Sunday, October 25, 2015

All, More, Less, Some, None, or Enough?

As a political species, we seem to be having trouble with these modifiers. Either that or some people—maybe all people—are, for rhetorical purposes, willfully misunderstanding their use.

At a recent social event, I heard someone describe himself as a “social liberal and fiscal conservative.” That’s a position I pretty much occupy myself: I really don’t care what configuration of consenting adult(s) you have sex with or what brand of god you worship, but I like to see some controls on how the economy is regulated and taxed and how those revenues are spent. But someone else at the party, a self-proclaimed socialist—or in this context probably a “social democrat”—replied: “So you don’t mind people being equal, you just don’t want to pay for it.”

To quote from one of my favorite heroines, Ellen Ripley, who survived 57 years in the deep freeze at the start of the movie Aliens, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?”

Fiscal conservatives are not saying we don’t want to pay for any social services or to provide any opportunities for improvement. We conservatives recognize the need for society to take care of its members—for we are a rich nation—and provide basic education and supplemental health care for all children. We already pay heavy taxes to support these mandates. But we also realize that no society will ever eliminate their relatively poor people1 or make the social and economic situation of all its members—regardless of personal talent, training, experience, motivation, and effort—even approximately equal. We have no problem with providing a safety net, but we prefer it to be tight and relatively springy, to catch people who are down on their luck or have made bad decisions and then bounce them back onto their feet. We resist the idea that the net should be a soft, comfortable social hammock, in which some people can lie about at the expense of others. And we refuse to ask society’s productive members to write a blank check or a blanket IOU to the bureaucracy in Washington, DC, to provide any of this.

In this sense, the social-democrat interlocutor at the party is confusing the fiscal conservative’s desire to pay “less” or only “some” with a demand for paying “none.” And conversely, the conservatives—myself included—usually hear the socialist who is asking for “more” as demanding that we pay “all.”

The same confusion generally applies to issues concerning market transactions and government financial and industrial regulation.

The conservative understands that a completely laissez-faire approach, with no government intervention or regulation, just doesn’t work. When the marketplace has no laws regarding fair practices, safety measures, or prudent actions, the average human tends toward operating aggressively, recklessly, or blindly. A corporate entity operating in a sphere without laws will drive for its own advantage and attempt to destroy all competitors, and the resulting monopoly ends any chance of society reaping the economic benefits of competition in terms of price, product offering, and innovation. No one—not even the most de rigueur conservative capitalist—wants a return to the “robber baron” days of the late 19th century. We recognize and appreciate the refinements of economic competition that early 20th century progressives and union bargaining have won.2

But, as the prospectus says, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” Just because progressive forces in the past may have won us workplace safety rules, financial oversight, and the forty-hour work week, it does not stand to reason that progressives are always right, that their prescriptions should always be followed, or that their proposals will always be successful.

The progressives of the early 21st century are now openly dismissive of capitalism as a productive system and deny any distributive power to choice and competition in the marketplace. Maybe they always felt that way but just hid it better. They speak as if socialism—that is, government ownership and control of the means of production and distribution—is the ultimate goal of those early reforms and the logical outcome of government intervention in the marketplace. They might allow for some corporations to exist and operate, but they want them under tight government control and beholden to government’s authority and mandates. They want the government to decide which organizations will prosper and which will disappear—a form of “crony capitalism” that would have been familiar to National Socialists in the Germany of the 1930s.3

The modern progressive is most angered by the people who have been most successful under the current system of regulated capitalism: those who run the biggest corporations, especially those entrepreneurs who founded the business and own large blocks of its stock. This is surprising, because in a market driven by government mandates and responding to government regulations, only the largest corporations can field the extra management and legal personnel required to comply with intensive regulation. So the natural course is for smaller firms to either aggregate or disappear, and for larger firms to approach monopoly status.

I’m not sure what bothers the progressives most about these marketplace winners: the fact that they have more money than anyone else, or the fact that they have more decision-making power over the products and services available to society. If it’s only a matter of money, then the issue is one of envy. “If I can’t afford a private jet and a hundred-foot yacht,” they project from the mind of the average person, “then I don’t see why anyone else should be allowed to have one.” If the objection is market power, then the issue is one of ultimate control. It bothers Democrats and other progressives that someone who wasn’t elected and over whom “the people”—that is, the aggregate will of the average citizen—have no control is able to decide what the rest of us will wear, drive, eat, and access as news and entertainment in the coming weeks, months, and years. They would much prefer that an elected official, responsible to the people, made these decisions.

