November 2016 Archives

Orwell Redux

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Orwell

Okay, so I am getting over my depression, but not my fear. Running the US is not like running a business. Appearances really matter. The events of the last few days should serve as a warning for those who voted for Trump looking for understanding and relief. The appointments of more very wealthy folks who are, perhaps, even more out of touch with your concerns than the so-called elites you voted to oust. And there are many more to come.

Last night Ruth and I and friends went to see the moving, Loving, the story of the successful Supreme Court case than threw out state laws banning interracial marriage. As we walked out, I wondered if we would have to go through all of that again. Since Loving, we have freed others who seek loving (small “l”), committed relationships to realize their deepest intentions. Care for others beats all the trumped up reasons that stand in the way. I have written about care as the most basic of the human essence. Nowhere is it more evident than in the cases where two human beings who do not fit the mold of the majority exhibit the deepest form of caring.

That we see this evidenced in these loving acts and lives is better proof than all the theory or philosophy I and others use to establish our claims about care as underpinning human existence. I am very concerned that the inclusion of relationships that do not fit the mold of those holding political power has been endangered. Certainly the rhetoric of the election process suggests that, and the lack of explicit repudiation of that rhetoric reinforces it.

If I had to find a single word to describe the reasons that people voted for Donald Trump, I would pick care or, better, the lack of it from both the public and the private sectors. One could hear in all the news stories, “Nobody cares about me.” Ironically, the predominant anger was directed against the government when it should have been aimed at the private sector. Ironic because this is the selfsame set of institutions that is supposed to be the savior. Jobs are not lost because of the government. Jobs disappear as a natural process of capitalism and free market economies. They are supposed to as technology makes work more and more efficient.

Jobs go as the wealth produced by the economy goes disproportionally to the already wealthy. If it were not for public policies that attempt to level the playing field, the imbalance would be even greater. Trade deficits are indicators that we in the US buy more from abroad than we sell. That is the result of the availability of cheaper goods than we can produce even if our economy is more efficient. Efficiency cannot beat lower wages at come point. Putting tariffs to level the playing field would make it much harder to buy the goods that the poorer people do have. Those who voted for Trump should do an inventory of what they own and count up comes from overseas.

I used irony above but should really use a word with a much more sinister tone, doublespeak. George Orwell especially and others warned us against what has become known as “doublespeak.” Here’s its definition from Wikipedia:

Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., “downsizing” for layoffs, “servicing the target” for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (e.g., “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.

Orwell, the author of 1984 where this idea of doublespeak became well known, wrote in a more academic piece,

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness … the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, …

The word “insincerity” jumps out. Perhaps there have been other elections where insincerity and outright lying have been greater, but not in my quite long lifetime. I have voted in 16, maybe 17 Presidential elections and cannot remember one that came close to this. Orwell’s novel ends very badly for those concerned with authoritarianism and freedom. The danger of being bamboozled grows immensely when the press is a captive of the authorities or vice versa. I doubt if Donald Trump has ever read 1984, but, judging from the attacks against a responsible and free press, some of his advisors and plotters have. Now with technology enabling the ease of capturing the sources of truth by malicious or Machiavellian interests, protecting and supporting sources of information reflecting reality is essential. Reality may not be what is used to be, but there is a real difference between those to try to speak truths and those that deliberately do not.

Thinking about all those that think they “won,” I believe that will be bitterly disappointed or worse. I also believe it is already too late to do much about forestalling the disappointment. But is it not too soon to assure that there are strong and independent voices that will not allow the inevitable anger be directed at the wrong targets. History points to the extraordinary threats to freedom when it does. Given that some of this has already begun, those that treasure their own freedom should/must protect the freedom of those unjustly being blamed or risk losing their own.

Photo: George Orwell

Getting Ready for Turkey Day

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turkeys

I wish I were talking about cooking for our Thanksgiving gathering. Many years ago, I aspired to a political job to run a regional Federal agency. I was on the short list and due for an interview. I prepared myself by getting up to date on what I thought were the most important issues facing the Agency. When the interview finally happened, I got through the first few questions, but was unprepared by the next that was, “How will you deal with all the turkeys.” I have forgotten my response. It made little difference as the job went to someone whose political credentials were far greater than mine.

The question has stuck with me and arises quadrennially. Governing this vast country gets harder every year and requires thoughtful people to keep it inside some unknown bounds of stability. I have long given up on any ideological set of rules that will suffice. The world, including every nation with it, is complex and pays little heed to any fixed rules. I have always been located on the liberal side of the political balance, largely because I think any potential solution to the barriers to a fairer society has to be discovered anew, not by looking backwards, even to ideas that may have worked previously.

