History — It’s Happening Every Second!

This blog is dedicated to the work of Ron Brandstetter.

Here’s a quick guide for newcomers. My deepest work, my unique — and comprehensive — philosophy of history, which leads to my effective re-formulation of the social sciences, is here. (This is a long piece, a summary of my next book, I’m trying to cover the breadth and depth of the human experience with a new scientific vision. It will take you 20 minutes or so to read it, so please, bookmark this article and come back to it later if you don’t have the time right now. I’ve tried to make this article as easy to read as possible and I do hope you’ll enjoy taking your time to read it.)

In other pages on this site, my forward-looking political thoughts, based on decades of practical participation in American activism, are here. My unusual path to spiritual understanding, and some of the conclusions I’ve come to with this, is outlined here. Some of my most concise and hard-hitting writings and speeches, meant to emphasize a point, are here. And finally, a not-so-brief biographical sketch of this wonderful life I’ve enjoyed is is over here. The page you’re on is the current postings page, scroll down for varied and sundry reflections on politics, culture, and whatever else I feel I need to tell you about. I haven’t put up much in the last year, I enjoy a complicated life, and I like to say things of significance only. Some new ideas for postings are brewing, yet please, read the deep material I’ve placed here, dig into it. Just for example, the December 2010 post on “Presidential Politics” has remained valid through the Occupy Movement and the 2012 elections, I have updated it in Feb. 2015 to hopefully remain valid through the 2016 elections and beyond. The “Hope Vs. Advertising” post remains far ahead of the conventional wisdom. As a writer, I have always wanted my readers to find my work both entertaining and profitable to their total life experience.

My mission, in all of this work, is to help people think better thoughts.   I’m not going to claim that this always or ever brings instant success and happiness; most of the time we humans are quite happy with our dysfunctional thought, and if that thought fits into a dysfunctional subculture, it can be successful in that context.  Getting to better thoughts can be slightly or greatly painful, and I myself hate it when a better thought forces me to change one of my deeply-ingrained personal habits or preferences.

Yet I believe that if you are an intelligent human being, you have to be able to see the evidence that we as a 7-billion strong global society, in today’s time, are spitting off too much pollution from too many sources — including huge amounts of intellectual pollution from our advertising and public relations industries — to be able to sustain our current modes of ‘civilization’ for too many more decades.

Thus the mission of this website: to help us plan and achieve positive social change to create a better world for ourselves and our grandchildren.   I do believe my effort at re-defining the social sciences to help each human being become their own best social scientist in understanding the motivations and actions of all other human beings — popularly known as “Ron’s omelet of the social sciences” or “the democratic revolution of the social sciences” — can be a helpful step in this process.

For more about who I am and my qualifications for this work, please see the About page on this blog.   For more about the new thoughts we’re going to have to think, and the work that we’re going to have to do to provide a sustainable future for our human race and the planet we live on, please follow this blog as it develops and grows, hopefully, into a force that moves the world.  I can’t do it without you.  You, perhaps, can do it without me, yet it is my goal to prove to you that moving the world will be slightly easier if we can do it together.

A comment on comments:  Please do comment on my posts, all comments will be read and considered.  However, for the short-term future while this blog is getting established, and I am still working at my demanding day job, and still working at my family-business job in which everything needs to be done immediately, no comments will be published immediately on this blog.  It’s my blog, and I want to control it.  All reasonable comments are now being published after review and approval. In the spring of 2014, the ferocious onslaught of spam comments (which are all being deleted by my hosting service) has multiplied tenfold, from hundreds per week to thousands.  99.9% of it is just awful illiterate ungrammatical junk referencing a few consumer products,  however the filters are not perfect and some real comments may be lost in the flood of spam.   Yet if you’re a real person with questions or comments on anything in this website I do VERY MUCH wish to hear from you. To help make sure I don’t mistake you for a spammer, it would help if you’d say a word or two about yourself, and show that you have actually read one or more of my pages.

Because of all this, commenting here may be a little slower process than you’re accustomed to on modern websites: it will almost certainly be 2 or 3 days after your comments, and maybe as much as a week or more after your comments.    Nevertheless, I do wish to eventually make this a typical modern website where registered users have an open and lively discussion in real time, as we’re all familiar with from many fine modern websites.   If you the readers start providing scores and hundreds of intelligent comments on all our discussions here, you will accelerate my process in getting the website to that status, as I simply won’t have the time to read and approve all your comments individually.

Posted in Ron Brandstetter | 3 Comments

The Party of Selfishness and Destruction

The Party of Selfishness and Destruction

This time, February of the 2015 Christian calendar, is a very, very dangerous time in the long, on-going story of human beings on earth.

A political party which is devoted to the promotion and expansion of the political and economic privileges of the most wealthy corporations and persons, and to the promotion of the fairly-demonstrably-false ideologies of its supporters, has taken control of the American Congress, which of course controls the law-making and budgeting functions of the American government. This American Republican party does appear to enjoy the strong support of some proportion up to one-fourth to one-third, and to enjoy the votes of up to one-half of the voting public, and this party seems to be so attached to their privileges and their political narratives, that they will indeed drive their preferred measures forward, even if it leads to the destruction of any notion of the “social contract” in America, and to the use of the American military to physically destroy any number of other countries around the world.

What is even worse, this is NOT an isolated development in the story of groups and parties that control the nation-states of the modern world. In far too many of the national-governmental structures that make up our global political environment, control is firmly held by groups which are also devoted to maintaining their own particular privileges in their society at almost any cost, even if that cost leads to a destruction of the modern civilization and the modern technological economy that allows people around the world to live in some level of comfort. These politically-controlling groups vary widely from country to country, they may be highly organized political parties, loose coalitions of national elite classes, traditional Arab monarchies thrust into a fearful new world, or relatively small, military-based and/or ideologically-based structures of fierce dictatorship.

While America remains a very important actor on the world political and economic stage, unfortunately the American government has not generally been a strong force for worldwide “good” or “progress” – either at home, or in the world – in recent decades. (Of course I’m speaking to Americans with this sentence, everyone else already knows this). There have been some examples of the American government actually helping people, such as tackling the problem of Americans who can’t afford health care, disaster relief in the Philippines and Haiti, support for African nations facing the Ebola epidemic. It is even possible that American military & diplomatic responses in support of Kurdish and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq, in response to 2014’s crisis of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of military Sunni fundamentalism in those two countries, may eventually be counted as a “positive” development in world affairs.

Yet overall our modern civilization, including the American government/state structure and all other global government/state structures, does face many serious threats to its very existence. Our modern technological “economic miracle” has always depended on businesses and individuals being able to dump their waste products into any available land, water or air, without incurring any significant cost that causes them to question the wisdom of this pollution. Yet the bill to be paid continues to grow, with the inevitable forces of physics, chemistry and biology looming as implacable bill-collectors. We must now face the facts that the oceans and the atmosphere cannot hold much more of our pollution without changing in significant ways that will be largely negative for many forms of life in all environments, including our own lives, our pollution of our land areas has also been significant and raises many costs while denying us many options, and that dealing with the consequences of our past pollution of all the major physical systems of our dear mother earth is going to become a very significant cost to all governments, industries and businesses, and all individuals on earth.

