Sunday, February 26, 2012

Trafficking Humanity


The dogma that economic power is at the root of all evil must be discarded. Its place must be taken by an understanding of the dangers of any form of uncontrolled power. Money as such is not particularly dangerous. It becomes dangerous only if it can buy power, either directly, or by enslaving the economically weak who must sell themselves in order to live.

The Open Society and Its Enemies: Vol 2. Karl Popper, 1945

I grew up in interesting times. The first half of my young life was spent in Southern California in the waning days of the Vietnam War and its equally ineffectual social contemporary, the Peace Movement. “What do you want? Peace! When do you want it? Now!” was the angry chorus that accompanied the tie dyed floral festooned marchers of some of my most vivid early memories. And far from peace; what we got instead was the massive expansion of covert military action that took root in anonymous places across the globe with the likes of Oliver North and has metastasized into Obama’s sweeping doctrine of assassination drone diplomacy. Then my family moved to Pennsylvania where we lived among the religious conservative communities infused with doctrinal fervor to spare a select few of the throngs of fallen humanity from the fires of hell. “What do you want? Salvation! When do you want it? Before you might die in a car accident tonight on your way home from church so you better get it right now!” was the new refrain sung to the mournful meter of Just As I Am.

Whether it was the peace marchers that showed the government that a public informed of the scourge of a pointless war was too dangerous or the serial converts that fueled revivals to “Save the Lost”, the seventies and eighties marked a time when humanity’s sound-bite activism facilitated the tyrannical rise of uncontrolled power. From the tepid Tea Party evangelicals to dwindling Occupites to mercenary lords of corporate war, our uninformed militant impulses enjoy shorter half-lives these days with equal impotence. At present, more of humanity finds itself meeting Popper’s ominous warning “of enslaving the economically weak who must sell themselves in order to live,” than at any time before…, and their ranks are growing.

It’s easy to connect with the naked reality of our current paradox – a web-entangled information infested world where understanding is an endangered species – than when one spends a week in Papua New Guinea. Here, the simple transfer of knowledge – appreciated for its absence – unleashes genuine impulses to effectuate change. In the land of oil, natural gas, and gold, pirate corporations have preyed on those whom have been bypassed by the information super-highway and have enjoyed impunity by keeping both their local victims and their remote investors in equal blindness. Standing before an audience of 2,000 people just outside the capital of Port Moresby on Wednesday, in conversation with the most marginalized I shared information and pathways for action that neither their government nor the corporations who have fostered its enslavement were willing to address. And now there are 2,000 people who have been made aware that there’s an alternative to the abuse that has been commonplace. They stood, united in a moment, to be part of the change that they could all intuit to be possible.

There was a bit of irony that many of my colleagues were reading John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on the trip we just completed. Perkins, like the serial converts of the evangelical movement decades ago, seems to celebrate his ‘conversion’ by recounting the wretched state from which he was redeemed. The refrain of his story is being aware of the carnage in which he participated but finding himself constantly seduced by the sirens of reward from his lords. Now, to be clear, I celebrate the fact that my recommendations of his book have enriched John (through his royalties). In it he cogently outlines the orchestrated hypocrisy of our hijacked bastardization of exclusive capitalism. It’s worth the read – particularly if you assiduously avoid reading the conclusion. Because tragically in the end, he offers the same helplessness that plagued his odyssey. Do something, he asks? Get people to read my book. Never a call to divest from KBR, Halliburton, Exxon, Bechtel and the like. Never a call to become personally known to (and in) the communities that have suffered at the hands of these despotic parasites. Never a call to actually use a fraction of your horded future security for a present intervention with those who have long been prey. You see, even the purveyors of ‘truth’ in our time create the illusion that ‘becoming informed’ is to have accomplished something to turn the tide. After nearly two millennia haven’t we learned that the canon “the truth shall set you free” has been the battle cry of those who most oppressively enslave? We don’t need ‘truth’, we need knowledge gained through direct human contact.