Of course, most of the day-to-day decisions in drafting the details of government mandates and choices in enforcing government regulations do not fall to elected officials, either members of Congress or the President. Instead, that power—the actual conception, interpretation, and action—is left to the congressional staffers who draft the legislation and the Cabinet officials and their Civil Service bureaucrats who execute it. Think of the power that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency has—or has recently claimed—in terms of approving or killing development projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, supporting new energy technologies like solar and wind over coal and nuclear power, and defining appropriate uses for land and water resources.

The difference between this kind of power and that of a corporate chief executive is that the chief administrator of the EPA serves at the pleasure of the President and is accountable only to the person in that office. Regardless of results or economic effects, the EPA administrator has job security so long as she does what the President wants and so long as the President has the nation’s political favor; so her job is secure for at least the next four years. The corporate executive, on the other hand, serves at the pleasure of a board of directors, who are responsible to a widely distributed group of shareholders. If the corporation falters or fails to earn a profit, the stock drops, the shareholders vote their proxies, and the chief executive can be dismissed at the end of the fiscal year, if not long before.

The question of scope is important here, too. If a corporate chief executive makes a bad decision or enforces bad policy, the most damage he or she can do is to the company’s fortunes and those of its employees and shareholders. The executive may disappoint customers, too, but in a relatively free market economy they can make other and better choices. But if the EPA administrator makes bad decisions or enforces bad policy, the damage can affect wide swaths of the environment, entire sectors of the economy, and the nation as a whole.

Either way, someone gets to make the decisions, issue the orders, and oversee their enforcement. To my mind, the power of economic results is a stronger, swifter, and surer control of an individual’s actions than the power of political favor. People in politics who have bad ideas and support bad policies can still promise eventual success, call in past debts and favors, and retain their power after a debacle. A chief executive who tried to trade favors to cover failing financial performance would get short shrift.

Of course, if you don’t like the idea that anyone gets to make these decisions—either in government or in business—then you don’t understand the structure of human societies, economics, or politics. The power to call the shots will always exist for the taking and will be exercised by someone who knows how to play the game, either economically or politically. This will remain the case at least until human nature changes so that we are all either angels or robots.

If conservatives really wanted “no government,” as the progressives often claim, that would be anarchy. And I’m fairly sure this is not what conservatism is about. If progressives wanted “all-powerful government”—that is, for government to be the dominant or only force in society, deciding all economic, social, and political issues—that would be either National Socialism or Soviet-style Communism, where the only allowed political party is also central to the government’s operation and attempts to define and control every aspect of the lives of its citizens. And I’m not entirely sure that everyone who votes on the left side of the aisle actually wants that.

For people who talk all the time about having a “nuanced” view of the political and economic situation, this confusion of some or more, or some or less, with all or none is pretty un-nuanced, simplistic, willful, and obtuse. But that’s rhetoric, isn’t it?

1. “Poor” is always a relative term. In America, the poor people usually own or rent their homes, drive cars, watch television, and are often fat. In India, they sleep on the sidewalk and scrabble over husks. One is rich or poor only by comparison with one’s neighbors, and that comparison more often arouses envy than contentment.

2. I tend to see the conservative/progressive split as a seesaw. The conservative looks around and looks back, sees the good things that have been achieved, and is slow to adopt new and radical ideas about how to reorder or transform politics, economics, and society as a whole. The progressive looks around and looks ahead, sees only the failures and the shortcomings of what exists, and wants to forge ahead with every new idea that will move society, its economics, and its politics toward a promised future. Of course, what that chosen future should be is the point of their debate, the fulcrum of the seesaw.

3. See Why Own When You Can Rent? from October 13, 2013.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Killing Us with Our Idealism

The recent influx of Syrian refugees into Europe and their proposed acceptance in the United States, in addition to the large Islamic populations already living in parts of Europe and in some Midwestern cities in the U.S., in addition to the large influx of Mexican and Latin American undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. … all of this is a test of American and Western ideals and values.

Some people would say that we will be killing ourselves with our own idealism. That the trouble with holding values like freedom, tolerance, openness, and respect for the religions of others is that eventually other people will take advantage of them and put you out of business.1 But who can live without ideals? Who can endure a life not centered in strong values? Having a declared purpose means putting it at constant risk. This is called the human condition.

