizards is a recipe for global catastrophe. From the beginning of our time on the planet, it has been wise for us to be wary of strangers, but when we acquired this innate sentinel awareness, our tendency to encounter strangers was rare. Today we are surrounded by people who view the world with different expectations, and when our views clash ideologically, we’re pushed ever closer to a state of suspicion and paranoia.

Social media enable people to come together and thus escape from too much otherness, indulging their overt tendency to increase cultural bonds through attempts to further alienate others. All over the country, people are gravitating to neighborhoods of politically likeminded citizens, and those who can’t make the move physically do so in cyberspace.

At the same, time there has never been as much information available to learn what science tells us about human behavior and how we may overcome our tendency for harmful self-deception. The only thing we are short of is the will to proceed and a sense of urgency that recognizes the seriousness of the threats we face if we don't take deliberate steps to think our way into a more civil future.

Communism, capitalism, socialism, humanism, liberalism, and conservatism—what all these ideologies have in common is that they are isims. And although they do not make the claim specifically, the implication is that an isim is all one needs; it answers all relevant questions, like a read-only software program, performing every function and solving every problem that arises without needing to seek input or advice elsewhere.

We are drawn to isims because we are tribalistic and we crave easy answers and the shelter of consensus. For too many of us, though, isims amount to closed systems, and this is a foolish and very dangerous strategy because no systems or isims have all of the answers.

Contempt and resentment are like fire starting tools: the friction they generate is combustible, sparking hatred and compelling Stone Age minds to apply their technology to the creation of weapons and the war-like rhetoric that follows suit.

Our history should have made it clear by now that we have to compensate for our tribalistic nature and override our penchant for contempt with curiosity, if we are to have any chance of negotiating differences. A sustainable future depends upon a level of intellectual maturity beyond the tribalistic ethos of us and them

My Books and Essays on Amazon
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Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Invisible Hand a Pickpocket?

© Charles D. Hayes

If we are to have a brighter economic future, some prevailing ideological bubbles must be burst, and now we have a very sharp pin to focus on the subject of inequality. French economist Thomas Piketty has pored over a century’s worth of economic data from thirty countries and written Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where he provides compelling details that burst the balloon of supply-side ideology. Specifically, his evidence deflates the claim that the key to the future is laissez faire capitalism, low taxes, and the arcane notion that capitalism is a dependable trickle-down success story.
Piketty’s work has been under unrelenting attack, especially by people who don’t want to believe it and likely won’t believe it, even if it holds up over time as a valid argument. But the manic condemnation has created a bestseller. Critics are desperately searching Piketty’s data in hopes of finding flaws that will enable them to dismiss the whole work. Doing so won’t be easy, though, because, apart from some noted arithmetic errors, his examples are exhausting and his timeline covers decades of trends in the demographics of wealth accumulation.
One glaring fact is undeniable: inequality is escalating globally at an alarming rate. The debate needs to go on until we sort the virtues from the vices of capitalism and get to the bottom of why so many working people remain in poverty.

Those who claim that Piketty is a Marxist obviously have not read the book. He favors capitalism, but he makes it clear that capitalism is an engine so powerful that when it idles, the return on capital outpaces general economic growth. This is why the top one percent is on course to accumulate more and more wealth, at the expense of the rest of the economy.

The imbalance will not stop without serious intervention, namely putting a governor on the carburetor of capitalism, in the form of a progressive tax that’s steep at the high end, to check the excessive growth disparity and bring an equitable balance to the population at large.

In a nutshell, Piketty argues that capitalism is a system whose algorithmic functionality accelerates advantage and then continues to favor that advantage disproportionally. It’s a snowballing effect that, if left unchecked, eventually becomes an avalanche. The gap between the growth of capital and the rest of the economy is small, but the consequences are enormous.

Piketty’s analysis aside, the rise in economic inequality in America during the last thirty years offers prima facie evidence that something in our capitalistic system is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism, it seems, systematically undermines its own success. According to the Wall Street Journal, 95 percent of income gains from 2009 through 2012 went to the top one percent. How much worse does this disparity have to get before the intransigent GOP wakes up and at least admits we have a problem?

The ideological friction between labor and capital is an ancient quarrel. “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” So said Abraham Lincoln, a prescient Republican president, in 1861.