The burning of fossil fuels to power our economic miracles is absolutely at the root of the incredible rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other heat-trapping gases) in the last 100 years, and the global warming that is resulting from this pollution. This development of “climate change” alone may cause future social/civilization disasters in any number of ways: food production failures, droughts, diseases, rising sea levels battering coastal cities, population migrations, and other foreseeable problems are just the beginning, the scariest danger is some unknown future tangle of several problems occurring simultaneously, entangling the emotions of differing suffering nations in such a way as to prevent positive cooperation, and overwhelming the resources of governments, societies and individuals to cope with the problems. How will societies, governments and individuals react if the world’s wheat crop is reduced by 90%? Or if the world’s rice crop is suddenly 90% lower, or if our pollution prevents ocean fisheries from being a major food source? I don’t think it will be pretty to watch, or fun to try to live through. And through the selfishness and ignorance of many governing elites and billions of disorganized, panicked individuals, it may well entail the end of what we now call “civilization.”

No government on earth is doing enough to reduce the risk of severe climate change arising from our economic system’s dependence on the free dumping of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, indeed it seems that worldwide levels of carbon dioxide emission by human activity are growing and peaking, and of course the economic and political elites and interest groups that depend on this dumping are trying to deny that there is any problem at all, or to argue that the costs of attempting to curb emissions will be greater than any benefits. Whether it is low-level bloggers spreading false information to earn their pay, Nigerian elites benefiting from corruption, Arab princes, jet-setting American/European business leaders, or the American politicians getting big contributions from oil companies, there is indeed a worldwide Party of Selfishness and Destruction — based largely on the fossil fuels industries !!! — which doesn’t care what happens to the world’s 7 billion people the day after tomorrow, as long as the money, the political power, and their other social privileges deriving from the fossil fuel and other basic industries are kept safe from any challenges today.

We don’t know when these effects of climate change will seriously impact our daily lives; it may be as little as 2 or 10 years from now, or perhaps it may be as long as 25 or even 40 years in the future, if we are very lucky. But for the selfish economic interests and the unsociable political ideologies that animate the American Republican Party, these relatively vague threats to the well-being of our children are not enough. Their very first action upon taking the majority in the American Congress, was to pass a measure that seriously threatens the “social contract” in America by threatening the American old age and disability pension system, the Social Security program.

Despite the fact that the beneficiaries of Social Security paid into the program in their working lives, and despite the fact that many beneficiaries of the program regularly vote Republican (while thinking and saying things like “keep the government out of my Medicare”), the extreme conservatives of the Republican Party have always hated the idea of people “getting something for nothing” (and again, it doesn’t matter that this is not the case with Social Security, in which only people who have worked and paid in get any benefits. Extreme conservative Republicans hate it anyway.) Nevertheless, overall the Social Security program has been a huge success in maintaining America’s ability to enjoy a fairly widespread level of prosperity (at least compared to most other nations), which helps the rich and powerful in America directly by supporting consumer demand for their interests in major manufacturing and service industries, and indirectly, by maintaining a certain basic level of “social contract,” a sense of social and political contentment, which helps prevent more social and political threats to the power of the rich and powerful. Social Security of course also helps the rich very directly to the extent that they paid maximum taxes on wages or reported business income in their lives, and thus these people get pretty nice checks, equal to a middle-class wage, when they reach old age.

Since overall the Social Security program does help millions achieve a better life, Republicans and conservatives have learned that it can’t be directly criticized by anyone seeking to win an election. Instead, for some decades now they have tried to undermine Social Security by raising doubts about the future stability of the program – doubts which only exist because richer Americans pay a lower percentage of Social Security taxes on their total income than middle-class and lower-class Americans. To understand the current new line of attack by Congressional Republicans on the Social Security program, it’s necessary to dive into the details of the program’s funding and spending.

In addition to the major old age pension insurance portion of the Social Security program, since it was created in the 1930’s it has also provided support for children under 18 whose parents have died – a good friend of mine in childhood benefited from this in his youth – and disability insurance, for adults who lose their ability to work. The crucial detail is that when Social Security was set up in the 1930’s, the trust fund for old age and orphans benefits was made legally separate from the trust fund for disability benefits. And over the years, people have noticed that the privilege of being declared officially “disabled” by the Social Security bureaucracy provided a livable social niche for those who qualified. (The payments were based on previous contributions, so those who had higher-paying jobs when they did work got higher benefits than the lesser-paid; at the top levels it could compare to middle-class worker incomes, at the lower levels it could mean a poverty stipend less than even poorly-paying jobs.) Once you were qualified, you got your monthly checks; unlike unemployment benefits, you didn’t have to show you were looking for a job, and unlike state & local welfare programs, there was less regulation and less questioning & investigating by officials who might want to deny your benefits.

And so, over the decades, a lot of people wanted to get Social Security disability status, and a lot of people succeeded – about 10 million of them in 2013. And so the Disability trust fund has paid out more money than prudent insurance administrators would like, and over the decades Congress has chosen to make transfers – 11 times – from the larger Old Age trust find to the Disability trust fund. This situation, then, creates an opening for the conservatives who wish to attack Social Security but to do so indirectly. With the start of a new Congress with increased Republican majorities in 2015, their first action was to vote that there will be no transfers of funds (to continue 100% level payments to disability recipients), unless the funding of the whole Social Security system was reformed (which presumably would be under Republican principles of always cutting government budgets, except increasing government military budgets).

This little-noticed action in halls of government gives the Republicans two advantages in the rhetorical battles of modern commercial media: it allows them to claim a pure desire to cut government budgets, and thus relieve taxpayers; and it allows them to demonize and insult the Disability program with hate-mongering, exaggerated claims. Republican Senator (and likely Presidential candidate) Rand Paul was the first to jump in with the demonizing falsehoods, telling an audience on Jan. 14, 2015 that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts …”. (A later attempt at clarification by a Paul spokesman made it clear that the Senator was completely exaggerating and/or misunderstanding Social Security statistics.)

Yes, 14% of the approximately 10 million people on Social Security, about 1.4 million Americans, are getting welfare checks from the federal government because of their mental problems. Yet one has to have pretty serious mental problems, with letters from doctors attesting to one’s inability to work, in order to qualify for this benefit – mere “anxiety” isn’t going to be enough. Indeed, while 10 million Americans are found qualified for disability, there are at least another 5 to 10 million Americans who are trying to be found qualified for Disability, there is a small industry of lawyers specializing in Social Security Disability cases who are trying to get their clients qualified, and who are advertising that “I can help you with your Social Security disability claim.” (One of my best friends in college, who was born blind himself, became one of these lawyers.) So it is not easy to get on Social Security Disability; I am very sure that those who are getting qualified for disability tend to be those who have better doctors and better lawyers, who can write up the case papers in ways that please the Social Security clerks, than those whose cases are not being found to qualify.

Are there some people who are exaggerating their disability, who are committing fraud on the government? Yes, certainly there are some … but whether it’s 1% of Disability recipients or 5% or 10%, no one knows, and we will never be able to know without a complete case-by-case review of all 10 million Disability recipients, and even then there will surely be “gray areas” and “subjective judgments” that leave many cases in dispute. The Social Security system is rejecting enough claims that I feel pretty confident that the fraud rate would be found to be under 2%, and again those people will have very-well-written doctor’s letters in their files justifying their claims of inability to work. Furthermore, these folks who may be committing fraud against the system, and against the taxpayers, are just as likely to be conservative, Republican-leaning people as they are to be liberal, Democratic-leaning people.

