Sunday, April 27, 2014

Living Worth Dying For


 It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of social unrest that's boiling over across the globe.  Accounts out of Syria detail unspeakable atrocities with hypnotizing frequency.  While politicians engage in name-calling, Ukraine's citizens see themselves and their societal fabric fraying reminiscent of the Balkans just a few years ago.  The hollow shell of peace in the Middle East was eviscerated with the cooperation between parties deemed to be "sponsors of terror" while drones rained down death at the hands of the "democratic" and "freedom-loving".  In this, another Spring of Discontent, it is fascinating to observe the ease with which we trade life for ideology - our acceptance of extermination made more palatable by our technologically advanced, sterile remoteness.  It seems that life in the digital age has somehow devalued.

Dogmatically held beliefs of all sorts have variously seduced humans into inhumanity for millennia.  We sit in what many would describe as a pinnacle of technological evolution despite the evidence that we're actually, on a larger scale, regressing into ethnocentric bigotry.  We celebrate our achievements of digital communications and virtual reality failing to observe that, from a certain perspective, we're regressing into animistic paganism where we pay obeisance to that which can be plugged in and has a keypad or touch screen forgoing actual human engagement and interaction.  If information cannot be found within the first two pages of a Google search, it doesn't exist.  "I tried to find him online but couldn't," I recently heard a person state.  As though the physical presence of a person - absent a virtual persona - is somehow less a person. 

In the May 2014 Vanity Fair, Editor Graydon Carter (one of my favorite writers) took on the story of Edward Snowden with a team of journalists.  In their story, "The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light", they detail the interplay between the former Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton employee, The Guardian (and other media outlets), and the governments who insist that their opaque intrusions are justified.  On more than one occasion, according to the reporting, Snowden and those around him, were faced with decisions that were cast as potentially jeopardizing their lives.  The cavalier nature of threatened assassination as a means of message control, whether real or perceived in this case, would suggest that the central organizing narrative is incapable of standing on its own.  If shown for all its costs and benefits, apparently "the system" is incapable of weathering accountability and scrutiny.  Somehow the "30 or 40" files that represent a catastrophic risk to "national security" are so vital that they threaten the very foundations of what is purported to be one of humanity's most celebrated experiments.  Spoiler alert: what they most likely threaten is the anonymity of corporations and individuals (who are most likely named in said files) who have become enriched at the expense of a public who would find their complicity unpalatable (for more information on this, read Hank Crumpton's memoirs The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service).

This week, I was fortunate to engage in dialogue with people as varied as an NBA superstar and a senior executive at the World Bank.  I marveled at how many of these amazing, accomplished people, at one point either at the zenith of their life or at least seeing it within reach, now sat on the bench watching a suboptimal life play out.  Far from run-of-the-mill monotony, these people influenced millions and yet, in the moment struggled to see how to make a difference at the same intensity that they brought to their 'game'.  In each conversation the dissonance between a world that was perceived to be possible and 'reality' was the source of resignation and looming futility.  And in a world of clandestine carnage - where life is thoughtlessly extinguished for opaque interests - I understand the expedient emotional fatigue that could lurk in the minds of those who are lucky enough to discern the madness.

But at the same time, I wonder if the reason why we're so dismissive of life is that few of us are actually living?  Seriously.  When we wake up in the morning, are we animated into relentless pursuit of purpose or do we begrudgingly stare into another monotonous day seeking to fulfill Maslow's pedantic isosceles aspiration?  If "making a living" or "surviving" enter into one's consciousness, is it possible that we wouldn't recognize the former if it bit us in the face and we're actually slowly killing our vitality in the latter?  Is the luxury of narcissistic drama a mark of 'civilization' or is it the evidence of devolution?

Life is an analog proposition.  It involves complexity that defies digital representation.  Our keystrokes and finger-swipes across conductive silicon are less artistic than the stylus pressed into soft clay that bore the cuneiform advocating tolerance and reverence for the explained and unexplained.  Our social organization - from regent patronage to limited liability corporations - has resulted in the hybridization of our species into far too many laborers and far too few enlivened, vital manifesters.  We're missing the mutations - the wild types - that actually move from prehensile tails alone to the fascinating utility of thumbs.  And when the wild types emerge, our consensus indoctrination tells us to warn them of their imminent extermination if they don't fall into line.  "Is it worth dying for?", is the ominous warning. 

My life is evidence of the fallacy of this question.  I've been warned that challenging corporate tax and accounting fraud, treasonous acts by elected officials, unsustainable monetary systems, colonial tyranny and suppression, all run the risk of jeopardizing "life".  However, I know that far from threatening my existence, they have enriched not only my life but the lives of countless others who see the value of their own 'mutations' from the mechanized consensus.  You see, truly living cannot cost you your life and pretending that it takes some sort of 'super-human' dispensation to 'transcend' fear and oppression is part of the tyranny of suppression.  I love being a person who is learning how to fully live.  And, when age, aggressor, or accident punctuates my life, I'll know that "worth living" was the only motivation I needed. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

To Life


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


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

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.