Popper’s fatalism suggests an inevitability that the Bretton Woods cabal will lead to the progressive enslavement of humanity’s innumerable most vulnerable. And regrettably, his postulate has held for over half a century. However what evidenced this week was that for the price of airfare, erasure of geographically advantaged ignorance unleashed a new narrative. Having trafficked humans in pursuit of wringing every ill-gotten profit into the coffers of the anesthetized sociopathic passive privateer, the human traffic that brings people into each other’s communities can disproportionately release the furies of opportunity and engagement.

In his social commentary film, In Time, Andrew Niccol has his villain callously state that for one to achieve immortality, many must die. Whether or not he meant to embrace the critique that the only contrivance afforded immortality in our time is the perpetual corporation, I cannot say. But Freudian or intentional, his observation is worth deeper reflection. Our more suitable humanity may be continue to be held at bay so long as we provide, through immortality, the “uncontrolled power” of the corporation. It is this institution that must be invited to serve a useful life and die. In our time, it is bloated, persistent corporations that kill and maim. It is bloated, persistent corporations that buy every form of government. It is bloated, persistent corporations that demand succor from governments while the governed are left to fend for themselves. And it is high time that we turn our collective attention to this autocratic abusive legacy of the Dutch and British and charter a new, mortal framework for our pursuits. In short, it’s time to reclaim humanity and all of its various pursuits for humans. Go beyond being informed – be engaged with the trafficked and share their humanity! You’ll never see the world the same again.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Song of Farea


Beyond the paved road bordering Jackson Field, left down three miles of mud and gravel, through the river crossing, right at the peanut patch and through the last half mile of waist high grass now stands a triumph of humanity. If our myths tell us of a tower erected on a plain where, when humanity came together to climb to the gods, a threatened deity “confused their language”, we now have a tower where tribes of many languages came together and made a little heaven on Earth! As I stood one last time atop 10 meters of steel side-by-side with my dad, Aaron and looked across the treetops to soak in the last views of this past week’s efforts, thunder and lightning danced just beyond the hill that looked down on us. And walking through the downpour on the mud filled trails with Greg Smith, Dylan Korelich, my bride of nearly 25 years, Colleen, and nearly 40 villagers from the Eastern Highlands, I could hold, for a moment, the knowledge that every myth that has separated us from each other and Heaven from Earth is just that – a myth. For when people choose to come together to address humanity’s most intractable challenges and sweat and bleed and toil together all the heavens can do is clap.

Together with my parents, Aaron and Ruth, a team totaling 9 of us (the aforementioned plus: Katie Martin; Dustin DiPerna; Theresa Arek) became woven into the fabric of one of Papua New Guinea’s newest communities – Farea Model Village. Hosted on S.K.’s expansive land to the east of the airport and built on the vision of Clemence Kanau and Tivien Aya, five tribes dislocated from the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea now have water. Shipped from the generous team at Aermotor in San Angelo Texas via California and Singapore, a 5 meter windmill now is pumping water to hydrate the land and its new inhabitants. Using M•CAM’s Sovereign Technology Credit Obligation fusion business model, this community now owns a water utility that will sell water services to an estimated 5,000 people – many of whom are displaced from their ancestral homes by Exxon’s LNG project. The proceeds of this utility will be placed in trust to reinvest in expanding additional water projects (including the building and acquisition of similar windmills) to equally situated groups throughout the country.

This project, the first of its kind in Papua New Guinea, was also supported by Ken Dabkowski, Edward West and Andrew Trabulsi together with the M•CAM and Fusion Lab teams. To be in Farea yesterday was to see raw, unrestrained joy – from the tears of joy when the water flowed to the loud songs and dances that turned the once quiet land into a land echoing with the chorus of humanity.

Many themes will flow from this week’s events but, for now, join us in singing the Song of Farea and celebrate the land where water now flows!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ant-inmal Farm

Not a Fairy Tale

On this week’s anniversary of Peter Kropotkin’s death I found myself traveling to India for a reprise of my periodic lecture series with Indian Institute for Management – Ahmedabad Professor Anil Gupta. For three days, we would circumnavigate the topic of intellectual property and its role in competitive and collaborative market utility with a group of technocrats and business managers from across India. Vainly I set into motion an effort to locate the original works of Kropotkin’s self-proclaimed inspiration, Karl F. Kessler, Dean of the University of St. Petersburg which set into motion the quite popular notion of Mutual Aid contrasting the Malthusian – Darwinism inspired Survival of the Fittest. Regrettably, the trail for his work, save copious references thereto, were entombed in the Artic ice below the plane – long lost to the West’s loving (albeit seasoned with schizophrenic disdain) embrace of Darwin’s laws of competition over collaboration.