Where is the higher consideration? Labor today gets scorn, contempt, and derision for even raising the subject. Why is the minimum wage stagnant despite significant growth in productivity? Simply put: although the precise identity of the culprits directly responsible may be subject to argument, the pockets of the working poor have been picked as effectively as if accomplished by a thief.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a powerful metaphor, and the self-interest it describes can and does improve lives all over the world. But Smith’s work has been corrupted and championed as a celebration of greed, which is the antithesis of his thinking. At its best, capitalism dramatically improves lives; at its worst, unchecked greed ravages the environment, oppresses individuals, and destroys culture.

Capitalism is analogous to radiation. Used carefully, it can produce miraculous results, while overuse kills. In Smith’s view, economic freedom does not come with the license to oppress because the very idea of doing so is immoral.

The government’s job is to keep the invisible hand from becoming a pickpocket by keeping any and all economic factions from acquiring enough power to be oppressive, whether the aggressor is the government itself, a corporation, or an individual. Whatever happened to the notion that “we the people” are the government?

Adam Smith advocated freedom in a sense of moral ethicality long since forgotten and absent from general public discourse. The ethos of Wall Street is so far out of sync with Smith’s view of ethical economic behavior, it seems almost extraterrestrial. 

The idea that a selfcreating, selfsustaining middle class can exist on nothing but low taxes, ambition, and individual initiative is absurd, and the hundred-year history in Piketty’s book makes this crystal clear. Middle-class societies require significant ongoing investments. Repeating adamant declarations that lowering taxes will always lead to economic growth will not make it so. American economic history well illustrates this point. Higher taxes do not necessarily result in economic downturns. Some of our greatest periods of growth and a thriving middle class have occurred when tax rates were much higher than those we have today.

Remember this: Never on this planet has there existed a civilization with a strong middle class and minimal poverty without an extraordinary government effort behind its creation and a substantial and ongoing investment in both hard and soft infrastructure to keep it viable. Never!

The existence of middle class is a purposeful effort. Don't believe it? Find one that occurred by happenstance or sheer ambition. Offer an example. Please. Look the world over at all of the developed nations with a high quality of life, and you will find no great society arising solely out of the burning desire for individual success. Affluent societies are not accidental occurrences. Even in societies that are resource rich, substantial investments in the public interest have to be made. And yet, in America, Horatio Alger bootstrap nonsense is still touted as if personal drive is the only ingredient necessary for economic triumph.

Make no mistake, individual responsibility and initiative are important for success, but we don't achieve middleclass status without an overt public effort and the investment necessary for both creating and sustaining it. Rural electrification, the interstate highway system, the GI Bill, and the Federal Housing Authority were key ingredients that gave rise to America's middle class, all paid for by much higher tax rates than are currently in effect.

Thomas Piketty describes this period in American history as an aberration, but it didn’t kill capitalism. To the contrary, it kicked the engine into overdrive, putting a governor on capital and providing enough equity that starting wages supported a middle-class lifestyle with only one person in a family working. To avoid taxes at the highest rate, business owners reinvested heavily in their companies, and their wealth increased accordingly.

Executive compensation today has everything to do with the power to loot with legal immunity. These days we hear a lot of talk about takers, but not much is said about those who have already taken far more than the value they create. Wall Street executives fled the 2008 meltdown with multimilliondollar bonuses, while people who were put out of work because of executive greed are routinely referred to as parasites for collecting unemployment.

In reality, the financial services industry is where we have an infestation of parasites. They skim the stock market with supercomputers, and cover their tracks with empty slogans about success, freedom, and the American Dream, having succeeded in getting the legislative license and political support not only to loot openly, but to be celebrated for it.

An ethos of selfreliance is accepted as a core component of American culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson is the grand architect of this way of thinking about ourselves. But today's politicized rhetoric about selfreliance overlooks the fact that Emerson was antimaterialistic to an extreme that few Wall Street cheerleaders can comprehend.
Much of our love affair with rugged individualism is based on mythology. We celebrate a history that never happened, obsessively calling attention to individual initiative, while ignoring the enormous government expenditure that made America possible. Millions of working people today depend upon paychecks in market economies that are subject to the whims of fashion and global recessions. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves out of work for months or years. The idea that without some kind of intervention or assistance, sheer determination will allow them to recover is patently illogical.