I was always taught that the time to stick to my ideals was when it became hard, when they became risky and dangerous—not just when the outside world offered no real challenge and holding onto your ideals was easy and peaceful. If you don’t live by your principles, what do you have? If you won’t die for your principles, or at least suffer inconvenience for them, what are you? My sense says a person without principles, beliefs, values, and a certain web of no-cross-over-it lines2 is either a shameless opportunist or some kind of bipedal animal. But then, I was brought up rigorously by parents who believed in a certain form of civic magic.

In the United States, we are rich. We have so much at our disposal: available money, leisure time, educational opportunities, entertainment possibilities, enticing foods. For most of us the question is not “What will we eat?” but “What would you like to eat?” We are fed more than we can or should consume in our restaurants, and so we take home half the portion to eat later or let rot in our refrigerators.3 Your local grocery store regularly clears the shelves and throws in the dumpster foods just one day past their pull date. This might make sense for delicate perishables like milk and bread—but peanut butter, jams, and pickles? We spill about as much as we consume, whether by habit or through regulation.

Yes, we have poor people in this country whose existence is a state of constant trial. But our poor are wretched only by comparison with the lot of the average American citizen. Our poor people drive cars, own or rent houses, and have televisions and cell phones. Compare that to the status of the poor and dispossessed in Africa, the Middle East, India, or South America. The people in the United States who are truly without homes or possessions or the means to obtain them are generally the survivors of some natural disaster, economic catastrophe, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or some other incident or condition which has caused his or her feet to slip off the rungs of success’s ladder. People are not homeless in America because we have a shortage of houses; they are homeless because we have no housing situations matched to their economic circumstances.

Europe is slightly worse off than the U.S., with a lower gross domestic product, higher unemployment, and reduced standard of living. I happen to believe this is because their socialist ideals and trust in a communal utopia hampers their understanding of basic economics and market principles.4 But still, the average European lives better than the average citizen of any state outside what we call the “developed world.”

My principles do not suggest that we owe these people in the “undeveloped” or “third world” admittance to, succor with, or a free ride on the wealth that the Western democracies have created for our citizens. The Syrian refugees pouring out of the Middle East and into Europe are not a direct consequence of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan but instead are fleeing civil war in their own country, which has spawned a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism that is more strict and cruel than any deprivation created in Syria by the Assad family and worse than the barbarities Saddam Hussein visited upon his enemies. The Middle East was a backwards place under the Ottomans, failed to prosper in liberation following World War I, failed to diversify and develop with all the oil wealth poured into the region by the West after World War II, and is rapidly sliding into a state of decay powered by dreams of 13th-century religious purity and transcendent glory.

We in the West cannot solve the region’s problems—or those anywhere else in the world—by sending them money, food, arms, or military support. That would be, in the terms of the old piscatorial adage, giving a man a fish. Instead, we need to teach—and they need to learn—the principles of free-market economics, technological innovation and reward, respect for the individual, and personal responsibility that allowed the developed countries of the West—and our emulators in Japan and other parts of eastern Asia—to prosper in the first place. That’s teaching the world to fish.5

But that answer is a long way off. And we are still faced with three million Syrian refugees heading for Europe and the United States, as well as eleven million or so Mexicans and Central Americans walking across the U.S.’s southern border. This tidal wave is crashing now.

My personal principles say that anyone who abandons the place he holds in the world, gives up whatever slice of property or community he might claim, lets go of whatever possessions he cannot carry in his pockets, and stumbles, walks, hitchhikes, or begs a ride to someplace better … that is a person to be respected. He or she is someone who won’t sit still and be clubbed to death by thugs or boiled slowly like the proverbial frog in hot water. This person has made an internal decision—that the current situation leads downward to slavery and death, and that the unknown future on a distant shore can only be better—and then acted on it. Think of the courage this decision takes: to abandon what you know and just walk, perhaps hauling your family with you, maybe only hoping to send some money back and bring them along later. It is the dull people, witless people, lazy people who sit in place and expect either that things will get better or that someone will rescue them. These millions of refugees have attempted to assess their situation accurately and decided to risk everything by taking action.