In a world teeming with ideological conflict, it is perfectly reasonable to see why, in the 1880s, the social debate had equivalent fuel arguing for an aspirational emergence of humanity actively choosing a path away from barbarism and bloodshed while confronting the empirical evidence of gladiatorial predispositions sacrificing humanity on the industrial alter of Labor. Thomas H. Huxley’s The Struggle for Existence fatalistically preconditions his arguments with what amounts to his epitaph on the species.

“The finer spirits look to an ideal civitas Dei; a state when, every man having reached the point of absolute self-negation and having nothing but moral perfection to strive after, peace will truly reign, not merely among nations but among men, and the struggle for existence will be at an end.”
“Whether human nature is competent, under any circumstances, to reach, or even seriously advance toward, this ideal condition, is a question which need not be discussed. It will be admitted that mankind has not yet reached this stage by a very long way, and my business is with the present.”
"…the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in another way, survived. Life was a continuous free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.”

Anyone feel like they wished they hadn’t started reading this post long about now? Well, read on, my intrepid friends because the evidence of Huxley’s despondency is alive and well. But before we hurl ourselves over the ledge, I will do my level best to argue for Kessler once more.

I’ve frequently mentioned the prevailing utility of “Ignorance Arbitrage” in our current micro- and macro economic systems. I was visited by this phantasm on several occasions across the past several days. An Australian apologist for abusive business practices in selected corporations in the mining sector attempted to defend practices which explicitly violate the laws of host countries and induce governments into indebted faux ownership in illiquid shell corporations while being seduced by World Bank and IFC sirens promoting ‘economic development’. Countless voices in our conference echoed the empty mantra that intellectual property protection generally, and patents specifically, are an essential element of ‘defending innovation’ while knowing full well that the WTO elixir is more akin to Socrates’ hemlock. U.S. representatives implored their Indian counterparties to pile economic sanctions on the citizens of Iran while President Ahmadineajad amplified his rhetoric and while the Times of India quietly ran an article on the commercial bonanza potential to expand trade with Iran as the sanctions created their inevitable vacuum. An investment manager for a $10 billion fund callously told me that the Mining Minister in Papua New Guinea was “irrelevant” as he had no “real consequence” in the operating reality of resource extractors in the country. Over a year after we delivered a report to the Government of Mongolia on the debt-trap they were placed in by a Goldman Sachs-advised financing racket, a now more indebted request came to re-examine our evidence as it suddenly appeared to be somehow more relevant than when it was drafted at the outset.

I suppose I should take some solace in the fact that George Orwell’s Animal Farm, written in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and on the eve of the Second World War, was rejected by publishers for years because it was too critical of Stalin’s tyranny tolerable as he was an ally of the U.S. and Britain while being criticized on the other hand as being to ‘communist’. Then, as now, in a world where dogmatic adherence to ideology provides noxious sanctuary for the masses, we find ourselves predictably succumbing to the python of prevailing propaganda rather than becoming animated by information accumulated through engagement.

My Australian anonymous heckler has apparently not read the audited financial statements of companies like New Guinea Gold which reported “fully impairing” $4,841,978 in accrued debt (a liability nearly 7000% greater than the total consideration paid to the community) charged against the entity in which the landowners of Sinivit were allegedly going to receive equity benefit. The company’s accountants at BDO clearly had reason to believe that the illiquid, indebted shell corporation in which the landowners were going to receive “benefit” was unlikely to ever pay out. However, while writing down Gold Mines of Niugini Holdings Ltd., the company insisted on having state police protection to “defend their interests” against landowners who felt that they were being abused. The Indian Government and its agencies must have failed to see that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission report indicting the patent system as not serving its intended purpose or Dr. Sara Boettiger’s seminal work empirically showing the ineffectiveness of the Bayh-Dole Act. And let’s face it, when it comes to sanctions against regimes, can anyone say Cuba? They hurt citizens, not autocrats or dictators. Masking our campaign against Iran under the guise of the trumped up, “If they build it, Israel will succumb” rhetoric ignores our inconsistent nuclear weapons record across the globe. The British Mandate of Palestine was colonialism writ large in 1922 and if we don’t address that legacy, we should just transparently state an alliance rather than hiding behind a manufactured common enemy (ironically also a legacy of British map drawing skills). But, and here comes the sunrise of my reason for Kesslerian optimism, they have all made one significant error in their calculation. Information and a new class of its purveyors!

