Sunday, April 20, 2014

To Life

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According to the Venerable Bede, this day was the Proto-Indo-European celebration of the Goddess of the Dawn and the Daughter of Heaven who was worshipped for bringing light and life into the spring of the Northern Hemisphere.  For the apparently ubiquity of celebrations of this goddess – Eostre – the Christian church decided to name one of their most important holidays after her.  About 3,300 years ago on this day, the Hebrews were spending the 18th day of the month of Nisan free from captivity in Egypt.  While the precise date for the Passover or Pesach is not entirely known, the persistence of the lunar cycle helps confirm the approximate date for the persistent veneration of life and liberty.  For the past 1,824 years the precise significance of this day has been the subject of controversy.  Thankfully, 1,700 years ago the Council of Arles decided that the Bishop of Rome should just make up his mind and lock in a date for the celebration of the resurrection.  Regardless of the lineage to which you affiliate, allow me to offer the following diversion from the typical Inverted Alchemy post:

Radiant dawn born from stellar fire
Opulent flora linking soil to sun
Another year we’ll toil and trade the fruit of this mystery
I am a steward giving thanks!

Here’s to Life.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easily Unsustainable

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In his April 9, 2014 comments to the Reinventing Bretton Woods Committee, The Hon Joe Hockey, MP, Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia stated that “accommodative monetary policy is an easy, but over the long term, unsustainable tool to promote growth.”  He focused a considerable volume of his speech to the aging population in Australia pointing out that the number of “working age” people available to support Australia’s senior citizens will halve between 2010 and 2050.  Like most of the Bretton Woods co-conspirators, the ‘developed’ economy plight of shrinking productive populations is looming while the ‘emerging’ markets are seeing a growth in producers and consumers. 

The Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and the IMF still ponderously lumber towards a dubious future in large part due to the flagging resolve of their creators to sustain them.  What started off as the U.S. hegemonic fiat monetary grab in the dark days of World War II – into which other nations were seduced with the promise of an America that had ‘values’ and a sense of ‘global prosperity’ – now founders as the U.S.-advocated 2010 recommendations are political non-starters in a Congress that cannot think beyond its own policy-by-Twitter cycle.  Out of one side of its mouth, the elite of the G-20 call for global 2% GDP growth while out of the other side, monetary policy alchemy is practiced in the Central Banks in Europe and the U.S. 

Few people seem to connect the G-20 anti-U.S. Congress rhetoric with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report presented in Berlin today.  When Australia’s elderly populations is living way too long in 2050, they’re going to need to be doing so on less than 70% of the combustible fuels than are in use today if we’re to avoid forecasted climate catastrophe.  To put some pieces together for you: we’re supposed to reduce our present carbon footprint (largely consumed by transportation and industry) by over 70% while more than doubling the world’s GDP (from $84 trillion to $171 trillion) in the next 36 years.  Sound plausible?  Absolutely not.  Why?  Because we’re still using Bretton Woods (il)logic, monetary, business, governmental, and social models).  In short, our sustainability dictates a transformed view of the world but our tools and behaviors are still based on the same levers that were being pulled in 1944.

What’s killing our economic future is simple:

1.       Time illusions:  Our obsession with time shows up in some pretty insidious ways.  Time drives our view of productivity.  We assume a world in which a human being has effectively 35 years of “useful” life during which they can possibly add to the ecosystem some economic value.  Now, we’ve got over half our life expectancy during which we’re expecting others to be our provisioning.  Sustainable?  Absolutely not.  We think that the ‘work week’ is sacrosanct.  Thirty-five to forty hours is the ‘reasonable’ amount of time to work in any week.  Really?  So now we’re taking our 700,000 hours of life and assuming that we’ve got to have about 120,000 of those which are productive while the remaining 580,000 are consumptive.  Sustainable?  Not a chance!  And by the way, we’re operating in the ignorance of the fact that the ‘unproductive’ pension years are actually the more expensive ones – getting more expensive as a function of proportional GDP than the younger ones. 