Furthermore, there is a strong case to be made that many more Americans should be qualified for Social Security Disability, not fewer. Basically, the worker-hating heartlessness of late-stage capitalism and the current, advanced wealth-corruption of the Congress tend to create new classes of persons who are unqualified and essentially psychologically and/or philosophically unable to function in the workplace, while constantly creating opportunities for those who can manipulate millions of dollars at a time to hold down the wages of the middle and working classes. Major corporations are making huge profits over video-games that hypnotize able-bodied teens and 20-year-olds in their rooms, unwilling to emerge or exert themselves in any other type of activity. America’s oxycontin drug epidemic of the last 15 or so years is supported indirectly by the drug manufacturers, and more directly by third-rate doctors running “pain clinics,” it has largely occurred in the socially-conservative small cities and rural areas of states or regions that tend to vote Republican. Major corporations are making huge profits from supplying food products of dubious nutritional quality, while also creating huge pollution problems, and they have effectively “captured” the federal Department of Agriculture to prevent any regulations that might promote better food quality or environmental quality. With the average inflation-adjusted wages of average workers stagnating since the 1980’s, the slow breakdown of the traditional family structure, and the increase in the long-term unemployed, many more individuals are developing “specialized” strange ideas in their own particular psychology and/or philosophies, which may transform into socially-disabling conditions of overall personality.

Do all these persons “deserve” permanent pensions at taxpayer expense? Probably not, yet overall economic demand will certainly be increased, and an interesting portion of social ills and individual hardships might be lessened, if we increased Social Security Disability recipients from 10 million now, up to 12 or 18 million Americans who do have real problems holding a job. What seems to be the preferred Republican alternative, reducing the number of recipients to 6 or 8 million, or slashing the current payments by 20% to 40%, would certainly hurt the overall economy by reducing economic demand, and would certainly bring great frustration, hardship, increased homelessness and crime for those directly affected, and increase the less-direct burdens on families, relatives and friends of those who lost their Disability income.

When we consider that this Republican attack on Social Security Disability payments is just a tactic in their long-term attack on the Social Security system as a whole, and the approximately 47 million old-age pensioners, widows and orphans it supports (at the end of 2013) – and we remember that about half of these millions are socially conservative and likely Republican voters – the cynicism, the selfishness and the ultimate destructiveness of these Republican policies should be like red-flashing alarm lights with bells ringing, warning us that any perceived time of American “greatness” has long since been left behind.

Unfortunately, it is just this widespread belief in America in our own “greatness” and the correctness of our own institutions and values, that provides large numbers of voters and citizens who blindly support America’s huge military machinery, and the conviction – especially strong among conservative “strategists” — that the American military can and must act anywhere in the world where American “interests” may be threatened. Depending on how things are counted, American military spending is about 40% to 50% of the world’s total military spending, far higher than any potential coalition of “enemies” we might face; and while Republicans hate, demonize and wish to cut all forms of domestic spending, they are more likely to give the armed forces MORE money than is officially requested, than to ever question, criticize or reduce military spending (despite the overwhelming evidence that programs like the F-35 are financially disastrous and militarily ineffective). Any possible plans to reduce American troop commitments overseas, to reduce drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere that inevitably kill unthreatening civilians, or to negotiate agreements with difficult regimes are denounced by Republicans as “weakness,” while these same Republicans applaud and support the effort — ongoing for over ten years now — of Israel’s nuclear-armed government to foment a war against Iran because Iran might someday achieve a capability to make its own nuclear weapons.

Which brings us to the central problem of politics and government in this modern world of 2015. It is true that there are great variations in political systems among the world’s 200 or so separate nation-state structures. Something like 60 nations, from America through Europe, Japan and India and nearly all of Latin America, on to places like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and even Iran, can claim to have significant amounts of democracy, in which citizens can theoretically organize peacefully for change and could conceivably produce serious institutional changes, working through constitutional structures over a period of years (yet of course it’s probably much easier to imagine this in Canada or Sweden, than in Iran, Thailand or Malaysia). In many other nations, such as Russia, China, and too much of the Arab world and the African continent, military, ideological and/or monarchical structures may try to show off democratic trappings, yet it is clear to all observers that the ruling elites were not consciously selected by their people, and that the ruling elites have no intention of being open to any serious changes suggested by their ordinary citizens. Yet whether they inhabit either the decidedly-more-democratic nations, or the determinedly-more-dictatorial nations, ordinary citizens everywhere find it very difficult to believe that their day-to-day thoughts and actions will have any effect on their political structures. In all nations, political elites tend to have significantly different psychological experiences than average citizens, and these political elites also make decisions based on very different philosophies than you or I probably use, or any average worker and citizen we may know.

I remain very firm in maintaining my overall thesis, that human history is made by the individual thoughts and actions of every single living human being, and that the “political” sphere of action – which derives from our human habit of making judgments on the honor, status and rank on other persons in our environment – is an inseparable part of our basic humanity. Nevertheless, it remains true that centuries of specific historical actions, creating and evolving monarchies and empires and eventually modern states, which now cover all the world with their ‘monopoly on violence” in their particular societies, has definitely caused this sphere of “politics” and government to become “crystallized,” to become “reified,” rocklike and apparently permanent.

Our own personal judgments of honor and status cannot change the governmental institutions that hold vast power over the outcomes of our lives; and if the curious psychologies and philosophies of our rulers thrust us into violent situations, on either a local level or on a global stage of massive high-tech warfare, our options are very limited. In the more democratic nations we can try to organize and vote for different leaders who will implement significantly different policies (and see here for my discussion of some of the practical problems preventing this, and suggestions for how to overcome them, in my own nation the USA).

If you are not lucky to live in such relatively-democratic places your options for dealing with outbreaks of political/military violence shrink even more: the first priority of citizens of a dictatorship is to themselves, to remain alive and safe, and keep family members alive and safe. (Those of us in happier lands cannot usefully judge your choices in this respect.) Otherwise, the options for inhabitants of un-democratic lands are few: one can join in with and accept the actions of your rulers (or pretend to join in and accept), one can try to lie low and evade their structures, one can try to run away, or one can attempt either violent or non-violent actions of resistance and protest.

Attempting any type of serious change in our lives is always a difficult and uncertain proposition: yet attempting changes in our own psychologies, attempting changes in our own systems of beliefs and explanations, and attempting changes in what we value economically – while still usually long-term affairs – seem more likely to result in changes that are historically significant, at least at the individual, family and cultural levels, than attempting serious changes in the current institutions, the current power structures, of our native countries.

Changes in how you see other people in society, changes in whom you give your own measures of honor and status to, will occur if you attempt to change in other respects. Yet for an ordinary person, to try for serious changes to established political power structures (including the national myths, convenient media lies, and ideological rigidities that typically surround our national government power structures), such a path seems to inevitably bring disappointment and disillusionment, if not prison and death. Such changes are simply illegal in most nations of the world, and seriously discouraged even in the most progressive outposts of democracy and citizen rights. It is precisely to prevent serious changes to established political power structures, that these structures insist on a monopoly over violence in their societies. Our natural human practice of “politics,” making judgments on the honor, status and rank of others in our society, is not allowed to have any effect on the government structures that have defined specific ways of attaining rank and office within their structures: the basic, unquenchable human urge to judge and sort, at the level of individuals and families, has become completely divorced from the official “politics” of gaining power in a particular system.

This divide, this separation, this huge chasm between the reality of millions of individuals
in all lands who feel alien and estranged from the government of their nation-state, who long vaguely for a different type of political behavior even as they struggle with challenges of living in the midst of vast social and technological change, and the government elites who apparently never question either their legitimacy or their policies, or the obedience of the various “servant” classes (including police forces) who do the hard work of maintaining the privileges of these elites, is a major problem as we move forward and try to think about improving our lives and our societies. Modern urban societies rely heavily on basic agricultural production being reliably harvested & processed and transported to outlets in the cities; any weather-related, ecological, military, or social-unrest-related factors which might break any link in the chain threaten disaster for millions. Ordinary factory workers and truck drivers and retail workers must be able to do their jobs for all to live and survive: yet in times of crisis it is precisely the errors of political elites in dealing with such problems that creates the chaos that will equal disaster in the cities. Every small failure to maintain food supplies and keep civic order will increase popular suspicion of elites and institutions, while increasing the determination of elites and institutions to “do something, do anything” to counteract the crisis – and this is how a mutual feedback loop of distrust and uncertainty can grow to replace whatever social goodwill and political legitimacy a particular society may have once enjoyed.