You see, the Old Majors and Napoleons count on the fact that they can drive out Snowball and that, at best, morality will serve the patronizing role of the paternalistic Clover. But what they don’t expect is the emergence of an internuncio who is willing to first exchange education and then inform. And vital in this is the EXCHANGE of education. You see, industrial colonialists have presumed themselves to be the sole keepers of alacritous cunning and have held community values and knowledge with benign or violent disdain. However in an emerging reality, the fig leaf of ignorance that has shielded both the actors and their apologists has been gnawed to its proverbial stem exposing the naked truth of inequitable conduct. And given the hubris of the abusers, the caterpillar doesn’t have to suffer a varied appetite. The same predictable cheats conduct themselves with the same behavior whether it’s in Central Asia, the Pacific, South America or Africa. In fact, it is the very fact of their predictable conduct that makes their identification so effortless and the unmasking of the fraud so efficient.

Kropotkin, Kessler and Orwell suffered marginalization from their clarion calls for an alternative hypothesis to the Huxley-Darwin-Malthus dogmatic underpinning of a Rockefeller animated industrial juggernaut. Only a fool would argue that the last century was largely owned by the latter ever seeking to exterminate the former. Yet it is equally the fool that sees the economies of Europe and the U.S. – the alleged victors – entirely embrace selective aristocratic socialism in the form of absolute state intervention and conclude that calculated consumerism and capitalism (in its current manifestation in the same countries) performed suitably. So, on this sunny day in India, I would encourage you to celebrate the fact that, at long last, the seeds of cooperation are landing in fertile soil far faster than Monsanto’s back-room can concoct their herbicide. And, with a little bit of luck, a few of you will forward this post and be the wind that insures their scatter as far and wide as possible. Your choice: Huxley’s “…the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in another way, survived” OR become a disseminator of the seeds of knowledge and collaboration which fruits into a world where “…peace will truly reign, not merely among nations but among men, and the struggle for existence will be at an end.”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Of Camels and Needles

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:24

You may want to print this blog post as a collector’s item. I have a hunch, as we go into the Presidential election madness, that this may be the one of the few times that you’ll see my deep empathy for Gov. Mitt Romney. To be clear, Governor Romney is a contender for the Republican nomination not because he’s the greatest civic leader the party can field. He’s not the front-runner because he has the courage to truly confront the nationalist denials which keep us from confronting the structural problems facing our economy and society. He’s not getting media attention because he can evidence leadership based on the power of an American ideal of liberty over the recent legacy of anonymous drone-laden assassinations of our ideological foes. He’s on all of our radar screens because, among other attributes, he’s rich and in our society, that means he can buy our attention.

My heart truly aches for him this week. In what will undoubtedly be a defining moment for all of the wrong reasons, his careless comment seeking to highlight his commitment to addressing the priorities of the middle class has been ravenously devoured by those who love nothing more than to begrudgingly envy wealth only to decimate its incarnations the moment they see any alloy of inhumanity. I do not know Governor Romney but I am certain that he “cares” about the poor. And watching pundits from the Utopian left to Pharisees on the militant right pile onto this gaffe reflects not our vigilance for social justice but our most distasteful lust for gladiatorial butchery.

In a meeting yesterday, one of the world’s leading private wealth managers observed that, “Being just a little bit richer is not as good as being a lot poorer is much worse.” [For those of you not given to word puzzles; consider this. If you have $100,000 and gain $10,000 your happiness does not increase at the same proportion as the disappointment experienced if you had $200,000 and lost $90,000. While you’re still, in the moment holding an absolute $110,000, the instance of gain pales in comparison with the agony accompanying the perception of loss.] The wealth manager’s firm handles in excess of $4 trillion and, as such, he’s seen the emotional tsunamis of perceived loss eclipse countless apathetic compounding years of modest and stellar gains.

