Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How to make a public servant

Politicians have outlived their usefulness. In a way, they became victims of their own success. The process of getting elected forces them to spend a great deal of their time focused on raising enough money to either get or keep their jobs. It also compromises their ability to remain objective and impartial.

I don't blame the politicians as much as I do the electorate we never even had. When our nation was founded, and only white landowning males voted, that tiny electorate more or less understood the issues facing their leadership, and were thus more competent to evaluate the candidates. Banking relied on trust and personal integrity, not credit scores. That select group of people knew and depended on many others, making it likely they'd know candidates personally or have a close associate who did. And even they were hard pressed to do much better than we can today.

Extremely few people are even capable of having much of an appreciation of what our government is and does today. Let alone what it should be doing, or which candidate is more likely to be effective. Our elections reflect this fact and are nothing more than marketing campaigns funded by the very people we don't want to have anything to do with our leadership--wealthy special interests. We can never have any real confidence in how any freshman will behave. And all we know about the rest is that everyone else they do business with pays them a lot more than we do as their employers.

I think we can simultaneously both fix the electorate (render it genuinely effective at identifying representative candidates) and make it possible for honest very ordinary people to successfully run for high office without having to raise any money. And we can do all of that without any changes to our present government. All we need is a means to make our political capital more tangible. We're much better at getting the most for our money than we are at spending our vote. (Murphy's Law guarantees that if we're capable of doing something wisely, and our stupidity doesn't kill us first, then we'll eventually find it by process of elimination. So we have that going for us.)

I don't know where it will happen, or exactly how, but I do see a most likely scenario that follows as a natural consequence of the present state of our world. I think it will begin in a small city, from an attempt save money by replacing their existing information systems with internet based services that do a far better job for less. These services, having been created by speculative developers competing to most empower city management, will be designed to harvest the insight of that community's electorate because that feature is likely to be regarded as useful to purchasers of such software and very cheap to provide by developers, (but wasn't even remotely justifiable prior to the internet, at any cost. The Open Government directive changes this by creating the funds that motivate the developers.)

Primary schools are likely to take advantage of this new opportunity to teach civics, and more children will become aware of the power of their parents' political capital, and the opportunities that exist to deploy it. Likewise, noteworthy members of the community with hopes of becoming council members, or simply a whole lot to say to their leadership, will become prominent in discussions of the issues at the city's web site. In that sort of environment it won't be long before a developer invents a virtual currency to represent our vote, and provides an interface like a shopping mall, where you browse through the issues facing your city council, and spend your political capital on the issues you care about. Everyone would get the same income, but it would evaporate rapidly from your account (just like real political capital you don't use does) which encourages you to spend it continuously or lose it. Kids will thus get the both the knowledge and the means to make their parents more civic minded.

In such an environment anyone with genuinely good ideas and insight about their community and its problems would quickly become visible and receive the encouragement and endorsements they need to run for office without needing to compromise their integrity by selling access to themselves for campaign donations. The campaigns themselves would most likely be more about reviewing their performance as evangelists over the period between elections rather than about their character, experience, or agenda. It becomes a way to vet our political leadership by watching them lobby us to spend our political capital as they suggest. By showing people that by not participating their political capital evaporates into the accounts of those who do, they will be more motivated to participate.

The software would most likely evolve to better incorporate the role of political evangelist. It might involve giving up your political capital to buy a seat in a virtual city council at the site. They might be graded on how closely their recommendations reflect the way the community actually spent it's political capital, with the lowest scores periodically being kicked back into being voters and freeing up those slots for others. In this way the virtual council would end up filled with those most effective at educating and involving the public in civic affairs. As the real city council watches this process it would be made more aware of the zeitgeist and exposed to every good idea to come out of their electorate.

I see this process as inevitable. Especially because of what's going on in our own government these days. Right now the folks who actually staff our government are busy trying to implement the letter and spirit of Obama's Open Government initiative. That's what someone like me can join govloop to participate. The TV news doesn't talk about this stuff. It's the most publicly empowering modification of governance in the history of mankind--far more than simply getting a vote, this is enfranchisement in true spirit--where a child's wisdom can touch the mind of The President in only the time it takes to traverse the machinery we're creating to recognize it.

I guess the reason that I'm so sure this is going to happen is because I can imagine the alternative our government must be aware of: that such a site might evolve outside of and completely independently of government. If that happened they'd face a meta-government with more genuine political power, and most likely composed of more people than their own population. And that's why our own government is looking for ways to engage and involve us. And why can be certain that we'll find out how to make a public servant.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Modeling capitalism on evolution

About a week ago, I received a YouTube personal message from someone in Bahai following the exchange below:

The message:
Interesting... You seem to know more about economics than I do. Aside from all the flawed policies of all the worlds goverments towards these issues there is the added deliberate "economic manipulation". Its almost like "America" doesn't want third world countries to develop. Anyway its a long topic of which I wouldn't mind sharing links on the subject matter as you seem to be as interested as I am.

