Friday, December 28, 2012

Bridging Our Separateness

As I look over the books I've read this year I count about 12 that are either purely focused on our economic system or are in large part about it. There are three or four that I would highly recommend. But none of them goes as deep as the gift of Charles Eisenstein's recent Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Community in an Age of Transition unwrapped on Christmas morning which has been an inspiring early morning companion since. The combination of Eisenstein's courteous tone, his layered analysis, and his weaving of so many disciplines in a prose that is not burdened with elitist lingo has made this a joy to savor and reflect on.

Like any profound work this one unsettles some pretty solid foundations with some gentle, but powerful observations and hypotheses.  I say this with the acknowledgment that I am only 75 pages into a 458 page tome. His idea of sacred "embodies the interrelatedness and uniqueness of all things" and "reunites long-sundered realms of human and nature; it is an extension of ecology that obeys all of its laws and bears all of its beauty."

There are four parts to this work: 1)" a fundamental analysis of what has gone wrong with money; 2) describes a more beautiful world based upon a different kind of money and economy; 3) explains collective actions necessary to create that world and the means by which these actions come about; and 4) it explores the personal dimensions of the world transformation, the change in identity and being that [he] calls "living in the gift."

He unravels the threads of our history with the concept of money and how it furthers our separation from each other and the natural world that we are part of. There is so much to reflect on from nearly every page. One wants to devour it, like the perfect blueberry pie fresh from the oven, but one realizes that a slow savoring is all the more enriching and satisfying. No local bookstores or libraries hold this book, which keeps it too remote. It is published under the Creative Commons Attribution License making sharing of large portions of it permissable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Solstice Thought

"…the difficulties we’re encountering in solving our environmental problems aren’t scientific or technological, they’re social. As some of these essays point out, many scientists and researchers agree that we already know what must be done to achieve sustainability and even how to do it; we just aren’t acting.

Second, relying on science or technology to save us from our environmental problems is a fool’s game, because both science and technology are a reflection of society. If we don’t commit as a society to change, science and technology will get us nowhere and in fact will take us even faster down an unsustainable path, because that’s where we’re already heading."

David Suzuki and Dave Robert Taylor The Big Picture: Reflections on Science, Humanity, and a Quickly Changing Planet. Vancouver, Greystone Books, 2009  P. 271

Geneticist Dr. Suzuki is hardly anti-science. What he recognizes is our society's seemingly unlimited faith in science and technology. Of course we hear the endless chanting for more education for "science and mathematics" as if somehow if we raise those students scores all of our issues will melt away (maybe literally with climate change). As I noted in my most recent posting, we need more education of the heart. Maybe more art and music and less physics and math?A better overview of this need can be seen in this RSA Animate talk recently posted by philosopher and author Roman Krznaric. 

In a few hours we in the Northern hemisphere will begin the slow sojourn to longer days. Let us use this movement towards spring to prepare for planting seeds for a more sustainable way of living together. May we grow more empathy, fewer weapons, and a more just world for all we share it with.

Happy Solstice! let there be light and let your light shine.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Is There an Excuse to Wait?

As I was  reading the new autobiography of Kofi Annan – “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace” last night wherein he describes the unraveling of Somalia in the early 1990s, I was struck that the same forces that allowed that kind of massacre to take place were at work in Newtown last week. I believe that second amendment absolutists are partially right, that guns are only part of the problem. The more fundamental problem is one we’re more afraid to address than gun control.

It is this notion of revenge or vengeance that plagues us. And on a more crowded planet with finite resources we might expect those tussles could become more frequent. But we have been shown that there is another way to live –  Jesus, Gandhi,  King, and Rachel Corrie demonstrated the way to peace. But thus far we have rarely been brave enough to travel  that path. 

Meanwhile our culture celebrates  vengeance. Click on TNT or a multitude of television network programming and we become mesmerized and numbed by the violence often shrouded in  some vindicatory guise. How many of the blockbuster films are built on this theme featuring the caricatures of James Bond or Jason Bourne or a myriad other macho guys destroying the enemy? Even President Obama seemed to take pleasure in the gunning down of Osama Bin Laden and the use of unmanned drones to obliterate others, regardless of innocents who may be ‘unfortunately’ nearby.

NFL highlights celebrate the crushing blows on opponents, while hockey fans relish a check that sends the opponent to the ice. Our modern day gladiators help foster the honoring of vengeance and retribution. Even our economic system celebrates running the competition out of business so that they can grab more of the market. The political system more and more seems to be us vs. them. Do we really believe for even a minute,  that spiraling gun deployment, especially with semi-automatic weapons (are not these weapons of mass destruction – and thereby illegal under international law?), or of stationing more armed guards in every public place will protect us from the epidemic of violence that is so glorified in our economic, political, and cultural systems? I think not.