Overall, this divide between rulers and ruled in all the nations on earth is absolutely the most dangerous aspect of a very dangerous future. It is not just that our global climate is changing in unforeseeable ways, it is not just that our oceans are becoming increasingly polluted with fragments of trash and absorbed carbon dioxide: it is the fact that no governments on earth, even in the most enlightened nations, can bring themselves to take serious measures against these threats, for fear of upsetting major economic interests (which depend in one way or another on continued pollution and waste). And with major political parties (and/or public opinion) in too many nations actively opposed to science, reason and cooperation, and openly preaching hate, violence and war, well-meaning citizens who desire a better world for their children cannot even begin to make progress against such strong political forces in their societies. Our problem is not just that our “advanced civilization” is close to suffocating in our own waste products; our problem is that too many political forces in too many nations insist on ignoring or even aggravating such problems, as long as their selfish interests can remain undisturbed today and tomorrow. And in their selfishness, these retrograde political forces assist the possible destruction of “civilization” by helping prevent ordinary citizens from forming and establishing those smaller, more local relationships of cooperation that might help keep individuals and families alive in times of crisis.

Overcoming and ameliorating the various selfishness behaviors of our political elites, persuading these elites and/or replacing them in search of political persons and structures more inclined towards cooperation and the sustainability of all human beings in our environment, thus becomes a central goal for those who seek to change the world for the better. Developing local citizen networks of information and cooperation, consciously seeking to build a “survivalism” of mutual help and mutual care, must become part of the political goals of all concerned global citizens anxious to see their children live and prosper.

Despite these huge threats to our future happiness, for the time being everyday life will go on in all countries on earth, we will continue to act and think in our ordinary everyday ways, mostly focused on feeding our bellies and nurturing our families, and other “ordinary” activities. In the course of this everyday life, we will inevitably continue to change our psychological structures and personalities in small daily ways (and perhaps in large ways over time), we will continue to evolve and elaborate our explanations and philosophies as we are forced to confront new data, we will continue to adjust our ideas of which persons in our environment deserve honor, status and rank, and we will be constantly adjusting our ideas of economic value, and adjusting our relationships with persons, goods and institutions as we adjust our production and consumption of various economic goods and services. We can’t stop these changes, we can’t determine in advance if these changes will be “beneficial” and “progressive,” or if they will be “harmful” and “regressive” – and of course in the constant chaos of daily life, it is always impossible to know for sure if any particular thought or action will be “beneficial” or “harmful” over time, and such things are always subject to our diverse and changing ideas on what “good” or “bad” may mean in our human stories.

Despite all these obstacles, despite all the pessimism and hopelessness that the parties of selfishness and destruction may be able to “infect” into ordinary citizens who hope for something better, it is necessary for us to continue to try. We must continually and constantly try to improve our governmental structures, no matter how hopeless it may appear. We must continually and constantly try to improve our individual abilities to understand who we wish to respect and honor within our own societies, and we must continually try to improve our abilities to make such choices meaningful within our official governmental structures. It won’t be easy; indeed it will be very difficult to carry out the ideals I voice here. The actual, living, gun-toting parties of selfishness and destruction that do live in each of our lands will be trying to do everything they think they can get away with, in the name of preserving their power, and preventing us silly ordinary people from having any actual voice or choice in our governmental structures.

The prospects for success in improving our governmental structures are preponderantly pessimistic – and that is precisely why we must insist on optimism, despite the odds, defying the structures of selfishness that have captured our politics and government. We do have the power to take new actions, to hold new thoughts, in every moment of our lives. We must make use of these powers, as intelligently and nurturingly and sustainably as possible, to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have a world worth living on.

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The Foundations of Morality, And Where Plato Went Wrong

Author’s note: Readers not familiar with my work might wish to start with this article, the summary of my next book, which explains the basics of my thoughts on human beings and social sciences.  Get yourself a snack and a drink, settle in for some deep reading on your fellow human beings, hopefully I’ll stimulate your own thinking and it will take you hours to get through these two articles.


The Foundations of Morality, and Where Plato Went Wrong

Who makes morality? Where does the concept of “morals” come from? Where does morality exist? Human beings have a very wide range of answers to these questions, ranging from those who say morality is an unalterable quality decreed by “God” or “religion,” to those who say that human beings are creatures whose every behavior is determined by physical causes beyond our control and thus there can be no valid moral judgments that one person can make of another person. The theme of this essay, however, is to reject both these formulations, and to argue how human beings – human beings like you and me! – continually create and re-create our moral values and moral judgments, each and every day, based on the thoughts and moralities that we have taken from our families and our local societies, and further based on our own thoughts, actions and on our own ignorances and omissions, as well.

Where do we begin with such a huge subject? I am willing to accept the proposition that every single human being in world history (excepting a few with severe mental health disabilities) does have a concept of morality in their lives (whether or not they can articulate this, and whether or not they can live according to their concepts). Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities. Morality certainly does not exist in the atmosphere, nor does it seem likely to exist in the vacuum of outer space or in the blazing core of the sun. Other terrestrial species such as whales or ants, if we could better understand them, may prove to have their own systems of morality, and if we can ever confirm the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms, I believe these will likely have their own systems of morality in their societies. However, in this essay we are going to limit ourselves to human systems of morality.

So if you didn’t notice, I have already plunged into the heart of the controversy over morality, by the statement I made above: “Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities.” As you probably know, there are millions and billions of people in our world who do not agree with this. They may be religious people who say that “the Bible” or “God” or “Confucius” or “the Buddha” established rules for morality, rules that “exist” whether or not you or I happen to believe in them. They may be traditional people living in a specific culture in India or Africa or Southeast Asia, who may not have one “religious” authority for their system of morality, they just “know” that “our people have always had these rules for living and have always done things this way.” Or, the people who think that morality is something that exists outside of actual historical human beings may be earnest professors in modern universities, who search diligently for some system of logic, some system of philosophical “first principles,” or perhaps some innate mental/physical structures inside our minds, that can serve as a firm and scientifically provable basis of human morality. At least one scientist has claimed general principles that, in his interpretation, mean there can be no morality.

In popular generalized philosophical terms, all these fashions of seeing a system of morality that is “larger” than individual human beings can be called a type of “Platonism,” the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the typical words and categories that human beings use. This comes from Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave” – an idea that he presented, it should be noted, specifically as an advertisement for why the type of ‘philosophical’ thought that he and his teacher Socrates engaged in with their particular associates in ancient Greece is superior to ‘ordinary’ thoughts that other ancient Greeks, or you or I, might come up with. The allegory of the cave, as Plato told it, is so specific in its fantastical set-up (with humans chained in place all their lives, while being entertained by a superior caste of freer “puppet-masters”) and the conclusion is so lame (resting simply on Plato having his character Socrates say that he, Socrates, did in fact see “deeper ideal forms” that no one else did), that I simply cannot take it very seriously as a comment on more ordinary human lives in known human history.

artist's conception of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Platos’ Allegory of the Cave – Image borrowed from class blog from St John’s University, no copyright owner found

However the basic idea Plato is trying to sell with this story of the imaginary cave is very important in the story of actual human beings: the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the words and categories and objects that we know in our ordinary lives, and that wisdom is to be found in learning to see and understand the ideal forms of concepts and objects, not in the actual concepts or objects themselves.