I am not dissing ideas, but what matters are not the ideas per se, but how well the ideas fit the immediate situations. In complex systems, ideas are always and only starting positions. The infinite possibilities in an ever unpredictably changing world rules out the likelihood that any idea will work for very long. Just think about the election. Virtually every plan will have unintended consequences. The bigger than plan, the larger these consequences may be. Just look at the mess in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Inequality grows as capitalism works its ways. Climate change comes along.

The only, and I do mean only, way towards a satisfactory resolution of situations like this is to have thoughtful, committed people working on them. Russ Ackoff called such kinds of situations, “messes”; others call them “wicked problems.” Ackoff used the word “dissolve” to point to solutions that eliminated or greatly reduced the problematic situation. Importantly, he called the activities necessary to make the problem dissolve, “research.” That usage means than no easy solution to messes is ready at hand. If it were, one might ask has the problem hung around.


Research on complex problems requires pragmatic methods. The usual abstractions of ideologies and scientific principles and facts do not apply to process of understanding complex systems. Their complexity, in part, is due to the failure to be able to reduce them to such rules and laws. Pragmatism, in turn, requires a cadre of committed, concerned inquirers to wrestle with the system and try to pull its secrets out. Turkeys will not suffice.

In their first meeting, President Obama said of the President-elect, “I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic, and that can serve him well, as long as he’s got good people around him.” I think President Obama made a serious categorical error here. The opposite of ideological is not pragmatic. Pragmatic applies to a very specific methodology for understanding complexity and for interacting with complex systems. It requires care, inquiry, and the monitoring of any intervention. Unsuccessful attempts, whether they move the system in the wrong direction or produce significant unintended consequences, must be modified. It is not easy to track the results of interventions (policy); patience is always necessary.

The lack of ideas, knowledge, or specific programs does not turn into pragmatism automatically. Much of the time it turns into chaos. One critical, essential characteristic of pragmatists is humility and a willingness to suspend those beliefs that don’t appear to be effective. My first impression of those involved in the transition is that this trait is largely missing. Rittel and Webber, who coined the phrase, wicked problem, note that solutions to complex problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. Unlike technicians of all ilks, those who would solve wicked problems have no right to be wrong. They cannot blame the error of the abstract rules for failure. There is a deep-rooted moral responsibility involved.

I am disappointed by the election results for many reasons. With a few days to think about the outcome, I can explain my feelings in the arguments of this blog post. Democrats, as a generalization, are more committed to making government work. That fits my observations that, with all its warts, it is an essential institution. If we neglect it and turn toward the market as the solution to all problems, we will be making a great mistake. I am not being ideological here. My conclusion comes from a look at history and some knowledge about how markets do work vice how they are supposed to work.

Economists and political scientists tend to reduce the essence of political economy to mathematical abstractions. Economists are better at doing this than political scientists, which may be one reason markets appeal more to ideologues than does government. It seems clear to me and (many, many) others than some combination is always necessary, but getting that right is very difficult. Again, humility, not hubris, is needed.

I am almost finished with my new book and am getting ready to find someone to publish it. The three most important words in it are flourishing, complexity, and caring. This blog focuses on the second of these. My disappointment stretched however to the other two. I do not hear a lot about what I would call caring coming from those preparing to take the reins of government. Nor do I hear much about flourishing as I define it.

Ready, fire, aim

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readyfireaim

The election result is being explained by any number of causes, but the one I see most invoked is anger at the government and its associated “elites” to provide jobs and a livelihood for many in the lower and lower middle economic classes. I accept the facts of pervasive unemployment, but I think these citizens have the cause wrong. Not only wrong but ironically wrong for their hopes are based on the success of the incoming Trump, conservative government, who are about to make life worse for these folks.

The primary culprit of their situation is not government but capitalism itself as it operates today. The financial sector, which employs a negligible number of the present disaffected classes, channels a large amount of wealth generation to the already wealthy. At last count this sector’s share of all profits was about 40%.

Next factor is the disparity in income between bosses and workers. There is a lot of variation in published data, but the following data from a report by the Economic Policy Institute appears to be typical:

The CEO-to-worker compensation ratio, 20-to-1 in 1965, peaked at 376-to-1 in 2000 and was 303-to-1 in 2014, far higher than in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

This upward trend is due in part to falling wages over the past several decades. I cannot find any way to attribute this situation to any failure of the part of government except its failure to exert more control. Hardly the message that was used to attract these disaffected voters.

The third factor is the pace of disruptive innovation. A, if not the, primary cause of worker displacement is structural change due to technological innovations which substitute for labor. Whole sectors wax and wane with large scale impacts of opportunities for worker. New openings for high-wage skilled technically trained workers cannot match losses due to the new technologies. Replacing toll collectors with automated systems is a good example, but is but one of many such displacements.