I believe we need to first recognize the ways that violence and vengeance are endemic to our current culture. Then we need to name them and turn away from them - individually, in families, churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, in communities, states, nations and as a human family. We need to take the profit out of those activities and the makers of them. 

There are many among us who have done this and have been showing  us the way. They are the peacemakers. Support them, join them   with time, money, talent, whatever you can  give. Locally that includes the Peace Education Center, Michigan Peace Team, Greater Lansing Network Against War and Injustice, Amnesty International, and Pax Christi to name a few.  Peacemaking takes courage, more courage than taking a gun and aiming it at an enemy. Find your courage and join with the other peacemakers nearby. Our children and grandchildren need you be brave.

A.J. Muste, Fellowship of Reconciliation leader and active for many years in the War Resisters’ League perhaps said it best, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Let’s take the first step today.We needa revolution of the heart.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Subliminal and the Spiritual

I completed two books this week that overlap significantly. Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior  and George Vaillant's Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. Both involve a review of research around what we know about our brains and how they work. Mlodinow, a physicist and author of  A Drunkard's Walk  in often humorous and engaging prose unveils how what we believe to be true about our thinking, just ain't necessarily so. Readers of this tome will be hard pressed not to look at ourselves and our actions in much more humbling ways. Conversely we may be able to accept others more easily as we see how the brain works it's complex magic on each of us.

Vaillant is a senior MD from Harvard who has done long-term work (35+ years) with patients and has, like Mlodinow, followed the development of science's most recent understanding of the brain. He writes from a compassionate and empathetic voice about what he calls the 'positive emotions' - compassion, forgiveness, hope, love, joy, faith/trust, awe and gratitude - and their evolution in humanity writ large as well as over the individual lifespan. His work and study leads him to believe, despite some contrary evidence, that humans are evolving towards the more 'positive' emotions. His examples and his thesis are laid out clearly and with the same compassion and empathy he believes and his evidence supports grow as we age.

Vaillant also wrestles with the tug-of-war between spirituality and science. He offers some useful distinctions between religion and spirituality in the process. For example he offers Maren Batalden's definition of spirituality as a guidepost:

Spirituality is derived from spirit, which is from the Latin "breath." Spirituality, like breathing, is a participation in this animating energy that cycles through time and space to create and sustain all life. Through spiritual practice we come to know ourselves in interdependent relation to the universe. We learn to live as radically responsive to the needs and desires of others as we come to see ourselves as integrally connected. Through this discipline of understanding our connectedness to all life and the source of all life, we grow in humility, reverence and openness. Inevitably, a deep and abiding gratitude awakens.

Each book, in its own unique way was uplifting. They provide a glimpse of humans as having the potential to build better relationships and communities with less strife and stress. Neither professes a silver bullet theory to follow, but each opens up our understanding of who we are and how our capacity for empathy and compassion offer a hope that we may yet steer away from tragedies that appear ahead. Of course, the decisions in the past couple of days by the Michigan legislature and governor don't exactly fuel that belief.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Are Wage Ratios an Answer?

Regardless of the outcome of this month's Washington political response to the economic situation, you can rest assured that the gap between the rich and the poor will continue. Catching a few crumbs off the tables of the rich if not given right back to them through other tax loopholes or deregulation will hardly change the shape of the graphs of inequality. Yet as Nobel economist Jospeh Stiglitz writes in his op ed piece today,

A comprehensive program to increase economic opportunity and reduce inequality is also needed – its goal being to remove, within the next decade, America’s distinction as the advanced country with the highest inequality and the least social mobility. This implies, among other things, a fair tax system that is more progressive and eliminates the distortions and loopholes that allow speculators to pay taxes at a lower effective rate than those who work for a living, and that enable the rich to use the Cayman Islands to avoid paying their fair share.

Even the more 'progressive' pundits seem straitjacketed in some voodoo like pragmatism when talking about inequality. With this mentality our forebears a century ago would not have asked for a 40 hour work week, they might have been satisfied with 'no more additional hours' tacked on 60+ work week. I'd like to see a serious discussion of options to deal with the obscene inequality that has concentrated power in fewer and fewer hands within our democracy. So let's start here to broaden the boundaries of  the discussion.

If we were starting from scratch wouldn't we want everyone to have the basics in life so that they might pursue the development of their capabilities and build a better world for themselves, their children and their grandchildren? I suspect that there might be a vocal minority who would suggest such a thought is socialistic, but I'd bet most people would support such a principle. That no one should be, for example, hungry or without shelter.

