Friday, October 24, 2014

The Internet & Lynch Mob Politics

© Charles D. Hayes

A great strength of the Internet is its ability to bring people together, and this, ironically is also a great weakness— a weakness that is dangerous if not commonly understood. By enabling identity-based ideology to trump geography, the Internet is the perfect device for the retribalization of the world. Bear with me as I explain.

In the 1960s, when I was a police officer in Texas, I was involved in a disturbance in the West Dallas Projects that escalated into a riot. The experience was unforgettable, and I think about it often, especially when I consider the notion of ideological amplification. This is the academic term for what happens when likeminded people come together politically and venture further in the ideological direction in which they were headed than they would have if left on their own.

Elsewhere I have written extensively about the subject of ideological amplification because I find the phenomenon not only fascinating but also critical to understanding politics and political polarization in particular. A riot is ideological amplification on steroids, on fast-forward and out-of-control, when the actions of one individual spur others to up the ante, until a simple gathering of people morphs into an emotional cyclone and the minds of the individuals involved are lost to the mob. The ensuing insanity trumps any chance of returning to reason as a means of calming people down and restoring order without force.

In the incident in Dallas, a small child was seriously injured when her parents were simply driving through the neighborhood and a bottle came through their car window. It hit their daughter in the head, blinding her.

My point here is to show that our tribal propensity to toughen our political stance as a means of bringing our group closer together presents a clear and present danger to society if we remain blind to this ubiquitous behavior and how easily it gets out of hand. The danger in ideology run amok is that groups of people become so emotionally aggressive in their limited world view that any and all information that doesn’t affirm and support their view is taken as a threat. Thus, the truth of the matter at hand is deemed much less important than whose side one is on. In time, groups become bonded and fully vested in sustaining and maintaining a state of ignorance while arrogance intensifies the discourse.

Just think about the intellectual price to be paid when any group of citizens assumes that they have a vested interest in protecting themselves from learning things that they would simply prefer not to know because they are fearful of enlarging their worldview. In such instances, identity becomes not only a barrier against learning, it also takes an aggressive posture, overly sensitive to taking exception to the acts of people whose beliefs about the world clash with theirs. On the one hand, the Internet is a powerful tool for learning, but it is equally powerful for leaning—political leaning and ethnocentric hostility.

Internet email is an incredible means of staying in touch and sharing information, yet it also represents a raging river of contempt with a constant stream of out-group ridicule intended to bring in-groups closer together. Social media offer the same opportunities with graphics. I think an appropriate new word for what happens in cyberspace might be twittercule as a means of expressing ridicule in 140 characters or less. 

Ridiculing the opposition may bring a group closer together, but, more often than not, it also represents a missed opportunity for broadening one’s knowledge and understanding in a manner that might foster common ground, offering a win to all concerned. What’s more likely, as already noted, is that shared derision will inspire increased levels of contempt, as little acts of disrespect lead to greater and greater acts of aggression that, if pressed far enough, will result in physical violence.     

One of the most destructive aspects of political polarization is the temptation to guess the motivation of one’s opposition and to make such outlandish statements as “liberals never met a tax they didn’t like,” or “conservatives never met a war they didn’t like,” etc. Both the Left and Right are guilty, and all of us cross the line occasionally. This kind of dogma is precisely the kind of information that in-groups share to further alienate out-groups.

There is, however, an avalanche of research data that makes it clear that most of us don’t have a clue as to the nature of our own motivation, let alone anyone else’s. If this revelation is news to you and if you’ve never made a serious attempt to gain insight using what has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our minds work, then it is highly likely that you are as easily manipulated politically as if you were a string-bound puppet.

If we don’t know why we do the things we do, then we don’t know what prompts us to do as we do, and thus we can’t guard against being manipulated by people who are better acquainted with the research than we are.

Recent studies in psychology and neuroscience challenge conventional wisdom about our understanding of the functioning of what we call character. We assume ourselves to be consistent with regard to how we will act in particular circumstances, based on the persons we believe ourselves to be. But extensive psychological research reveals that changing the context of the circumstances we find ourselves in can dramatically alter how we will respond and that our actions, while predictable, will not be consistent with the way we would have thought we would act.