There is plenty of need for outrage in America, but it should focus on adjusting the engine of capitalism and the regulations that pose a danger to the public interest. Skyrocketing inequality and a shrinking middle class create a recipe for economic decline. The engine of capitalism is perfectly capable of working for everyone. It’s happened before and it can happen again, but the public will must demand an overhaul.
The profound irony is that the long-term future of our species depends not on economic growth per se, but almost its opposite: the exponential growth of knowledge toward reducing the human imprint on the natural world. Sadly, even to raise the subject that our impact on the earth is more important than our economic system is to invite ridicule and the questioning of one’s sanity.

Piketty’s research suggests that our long-term growth is inevitably likely to slow, but he is reluctant to predict a rate. He offers a brief discussion of the importance of addressing climate change, but says little about population growth and the consequences of finite resources. In his words, “The long-term dynamics of wealth distribution are potentially terrifying, especially when one adds that the return on capital varies directly with the size of the initial stake and that divergence in the wealth distribution is occurring on a global scale. The problem is enormous, and there is no simple solution.”

Put simply, civilization is a very expensive proposition, and if we continue to attempt to achieve progress with ego-driven criteria based on greed, a childish penchant for selfishness, and ethnocentric tribalism, the pursuit is likely to end badly. Nothing save a catastrophe will produce the resolve to do what needs to be done. 

My Books and Essays on Amazon
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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Good Business vs. Good People

© Charles D. Hayes

All of my life, I’ve been listening to adamant assertions about how our government should be run like a business. Lots of people still have faith in the notion that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” I used to believe it wholeheartedly, but as I enter my eighth decade on the planet, I believe it’s time to rethink the whole premise.

People whose internalization of the business model is such that they believe Capitalism to be the solution to every problem under the sun now make me cringe. Low wages, high unemployment, and low taxes are good for business, but not so much for working people. The business model of efficiency is well suited to business, but not to families when there are not enough jobs that pay a living wage.

We’ve created an economic system that depends upon and, in fact, thrives on high unemployment for corporate profits. Yet the blame falls on the unemployed for being unemployed when, by design, there aren’t enough jobs. This is like putting people in a round room and then accusing them of cutting corners.

Many of us do not accept the notion that Capitalism is our reason for living. Having children, for example, is not efficient. In fact, it’s not a savvy business thing to do at all. But the reason we do things in life that are incompatible with the business model represents a moral truth north of religion.

I don’t want a president or any of my elected officials to base all of their decisions about the future of the country on the business model alone. We don’t sell our children, and neither should we sell them out. I don’t want a president making decisions about sending our young men and women to war based on the business needs of Lockheed Martin or Halliburton. Nor do I want our air and water rights sold to the highest bidder to contaminate as they please.

I don’t want leaders who will opt to sell Nebraska to Texas, or let Bain Capital gut and sell off the state of Michigan. As ridiculous as these examples sound, some government “business decisions” in the past have been nearly on par with that level of stupidity.

The only time Capitalism favors workers with equity over management is when there are not enough workers available and businesses have to compete to keep employees. Otherwise, when unemployment is high, the lack of employment mobility leads to exploitation and oppressive management, often bending the will of employees to do whatever is necessary to keep their jobs, even if it is illegal. History shows this is often the case, and we’re seeing it today.

So what do we do to ensure business is good for both business and workers? How do we balance the power of Capitalism with the needs of citizens?

A half-century ago, economists on both the Left and Right were seriously considering enacting a guaranteed income. Richard Nixon, a Republican president no less, tried to get legislation enacted to make it the law of the land. A negative income tax was also the subject of much discussion. Well, Nixon failed to get the legislation for a guaranteed income passed, largely because the idea of paying people to do nothing was repugnant to most folks, myself included. But after giving the idea a lot of thought, I’ve changed my mind.

My initial reaction was that there is absolutely no reason to pay people to do nothing when there is so much in the world that needs to be done—extremely important things that are not getting done. But then I realized it’s presumptuous and arrogant to assume that if people were truly free to use their time as they wished, without being dependent on an occupation for a sense of identity and social respect, they would not quickly gravitate toward that which needs to be done of their own volition. My reason for believing this is that we already have an enormous volunteer workforce in the nonprofit sector, whose tireless efforts to make the world a better place trump the ethos of financial success.

Indeed, real freedom requires the ability to use one’s time as one wishes. Unless we understand this completely, we are bound to live like actors in a play about independence with our roles, scripts, and narratives written by others. This renders our intrinsic aspirations moot and turns our actual life experience into more of an act than an exercise of genuine freedom.