The free market ideology that is help out to be a plus for these unemployed tends to be just the opposite. In theory, a free, perfect market should be the most efficient in generating GDP. But markets are far from perfect. The costs of social displacement and environmental/health damage are, at best, only partly reflected in the cost of goods. The models used to guide the political economy of a society can examine and maximize efficiency and output, but at the expense of equity and fairness. The work of Thomas Piketty has shown that growing capitalistic economies tend to increase inequity as a systemic effect.

Most schools of management or business are founded on economic theories that stress efficiency and growth. Profit and growth remains the dominant normative goals of virtually all large firms and many smaller ones. MBA’s, who have little understanding of what a firm really does, populate higher management echelons. They are guided by the abstract rules and metrics they learn in business schools.

Neither is trade the villain. Trade raises the whole ship as does a rising tide, but showers its fruits unevenly, displacing some workers while enabling those with income to dispose of having access to cheaper goods that would have been produced in the absence of trade.

I could continue for some time. I know that many will pick at these reasons as not being accurate. I am not an economist or MBA and accept that I may deviate in degree, but I am convinced that the overall picture I am painting is correct. The culprit is not the government, except as not doing enough. It is the capitalistic system as constituted today.

Most industrially advance nations recognize the structural nature of unemployment and displacement and attempt to compensate through redistribution in some form or other. Some aid may come in direct payments or through access to free or subsidized necessary services like health care, education, or retirement income.

All such programs involve some form of public policy as opposed to the working of a free, unfettered capitalistic market. They are based on both experience and sound theory. They are never perfect, but have responded to the same kinds of concerns that propelled the Trump victory in this election.

I am quite upset by this turn of events because it threatens to set the clock back, possibly a long way back, in some arenas most back to the beginning. What I have written in this blog post is not motivated by these threats as much as it by the likelihood almost certainty that those who have been told everything will be just fine, even great again, will see their fortunes ebb even further. I am sad, almost to the point of tears, when I try to adjust to the results. We have come a long way from Hobbes’s times when the role of government was more clearly juxtaposed against an anarchic alternative.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I find it very interesting and, again ironic, to read his concern that, without a functional social contract and its implementation in the form of government, we would lack trade, adequate knowledge, arts, but not fear. In the language of today, we might say that without the order furnished by the public sector, we would live at the mercy of the private sector. Not a good idea. Both are necessary, but always in some sort of balance. History does have lessons for us and to ignore the past is not a good idea. But conversely the future is never like the past and past lessons always must be altered and shaped to fit the present.

Today I will limit my comments to the irony I have discussed, but I reserve future space to discuss the criticality of understanding the way the immediate world is working. Ignorance or denial is very, very dangerous. Given the daunting challenges of understanding the complex world, the best we can do toward such understanding may be very limited, but, no matter, we must keep trying. If we do not, our plans will be fated as Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley. An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!(To A Mouse)” Just imagine what he might have written about plans that have little or no basis.

Synchronicity

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clef

Just after I hit save for the last post, a remarkable thing happened. I listen to streaming classical music as I work. Literally as I posted the blog piece on hope, I heard the first few familiar notes of one of my very favorite, but rarely played, pieces: Vincent d’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air.” I find this piece one of the most hopeful pieces of music I know. I can’t say why, but it always raises my spirits. Another example of synchronicity.

Hope

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tears

I have been away for a couple of weeks touring the French and Italian Rivieras, ending with a few days in Florence, Dante’s home. In just a few days I have gone from Paradiso to Purgatorio. One of my faithful followers (R. S.) implored me today to write something hopeful. I am not sure that I can find the right words today. The image on the left reflects my state of mind. Like many of you, I am profoundly sad. But I have been collecting hope-filled quotes for some time. Here are a few of my favorites. I am particularly taken by Václav Havel’s words, as he lived through a lifetime of oppression, but saw his dreams realized eventually. I hope (sic) we never get to the state he had to live through, but the book from which this first quote comes should be on your book shelf just in case.

A genuine, profound and lasting change for the better […] can no longer result from the victory […] of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps […] it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed. (Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, p.30)

Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not dependent on some observation of the world. Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizons.…Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.…It is not the conviction, that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is Hope, above all, which gives the strength to live and continually try new things. (Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace (1986), Chapter 5: The Politics of Hope)

You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said “optimism” is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to “hope,” which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic. (Cornel West, not sure of source)

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.” (Cornel West, not sure of source)

“Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism. I’m in no way an optimist. I’ve been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called “The Sentiment of Rationality,” where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that’s what I’m talking about.” (Cornel West, from the 1993 commencement speech at Wesleyan University)

Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it…The worst is always what the hopeful are prepared for. Their trust in life would not be worth much if it had not survived disappointments in the past, while the knowledge that the future holds further disappointments demonstrates the continuing need for hope…Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t. (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Human, p. 81)

“The world, unfortunately, rarely matches our hopes and consistently refuses to behave in a reasonable manner.” (S. J. Gould)