I believe we can do this, but not by playing a game that is designed to reward winners without care for the well-being of the losers. Even war has rules that recognize such an impoverishment of losers is wrong. We recognize, again most all humans do, that we live on a single finite planet and that there are more of us now then when we were born (regardless of when that was). So given those finite limitations we must determine how to share the resources, both between current generations, and between present and future generations. One way to do this is prescribe limits. We can allow for the bottom limit that anyone needs to survive and make sure everyone has that much. But we could also limit how much one is allowed to hoard for themselves.

Oh my god, big government is going to tell us what to do!!! No, we could decide this democratically, both the lower limit and any upper limit. And I'm open to what those limits might look like. The U.S. median family income (that amount that 50% of families earn more than and 50% earn less than) is and has hovered at about $50,000 (low of $48K, high of $54K) for almost two decades.

So to be clear I'm not suggesting that every family gets $50,000 a year. The poverty rate for a family of our is about $23,000. So for easy math purposes let's call a minimum income $20,000 for a family. Might we  consider a top rate? One way to think about this is by using a ratio - 10 times, 20 times, 100 times the minimum. An advantage of this approach is that as the minimum goes up the maximum can go up proportionately.

So if we think a family should be able to live at poverty threshold for $20,000/year and we also believe that a single adult should be able to provide income for a family, the minimum wage for a 40 hour work week would be almost exactly $10/hr a third higher than current minim wage. If we were to tie top wages via a ratio then they could make $200,000 (10 times), $400,000( 20 times), or $2,000,000 (100 times) etc.
We could use the ratios within workplaces (Ben and Jerry;s had an 8 times rule, Judy Wick's White Dog Cafe had a 6 times rules between the owner and the dishwasher). One argument against using the ratio for annual incomes is that when you compound the advantage year after year the gulf in wealth grows dramatically.

So maybe, as Robley George proposes in his book "Socioeconomic Democracy" we need to have a Maximum Allowable Wealth (MAW) that is determined regularly by a vote of the majority just as they determine the Universal Basic Income (UBI). This approach allows the public to determine, based upon current conditions and forecasts what seems the best limits.

Maybe these ideas are not exactly the ones we need to repair the great inequality between us. But if we don't discuss different approaches, we can be sure that we will continue to compound the gap between the rich and poor not only in our society, but globally. If there is anyone out there that thinks growing that gulf is a good idea, I suspect you stopped reading before now.

Is there some moral limit as to "Too Much" or "Too Little" especially in an increasingly crowded and finite world? Do we who have so much have some responsibility to address this and to offer credible solutions so that others may prosper and that we may all avoid the threat of dispossessed citizens of our planet to rally up from anger and frustration against those they perceive have unjustly benefited at their expense, be they governments, individuals, or corporations?

Just as the threats of climate change seem to grow with each passing study completed, so too must we recognize the dual peril of the growth in inequality. Truly sustainable solutions must solve for the same time. And to do this, we'll need every one's ideas and good faith at the table. 'Cuz whether we like it or not, we're all in this together.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Power of Outrospection

I can't explain exactly why, but the RSA Animate folks approach to taking complex ideas and presenting them in 10-12 minute animations that combine fantastic drawing with TEDx type talks really 'animate' me.

They only do a handful a year and they just posted one yesterday, that you might take the almost 11 minutes to watch. The title is "The Power of Outrospection" and is an animated talk by Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric who explains how we can help drive social change by stepping outside ourselves. There are only 13 other animations, among my favorites (I haven't viewed them all yet) are the one on education ("Changing Paradigms") and the one on the "Crisis of Capitalism".

We all learn differently so maybe these won't speak to everyone, but they are easy to miss. In fact I wouldn't have found this if I hadn't come back to the site this evening to send a link to the education animation sparked by a long discussion with a colleague today. I believe the quality is amplified by the fact that the basic talk that is animated, would be compelling in its own right. The animation just seems to add some additional quality, one substantially different than either pictures or power points might add.

While I emphasize the process above, the content is very thoughtful and timely for anyone puzzling how we might steer clear of the impending crises that seem to grow more visible with each passing day. A Google search of the author turns up significant  information including:

After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, he studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD. He has taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University and City University, London, and has done human rights work in Central America with refugees and indigenous people. For several years he was Project Director at The Oxford Muse, the avant-garde foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life. He regularly speaks at public events on topics such as empathy, the history of love, the future of work, and the art of living. Recent appearances include the Edinburgh International Festival, the Latitude Arts Festival and the London Design Festival.
His latest books are The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live, which explores what we can learn from the past about better living, and How to Find Fulfilling Work, part of a new practical philosophy series edited by Alain de Botton. He is the author of a book on what sport can teach us about life, The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis and, with the historian Theodore Zeldin, edited Guide to an Unknown University. Roman’s books are currently being translated into over a dozen languages. His blog dedicated to empathy and the art of living, Outrospection, has been featured in the media around the world.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

End of Uneconomic Growth

I'm reading among other things, Jorgen Randers' new 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Dr. Randers was one of the authors of the 1972 classic Limits to Growth. In 2052 he looks forward 40 years based in part what has been measured and observed from 40 years ago when Limits to growth was published. He also relies on insights collected from a large team of thinkers in conjuring up his forecast. One of those he asked for thoughts about the future was noted economist and former World Bank official, Herman Daly. In a brief piece entitled "The End of Uneconomic Growth" Daly has the following to say.