Over the past three decades, our worker productivity has increased dramatically but wages haven’t. The more high-tech we get, the fewer workers are needed in the workplace. Yet we still have an enormous amount of work that desperately needs to be done in the world to make our lives livable: healthcare, childcare, eldercare, education, public safety, environmental restoration, agriculture, solar energy, science, construction, food service, and a whole host of activities that add meaning to life.

On the topic of work and value, I can think of no other subject surrounded by so much pretentious hype—hype about mythical expertise, arguing that only a select few individuals have the special knowledge and ability to command insane levels of compensation, while people who actually work as hard or harder barely make it from paycheck to paycheck.

No doubt many executives in charge of large organizations work hard, but— economic leverage value of their decisions aside—I’ll wager that, in terms of effort and stress, most people who work the front counter in fast-food franchises work harder than many executives. If you doubt this, give a front-counter job somewhere a try. Moreover, wages are determined less by skill or level of effort required than by political power, or the lack of it. In years past, I’ve known secretaries who actually ran the business where they worked, even though their salary was but a pittance of their bosses.

I’m an ex-Marine and an ex-cop with a big city police department, and I have more than a half-century of work experience, including years with three Fortune 100 companies. I have witnessed scores of employees in the lower echelons of organizations who work harder and clearly add more value than those near the top. The biggest difference between them was a gross disparity in compensation, often based far more on politics than contribution.

More often than I can count, I’ve watched competent employees train incompetent but credentialed people to rise above them in organizational ranks. The trainees’ paper credentials had nothing whatsoever to do with performing the job at hand, but they indentured the bearer in debt to a financial institution for decades and locked them into a lifetime of mediocre performance in an occupation for which they were allegedly qualified but unsuited in aptitude. 

America’s workplace is not a product of Divine meritocracy in which the talented always rise to the top. It is instead an elaborate enterprise of political pretense that depends to a significant degree upon contempt for otherness to sustain the power of hierarchy by cooperative cronyism.
Once and for all, we need to wake up and realize that there are things more important than making it a priority to see that a few greedy people become insanely rich while millions of good people barely get by. We need to replace meaningless jobs lost to technology with meaningful work that helps people be people. Period.

Now, I realize that in today’s political climate, the notion of guaranteed employment sounds insane and that the Far Right will foam at the mouth and convulse at the thought of socialistic-sounding policies. Let them. If they need a job we will find them one.

The world is changing a warp speed; we are entering a digital realm that earlier generations couldn’t imagine. It is perfectly clear to anyone who will face reality that a much more equitable society of the kind we had shortly after World War II is never coming back with business as usual, unless we take extreme measures to make it happen.

In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out that in 1968, 1,200 economists signed a letter addressed to Congress in favor of a guaranteed income, with support from people on both sides of the political aisle:  Richard Nixon, Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Samuelson, James Tobin, and Friedrich Hayek.

One week after I finished writing this piece, the PBS News Hour featured present-day advocates from both the Left and the Right who are still arguing for a no-strings guaranteed income. The possibilities are intriguing. We wouldn’t need food stamps, and we could dismantle some social welfare programs that are only marginally effective.

It’s long past time that we figured out how to guarantee a living wage for all working citizens and a stipend for basic human needs simply for the dignity human beings require. The very viability and sustainability of America’s future depends on it. It’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on America’s Titanic, our middle-class labor force. It’s time to scuttle the ship and build a new one that floats, not in a rust-belt economy, or a Wall Street winner-take-all swamp of corruption, but rather in a digital sea of American equity, where people are considered more important than machines, where people are valued as ends in themselves and not merely as means to an end, where selflessness and goodwill trump greed, and where Americans can again say we live in a great country and really believe it.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Addressing the Mal-Distribution of Wealth

© Charles D. Hayes

In an episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart described reading an essay in Time magazine about healthcare and feeling as though he was moving along, gaining speed, and breaking the emotional sound barrier. I feel the same way about work and the subject of compensation. My dissonance has been growing exponentially for years. But now, beginning my eighth decade on this planet, I've had enough of the nonsense.

The hot air begins with the mantra of free-markets, arguments against a minimum wage, and the misguided notion that low taxes are the only way to expand the economy. First off, there is no such thing as a free market. Never has been, never will be. Nothing is without cost, which means nothing is free, whether it is measured in human stress or environmental damage, and the political muscle to add actual costs to commercial products simply does not exist. The hidden costs of using fossil fuels alone are mindboggling.