2.       Social Order illusions:  We still seem to think that the State (or the Employer Corporation) is our benefactor.  It isn’t and it never has been.  We draw lines around people and then assume that their interests will naturally fall into alignment.  They don’t.  Whether it’s the Balkans in the 1990s or Crimea today, the geographic domestication of humanity is not, nor has it ever, worked.  This week, Cliven Bundy was the latest in a string of protagonists to dispute the claims that the Federal Government in the U.S. could restrict his cattle grazing on over 600,000 acres of scrub near Gold Butte, NV.  While Nevada and Federal law enforcement officers sought to protect the illusion of lines drawn on maps (and while environmentalists sought to protect the foraging desert tortoise), Cliven invoked the argument that his ancestors had use of the land long before the Bureau of Land Management was ever formed.  From Ukraine teargas to Nevada tasers, governments’ belief in the lines they or their progenitors drew is worth violence and death to reinforce the illusion of beneficent control.

3.       Value illusions:  When the G-20 meet, they’ll be stuck in the echo chamber of money.  Money imbalances create problems yet they are heralded as the solution for problems.  To save our planet from climate ruin, we’ll have to “spend 10% of our GDP” and we’ll have to spend another 13% to keep our elderly population from slipping into impoverished oblivion.  No one at the G-20 nor at the UN IPCC evidenced the creativity or the audacity to suggest that we’d be better served if we opened the conversation to values that did not come in the form of – or have an imagined solution through – dollars.  Approaching a multi-factorial challenge with a mono-factor solution is complete madness.  And having a utility-based economic model that requires conformity – not for efficient ease of use but rather for reinforcement of incumbent commercial and public power interests – further removes distributed, micro-scalable solutions from potential manifestation.

What’s unsustainable is our paradigms – not our earth.  We’re surrounded with heterogeneous power, sustenance and fellowship.  But we want it to come in 60Hz, dollar denominated Styrofoam wrappers.  Well, news flash!  Bretton Woods has Alzheimer’s.  It’s advocates and adherents are sipping mashed potatoes through a straw waxing nostalgic for a past that never was and blankly gazing into a cloudy future through cataract filled eyes.  And as long as we look to them for succor, we’re suckers.  It’s time that We The People look deeply into our collective abundance and start solving local and global challenges with tools that neither governments nor their minions apprehend or master.  Who knows, we might form a Geniocratic Timocracy and make Socrates proud after all. 


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pigs with Lipstick and other Psychoses

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An Inquiry into Free Trade

I remember sitting in Dr. Vic Koop’s Abnormal Psychology class in college methodically trudging through the DSM-III and learning about a range of pathologies.  One of the anti-social traits that accompanied a variety of conditions was denial and worst among the deniers were those who vociferously condemned the very conditions they secretly manifest.  We’ve seen this scenario play out numerous times.  A televangelist condemns sexual deviance only to be found himself a serial pedophile.   A president campaigning for election on transparency and condemning the offensive behavior of a previous administration expands the most intrusive secretive surveillance and remote assassination program in modern history.  Within our economic frameworks, I find that the lexicon we use to describe activities typically evolve around this same paradoxical madness.  We use the term “risk management” to mask the predation on marginal exploitation just beyond the edge of sustainability.  “What the market will bear,” is typically associated with a point just beyond what the market can reasonably withstand.  We use the term “credit” when we really mean anonymized debt and indenture.  When we speak of “employment” our focus is on those who are unproductively disengaged. 

There are few extremes of this madness that rival the capitalist-heralded term “Free Trade”.  And to be sure, “Free” trade has never existed just like “Free” markets or any other “Free” illusion.  Over 200 years ago, the illusion of markets being “free” was socialized along with many other humanist ideals.  The degree to which the government needed to interfere with markets for “development” (another lexical illusion) was debated as much in the Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton era as it is today.  Before committing suicide in 1846, Friedrich List observed that “free trade would be a universal subjugation of the less advanced nations to the predominant manufacturing, commercial and naval power.”  He argued that without equivalence of civilization, political cultivation and power industrially advanced nations would always advantage themselves at the expense of those who were less advanced.  And, as if to simply confirm the prophetic critique of List, South Korea’s Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective recounts the evolution of trade policy that continues to evolve in favor of the 19th and 20th century industrial powers at the expense of the rest of the world’s economies.  With List, Chang demonstrates the fact that policies lauded by the ‘developed’ as vital and important in one time are removed from acceptability once they’ve achieved their desired effect in the economies promulgating the rules.  From resources to labor to climate, using a utility until its useful effect is maximized and then changing the rules to limit others’ capabilities to employ the same utility is the dominant meme and is fundamentally contrived and morally reprehensible.