I salute that kind of forward thinking. These are the people we need in the new world we are making in the West, the developed world of the future, the world that depends on personal initiative and personal responsibility. My principles say we should reward that kind of self-awareness and courage. We should try to make a place for them.6

But it would be wrong just to open the borders and let them move into barrios and burrows, hiding in the cracks, stateless persons without the opportunity to join our society legally and eventually claim citizenship. That would be worse than herding them into camps and closing the gates on them. The stateless person fears the law as the force that will deport him or her back to hell, and that makes her or him the natural prey of criminals. The stateless person works without the protections our society offers in terms of wage and hour laws, occupational and safety protections, and other graces which the average citizen hardly things about, and that makes him or her the natural subject of exploitation. Acquiring for ourselves a new crop of slaves does not accord with the principles of Western democracy.

If we are going to open our borders to these people, we need to do it in an orderly fashion. We need to set up processing centers so that people entering our country as refugees are recognized, identified, and tracked in their progress toward finding work, obtaining a home, getting education, and becoming citizens. We did it before in paper-and-pencil crudity with Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can do it again with processing centers in Texas and Arizona using modern, biometric identification and computerized tracking systems. That will cost some money, and it won’t always be orderly and peaceful for us, or easy for them—but it’s a better, more humane, more enduring approach than the malign neglect we give our Central American refugees now.

Will some refugees come in just so they can partake of our bountiful social support systems: Medicare and other health services, state-funded welfare, food stamps, and free education? Sure. But once they are entered on the Social Security rolls, allowed to work openly, and able to walk in the sunshine, they can also contribute to the tax base and help pay for the services they use. This is the only sensible approach to running an open and generous society: everybody plays; everybody pays.

Will some of the Syrian refugees bring their strict Islamic religion with them and despise aspects of our Western culture? Of course. But we have to trust that they will eventually see the benefits of a tolerant, 21st-century, democratic republic over a closed, 13th-century, sectarian caliphate. Just in the same way we must trust that Central American refugees will shed their 19th-century, agrarian-village lifestyle and become modern, technically oriented citizens. Will some of them fail and try to make America over into the sort of dirt-floored hovel they came from? Sure, but they will be the minority, and their children will leave them behind.

We must have faith in the strength of this Western, market-driven, technologically inspired future we are making. We believe we are creating a better life for the people who enter into this vast social and economic experiment. We should be willing to share it with those who come seeking the same new life.

1. Or that’s the fear of Westerners when encountering fundamentalist Muslims and their Shari’ah Islamic law, which would replace the U.S. Constitution and all civil and criminal codes.

2. The No-cross-over-it line was an invention of my grandfather. His property in Pennsylvania lay at the confluence of two streams—Mill Creek and the Allegheny River not far from its source—both of which had been modified years earlier as part of a flood control project. Instead of a gentle slope down to a sylvan brook, the land ended in a sharp bluff twenty feet above a concrete sluiceway. Mill Creek’s concrete walls were slanted at a forty-five degree angle, while the Allegheny’s walls, which made a deep bend along the property, fell in a straight drop. When the grandkids—my cousins, my brother, and me—came along, my grandfather had his gardener dig a shallow cut in the sod three feet back from each wall and designated it the “No-cross-over-it line.” We were told this line could not be crossed under any circumstances. No amount of curiosity, and no lost balls or toys dropped into the water, justified our ever passing over this line. In fact, we were led to believe the line possessed an invisible force field and could not be crossed. Of course, the force was our own belief and our respect for our grandfather’s authority. But none of us ever ventured across that line—or fell into the river.

3. My mother used to call our refrigerator “the place to keep leftovers until they’re old enough to throw away.” Today, my wife uses the freezer—since we stopped buying half-gallons of ice cream for our pleasure—as a place to keep food waste until we have time to take it down to the apartment complex’s newly installed composting bins.

4. See, for example, The Economy as an Ecology from November 14, 2011, or It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010.

5. See also Conceptual Tools from September 6, 2015.

6. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Soi-Disant Green is People1

Every cause and faction, every institution and organization, every government and every army … is people. Even corporations are people—not just in the sense that a corporate entity can own property, enter contracts, and issue checks as any normal person can2—but in the deeper sense that every corporation is simply a collection of people.