..I think economic growth has already ended in the sense that the growth that continues is uneconomic; it costs more than it is worth at the margin and makes us poorer rather than richer. We still call it economic growth, or simply "growth" in the confused belief that growth must always be economic. I contend that we have reached the economic limit to growth but we don't know it, and desperately hide the fact by faulty national accounting, because growth is our idol and to stop worshiping it is anathema.... We do not really want to know when growth becomes uneconomic because then we should stop growing at that point -- and we don't know how to run a steady-state economy, and we are religiously committed to an ideology of "no limits." To maintain this state of delusion we confuse two distinct meanings of the term "economic growth." Sometimes it refers to the growth of that thing we call the economy (the physical subsystem of our world made up of the stocks of population and wealth and the flows of production and consumption). When the economy gets physically bigger we call the "economic growth." But the term also has a second,very different meaning. If an activity causes benefits to increase faster than costs, we call that "economic" activity. In this sense, "economic growth" is growth that yields a net benefit or profit. Now, does "economic growth" in the first sense imply "economic growth" in the second sense? No, absolutely not. The idea that a bigger economy must always make us richer is pure confusion....In sum, I think that we have reached the limits to growth in the last forty years, but also that we have willfully denied it, much to the harm of most of us, but to the benefit of an elite minority who keep pushing the growth ideology, because they have found ways to privatize the benefits of growth while socializing the even greater costs. (pp. 73-76)

I refer the readers to two minute video where Prof. Emeritus of Physics Al Bartlett explains very clearly the problems associated with growth run amok and the human ability to deal with it. The growth emperor wears no clothes and it's past time for  us to say so publicly. It is a driver of both climate destabilization and income inequality, the twin challenges of our age. There are solutions that Daly, Randers and many others are offering, but they tend to be drowned out by the choir of politicians and media pundits. I'm glad we still have libraries!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is the Party Over?

Book Cover 
Is The Party Over?
I recently finished reading former Republican conservative Congressman Mickey Edwards’ “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans”. Edwards describes the underlying system forces that nurture partisanship, all of which were accelerated by Newt Gingrich’s Speakership of the House, but continued under Pelosi and Boehner. He discusses the rules, the gerrymandering, and the structuring of the spaces that push partisanship and offers suggestions on how to dissolve the barriers that foster the partisanship that besieges us. Edwards doesn’t believe the politicians tied to parties will change the rules that benefit them. He suggests that these changes will have to be driven by citizens. It’s not too early to review his remedies and decide if you want to work to see them implemented. We elect a new Congress in two more years, and you can bet everyone of them is already out raising money to beat back any challengers. One can see glimpses of the same forces invading state and local government circles as 'winner take all' approaches to governing overtake thoughtful dialogue and deliberation. More on the brighter side in another post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Cover
James Gustave Speth's new "America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy" is a seemingly perfect fit for a new blog on 'possibilities'. Speth, former UN Development Programme director, founder of World Resources Institute, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry, and many other influential positions over the past 40 years has written a tract that calls for 'progressives' to become more active and to reach out to other citizens to steer us away from the cliffs facing humanity. These are not the rhetorical 'fiscal cliff' but the ones that climate change and inequality are pushing us towards. As he has documented more thoroughly in his most recent books "Red Sky at Morning" and "Bridge at the Edge of the World", Speth chronicles our environmental challenges and couples it with a concurrent look at both the growing inequality and lack of real democracy that is shaping our growing plutocratic society.

But following the gloomy journal of woe, Speth turns to what might be possible if we would but come together to push for 'America the Possible'. He references many others who have offered ideas in each of the arenas he visits and gives directions to organizations and efforts working to reform the underlying economic, political, and environmental systems. His concerns have grown more desperate from his earlier works so that he fully supports Frederick Douglas' claim.

 "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one or a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Thus his manifesto for a new economy that weds the progressive interests in the environment, social and economic justice, and political involvement. This book won't make that happen, but those who read it may just get out of their armchairs more often to build America the Possible. His final chapter is entitled "The Movement" - it's a possibility, but only if we build it.