This idea of Plato’s has animated much of the progress of Western material science: the search for ideal forms of physical matter has led scientists to elements, and molecules, and atoms and subatomic particles, and to our modern physical sciences of chemistry, biology and physics. And in the realm of studying human beings, the theory of “ideal forms” has led us to some progress in understanding as well. Anthropology is perhaps the best representative, the effort of researchers to understand the “ideal form” of the historical culture of some specific people, for example, in Samoa, or the Ibo or Yoruba peoples of West Africa, have indeed given us a basis to say that “X is a typical behavior in traditional Samoa” or that “Z is considered a highly moral and approved behavior in Yoruba culture.” In other social sciences, however, the picture is not quite so clear, in economics and political science some professors may believe that they can identify clear “ideal forms” of say, “economic satisfaction maximization” or “political party formation,” yet other professors may dispute these, and the situation may even lead to competing “schools” of economists or political scientists promoting differing and contradictory “ideal forms” of economic or political behavior.

Yet overall, I would like to argue here for the proposition that Plato’s “ideal forms” are NOT the best way to understand living, breathing human beings – whether these humans are alive now, or were alive in some past time. Plato’s “ideal forms” bring up 2 major types of errors, when we are trying to understand historical human beings (now or in the past).

First and foremost, they encourage summary judgments and stereotyping, they make it easy to de-humanize actual human beings by treating them as categories or types. This stereotyping and lazy categorization affects not only individual judgment, it affects our collective information-compiling and decision-making on a society-wide basis, as it encourages lazy speakers to make exaggerated and tendentious analyses, and it encourages and supports the mistakes that mediocre scientists may make, when they allow common prejudices to become tangled with more reasoned scientific conclusions. At its worst, this can lead to situations such as the long tradition of European thinkers concluding that African and Asian peoples and cultures are “inferior” to European versions.

The second major type of error that Plato’s concept of “ideal forms” leads both average thinkers and leading scientists towards, is to consider that the abstract concepts which human minds typically use to analyze human affairs – intangible, human-created concepts like morality, justice, intelligence or beauty – are in fact real objects, which can analyzed “logically” – even though actual human beings have hardly ever made “logic” a major component of their decision-making. This problem can be clearly seen in the current state of the academic discipline of philosophy, where respected professors can spend years and years of their own and their student’s time attempting to find a logical basis for “justice” in human affairs – or in other words, using a specific abstract thought process within individual human minds to analyze a more generalized abstract thought process that exists only within individual human minds, in the hopes of finding a scientific certainty! In my humble opinion, that’s just not going to work out well.

To begin, there is most certainly NOT an ‘ideal type’ of who you actually are – there is only the living, breathing you, with all your warts and farts and emotions and assumptions and details of your past experience, and the contradictions among moral choices in behavior you may have struggled with at times. No one else has your memories, no one else has seen what your eyes have seen. You may have within your own mind a vision of yourself as an “ideal type:” “I am a Pakistani student in a large city,” or “I am an Egyptian worker,” or “I am an unemployed American in a southern state.” You may have an “ideal type” as a goal for your personal development: “I can work to become a great soccer player,“ or “I want to become a famous actor,” or “I’d like to get married and have 5 children and live in a modern house.” When it is you yourself thinking these things, this is relatively harmless; in most cases you will not be using categories considered “negative,” “immoral” or “undesirable” for yourself, you will not be using these categories to limit yourself in unusual situations, and in the process of life’s development, you will have plenty of opportunities to re-define, re-arrange or completely start over with the categories that you use to consider your situation.

When, however, it is other people who are making quick summary judgments of you and your life and your situation, and categorizing you in various “boxes” (such as “worker,” “member of a certain political party,” “wife not employed outside the home”), you are, to some extent, necessarily being de-humanized, stereotyped, judged as a member of a group and not given respect for the inimitable individual qualities of you yourself. That’s the whole reason this outside observer is placing you in a category, so that they can consider you ONLY as a worker, ONLY as a member of a certain political party, to make it easy for themselves in their mind, in their philosophical system of analysis. If the person making these judgments to put you in a category then has an unrealistic “ideal form” of the category, that a worker does A, B and C but not D, E, and F, or that there is an Ideal form of a “Pakistani” who holds certain characteristics, then poor conclusions will almost certainly result from poor reasoning.

Now, it is generally a contribution to our knowledge and to our civilization for a concerned, dispassionate professor of social science to focus on a certain group of people and research those people and analyze their thoughts and actions, and I am not saying it is always prejudicial or dehumanizing for a sincere researcher to focus on certain people as being “urban Pakistani workers” or “tenant farmers in the Philippines.” I am the idealist who urges us to try to understand all the thoughts and actions of all individuals, yet I am also extremely aware of how difficult it is to reach that goal; for most scientists and researchers, some level of simplification and categorization is a basic first step in studying people and societies. The point of social science research, however, is to study actual human beings. Studying “Pakistani culture as it existed on March 1, 2012” can be a relatively objective study; trying to study or research to find “an ideal form of Pakistani society that serves as a model for all aspects of Pakistani society over time” will always depend on the subjective judgments of the researcher.

The sincere social science researcher will try to be aware of all the simplifications and difficulties involved in this process: they will know and discuss the problems of defining their categories, and how some people may be arbitrarily included or excluded from the category in the process of trying to define the category. Their research will likely explore and examine the differences among sub-categories within their major category, reflecting the incredible diversity of individuals and social situations among their target population. And they will understand that when they conclude in their scientific study that “urban Pakistani workers” show a particular behavior or tendency of opinion, there will be data to support this conclusion, and the researcher will also point out that there are a greater or lesser number of members of the subject group population who do NOT follow the behavior or tendency of the majority. And hopefully, the researcher will understand that his or her scientific study does not constrain or limit the ability of members of the subject population to be actual individuals with incredible diversity in their everyday experiences and an unlimited potential to change their thoughts and actions in the future.

Yet most of us are not dispassionate professors doing our best to undertake studies that can be considered “objective” by other observers. Even the most intelligent of us will be found thinking and saying things that reduce human beings to types and categories, and these types and categories we use do, very often, carry significant implications, intended conclusions, stereotypes and bias. To discuss a political situation and say “politicians like to do X,” this statement very likely carries a number of assumptions of who “politicians” are, why they do what they do, and why you the speaker are probably unhappy with the situation of “politicians doing X”.

In all modern countries, it is easy to find examples of news reporting that speaks of “Russians” or “Syrians” or “workers” or members of a political party, where these categories are being used as stereotypes, categories that imply a unanimity of thought and behavior and which also imply a favorable or unfavorable judgment on the persons in that category. This is the lazy thinking that makes us as individuals less intelligent, and which prevents us from improving our civilizations, and this practice of lazy thinking is unfortunately encouraged by a shallow understanding of Plato which tells us that there really is an “ideal form” of a Russian, or a Syrian, or a member of a particular party, that we can just say “Russians are this” or “Russians do that” and we will have said something true and useful.

And when this stereotyping is being done by people with no pretense whatever to objectivity, people who have long ago decided (because of their nationality or their politics) that they don’t like Russians and will repeat any bad thing said about a hypothetical “Russian,” then that’s how we get to tragic national conflicts that go on and on for generations, hurting all sorts of actual persons in all sorts of tangible situations. And thus it happens that the “Platonism” of imagining that there are “ideal types” of people who can easily be categorized and whose morals and motives can be assumed from their “types” contributes to hateful and stupid thinking among human beings.