Markets create nothing: people do. Powerful people make decisions that affect everyone else. People with enough money to rig the system do so without hesitation. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek warned that too much central planning would lead to serfdom. No doubt, he was right. But too little planning has the same effect.

In 1914, Henry Ford made his employees the generous offer of five dollars a day in wages and profit sharing. Business boomed. Commerce flourished because people who earn wages spend their money. The same stimulus happens today when the minimum wage is raised. And yet, the worn-out cry that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs is repeated endlessly. Those who shout it the loudest ignore the economic record. They think if they say it often enough and loudly enough, people will believe it. And sure enough, many do.

A few years after Henry Ford raised his employees’ wages, he instituted polices that made working at his automobile plant a living nightmare. The market didn't do this. He did. But you don't need a road to serfdom like that if people are born there.

The misattribution of virtue with its relation to labor has become so severe and so utterly distorted that most people pay no attention to the mass exploitation of wage earners and the fact that taxpayers subsidize the workers of some of America’s largest and most successful corporations. That entrepreneurs can exploit wage earners is taken as a God-given right. They call it freedom.

When Elizabeth Warren was running for her Senate seat, she was very articulate about what it takes to be successful in America. She argued that justice requires acknowledging the debt each of us owes to the system and the mass of individuals whose efforts make business possible. Our educational system, our judiciary, and our infrastructure both hard and soft, she reminded us, all are paid for by taxpayers.  

When you grow up in a world where overt exploitation is viewed as routine, it can seem normal. That's the trouble. I didn't grow up that way. In the 1940s and '50s, when I was young, there was a great deal of equity in working for wages. Ask yourself where in the hell the idea came from that men and women working full-time, at jobs that need to be done, in a country that routinely refers to itself as the greatest country on earth should live in poverty, while their employers live like royalty? Not only that, but how is it these workers have come to be called takers or parasites because they often require some kind of government assistance?

Elsewhere I have written extensively about how our politics is so entwined with our identity that we don't reason about political matters; instead, we relate. When we do this, we are oblivious to facts. When I was growing up, conservatives were a party to be admired for doing the right things for the right reasons. These days, however, they simply ignore the historical fact that raising wages acts as a stimulus. They issue dire warnings about a loss of jobs, and the identity-driven flock genuflects in agreement.

This arrogance ranges from mythic assumptions about Horatio Alger success stories to Ayn Rand's idiotic notion that the only moral virtue that really counts is selfishness. You can stack the reasons for raging inequality so high that we can't see over them, but for people who maintain the ability to see through pretentiousness, you can't make a credible case that ninety-nine percent of people in this country deserve to be serfs, while one percent live like monarchs.

Funny thing about Henry Ford: He thought of himself as a working man and hated the investor class, often referring to them as parasites. We tend to overlook the fact that one of the great rationalizations for going against the biblical injunction about the evils of usury and applying interest to lending and savings was that it enabled the rich to stay wealthy without working.

Another funny thing is how reality defies conventional Wall Street wisdom, which says keeping wages as low as possible is the only reliable path to profit.

Contradicting this view, Costco is beating the socks off its competition, while paying its employees more than two and a half times more than the competitors. Moreover, the company furnishes its employees with health insurance. The result is low-turnover, employee commitment, and increased public support expressed through exceptional customer loyalty. Somehow successes like these are overlooked by laissez faire advocates.  

What we have in America with our current wage and tax system is not fair and equitable compensation, nor is it the redistribution of wealth. What we have is the mal-distribution of wealth, motivated by identity politics, driven by arrogance, and made possible by the systemized planning of lobbyists who purchase power from politicians and then call it free market legislation.

Rub an ice-cube over your temples and think about this: Corporations have bought the right to employ people permanently in lifetime jobs at serf wages, with government subsidies, and they are able to deflect criticism by shouting clich├ęs and platitudes about freedom.

I grew up in a country that took pride in the virtue of work at a time when working wages offered enough financial security to live above and beyond poverty. It could happen again, but only after we break the emotional sound barrier of dissent. 

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Science and Our Brains on Politics

© Charles D. Hayes

For many years I’ve been fascinated by discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, especially by what they suggest about our political nature. Much has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our political minds work. We know, for example, that politics can have a definite imprint on brain structure and that the brains of liberals and conservatives can reflect such differences. Unfortunately, so far at least, there appears to be no public benefit as a result.