Few places is this more pronounced than in the still-secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.  Allegedly justified to “promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs,” the TPP is really an imposition of protectionist proprietary enclosure regimes on producer countries for the benefit of incumbent consumer economic power juggernauts.  Ironically, this agreement promoted as a way to foster “free trade” (like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU aka TTIP) is being “negotiated” in secret with many of the terms and conditions – and lobbyists for the same – being held well outside public visibility or scrutiny. 

Free trade isn’t.  The term affords social and political cover for manipulative protectionism in which one or more trading entities concede domestic priorities for the promise of some advantage on other fronts. It is a way, for example, to impose patent rights on biological matter in direct contravention to the will of the citizens who live in the “trading partner” country.  It’s not democratic.  It’s not transparent.  And it’s not “Free”.  These agreements, far from creating stability in the global economy and promoting lasting peace, actually enrich political patrons in the short term and fuel inequality-based conflict and uprisings in the medium and long term.  The U.S. wants all TPP nations to open up their markets to tariff-free imports of U.S. agriculture products – most recently and most prone to contention at the moment: pork – but, in the same breath, wants to eliminate the prospect of generic medicine in protectionist favor to U.S. drug producers.  In other words, the U.S. wants restrictions where they aid its interests and the elimination of the same when they harm economic inequality.  Free?  Fair? Transparent?  Democratic?  Not a prayer!

Like the sociopathic behaviors that make their way into the annals of DSM-III lectures, trade negotiations which insist on palatable terminology to mask offensive market manipulation need to be scrutinized in public and held to account.  They harm short term economic growth and destroy integrity and accountability for future interactions.  We can’t afford “free” anymore.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Venom, Vultures, and Rancid Ribs

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Had you commuted to work with me each morning this past week, you would have shared the time-lapse experience of watching as vultures reduced a 60kg deer carcass from an anatomical intact road fatality on Sunday to a dancing, disarticulated fragment of ribs by Friday morning.  Courtesy of evolution of microorganisms inside the digestive tract of the American black vulture, Sunday’s bloody abattoir was no more delicacy than Friday’s final rancid ribs.  Given the progression of the week, I was invited to contemplate this theater of consumption and reflect on the meaning I’d find in its presentation. 

My son Zachary is studying herpetology at Christopher Newport University.  During an excursion through the woods behind our house last summer, we discussed the poorly understood evolution of snake digestion.  “Why is it,” I asked, “that certain snakes consume their food alive – albeit envenomed – while others constrict their prey and consume their food dead?”  Having been trained in physiology, I reasoned that there must be some enzymatic explanation for venomous snakes preferring their protein still fresh and oxygenated while constrictors are content to have hypoxic tissue in their diet.  I was disappointed to find that while the nearly 300 species of venomous snakes have been studied with respect to the composition of their neurotoxins and hemotoxins, far less research has differentiated the question I posited while tromping through the forest.  And as I read the few scholarly publications regarding the polyphyletic organisms within the phylogenic superfamily Colubroidea, I was intrigued to find that the same hyaluronidase that melts the wall of the oocyte allowing the sperm fertilize the egg in mammalian reproduction is uniformly found in both neuro and hemotoxic venom.  It turns out that the genesis of mammalian life and agency of reptilian predation share a common goal – dissolving walls that divide and disintegrating barriers to essential, life-giving proteins.

So it is with quite some sobriety that I found myself contemplating the nature of consumption in the guts of snakes and vultures and reflecting on the persistence of both of these animals in cultural iconography over the millennia.  Did our ancestors know more about what was knowable about life, death and their interplay than we do today?  Is that why they pointed us to snakes and vultures in art, religion, poetry, and myth?  Maybe.  Or maybe I’m just juxtaposing unrelated observations to make a point. 

Vultures rely on bacteria within their digestive tract to counteract bacterially produced toxins from Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium botulinum – anthrax and botulism, respectively.  And while we focus on the “how do they eat rancid meat and not get sick like us?” question, we fail to observe that, like snakes, their digestion has been adapted over the arc of evolution to consume with specificity that which is in abundance within their habitat.  The bacterial load with the vulture’s gut and the toxicity of the venom produced say by the Crotalus scutulatus (the venomous pit viper found in the desert Southwestern US) far exceed the amount required for the beneficial toxicity.  In other words, the animal is far more effective in the production of protective proteins to achieve the venomous objective than would be required.  And the reason for this, to say the least, is not understood at present.