The second type of poor thinking that Platonism contributes to is usually less immediately useful to those who are inclined to stupidity and hatred, however this sort of error is more subtle and more problematical among those who are relatively well educated and articulate. This is the error of thinking that the abstract categories which humans so readily devise inside our minds, have a real identity and significance outside of human minds. Let’s take the category of “beauty” for example – some things do make us happier when we look at them, than others. Most people would rather look at a flower, or a colorful sunset with clouds, than at a muddy ditch full of sewage and petroleum waste. (Yet there’s always a few freaks and contrarians to say otherwise). For the vast majority whose general ideas of “beauty” are generally intelligible to each other, and with the help of mass media that find it easy to fill hot air by obsessive speculation and gossip on popular ideas, it becomes to seem that there is a reality to the idea of “beauty,” that “beauty” really is something that can be captured and measured, something real – something “larger” than the human minds that individually hold the concept of “beauty.”

With all of society talking as if “beauty” was a tangible thing, like a carburetor or a can opener, it is very easy for “beauty” the abstract concept that exists only in the minds of human beings, to become “beauty” the tangible quality that one either possesses or does not possess, a real state that exists in some identifiable place upon the world – whether that place is the minds of the beholders, or in the bone structures of the possessors of “beauty,” or somewhere else entirely – and people will then waste all sorts of time contemplating the ideal qualities that separate “beauty” from ”non-beauty,” or speculating on exactly which qualities are absolutely necessary to “beauty.” Yet all such speculation is ultimately useless, because there is no “beauty” that exists in and of itself, there is no beauty without human beings to define it and proclaim it. There is no “ideal beauty” whose discovery is going to change all our ideas of beauty, there is no “ideal beauty” that exists outside of the brains of people who believe in “ideal beauty” (and who therefore define ideal beauty and think that they know ideal beauty and pronounce some things “beautiful” and other things “ugly.”)

And it’s exactly the same situation for other abstract concepts that regularly occur in human life, which human beings continue to discover in their social and personal lives – there’s something happening, which demands a name; yet giving these concepts names – “beauty,” “justice,” “morality,” “order,” ‘democracy,” “art” — tends to obscure that it is each of us, you and I, continually creating these concepts, continually finding these concepts useful, continually borrowing past versions of these concepts and making them our own, which creates the reality of these concepts. The very process of naming these concepts tends to “Platonize” them, to make them – in our minds — into real, tangible, things that exist on their own, with “ideal” forms that we think we can usefully philosophize about at great length. Which in turn makes it more difficult for some people to see how it is that we, actual human beings in history, are actually the source of these abstract concepts.

Concepts of “morality,” like concepts of “beauty,” are a verifiable reality among human beings. Just as we do find some settings, and some faces, more felicitous to gaze upon than others, we as human beings living in societies of other human beings, do set up systems of social rules and social behaviors that we try to follow, and that we try to enforce upon our neighbors and coworkers to follow as well. And not surprisingly, we do find that these systems “work better” when nearly all members of an identifiable social system share the same systems of morality, and enforce them upon each other. There is a historical reality here that has earned a name; yet again, let’s try to be clear about where “morality” comes from.

While it can be proven that many actual people have consistently claimed that their moral systems came from “God,” the historical reality of moral systems in societies cannot be proved to have come from “God” (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything comes from God”). While an influential scientist has published a book making the case, this historical reality of morality as a system within functioning human societies cannot be proved to have come from a physically determined Universe (in which every moment of our lives is predetermined by patterns of spinning atoms, except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say “everything in the universe is predetermined”). And despite various attempts of various researchers to locate morality in some genetic or neurobiological structure, this historical reality of morality cannot be proved to have come from human genetic inheritances from our ancestors (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything in our lives comes from our human genetic inheritance from our ancestors”).

The systems of morality that are a part of the recorded history of nearly culture system on earth do seem to be caused by each and every human being, in society, over time, continually creating, re-creating, and selectively borrowing (from previous systems of morality) to build systems of rules for behavior, which are communicated to nearly all members of a society and expected to be followed by nearly all members of the group. This mental process of morality creation is more often than not carried on without being recorded by usual “historical data” and may even appear to occur in an ‘unconscious’ manner in many societies. For the vast majority of people in history, our individual experience of morality is one of being born into a society with a functioning system of morality, and being inculcated into that system as a low-status member of the system. The continuous creation and re-creation of the system of morality that I am speaking of comes with maturity, and the daily decisions of how to behave one’s self, the moment-by-moment calculations one makes of exactly how closely the rules are to be applied in this situation and this next situation, and how to react immediately to the statements and actions of others, and how to consider, over the longer term, the statements and actions of others.

This daily and lifelong process of continual creation, re-creation and re-borrowing of systems of morality incorporates at least two of the basic social science systems that human beings are continually engaged in creating: systems of morality must be part of our philosophies – our explanations of how the world works – and systems of morality must also be part of our politics – our systems of giving respect, honor and status to other human beings in our societies (which long ago institutionalized into governmental systems in more technologically advanced nations).

Systems of morality are nearly universal among human beings in history, because nearly everyone holds explanations of how the world works, and nearly everyone holds ideas of why certain people should receive respect, honor and status in society (and why other people should not receive respect, honor and status in society). And where these two sets of philosophical ideas and political ideas exist, overlapping and simultaneously, and we think we have any basis for setting rules for proper human behavior – and it always just seems to happen that we do think we have the basis to make rules — that’s where morality exists. And so to answer the question of who is making morality, that is indeed each and every human being in world history, you, me and all the rest of us.

When we study the actual history of human beings, in societies not undergoing revolutionary changes of some sort, it does seem that for nearly all people, it’s a matter of adopting/borrowing the same rules of moral behavior that they learned as children, and which is shared by all their neighbors. Within traditional historical societies of the past, and the more stable societies in our modern era, very few people are actually being creative and independent in the major principles of their systems of morality. (I will submit, however, that close observation will show nearly everyone joining in the cultural creation of the small points of morality at the margins, in their minute-by-minute response to life’s diverse and challenging situations.)

In our more modern and modernizing societies, however, which are by definition experiencing significant social change, we more often find ourselves in situations of mixed or even clashing cultures, where there is not one single society-wide pattern of morality being followed, and individuals do more often find themselves in a position to choose between varying moral systems, or even to create their own moral systems. Even in these situations, however, it can often be seen how different “communities” (based on ethnic origins, or on classes and occupations, or even on voluntary affiliation) each keep their own general system of morality within their sub-group of the larger society.

Because morality exists within each person at the junction of their philosophical belief systems and their political belief systems, morality is now, has always been, and likely always will be inherently involved with politics. The whole point of a system which seeks to establish proper rules of human behavior, is to ENFORCE the proper rules on those human beings who are considered as not following the proper rules, to make those people change so that moral rules are seen to be paramount values. In all societies, the use of social power (and institutionalized power) to establish who has the “moral right” to tell others to change their behavior or face punishments is at the core of “political relationships” in that society. The human urges within us (the need to create explanations and the need to create status) that create morality are never happy just having a self-pleasing moral system within our own brains; because morality is inherently political and can never be separated from political judgments and political behavior, systems of moral behavior within a society require a judgment on who will be enforcing what morality on whom.