The first lesson I take from this obvious truth is that every human organization is fallible. People can make mistakes. People are subject to perceptual errors, false beliefs, and faulty reasoning. Logic is not a natural human trait but a learned response, taught through discipline and practiced through self-examination. The courage to encounter unpleasant circumstances and yet move forward, or to accept contrary evidence and change one’s deeply held beliefs, is not found in every person. The iron will to act upon principle, even when such action will hurt one’s own party or one’s personal prospects, is rare in the human race.3

Self-interest may cause the people in any organization to ignore or hide evidence that lies in plain sight before them. Human beings are smart and skillful, and when the gift of language has become separated from logical reasoning and strict adherence to the truth, human emotion can willfully father many untruths. Of course, most people possess a level of self-awareness that permits them to observe their own actions and evaluate their own motives, but under the sway of strong beliefs and long-held values, people can learn to ignore such objectivity.

Of course, organizations may inculcate values and belief systems that oppose tendencies like self-deception and self-interest. For example, it’s a popular notion these days that government representatives and regulators can be trusted more than corporate officials operating in a free market, because the government people have dedicated themselves to public service, to the pursuit of higher goals and greater goods than people who are driven only by making money. It’s a popular notion that members of the clergy, who have dedicated their lives to their ideals and their god, will be more reliable and personally moral than those of us who have made no such vows. It’s generally accepted that members of what used to be called the professions—doctors, lawyers, and persons put in similar positions of trust—are bound by the canons of those callings and their vows to uphold them. So, for example, one might believe that the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association is a more trustworthy institution than, say, the Better Business Bureau, Consumers Union, or the National Rifle Association.

While we can hope that people who have dedicated themselves to a certain proposition and taken vows to demonstrate their loyalty will act more consistently and with greater purpose than the rest of us, that is not always the case. Personally, I trust the motives of self-interest and economic efficiency—that is, the pursuit of money or other valuables that can be squeezed out of current operations—over personal idealism.4 And I know that strongly held beliefs can blind one to other opportunities, new innovations, or the cries of innocents caught and crushed in opposition.

The second lesson I take from the truth that organizations are people is that every human organization is temporary in the greater scheme of things. True, we have some long-lasting institutions, like the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, and the English Crown. But over time these nearly immortal organizations—and one of them has already disappeared—have seen their fortunes change, their powers wax and wane, and their allegiances shift.

In the rapidly changing world in which we now live—the product of escalating technological advances5—perceptions, capabilities, and even basic, scientific facts can change faster than the generations that hold them dear. A government that once was kept more or less honest by the logistical impossibility of steaming open the paper correspondence of the entire population or peeking into everyone’s bedroom window can now monitor and collect every telephone conversation, email exchange, and internet site visited by the average person and employ supercomputers to put together a convincing case against anyone for any kind of malfeasance or corruption. Such a government might almost make itself invulnerable and permanent, riding on the back of a collective tyranny about which the East German Stasi could only dream. Except …

That same digital connectivity and computing power enable a level of personal freedom, association, and exploration for today’s masses about which the average philosopher or scientist of the middle 20th century—let alone the average citizen—could only dream. We are engaged in a vast social experiment where established scientific truths, fanciful theories, popular perceptions, and idle rumors swirl through the polity at virtually light speed. Where it will all end, I don’t think anyone can foresee. But I don’t believe that anything so vastly uncoordinated as our hydra-headed federal government will fare any better than the Soviets or the East Germans did. The flood will sweep them away like the horses of the Ringwraiths at the Ford of Bruinen. Free discussion and free association will erode and then collapse any kind of iron rule. All forms of civil order may be swept away, too.

Lesser organizations than civilizational empires and religion orders—those built by people who are engaged in only a single purpose for a specific time—will be even more short-lived. I saw this firsthand when I worked at Kaiser Engineers, which was the engineering and construction arm of the Henry J. Kaiser organization in Oakland, California.

Henry Kaiser had a genius for recognizing opportunity—“Find a need and fill it”—and he prospered greatly with government contracts for civilian hydroelectric projects in the 1930s (Kaiser Sand and Gravel, Kaiser Cement), war matériel in the 1940s (Kaiser Steel, Kaiser Shipyards), and consumer goods in the boom time of the 1950s (Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Motors). He built a huge organization of like-minded people who operated with efficiency and integrity. This organization even spun off a new type of employer-based health care (Kaiser Permanente). The Kaiser organization was a marvel of both vertically integrated and horizontally diverse conglomeration.