I do think however that these problems are no more caused by "economic complications" than by sheer greed by a few confederates, no different from the thug on the street snatching a purse only this happens in board rooms and and the act is explained away as "company profit gains" instead of pure immoral and reckless behaviour. It has become acceptable because we were taught by TV, college, and the like that profit is all that really matters.

I've lived in Africa. My uncle was a farmer there and he had to close down his farm because South Africa was subsidizing certain farms that produce good all Corp foods from the wonder-havens such as spar. The country where I lived hardly manages to produce its own food now and I foresee a grim future if ever its food imports are threatened.

I dont blame the cooperates alone and I dont believe in conspiracies, there are enough (actually way more than enough) economists and financial analysts in the world to create models, and simulations with computers, to find economic structures that would eliminate imbalances and pull the rug from under the feet of poverty for all time. This model would, of course, have to be dynamic and capable of evolving otherwise it would be as useless as the one we have now.

I am a Bahai, and as a Bahai this is one of the things that we are trying to do, of course this would first mean that greed would have to be removed otherwise the system would be doomed to fail. The challenge now (I love the way he put it in his movie) is meet--the people of all the world must unite, be educated--in solving the worlds problems together, discuss, forget religious differences, partisan politics, power grabbing, materialism, and all the things that inhibit us collectively from reaching a social enlightenment the Buddha would marvel at.

On a final note I know this is long sorry. There is this note in the bible that says in paraphrase (Jesus shall in those days dwell on earth). Christians hold this to mean that the historical figure shall descend from heaven and dwell among men. I think it means that society shall have the individual capacity to realise truth for themselves and they shall dwell with truth and truth with them. Truth (not meaning the dogmatic views held by certain Christians of today) but scientific, philosophical, spiritual realization, like the fruit of all knowledge, shall be like a flower in humanities hand.
My reply:

I haven't studied economics, but I'm old enough to know a little about a lot of easily understood things. I think we have poverty for a very simple reason: Our global economy is backwards. We are paid to work, when it would be wiser to arrange things so that we had to pay for the privilege of working. And we pay nothing for the very real negative impact each of us has on everyone else each time we consume something, go anywhere, or do pretty much anything. If we were not allowed to do that--to secretly steal from each other because the price we paid for things incorporated a payment to be distributed to everyone else--then there could be no poverty. The simple act of consuming far less than an equal share of our world's resources would simultaneously increase that person's income to above poverty level. There is simply no way for the wealthy to consume such a disproportionately large portion of the world's resources without an enormous hidden subsidy to make that possible.

None of us pay the full price for the products and services we consume, and because of this, the more you consume the greater the subsidy that you enjoy. I see this as the reason for nearly all of our waste because it is the hidden subsidy that makes it waste in the first place. When it becomes cheaper to destructively harvest a resource from the environment than it is to recover that same resource from the waste stream the reason is always the same: the true owners of the resource, humanity, are not being paid for what is essentially the spending of the integrity of our shared biosphere to lower the cost of that input.

The other problem with our version of capitalism is that the more successfully it works, the more rapidly it raises productivity. But the faster productivity rises, the harder it becomes to avoid a falling level of employment simply because less workers are needed to produce the same number of goods and workers can not be redeployed like capital can--there is a long lag time for them to be retrained for some other role in a newer industry. Even with adequate savings, a rising level of unemployment creates a vicious circle by lowering demand, causing more workers to be shed, and so on. I think real economists call this "the business cycle." I'm more knowledgeable about simple things--so I call it what it looks like to me--the unavoidable chaos introduced in any system that misuses positive feedback loops--like the vicious circle plaguing our implementation of capitalism. (Outside of rapid amplifications, like explosions, such things have a limited utility because they're so hopelessly hard to control.) The important thing to notice is that it doesn't take even one evil actor to create quite a lot of trauma. Why? Because the trauma is coming from the people doing the most good! The ones raising the level of productivity the fastest and most efficiently.

Please understand that I'm talking about normal capitalism that we've more or less had for the past century or so. The stuff that's gone on in the last few years was a Krebs cycle of legalized fraud: buying insurance (which they call credit default swaps) from each other (which they call reputable institutions) to improve the quality of unrecoverable loan packages (which they had lots of confidence building names for, like CDOs.) so that they could be repackaged yet again. Investors diffuse in at every point in the cycle and the fee's fly out, like the enzymes of some sinister metabolism, to seek out and bind to the next politician--to potentially open up yet another pathway for exploitation. The mechanism harvests a great deal more of the "free equity" that investors contain than any prior strategy so it was very popular. The fix is to simply remove all of the mitochondria from all of those bankers. That should stop it. Of course, that would take ages even with the enormous and very motivated pool of free labor available for the task. So we'd better get started.