Thus in traditional historical societies, the morals were in most cases part of the law, and there was no debate or question of that. And any variations in enforcement, that breaking rule X is taken very seriously while breaking rule Y is taken less seriously, or that a certain group is punished less severely for violations of Z than a different group, will generally reflect the moral and political belief systems of the community. And over time, in a stable society, the existence of the discrepancies will help create philosophical explanations and political preferences that will reinforce the variations in morality.

As societies modernize and become more complex, with different ethnic and religious communities co-existing in the same space, or with differing subsets of moral systems coming into being along class or other lines, the enforcement of morality becomes even more complex and diffused: some situations are ignored by the larger society, some situations are left to unorganized social disapproval, and yet other situations may be enforced using more explicitly political actions by authorized persons. These varying systems of enforcement and control become institutionalized; individual and sub-group variations in “moral” behavior generally become more common, and more tolerated, than before, legality becomes separated from morality, moral discrepancies among class structures become more pronounced – “it’s OK for us to do this, but not for them to do it.” And in complex modern societies, when views on the morality of crucial social relationships are undergoing serious long-term forces of social change – for example, in America the transition between a legal regime of “segregation” for our Black citizens in the Southern states to a legal regime of “integration,” between about 1955 and 1975 – the controversies and problems and debates on “morality” that are generated can continue to be political issues of the first order even 40 years later.

Image of Police Using Dogs on Black Demonstrators, Birmingham Ala., May 3, 1963

American racial issues: Birmingham Alabama, May 3, 1963 – Image copyright New York Times

There is simply no fundamental agreement on the question of who in American society can enforce changes of behavior (and attitude) on other members of American society. To take two groups relatively opposed at the edges of opinion, those people today who look at America’s racial situation and see a history and culture of ‘inferior’ Black people, and those other people today who look at America and see a history and culture of White social, political and economic power holding down Blacks in America, certainly do not agree on the facts of the situation, and they certainly do not give any significant respect, honor or status to those who disagree with them; and both of these groups are relative minorities in a larger society that can be simultaneously distracted, apathetic, ignorant, confused, and holding elements of both belief systems at the same time, or holding elements of both belief systems varying according to the last person they talked to. Thus there is, and will continue to be, political conflict over the “morality” of how each camp (of strong belief holders) engages with each other and with the larger overall society; each group will tend to believe that is upholding clear moral values in their political struggles with the other camp.

Now in the early years of the 21st Century, in the modern urban centers of Europe, the Americas and Asia, there seem to exist relatively independent youth cultures that appear almost-completely liberated from traditional systems of morality, and even offering their participants the opportunity to make up one’s own set of moral values, choosing from an almost infinite list of possible rules, and from the principles and reasoning behind those rules. Hopefully, these urban populations will be able to evolve peacefully and cooperatively as they face the challenges that the coming years may throw at us. In my opinion, such groups need to be actively working to establish norms and channels of peaceful conflict resolution, to avoid collapses into selfishness when resources necessary for modern urban life may suddenly become limited; the fundamentally political nature of morality, and morality’s inherent need to apply to the majority of society, will not allow tomorrow’s citizens to “all just get along” just because they have the latest tech devices, and cool profiles on the latest social media.

Whether humanity continues to develop new wrinkles and new subsets of morality systems in use among ever-more-finely distinguished social communities, or whether older, traditional systems of morality make a comeback among large populations in leading nations, the coming very-likely challenges in the economic, environmental and ecological areas of human life in the 21st Century appear to have the potential to test each and every one of us quite severely, forcing us to make very difficult choices: how do I behave in this (unimaginable future) crisis to ensure maximum survival for my own self and those I care for? I personally am NOT looking forward to such future days in human society. (I am as susceptible to selfishness, fear, panic, ignorance and confusion as anyone else, I am not at all confident of maintaining my own moral standards, or of finding satisfactory conclusions to situations in such crises.)

So to summarize what I would most like you to take away as a conclusion to this exercise, no matter how murky the origins and foundations of human systems of morality may appear, I do believe that a close examination of human history will show that human systems of morality are created by individual human beings, and that they are constantly being refined and modified by the actual thoughts and actions of living human beings, interacting in their communities and societies.

Although Plato’s vision of finding scientific truth through the search for “ideal forms” may be useful in the physical sciences, I strongly believe that in the study of human beings it is necessary to focus on the actual thoughts and actions of individual human beings in history to make progress towards scientific understanding. There are not “ideal forms” of individual human beings – we are all capable of both growth and learning, and of regression and refusal to consider new ideas. Although it is possible to engage in a scientific study of the structures and systems of a particular community or culture in a particular place at a particular time, communities and cultures (and their systems of morality) are constantly being modified and adjusted by their members; there are no “ideal forms” for communities and cultures which are always in a process of “evolution” (whether you believe they are moving towards “better” or “worse,” cultures are seldom standing still).

Furthermore, there are no “ideal forms” of the concepts that people make up to categorize their realities, concepts like “beauty,” “art,” “justice,” or “morality.” People made these concepts up; there is no place or time these concepts exist as physical objects that can be isolated and studied; there are no ideal forms of such human-created concepts, and there never can be.

As far as I can tell from my investigations, the human need to create moral systems making rules of proper behavior for members of a community arises from the combination of two of our strongest mental urges: our drive to create “explanations” (of all the fundamentals of our human existence), and our drive to create systems of status, rank and honor within our communities (which, in many nations, long ago became institutionalized into governments and the area of behavior we call “politics.”) Since systems of morality are necessarily about enforcing standards of behavior within society, questions of morality will always and everywhere be “political” in nature: people will be establishing, with their every thought and action in their community, understandings of what behaviors create (or destroy) status, what behaviors are proper to various “ranks” that communities may establish, and what behaviors will be rewarded with social honors and governmental offices and powers. Moral questions will always involve political questions, and political questions will always involve moral questions.

The easiest way out of this, assuming that we can continue to survive as members of advanced civilizations in a diverse and changing modern society, is to see that we can separate our own personal moral standards for how we would PREFER people to behave, from legal/governmental policy standards appropriate for social behavior in a diverse society, and that the two do not have to match for us all to achieve a greater level of happiness. Yet whether our children find a future of new technological wonderlands, or a future of terrible ecological breakdowns (or some mixture of both at once), the whole conundrum of why we think and behave as we do, will continue to be an important part of having a human life – so let’s get used to it, and do what we can to make it better for our children, as humanity faces its continued survival on earth in the 21st Century of the european calendar.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics, Ron Brandstetter, Social Sciences | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

We Can’t Wait for the Next Mandela

I am not a historian who gives a lot of complimentary adjectives for the accomplishments of the 20th Century, I am not a big fan of “10 Best Lists” or “Greatest This-Or-That.” The standard political-scientific-entertainment figures of the American/European 20th Century did some things well, yet glossed over or never knew their errors and omissions. Nevertheless, I will unreservedly award the adjective” Great” to the three Great Leaders of creative, people-powered “liberation” movements in 20th Century politics, Mahatma Gandhi in India in the 1910s to ’40s, Dr. Martin Luther King in America in the 1950s-60’s, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 1980s-90s.