That group of companies prospered while Henry was alive and had hope for the future while his dynamic elder son Henry Kaiser, Jr. lived. But when that young man died in 1961, the life seemed to go out of the organization. His father lived another six years, and then his other son Edgar stepped in to run the umbrella corporation, but it was not the same. When I arrived in the mid-1970s as a technical editor in the engineering unit, the breakup was already starting. Today, the various corporations are mere shadows of themselves, and the landmark aluminum-clad buildings of the Kaiser Center on the shores of Lake Merritt are now occupied by other tenants, including various headquarters departments of the University of California.

Of course, organizations can improve their odds of operating efficiently and of surviving through the way they write their internal rules and organize their internal structures. By giving more or less power to the person at the top or to the individuals at various levels of responsibility, they can become either more rigid or more flexible. The Kaiser organization was and remained the brain child of Henry J. Kaiser, and when he was gone no son or subordinate could quite fill the shoes and supply the vision. It remains to be seen whether the phenomenon that is Apple, Inc. will survive the death of its founding genius, Steve Jobs.

In my forty years inside the corporate world, I’ve seen the nature of business organizations change. Starting from the fairly rigid cultures that expressed strong values and interdepartmental discipline, like the Kaiser organization or, say, IBM in the 1950s and ’60s, I’ve seen the rise of the conglomerates through debt-driven—now called “leveraged”—mergers and acquisitions. These amalgamation schemes almost invariably put disparate organizations with different cultures together under the personal hand of a dominant chief executive, whose power and influence within the organization becomes almost pharaonic.6 And then, toward the end of my career, I saw the breakdown—or relinquishing—of such command-and-control mentality and the inculcation of “entrepreneurship,” where each employee was supposed to think and act as if he or she ran the company, or at least his or her small part of it.

I’m not saying that one system is better than the other, because each approach has its good and bad points. In a human organization, almost any structure and rule set can be made to work—for a while, and with the right sort of people. But no government or corporation or charitable institution or interest group is free of human feelings and human failings. Even those created to serve a higher power, like the church, or a greater good, like the environment, are still founded, directed, supported, and staffed by fallible, all-too-human beings.

It does matter what principles drive the founders and organizers of the organization. If the founders express fear and hatred in their purpose, like the thugs who thought up National Socialism, then the organization can hardly expect to escape damnation despite all the good works it might do. But even an organization founded on high ideals, like a church or an environmental movement, can cause great harm if those ideals are not tempered with common sense, compassion, and recognition of and respect for the lives of average human beings. Fanaticism is a kind of emotional virus that can suck the life from and pervert any good purpose. Think of the tragedy at the People’s Temple. Think of those environmentalists who consider human beings to be a kind of plague on planet Earth. Think of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which gladly purged and executed thousands, and eventually millions, of people in order to create a paradise on Earth for all humankind.

Whenever I consider today’s worst problem areas—whether it’s mass suffering in that giant penal colony known as North Korea, the rampages of Boko Haram, or the wave of atrocities under the black banner of the Islamic State—I remember that these too are organizations of people. Not monsters or magicians, but people who think they have a valid purpose in life. It’s just my way of saying, “This, too, shall pass.”

1. With apologies for the pun on an excellent Charlton Heston movie, which was made from Harry Harrison’s even better novel Make Room! Make Room!.

2. See my refutation of the current challenge to corporate personhood in When Corporations are People Too from November 6, 2011.

3. Here in evaluating people and their traits, as so often elsewhere, I invoke Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” For how, without the crap, would we know and appreciate the good things in life? Contrast is everything.

4. See my blog Money vs. ideology from May 13, 2013.

5. See also The Dollar Value of Technical Advances from May 5, 2013, and Coming at You from October 24, 2010.

6. I once heard it expressed that the management philosophy at Citicorp, the banking giant produced by aggressive expansion under Walter Wriston, was “the three Ws”—Whatever Walter Wants.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Changing the World

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” is a quote usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.1 This is a meme that resonates strongly with my Baby Boomer generation. Many of us, probably most of us, have been trying to change the world, or at least dreaming about it, since our student days in the 1960s. The notion that the world could, as a whole and in an instant, be made into a better, kinder, gentler, more peaceful, more equitable place free of hunger, envy, anger, and all the other human discontents was woven into our folk songs, our protests, our plays and movies, our conversations—and eventually into our bumper stickers, when we were old enough and rich enough to own a car.