But, for a moment, let’s go back to my favorite sentence thus far – the one that ends the second paragraph.  The goal of all of these evolutionary adaptations is to both serve a metabolic mandate for the animal and serve an ecosystem balancing role in the elimination of carrion and prey respectively.  Informative within this reflection is that the consumer has engaged in adaptation to achieve the singular benefit desirable for its engagement within the ecosystem rather than seeking to manipulate the ecosystem to favor its objectives.  And this, ironically, applies both to snake venom, vulture guts, and mammalian reproduction.  Permeability for provisioning life – the enzymatic mandate of hyaluronidases – is not general in its application but rather it is highly focal and specific.  If one were to simply spray these enzymes across the ecosystem, we’d be reduced, quite literally, into a gooey ooze. 

It appears, upon closer inspection, that we could learn a lot from a serpent.  It may be no small coincidence that we’ve developed elaborate social, religious and cultural metaphors to steer clear of what they can teach us.  “Unclean birds” and “serpents” – examples of autogenic consumer adaptation – are relegated to the ick-factor while gluttonous grazing beasts are revered.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I think there are a lot of cows and camels that could teach us a lot about life but I’m particularly fascinated by the consumer evolutionary intelligence of vultures and snakes. 

What would our consumer industrial complex look like if we took on some responsibility to modify ourselves to be more suitable consumers in our ecosystem?  Much of what we seek to describe in economic terms are inefficiencies we project upon our ecosystem so that it conforms to our desires.  Much of our associated conflicts arise from the dissonance we impose on a world we want to manifest in our illusory image.  But, in this impulse lies the seed of persistent conflict.  We – now I’m speaking about the whole of humanity – are no more identical in our aspirational consumption than are the 300 different species of venomous snakes.  Some of us like the crunchiness of a paralyzed mouse while others of us prefer the sedate, lifeless piglet.  And the reasons why our preferences differ is, in part, because of the enzymes in our digestion which make one form palatable over another.  With over 2,700 varieties of snakes – only 300 of which adapted to envenomate prey – and with hundreds of Falconiformes – only a subset which feed on carrion – do we really think that we can find a single enzyme of consumption that is common to all of us?  Not a prayer!

So where does this leave us?  Great question.  What I know is that this parable of consumption was my obsession this week.  I do know that it’s serving as another lens through which I’m observing economic systems.  And I know that, at present, this is merely the carcass of the idea which, when fully digested, will look quite a bit different.  Chew wisely!


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nebuchadnezzar at the Federal Reserve

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This week’s decision by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the U.S. Federal Reserve to formally ditch an unemployment target as a central mandate for determining interest rates is, in no small way, a metric unto itself.  In the most delusional of days, I could erroneously conclude that enough of the Committee have been reading my blog and countless other rational commentators that they realized the fallacy in a metric that fails to measure what it purports.  For those of you who didn’t read the FOMC Statement this week, Janet Yellen’s nurturing leadership debut was marked with a recognition that the Fed’s “highly accommodative stance” cannot be justified by any empirical economic mandate – like employment or price stability.  What she and the Committee did not state is that the rationalization for her cheap money mandate is justified if its real beneficiaries – monetary trade wars with the rest of the exporting world and massive wealth transfers for those who already have excess – are to continue their wanton recklessness.  What I find refreshing is that the masquerade of public good is being expunged from the FOMC’s illusory raison d’etre and, for the first time in recent memory, we can see that ‘accommodative’ is a shareholder interest alone.

We’re now entering the post-empirical divination phase of the Fed where “readings on financial developments” become the new bedrock for policy.  The new alchemy includes ‘measures’, ‘indicators’, and ‘readings’ – an irrational subjectivity so offensive to a few as to lead one member of the Committee – Narayan Kocherlakota, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis – to complain that such euphemism “weakens the credibility of the Committee’s commitment…” and could “hinder economic activity.” 

I remember my 10th grade train-wreck with reality when my geometry teacher father taught me an important lesson in intersubjective solipsistic dissonance.  He offered to his students the following proposition: Come up with an original and unpublished proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and you get an “A” for the class.  “You can even bring in a pillow and sleep through class,” he promoted at the beginning of the academic year.   Long before Su and Velian published their “spherical proof” (17 years ahead, but who is counting?), I developed a proof using spherical geometry and way more steps than otherwise necessary.  Proudly I dropped my opus on his desk and even more proudly he confirmed that his son had, in fact, achieved the challenge.  What followed, however, was a harsh reality.  The offer of an “A” for the class had an undisclosed exception: “Not if the author of the proof is the son of the teacher.”  And so, for the rest of the year, I had to stay awake, study for exams, and eke out my “A” with the same toil as my fellow students.  My father taught me the important lesson that motivation is productive even if the objective is capriciously subjective.