If we’re given a number, for example, and then asked to offer an estimate for an unrelated problem requiring a number for an answer, we are very likely to be influenced by the number first given that had nothing to do with question at hand. If we’re reminded of our mortality and then asked a question requiring judgment, our response will likely be much harsher than it would have been if we had not been reminded of our own death.

The number of instances in which our response to circumstance can be altered by changing the context is mindboggling and equally disturbing because it leaves us open to manipulation to sales and political strategies that we are unaware of. 

Now for the hard part. What complicates and exacerbates our ability to achieve consensus is the natural difference in the degree to which liberals and conservatives are open to experience, in the way they relate to change and novelty, and in their relationship with and to authority.         

Research in moral psychology shows that conservatives are more tribalistic than liberals, less open to new experience and change, and more apt to revere and respect authority. Conservatives often think liberals are disrespectful to authority, while liberals view conservatives as being too submissive and too eager to conform. Some liberals are not only open to change, they actually prefer a kaleidoscopic reorganization of ideas because of the endorphin rush it provides, while conservatives find this baffling and unnerving. Even so, both liberal and conservative approaches to governance are absolutely necessary for the democratic process to work, because venturing too far in either direction is a recipe for disaster.  

In a nutshell, if we don’t appreciate the full spectrum of human disposition as being necessary to form an equitable and respectful society, then it is likely that, although the Internet and social media can be used as constructive tools, they will also be used just as often as weapons.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Primate Passion vs. Law and Order

© Charles D. Hayes

Futurist John Naisbitt once equated high tech with high touch. These days high touch is eclipsed by high surveillance. Not only has video technology made us much more aware of police brutality and the use of excessive force, it also offers us the security of policing the police and witnessing disputed situations on behalf of the police.

To put law enforcement in perspective, we first have to have a better understanding of our human behavioral predispositions and the troublesome clash that arises when duty puts peace officers at odds with their biological inclinations. We also have to take into account the self-protective organizational hierarchies law enforcement officers belong to that circle the wagons when there are complaints about police behavior. I’ve experienced both firsthand.

When the name Rodney King comes up, most people who were adults in 1991 have images of a man lying on the ground being beaten by police officers. Then there was the confrontation with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department, which garnered national attention in 2009, when the professor was arrested as a result of having been reported as a suspicious person at his own residence.

Fast forward to more recent times, and it’s hard to forget the video of a California highway patrolman sitting on top of a woman while he pummels her face with his fists. In another situation, we watched a police officer walking in front of a row of people seated calmly on the ground in handcuffs as he pepper sprays them like someone applying garden fertilizer. And now we have the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rioting that followed.

What is happening when we witness an officer beating on someone who is clearly no longer resisting is that emotion has taken over and the incident is running on instincts being driven by hormones. Thoughtfulness and control at this point have been overridden by biological impulse, and when more than one police officer is involved, they begin to take their cues from one another as the emotion takes on a life of its own.

Biology makes clear that we human beings are primates, and without sufficient self-awareness of this fact or open acknowledgment of its reality, we can be depended upon to act instinctively in ways very similar to our simian cousins.     

All primates are subconsciously hyperaware of hierarchy and dominance. We may not dwell on these things consciously, but we sense intuitively who is and is not dominant in all social situations. This is easily demonstrable by randomly examining body language in group settings. And, as Erich Fromm observed many years ago, it’s when we deny our animal nature that it can manifest in its worst forms.

Between our ears is a virtual bias-generating machine that works 24/7 to protect us from harm and surprise. It pays careful attention to our sense of identity and the dynamics of our in-group-out-group relationships. Our gray matter notices most everything, and it makes big assumptions on scant observations, keeping meticulous records beneath our awareness. Claiming that one is not biased is to deny one’s brain its fundamental function. Bias is what we rely on to confirm the perceptions we live by. The form of bias in need of remedy is an assumed prejudice that has congealed into a stereotype and is socially harmful to others.

Our subconscious is home to a vast repository of learned assumptions based on clichéd evidence. When occasions arise that trigger them, we intuit the associated biased emotions as representing straight-up reality. The result is known as confirmation bias.     

Asking people if they are racially prejudiced is a senseless thing to do, since our conscious selves don’t have direct intellectual access to the enormous emotional database in our subconscious. Not many people will admit to being racist, but statistics prove without a shadow of a doubt that racism is still very much alive in the present.