It’s a fantasy that has been hanging around at least since Thomas More penned Utopia in 1516. The title, of course, came from the Greek and means “No Place,” which sums up More’s view of such grand schemes for the betterment of human life on Earth. Most utopias since then have involved two popular notions: one is that people will have a fixed place in society which will bring them personal happiness; the other is that all property will be held in common and shared equally. These are the underlying thoughts in Karl Marx’s writings, and they have carried the ideological weight of every revolutionary effort since then.2

For my generation, revolution is deeply bound to the notion of changing the world. After all, current Western society, government, economic practice, and everything else that orders our worldview is supposedly without value. And so there’s no point in trying to improve society and its practices piecemeal. The cause of our present hungers, jealousies, wars, and all those other bad things is rooted in whatever exists now. So sweep it all away and bring on a new world order, a better reckoning, a new way of doing things that is kinder, gentler, etc. If you listen closely, that’s the message of John Lennon’s “Imagine”—beautiful music, but a gloss of negatives: no heaven, no hell, no religion, no countries, no causes, no possessions, no greed or hunger, and all the people just living as one, in the moment, all brothers, sharing the world.3

The people who believe in this kind of revolution and its resulting utopia are committed to the end of history. They believe that history has a prescribed direction—towards greater human unity in equality, peace, and prosperity—and that this end-stage, this perfect stasis, can be captured in a bottle and preserved for all time. Once we have remade the world in its perfect state, it will spin on serenely and never change again.

Of course, this presumes that people can be made happy, or somehow given happiness, and will manage to keep it for … well, for eternity. Visions of utopia remove the individual—with his or her differing wants and needs, likes and dislikes, affections and dreams—from the equation and assume that everyone will subscribe to one common thought, one common purpose, and one common goal in life. That all people will accept whatever place they and their children are born into in that perfect society—farmer, doctor, teacher, shoemaker, blacksmith, sewer cleaner—and that no new ideas and disruptive technologies will arise to unsettle things.4 That the world will spawn no new inventions that might demand new occupations like computer programmer, electrical engineer, or fusion mechanic. That the world and its environment will not change, not cycle through parching drought or encroaching ice, not rain down solar flares and asteroids, and so not require this perfect society to change in meeting new challenges. This is a steady-state society that will outwardly resemble heaven and inwardly incarnate hell.5

Personally, I never wanted to change the world.

Maybe I shy away from that ambition because my parents raised me to be a realist rather than a dreamer. They taught me to see things as they are, to study the way the world works, to live within the confines of what exists, and to make myself and my happiness conform to what is possible in this society. This is not surrender to a set of limitations but rather a grasping of potentials. I was supposed to learn the levers that make society function and prepare myself to take hold of them. My parents accepted that the world was a hard place, full of dangers and disappointments, and that was why humans had to be resourceful and also careful.6 But they also taught me—and encouraged me through the study of literature and science and all that our civilization has thought and built—that the world is vast and powerful, beautiful in its own way, and full of wonders. How could I hope to change all this?

In my novels, I try to capture this sense of vast danger and great opportunity, and I value characters who are resourceful, imaginative, practical, and realistic.7 If they are ready to give their lives, it will be for things that matter on a personal and immediate level: the life and health of their loved ones, the safety and survival of their community, the preservation of their honor or their closely held ideals. These are not people who tilt at windmills and try to remake the world on their own terms or to satisfy a distant dream.

Maybe I resist world changing because I know that human nature is deep seated, relatively unchanging, and only slowly advancing. Our natures are the product of a hundred thousand years, at least, of human evolution—and possibly reflect the four billion years of life as it has developed on this planet. People have evolved to look out for themselves, their families, their tribe, and their communities first, and only then for their nation, civilization, or all humankind as a distant second. The best of us build for our own and our children’s future. This does not mean we practice consuming greed, fearful hoarding, or winner-take-all competition. But we cooperate best with the people we know personally or can observe by their individual actions and reputations. We give strangers the courtesy of respect and fair dealing, but we let them prove themselves before we trust them. For the most part, we mow our own lawns, mend our fences, give blood, pay taxes, and vote in support of that patch of the planet we can see and feel.