 People who self-identify as partisan liberals tend to have a greater volume of gray matter in an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. This brain structure enables a person to be more comfortable in the face of uncertainty. By contrast, self-identifying partisan conservatives tend to have a larger right amygdala, making them more alert to the possibilities of threat or impending harm. Both dispositions are necessary for achieving and maintaining social equilibrium.

What we know for certain is that people on the far left and far right see the world so differently that they have great difficulty arguing because very often they can’t even agree on the meaning of simple words. We know that when it comes to political argument, people with strong political views are adept at tuning out the other side. A flood of emotion effectively blocks reception of the opposition’s view, allowing one to work on a counterargument while the other party drones on unaware.

We know further from split-brain studies that human beings are particularly good at rationalization. We are experts at coming up with explanations for our behavior that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with our real reasons for acting, regardless of the situation or circumstance. It is not an exaggeration to say that when pressured to explain our behavior in any number of circumstances, we will just pull reasons out of a hat.

We also know with some confidence that in children as young as three or four it may be possible to predict with a high degree of accuracy whether they will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. The main criterion is their disposition for being open to new experience. Liberals are inclined to be more curious while conservatives are more cautious, fearful, or less trusting, as the earlier finding about structural brain differences suggests.

We know from studies of twins that humans have a genetic predisposition for left or right political positions, but that this inclination is not destiny. It can be overridden by culture. In other words, a child predisposed toward liberalism can grow up as a conservative in a conservative family, and the reverse can occur with a child prone toward conservatism who is raised as a liberal.

It should be clear from our history that both liberal and conservative values and behaviors are necessary for sustaining culture. Conservatives are demonstratively more tribalistic than liberals, while liberals are explicitly more concerned with achieving fairness and justice. The former brings the group closer together while the latter increases its membership. But moving too far in either direction is a recipe for tyranny. That we strive for balance and appreciate the values of both liberalism and conservatism is crucial for our continued existence. We know these things, but we are not very good at demonstrating that we do.

Neuroscience raises far more questions than it answers, but the questions, by nature of their profundity, should require that we pay close attention to them. From what has been presented so far, it should be considered a no-brainer that we can't be trusted to do politics without safeguards and mediators to make sure that we are listening to our opposition instead of simply concentrating on conjuring a retort. This may not seem so important for you and me, but for the politicians who represent us it is of profound importance. For all practical purposes, though, our political houses of government appear oblivious to the discoveries in behavioral science.

 If a child's natural predisposition for politics can be overridden by culture, is that not proof that all of the parts of one's brain can be utilized if attention is given to subjects that involve a particular part of the brain? Shouldn’t this be an educational objective? If not, why not? If each of us has a part of our brain that hasn't been fully developed, then we are cheating ourselves by not seeing to it that it gets a proper amount of stimulation.

I have a theory—for which I have no proof, only personal experience and observation—which is that people whose natural predisposition has been overwhelmed by their culture and who have assumed a political posture that conflicts with their inborn temperament are very likely to be the most extreme partisans on the left or right. What they are relying on is conflicted emotion to begin with, and I suspect they may harbor an unacknowledged and subconscious resentment for having had their natural inclinations thwarted. This emotional conflict sets up a pressure-cooker that causes them to suffer exceptional anxiety without knowing why or what is really bothering them.

I don’t know of any research that supports this view or even how researchers might proceed to test for it. I think, however, that this may have been true for me personally. Raised a hard-right conservative, I used to be intolerant, contemptuous, and very angry when it came to the subject progressive values. Now that I’ve embraced them, I no longer feel conflicted.

If liberalism and conservatism are both necessary to attain and sustain civilization, and if citizens cannot learn to appreciate this reality within their own minds, does this not mean in some way that we have been addled, misguided, or ill-educated? If something is demonstrably factual and yet we are unable to acknowledge it as being true in any sense, have we not been injured by culture or circumstance? While it may be to our advantage that people can have predispositions that favor one part of the brain over another, it is not to our advantage to the extent that one becomes completely closed off to recognizing the values of the others.

Where is the Socratic influence to come from if not from science, which clearly demonstrates that our very existence is threatened if we can’t maintain some equilibrium toward political objectivity and the wisdom we gain through the study of human behavior? In my view, the discoveries in neuroscience suggest we have completely fumbled the ball in public education by focusing too much on creating human doings and not human beings.

If one's political opposition is necessary by design but we can’t see our opponents as being anything but evil, is this not, in and of itself, a psychological short-circuit that undermines the very idea of democracy and representative government?

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
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