By any objective standards, our demographics show that the American criminal justice system’s egregiously disproportional harsh treatment of minorities is a national disgrace. As such it makes a mockery of our country’s founding principles about being born equal. If you have the slightest doubt about the veracity of this statement, read Michelle Alexander’s stunning exposé The New Jim Crow.

Overcoming racial bias is an incredibly difficult thing to do because the emotional coding that establishes racial bias takes place beneath our conscious awareness. For law enforcement officers, overcoming racial bias is an extraordinary challenge that requires constant mindfulness, continuous effort, introspection, counseling, and resolute supervision.

It’s critical to understand that when officers work in neighborhoods with large ethnic minority populations, the fact that their interactions with the residents are often negative will reinforce whatever prejudice they have already learned or will set the stage for implanting prejudice in the future. Thus, the seeds for racial profiling are sown in a rich mixture of emotional experience that in time will set up like concrete.

This is not rocket science, but it may as well be because we’re not benefitting as we should from knowledge gained through unrelenting research in neuroscience, human psychology, primatology, and anthropology. We like to consider ourselves to be far above behaving with animalistic inclinations, and so we prefer to ignore any reminders that we have them. But by no stretch of the imagination are we exempt from primate behavior, and we pay a heavy price for not facing the truth. 

We are territorial and tribalistic creatures. We take things like home, country, personal space, and group identity very seriously. And to be able to adapt to all of the behavioral situations we are likely to encounter, our inherent physiological processes enable us to gear up and rise to the social occasions we find before us.

When our primate cousins encounter social hierarchy, their hormones adjust accordingly. So do ours. For example, when a low-ranking male ape suddenly finds himself in an alpha male role, his levels of testosterone will shoot up accordingly. Put a uniform, a badge, and a gun on a man or a woman, and precisely the same thing happens. I know this is true from personal experience and extensive observation.

When police officers and citizens come together, a brain chemical reaction occurs in all present. Those who view the officer as someone to trust are likely to experience increased levels of oxytocin—sometimes called the moral molecule. Those who see the officer as a threat will experience an increase in adrenaline and a spike of testosterone.

As primates we are wired for the potential of conflict escalation, and because of repeated exposure to extreme social situations, police officers are apt to suffer the consequences of their wiring working all too well. In my view, it is not an exaggeration to say that law enforcement officers are chemically conditioned to turn on their internal aggression switch and get an instant response. But the very fact that our hormones can induce behavior ranging from subservience to alpha-dominance, according to circumstance, suggests we can also be flexible and therefore trainable.

Police officers’ duties require them to be assertive, and they become accustomed to surging levels of adrenaline and higher than normal levels of testosterone. When incidents occur that call on them to rise to the occasion, thus causing elevated hormone levels, the result can be an automatic stance of privilege. This sense of entitlement can easily become corrosive—an alpha male or female feeling that dominance is always one’s prerogative by nature of one’s identity. It’s a kind of situational arrogance that comes after multiple incidents in which one is required to be the dominant individual simply in order to do one’s job as expected.

Put another way, a primate posture works better if one’s authority is so obvious that it will be clear to others from the outset that insubordination will not be tolerated. And thus, the act of appearing dominant is chemically self-reinforcing.

Fortunately there is another side to the brain chemical rewards associated with police work, namely, the ability to derive pleasure from empathy and altruism. The opportunities to experience both are ever-present in law enforcement. In point of fact, these rewards reinforce the stated goal of most law enforcement agencies, which is to protect and serve. This is the reason that some people are drawn to become peace officers and why they can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

Self-assurance and self-confidence is a best-case example of the use of authority in the performance of a policeman’s duties, but for some officers, their positional power begins to manifest as hair-trigger resentment when their orders are not followed immediately or when the actions of others are experienced as acts of disrespect. Especially when an officer’s unconscious bias machine has already imperceptibly identified the person encountered as someone assumed to be of a lower class, someone unworthy of respect, or someone whose insults would seem socially intolerable, an explosive injection of hormones is stimulated simply to regain one’s sense of official superiority.

Before I go any further, let me clarify that it is not my intent here to disparage, discredit, or defame police officers, nor am I defending or excusing abusive behavior on their part because of their biological predisposition. What I hope to show instead is that in many of the situations where police officers find themselves, their instincts are egregiously at odds with what they are expected to do. Without extensive training, disciplined self-awareness, and relentless oversight, they will likely become overly aggressive simply because they are acting in sync with their primate biology.