The manager’s comment echoed off the cavernous walls of inhumanity perpetuated by relentless media drumbeats on the too-late penitent Governor. But as I contemplated this present dissonance, I was invited to reconsider one of my life’s most poignant lessons.

My recollection of an event in India (described in a blog post last year) raced into my consciousness. The idea that we can place ourselves in a position of feigning sympathy or empathy for those we deem to be “poor” or “disadvantaged” while expressing none of the same impulses for those we deem as “rich” or “privileged” says more about ourselves than those we judge. The only reason why Mitt’s apparent insensitivity is garnering so much attention is because we hold up an artificial standard. Somehow we convince ourselves that because we’ve acquiesced to the illusion that with his wealth comes some level of insulation from careless insensitivity or simple misstatements, his comment becomes far more than it is. To be clear, it was in poor taste and lacked sensitivity. You know it as does he. But equally lacking in taste is the elephant in the room – namely, our frequent incapacity to see that position (either granted by merit or purchased by money) has never assured an evidence of perpetual refinement or grace. Regrettably, what the events of the past week demonstrate is that we’re far more likely to pillory those whom we’ve exalted rather than engage in genuine, respectful critique of the deeper questions we all face as a society.

And by the way, enough with the temporal and moral relativism! Let us recall that the same Bible that is embraced Governor Romney and so many liberal and conservative self-proclaimed Christian adherents reports a crusading Jesus being equally dismissive if taken out of context: Matthew 26:11 records the statement that, “the poor you will always have with you.” And lest you think that there’s any air-gap between the mis-contextualization of a week ago versus two millennia ago – let’s be clear. This Gospel account has been frequently used by those who want to rationalize non-engagement or discontinuation of purposeful, compassionate action when it comes to those who society has most marginalized. Isolating statements uttered in error or in malevolence as a point of dogmatic contention is inappropriate as it masks the genuine issues that are pleading for attention. Remember that from 1980 – 1988, those officially under the poverty line increased during what we called the Reagan revolution – worst among the urban disadvantaged and children (can anyone remember “the least of these…”?). But with 1980s gas prices low, official unemployment low, and wealth transfer for the top 5% of asset holders expanding at a then-record rate, our indifference allowed this gap to widen to a point where now we’ve expanded the ranks of those left behind to levels unimaginable under the Actor-in-Chief. We’ve spent three decades “not caring about the poor,” so when a careless statement utters the truth of our consensus behavior, we may be well advised to take care in casting the first stone.

Governor Romney is a wealthy man. I am a wealthy man. I know a bunch of wealthy men and women measured in every dimension by which one can measure wealth. I’ve never met anyone on Earth that has enjoyed the breadth of experience; the dynamic range of joys and sorrows; the access and privilege that I’ve had as I have been fortunate to participate in the lives of what likely numbers in the millions by now. While I have chosen a mode of transacting my life that has consciously elected not to be dependent on money – the object of so much violent conflict, aspiration, derision, fear and hatred – this choice in no way alters the truth that I have unfathomable wealth. And, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably among the world’s most privileged if you truly measure your life in all dimensions of value.

With wealth – in any form – comes accountability. And it is in this spirit that I would kindly suggest that to Form a More Perfect Union, those of us who seek to transform the tide of inhumanity hold a touch of discerning Mercy. Whether Governor Romney is a man of compassion, I do not know. Whether he would embody that quality of mercy that, in Shakespeare’s eloquence, “becomes a throned monarch better than his crown,” I do not know. But what I absolutely know is that attacking any person for a moment of insensitivity – particularly when the energy animating that attack is at times amplified by a deeply suppressed schizophrenic envy which seeks to accumulate the artifact of derision – serves to destroy our humanity. I trust that we don’t deepen our poverty of spirit by standing in self-incriminating judgment on a man and his ill-considered utterance. After all, it is We the People who have allowed his currency to buy our attention and until We the People lessen our idolatry elevating everyone from kings to Kardashians, we will be standing behind the asses of a lot of queuing camels.