Now where does a spherical proof of A2 + B2 = C2 and the FOMC Statement merge on this chilly Spring morning just past the flirting ellipse of the precessing equinox?  My answer lies in the more fundamental recognition that confronts the FOMC and us all.  And for my answer I’ll plumb the depths of another timeless geometrical puzzle – the puzzle of Pi.  In 1999 University of Tokyo Professor Yasumasa Kanada and his assistant Daisuke Takahasi performed in 83.5 hours a world record calculation of Pi – you know the one: 3.1415…. – resolved to 206.1 billion digits.  This undertaking smashed the previous record of 50 billion digits and confirmed what the Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Germans, and others have known for a long time – the circumferential relationship a circle has with its diameter is obsessive and transcendental.  According to Dr. James Grime and others, to understand the geometry of the known universe, we only need to know Pi to 39 digits to “compute the circumference of the entire universe to the accuracy of less than the diameter of a hydrogen atom.”  Like the calculations of my good buddy Pythagoras, descriptive formulae are helpful until considered at the assumptive scale at which point they become audacious and ludicrous.  While we think we know that A2 + B2 = C2 and that ∏ = C/d, we don’t know what they mean and we don’t really have a clue why we can’t find the end of these circular and triadic mysteries. 

When it comes to the FOMC, what we know is that what the Fed was established to do and its public cover-story justification have never been in coherence.  Now, before you cast aspersions on the Fed, a note of caution.  The Fed actually performs the banking purpose for which it was established and, in service to its member institutions, it’s done remarkably well.  Former Chairman Bernanke was quite eloquent in reminding members of Congress – particularly the Tea Party activists – that if they didn’t like what the Fed was doing, they were perfectly within their rights to change its mandate (a challenge that no Congressman or woman was willing to do when they found out who they’d have to contend with if they took on the challenge).  The problem comes when the belief of the function is met with the reality of the dissonance between actuality and projected aspiration.  Justification is no more causal than it is accountable.  Just because you think something ‘should’ do something doesn’t mean that it ‘agrees’ or is even complicit in your shared sense of reality.  Therefore, metrics used to justify an illusion – regardless of their prima facie merits – neither hold an individual nor enterprise to motivation nor account.  Just because something is observable and alleged to be measured doesn’t mean that the observational assumptions or the rules for the metrics are shared. 

Janet and the FOMC get an “A” for an emerging honesty from me this meeting for unmasking what other Fed Chairs have been unwilling to admit.  They’re not in this for the U.S. economy – they’re in it for their shareholders’ interests.  This, for all you cynics out there, is progress.  Now we have an opportunity to have a more enlivened conversation about our misappropriated belief (and blame) on an actor in a system that, while justified using idealist goals, never was organized to serve them.  I’m no more motivated to jump on a Fed-bashing bandwagon than try to resolve Pi another few billion decimals.  And no amount of motivation will seduce me into finding another way to “prove” a theorem constructed to explain an interesting, obvious reality.  No, I found this week’s FOMC a breath of fresh air.  We now admit that metrics are what they’ve always been – an attempt to encode a dogma to manipulate others – and, as a result, one more blow has been struck to the feet of iron alloyed clay!  And with that metaphor, hopefully one or two of you can revel in the tapestry that is my allegory.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Skewed Up in the Real World

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Life happens.  Most of the time, the sun rises, we go about what we’re doing, we start some things, finish a few less and randomly bump into unforeseen moments and then, the sun sets.  If you’re reading this blog, there’s a high probability that you’ve got some form of shelter, you’re connected to communication with the outside world, you probably had a few meals in the past few days and, with few exceptions, you’re living in relative peace and tranquility.  Furthermore, there’s a better than even chance that for the majority of your life, this has been your experience.  Infrequently, you’ve been in a car accident, have been evicted from your home, lost your employment, mourned the loss of a dear friend, tasted violence, seen your efforts come to naught, and contracted a fatal disease.

For many of us – dare I say most of the readers of this post – life has been disproportionately good.  In statistical terms, most of us live in a distribution of events and conditions which are like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Which is why I find myself so profoundly puzzled by the proclivities I see for people to anticipate “risk”, “crisis” or “loss” when it comes to their financial future.  Most paradoxical is the prevalence of this scarcity-laden fear among those who espouse a commitment to be part of a societal transformation that recognizes a more complete view of value and a more holistic view of engagement with the ecosystem.