When people have exhorted me to offer up my universal generosity, love for all mankind, or sacrifice for their lofty ideals, I always tend to bristle. I can understand moving cautiously through this world, leaving as few traceable marks as possible, and not making myself a target. But making myself a mere ghost, by relinquishing all possessions and personal ambitions, so that a nebulous set of others might sing and feast outside the circle of my campfire—no, that has never been my way. I can sense that those others want to use me as a doormat or a common conveyance because they do not know or value me as a person. Those who encourage this kind of personal abnegation would change everyone’s nature, desires, and intentions to conform with the dream that only they are fostering. And my response to this is always the same—using terminology inspired by the war everyone in my generation hated: “Get the hell out of my body bag!”

And finally, maybe I resist trying to change the world because I know that the process is already under way, and it should be allowed to take its course in its own slow and steady time. Our civilization, both locally, as the product of tribes and then nations and empires, and now globally, as the product of an electronically interconnected world, is changing and advancing, and that change is carrying human nature and modern ideals along with it. With the spread of inventions like the printing press, electronic media, and now the computer revolution, we are learning, retaining, and sharing more and more information about the world and its people. With discoveries in science and technology, we are learning about the distant past and the nature of our universe. Civilization is advancing and coming together on a global level, not as the product of a few revolutionaries inspired by utopian visions, but through the largely uncoordinated work of scholars, engineers, inventors, mathematicians, and economists. Societies are solving their problems through the efforts of politicians, lawyers, and diplomats who mediate between the needs and desires of different individuals and groups. Life is better today than it was a decade, a century, or a millennium ago.

Yes, many in the world still experience hunger—but that is more often politically motivated than the product of pestilence and crop failure. Yes, we still have wars—but they are the result of people driven by different ideals and desires working out the differences that really, deeply matter to them. Yes, we still have tyrannies—but they are more exposed now for all the world to see and judge. For the vast majority of the people living on Earth, the advance of science and technology, of conscience and justice, has produced—either in present actuality or in future potential—more food, more ease, more safety, better health, longer lives, more sophisticated and interesting work, and more personal opportunity than has existed for a hundred thousand years. If there is a direction to history, it points upward for people with the sense to understand and grasp it.

This is a process that has been going on since people first learned to settle in river valleys, grow more crops, preserve their surplus, and eat better than they could ever do by scavenging the countryside. And from those settlements has come writing and its ability to capture and transmit knowledge and inventions, law and concepts of order and justice, religion and ideas about morality and knowledge of the unseen, and all the rest of the wonders that human thought and experience have ignited on this planet. Humans on this planet are advancing slowly but surely—and that is the pace with which most people in all our different cultures feel comfortable.

I would not change the course of this civilizational process for any dream, however powerful, of an instant utopia—not even if I believed I could.

1. It turns out the source for this quote is pretty slender, although it bears some relation to something similar that Gandhi once wrote. See “Falser Words Were Never Spoken” by Brian Morton, The New York Times Opinion Pages, August 29, 2011.

2. Marx’s communism, when you strip away all the addled economic theory, reveals an ideal society where everyone lives by generous barter and sharing of their effort while the State and even the need for its compulsions have withered away. If you try to match this economic model with a template drawn from any actual society in human history, you are left with two possibilities: the hunter-gatherer bands of human prehistory, and the feudal estate of medieval Europe—minus, of course, the governing influence of the church and the military obligations of the feudal lord to the local baron and his king. Neither is a place or time in which I’d particularly want to live.

3. Which makes you wonder who, exactly, is going to risk his life and safety doing the hard things that other people can’t or won’t do, like fighting forest fires, patrolling on air-sea rescue service, and piecing together the high steel required for building bridges and skyscrapers? Or who will spend his time and effort on difficult pursuits like studying to be a doctor, learning physics and mathematics, and expanding human knowledge? Or won’t we still need these things in paradise?

4. Come to think of it, traditional Indian society was an attempt to achieve this kind of social stasis: in their caste system, some people were just born to be priests and scholars, some merchants and warriors, and some untouchables who would be the permanent cleaners of toilets and haulers of rubbish. It’s a simple, neat, secure, and everlasting system.

5. See My Idea of Heaven from July 22, 2012.

6. Whether it was scraping the bilges or changing a diaper, one of my mother’s favorite sayings was: “If that’s the worst thing you ever have to put your hands in, be thankful.” She knew the world was a hard place, but a strong and dependable person could grow up in no other.

7. If you doubt this, think of the hell I put my characters through in the Coming of Age volumes.