People point to precisely this reason to condemn capitalism itself when it is only our subpar implementation that needs fixing. The wisdom of capitalism is genuine because it's lifted right out of nature. We know it can work like a charm because a much better implementation of capitalism created us from little more than a muddy mess and eons of bad weather. That's actually what capitalism should be a model of: evolution by natural selection. So why did we fuck up copying it in such a plainly foolish way as to engineer evil directly into it? The only reason I can find is because of our faith in god. That's what stops us from seeing the wisdom of a system that asks no one to work. It requires a fundamental shift in what you're willing to have faith in: The fruits of billions of years of evolution embodied in every human being, or a clumsy cognitive utility knife that helped our distant ancestors fashion explanations for the bumps in their nights.

Guess what happens if you try to build a world on the sincerity of fables? People get hurt. Science doesn't work because smart people thought of it, but because much smarter people can't yet break it. Economics doesn't work well because no one is willing to fix the most broken parts of it because to do so requires such a radical change--literally turning it upside down in a way. It's political suicide to even think such a thing.

My advice to all people who would put their faith in transcendental things rather than themselves is to find some living person you honestly believe is wiser than you and put your faith in them instead. Find a mentor and beg for mentence. Or delegate your decisions to them. There's just no way you won't be better off. We are the only ones who can make ourselves happy. But this is never a personal journey. Or a magical one. Even the great Newton had to be laborious hoisted up the shoulders of those giants by the mundane exertions of everyone else. And still he was tediously stolid in all the meetings!

The morally righteous sorts are so blinded by the offense to their sense of decency or godliness involved in literally paying someone who doesn't wish to work for nothing more than staying out of trouble that it completely stops them from examining the strategy any farther. It is almost equivalent to suggesting that we outlaw work. They believe so few people would choose to work that the few who might could never feed us all. But this really can't happen for a bunch of reasons. We can't actually give people their full share because it would be way too much. They'll never get more than is necessary to create the parity of opportunity we believe all humans have an intrinsic right to: an amount sufficient for a large majority of them to eventually find productive employment. We already produce much more than it takes to do that for every person on earth.

The irony is that there is not a single cent of theft in this strategy, (but there is trillions of dollars of it in the economy we have now.) There is no transfer of wealth from a working Peter to pay a Paul who choses to spend his life playing while on the public dole. Paul is only spending the exact same income that Peter gets for free as well: one share of the dollar value of the calculated negative impact of all humanity. I actually think such a system would stymie Paul's sort of economic disenfranchisement. Without the stigma of contempt and sense of worthlessness that comes from having to beg for sustenance, Paul is far more likely to eventually discover something that stirs his passions. Lots of people who thought they hated work don't seem to last very long after they retire. Work really isn't about money and never was. It's what a human simply must do occasionally to sustain their sense of self-worth. Work is the original mind-altering drug that makes us think more highly of ourselves. The odds that large numbers of us could easily live without it are zero. We might work a hell of a lot less than we do now, on average. But that's pretty much unavoidable if productivity continues to rise and population doesn't keep pace no matter what we do.

This simple change, from being paid to work, to a system where we pay for the privilege of working has consequences that address the major problems facing modern corporations in a most elegant way: by perfectly aligning the interests of all parties in an enterprise; employees, employer, and everyone else. The very concept of being an employee disappears--labor isn't bought, jobs are sold. Unions become superfluous. The very nature of entrepreneurship changes from trying to buy enough land, labor, and capital to generate an even larger revenue, to designing a compelling enough enterprise to cause a group of workers and investors to adopt it. The profit it generates just isn't likely to be as important to them. Doing something fantastic or fun or beneficial is. Their business model still has to work. But it doesn't have to make any profit and might even sustain small losses every single year without ever going bankrupt. Money is intangible and not terribly easy to spend wisely. But the reward of doing something that makes you feel good about yourself couldn't be more tangible, moving, or addictive.

This is the most crucial property of this whole strategy and explains why this approach promises to be so wholesome. Workers won't wish to be part of an enterprise that basically just makes tchotchkes for nitwits, or offer services you're better off without. A lot of crime and vice will disappear because it will no longer be a person's only option. The underground economy would suffer the most. The religious industry should be the most interesting, because we'll finally find out if hardship sells god. In a world where there is nothing to stop you from dedicating your life to your church I'll bet it looses some appeal. But maybe I'm just dead wrong and huge numbers of people will leave work to dedicate their time to various charities. But they won't be making soup or sheltering the homeless. They might become educators. How bad could that be?

You might be wondering how we get there from here. Get rid of the minimum wage and start redressing the externality associated with using the world's resources as I described above is all it will take. As we gradually increase the value attributed to the resources used each year, the business models that depend on cheap resources will no longer work. The prices of things we don't really need will rise as the prices for things like food, energy, health care, and shelter fall.

Things that are enormously wasteful, but very convenient will be the luxuries we probably loose first, like lots of packaging. Shipping will decline because the economies of scale achieved through centralized manufacture and distribution are probably only reflections of the subsidy presently enjoyed by shipping firms who don't have to pay us back for their enormous environmental footprint. But the point is that we can make this change very gradual and even backup when we need to if we find ourselves going too fast. The value we choose to assign to each unit of resource is completely arbitrary, and can be chosen to be just enough to fund a minimalist lifestyle for those that choose not to work.