Now let’s examine a recent case example of this issue.  I was at a dinner with a wonderful group of friends.  Sitting around the table were individuals working in the fields of finance, aesthetics, education, and public policy.  If you were to ask each of them for an accounting of the past year, you would find an overwhelming majority of them reporting a near perfect record of calamity-free days.  Sure, disappointments here and there but in the fat mean experience, the distribution of good days would be far in excess of the distribution of bad days.  However, ask the same group what would happen, say, if an equity market, banking sector, or business failure would be imminent and these same beneficiaries of excessive abundance immediately project a world in which words like “survival” and “not making it” and “devastating” show up.  Ask the same individuals to describe their experiences in communities around the world with far “less” wealth (defined in their paradigms) and invariably, they’d comment on how inexplicably “happy” “those people are”. 

Now I’ve discussed the illogic of the empirical and statistical schizophrenia of observing the reproducible tacit experience of life and choosing to energize a disproportionate obsession with crisis scenarios in the implicit illusion of devastating models of the future.  While continental Europe gave us the notion of risk being the loss of value in the face of possible success, life demonstrates persistent sustenance in the face of rare and infrequent loss.  In other words, it’s more likely that we’ll have something for which we should be grateful than have something to fear – yet, when looking into the shroud of a scenario-laden future, fear seems to prevail.  Our prophetic skewness is disproportionately negative in a world that is disproportionately positive.  And this is among those who have the most external evidence of abundance.

Now if this were the end of my post, you’d be left with a bit of a thud of the obvious.  But it’s not.  For my entire life, I’ve seen a world that few, if any others can envision.  Not only have I seen possibilities – like mistaking a cactus in the desert for a moose when I was a little boy (because I saw its ears) – but I’ve created enterprises around the world that have actually transformed impossibilities into reality.  I know that the madness of crowds is usually incorrect and, rather than railing against it, I’ve chosen to build vistas from which observation can evidence a reality that is masked by the madness.  I know that life is mostly good and I know that, with a bit of coaxing, even the not-so-good can be made better.  Sometimes, a lot better because it’s been so overlooked and underutilized.  No, what really puzzles me is why those who state a desire to transform or change are most frequently the ones who appeal to objections based on scarcity, risk, and fear (the sinister trinity of incapacity).  “If you take on that company, they could kill you.”  “If you choose to walk away from that project that would compromise your values, your business could go bankrupt.”  “If you engage with the powerful, they’ll corrupt you.”  All warnings that I’ve received from socially enlightened people while never encountering them in actuality and engagement with the parties I’ve been told to fear.


Shellfish exposure, according to the research of Canadians Howse, Gautrin, et al, and others, can lead to considerable allergic reactions in which a person with no previous symptoms can suddenly have anaphylaxis.  You’re going along merrily processing shrimp or crabs and then, suddenly, one day, your chest tightens, you can’t breathe and you think you’re going to die.  Like shellfish allergies, encountering people who insist on planning for adversity in the face of abundant near-certainty, can lead to a cumulative exposure allergy in which a person like me has had one too many of the “what if” scenarios pitched and the chest tightening, constricted breathing gets a bit too much.  Unlike the irreversible shellfish allergy, the scenario-skewness allergy (or SSA, as I like to call it) is entirely reversible.  When you hear dire predictions of grave uncertainties, you can simply walk away, go about your day, and at day’s end, celebrate another wonderful day of mediocre abundance… for which you can be eternally grateful. 


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Extra Super High Priority

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I had the privilege of addressing a diverse group of individuals over the past week.  In Gold Coast Australia, my friend and colleague Christine McDougall invited a group of about 40 to conversation on the nature of human enterprise.  In Chicago, Professor Leo Burke asked me to be a guest lecturer for the Notre Dame University Mendoza School of Business Executive MBA students’ weekend session.  Honoring the promise I made arising from my contempt for professors during my academic training who offered tired lectures on lifeless subject matter in robotic monotony, each presentation was entirely unique.  Different stories, different themes, and different arguments all arriving at the same core message: humanity is in need of an operating paradigm based on abundance rather than scarcity.