At the same time, because of the sensitive nature of their duties, we have to hold officers of the law accountable, even when—or especially when—they cross the line from being of service to citizens to abusing citizens, subverting the very reason for their existence. In my view, police officers who manage to control themselves in dire situations and perform their duties as expected are exemplary human beings and should be appreciated as such.

Police work is sometimes described as hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. Having experienced this feeling many times, I would describe it differently: it’s an endorphin rush that one not only gets used to but very likely learns to crave, seeking the feeling at every opportunity. Four decades have passed since I served as a police officer, and yet I still miss the excitement that occurs at a slot-machine frequency.

In large metropolitan areas emergency calls can be considered a routine part of police work. It seems fair to ask that law enforcement officers and their management be on alert for the possibility that the desire for a rush of adrenaline on the part of people conditioned to seek excitement can bring about an unconscious effort among officers to up the ante of events for the benefit of what amounts to an addictive experience.

In every occupation, we find people who do not belong and whose behavior damages the reputation of their organization. Unfortunately, although the qualification requirements for peace officers are very high, we are not yet experts at weeding out people who don’t have the temperament for police work. 

All hierarchal organizations have a tendency to close ranks with self-protective measures when threated. Law enforcement organizations, by nature of their dangerous and difficult role in society, are bound emotionally in loyalty to one another, and it would be unnatural, even disappointing, if they weren’t.

The dark side of loyalty in law enforcement, however, is where the most dangerous and malfunctioning inclinations of our animalistic behavior come into play. It begins when officers become accustomed to using excessive force with management’s approval or indifference. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko writes, “Cops who rat out other cops tend not to remain cops for very long. Lying and exaggerating in police reports and on the witness stand isn’t just common, it’s routine and expected. It’s a part of the job.” Under these conditions, the cure can be worse than the disease. 
This is when technology can come into play. We know without question that people behave differently when they’re aware someone is watching. Even a happy face on the wall in a break room is likely to increase donations in a voluntary coffee fund.

In some ways, the growing paranoia in America about living in a surveillance society can be justified. But when it comes to law enforcement, justice can’t be blind and still be just if we human beings have a biological predisposition that threatens our impartiality when we are under stress. To achieve objectivity in law enforcement, oversight is a necessity. We have the technology to protect both police officers and citizens, and the expense of doing so pales in comparison to the social anguish that can be avoided.

In every case where police officers have begun to wear cameras, complaints of abuse have dropped dramatically. This happens because officers are not as apt to lose control of their emotions when their actions are being recorded. Likewise, the people they encounter or place under arrest are less inclined to resist, act out, or become belligerent when they are aware that proof of their actions will be documented.

I know from my own experience that there are times when police officers have to act angry even when they’re not, simply to quell a disturbance. Repeated frequently enough, however, this kind of experience can easily lead to increased adrenaline and testosterone conditioning for instantaneous aggression, just as working out with weights increases muscle strength.       

Think of it this way. When actors and actresses perform under the vigilant eye of a movie camera, they learn to bring forth on cue and express the full range of human emotions while being in complete control every step of the way. Surely, with extensive training, we can expect peace officers to play their parts in society and act as we need them to act without losing complete control of their emotions.     

Cameras are not a panacea. Their use requires strict standards and allowances for civil rights and privacy issues. Moreover, tolerance for glitches and blackouts occurring during critical incidents is both unacceptable and intolerable. An electronic eye on one’s shoulder is a constant reminder that justice is the expected objective in every public encounter. Having been a police officer myself, I would have no qualms, whatsoever, about wearing a camera. I would consider it proof of my intentions, and I would feel it was for my protection as well as a public benefit.

Regardless of race, creed, or color, every citizen in this country is due the respect afforded every other citizen. Police organizations have a duty and a moral obligation to protect and serve, and the best way for management to meet that obligation is to serve the public interest as intended with recognition of our basic human tendencies and acceptance of visual and audio scrutiny of actions by police as a way to better protect both the officers and the public.

While this is not rocket science, we should pretend that it’s equally important. Until we do so, we aren’t likely to achieve a truly just society.    

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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

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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. 

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