Following both presentations, I had the delight of chatting with several in both gatherings regarding the arc of the material covered – time, geography, disciplines – and found myself puzzling over the use of hyperbolic terminology to describe the narrative of my ordinary life.  Now, let me be clear.  I have been fortunate to be exposed to, and interact with, a broad swath of humanity in diverse settings.  I value the experiences I’ve had and the wonderful people who have enriched them in so many instances.  But my life has followed a singular and simple directive – I go where I’m invited and engage fully wherever that is.  This does not constitute an extraordinary, superhuman, transcendent experience but rather an integrated and full experience of life.

Hyperbole in the description of the human experience seems to imply another malignancy in the cancer of the scarcity paradigm.  Think about it.  On the History Channel (yes, I’ve been exposed to the Inflight Entertainment on the Star Alliance network), “ancient astronomical theorists” postulate about the influence of ‘extra’ terrestrial intelligence.  Human potential enthusiasts extol the possibility of ‘super’ human performance.  Religious adherents obsess about ‘transcendence’ to variously motivate or threaten consequence in the moment.  In fact, “After all, he’s / she’s only human” serves as the aphorism to describe behavior unbecoming of societal norms.  Paradoxically, our inspirational and aspirational distractions – retreats, seminars, revivals, etc – which are organized around escaping consensus monotony, seek to regress ‘transcendence’ to a common formula.  “We all” have brokenness, shadows, issues, sin, separation, unresolved conflicts and therefore, “we all” need explanation, adaptation, acceptance, or transformation.  We’re encouraged to marvel at “ancient” megaliths and are asked to ponder “how these extraordinary fetes could have been performed without modern tools?”  Last time I checked, ‘modern’ tools are worthless in cutting and stacking stones the size of school buses with interlocking precision.  It must have been ‘extraterrestrials’!

Now why do I associate hyperbolic expressions of the human experience with scarcity?  The answer is both mathematical and philosophical (which are, in fact, one in the same).  First, the math.  As I’ve addressed in numerous posts before this one, our adherence to regression (the notion that we can isolate metrics that can be placed on probabilistic linear models or can be distributed within a bell curve) is predicated on two fallacies.  First, that we know what is measurable and can in fact measure ‘it’.  Second, that our consent to “the measured” is a reflection of our capacity to fit ‘it’ to normative data.  Neither of these fallacious assumptions are ever tested.  Worse still, they strive to simplify into ‘manageable’ fragmented dimensions that which is complex and essential.  But the bigger issue – the one that reinforces our model of scarcity – is that outliers and the unexplained are measured by their failure to conform to our regressed illusion rather than invited to suggest the vast dimensions for which our metrics serve no descriptive or predictive purpose.  At the frontier of DNA-explained life is 97% “junk DNA”.  At the edge of the vast expanse of the physical sciences is over 95% unexplained “dark matter”.  Our confidence in what is known (less than 5% of our universe) is indicted by the pejorative dismissal of the unknown with terms like “dark” and “junk”.  Which would suggest that it is reasonable to conclude that we’re a long way from fully knowing present reality and even further from any form of transcendence.  We see, as it were, through a glass darkly, and fail to realize that behind all the smudges and the dirt is not reality but the silver we’ve placed to reflect our own illusions back to us. 

Rather than confronting our self-imposed limitations and our own constraints, cleaning the glass and removing the mirrors that we’ve constructed, we coalesce into a huddled horde seeking escape from our own limitations.  All the while, we fail to recognize that fully human ecosystems beckon from all around us but, as they are abundantly unfamiliar, we fail to heed their invitation.  And in the rare instance that we might seek a broader, more unconstrained experience, we huddle into small group experiences and construct elaborate fantasies of the “super” the “extra” and the “trans”. 

I am a mortal (not a “mere” mortal).  I am human (not “super-human”).  In gratitude, I thrive in a universe of opportunities and challenges which alloy my metal and sharpen my blade.  Are there numerous personal attributes in my life that I could refine or purify?  Absolutely.  But even this process – manifest in persistent action – is perfect in its messiness.  After all, perfection – maligned as an aspirational ideal or delegated to the divine – was the Latin concept for complete.  And recognizing the reality of perfection – the completion of all that is required to continually refine, render more elegant, and manifest with greater sensitivity and beauty – we can liberate ourselves from the sirens of superficial, scarce transition and fall into the loving gravitational embrace of ordinary abundance. 


Have a perfectly ordinary day with perfectly ordinary people doing perfectly attainable, amazing things!