We are extremely lucky, in our otherwise violent, ruthless, grasping history of so-called civilized nations in the 20th Century of the Christian era, to have had these creative, solution-seeking leaders giving us lessons in moral force, the power of non-violence, and the possibilities of breaking through man-made political/institutional barriers. If we are to be smart in our own coming struggles, we should be studying their challenges and how they overcame them, to be the best we can be when our time of challenge arrives.
Nelson Mandela in 1937
Nelson Mandela in 1937

Yet we must be clear. We can’t wait for the next Nelson Mandela to free us. We can’t wait for the next Mahatma Gandhi, we can’t wait for the next Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t wait for generations of suffering and protest to “produce” a leader (and always remember that none of our three great leaders was ever known to be a “great leader” at the beginning of their journeys, their greatness was much more apparent in retrospect and from a distance). Our inter-knotted, inter-connected world requires an even more difficult task than producing one creative, non-violent leader, in just one time and place. Our world and our times require that we consciously build a worldwide socio-political culture that unabashedly promotes peace, love and understanding among all peoples, as sappy as that may sound, and it must be, as well, a culture in which we will all be active leaders in creating political and economic systems that will allow us and our children to survive with some health, dignity and values intact.

For me the evidence is very strong: our time of challenge is now, and it is likely to last the rest of our days. Our 20th Century civilization has dumped quite a lot of all types of waste in all the nooks and crannies of the earth’s geologic, aquatic, biological and atmospheric realms, and the atmosphere problem seems quite ready to bite us quite hard, quite soon, in our comfortable political and economic arrangements. No one knows today how, exactly, the crisis of a forthcoming tomorrow will present itself — yet again, it is likely to be something that seriously affects our daily lives, and which requires solutions which are inconceivable to the general cultural understanding of “how things should be.”

If these goals of mine, to “survive with some health, dignity and values intact” seem very modest, yes they are. As 2013 turns to 2014, I find it very hard to see good times ahead — please spare me your fantasies of driverless cars and infinitely productive nanobots, perhaps some of these things may achieve a version of truth in a small area of our global future. I am contemplating the extreme weather already occurring and wondering about future problems of basic food production, I am wondering how and where “people power” might ever emerge when faced with governments that are simultaneously too strong to be opposed by disorganized individuals and yet too elitist, selfish, corrupt and cowardly to allow any changes for the better. The trends are nearly all bad, I do fear unforeseeable breakdowns of current economic systems that will severely affect our current urban life/work cultures in extremely damaging ways, there are just too many “ifs” and worries and “unknowns” to leave me comfortable about the coming years. If anyone needs any more evidence that the very air we breathe is potentially close to becoming our most feared enemy force, Juan Cole and various contributors on his Informed Comment blog have been collecting and summarizing the science (and politics) of climate change, and I personally do support the work of the activist organization 350.org and other activists.

Our challenge is much harder than the challenges faced by the popular movements led by Gandhi, King and Mandela in one important respect. In each of their cases, an identifiable population was being held powerless by another identifiable population group, (which was nationally/ethnically different than the first population). In our case, the population being held powerless is, potentially, the entire future population of the 21st Century and beyond … and the identifiable population group holding them powerless is … ourselves, our current political arrangements and economic institutions. That includes all of us who hold in our heads all the reasons these political and economic arrangements can’t be immediately changed !!

The scientific fact that we are also being held powerless by the sheer volume of waste that has already been dumped into our air and oceans, again by ourselves and our immediate ancestors is yet another complicating, challenging aspect of the struggles we face. The struggles we will face will be a different kind of struggle than Dr. King’s faithful confronting Bull O’Connor’s police lines, and it will require new kinds of tactics and strategies that we will need to invent.

It is very likely that our coming challenges will require us to re-assess basic structures in our most fundamental, personal foundations of our own personalities. It is just about absolutely certain that our coming challenges will require new and better explanations of who we are, what we’re doing here, and why we should keep doing it, than our current sciences, philosophies and religions seem to be providing. And our current political and economic institutions — which I do define widely enough to include everything from the inner conscience that prevents us from running traffic lights even when no one else is around, to the hundreds of personality choices and preferences that define and organize our most basic social actions, like getting up and getting dressed and going to work each day — all our ordinary ways of life will likely be challenged in all sorts of ironic, tragic and completely unforeseeable ways.

Getting our heads around the fact that we can’t do X any more because the biological systems that made X possible have been wiped out by climate change, is fairly certain to be something that affects large portions of our current comfortable habits. The problems of creating organizations that empower people for productive action have still not been totally solved by anyone, and we will have to face these organizational challenges as well. My suggestions for better organization in American political work are here, if we can’t work together for better futures globally and economically as well as in our local politics, our grandchildren likely won’t have many successes.

We can’t wait to get to work on the very many necessary changes, if some type of pleasant human society is to survive for our grandchildren. We have to be our own Gandhi, our own Martin Luther King, our own Nelson Mandela, if we are to change the petroleum industry and the coal industry and the socio-political arrangements that give these industries much more political power than ordinary people seem to have. All the evidence points to very pessimistic conclusions for the health of our grandchildren; the prospect that the morally corrupt oil-industry shill Senator Mary Landrieu will have a controlling power over American energy legislation seems very much like a death sentence to any practical hope for positive change in American energy policies.

Nevertheless, my intellectual life has been dedicated to showing how ordinary people can and do create significant change, in their everyday actions — and as a matter of personal psychology and social balance, it is necessary to keep our optimism strong and unwavering. We have to keep our optimism, if only because giving in to despair makes us part of the problem. Again, there won’t be a Mandela to lead us out of the environmental/political/economic conundrums our wasteful habits have created. We have to be our own leaders for creative change, we have to find a way of creating a global culture of positive change and mutual leadership, and we have to start now.

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Syria As a Mirror to the World

The Syrian nation-state is riven by civil war (exacerbated by external forces), and seems in serious danger of collapse into a state of anarchy so great, that little or nothing of the lives of its inhabitants can saved from destruction, injury and turmoil.

The world civilization that 7 billion people have created on the landscapes of our earth in the year 2013 AD by the Western calendar, is still, in an optimistic view, thriving, yet it is also quite plausible and believable to make a “realistic/pessimistic” case that our present world civilization of nation-states, powerful economic enterprises, and poorly informed masses of “ordinary citizens” is also in great danger of collapse (if on a slightly longer timescale of decades, rather than the years in which a collapse in Syria seems plausible) that will also leave the lives of its inhabitants in various states of destruction, injury and turmoil.

Thus the topic of this essay: what can we learn from considering Syria problem’s as a mirror of the world’s problems?

To begin, however, let’s look at an even more basic question.

What is the most important factor, the most important variable, that determines what you or I see, when we look in a mirror?

It’s not the light waves bouncing about between our face and the mirror – though these do determine what image is visible in the mirror to a hypothetical objective observer. Yet what you or I see in the mirror is determined by our mind, our psychology, our personality, our emotions and presumptions. Our philosophical structures (of explanations we believe in) may also play a role here. And the range of our emotions and presumptions about our appearance in a mirror is so vast, from those who have never or very seldom look in mirrors and don’t know what to expect, and then through all those of us who may expect to see a certain self-image and are either happy or disappointed to see that expected image, or else are either disappointed or happy in seeing something other than the expected image, in all the millions of ways people can be either happy or disappointed.

So let’s be very clear, when we perform an intellectual exercise like this, considering Syria as a mirror to the world, it’s all in our presumptions and prejudices and perceptions of what we think we’re seeing, when we look at complex human historical problems like Syria, or when we consider out current global society’s prospects. There will be vast disagreement according to our personalities, our systems of science, religion and philosophy, our politics and our economic interests, and we just have to live with it and learn to analyze it and love it (see here for much more on my hopes that we can accomplish these goals).

So how do we consider this intellectual exercise, Syria as a mirror to the world?

On a first shallow glancing view, it may be possible to entirely reject the comparison of Syria to the world. Syria’s problems, it might be said, arise from the specific policies of the Assad monarchical dictatorship; the rest of the world does not suffer from this particular patriarchy of despotism, and therefore there is no comparison.

In my view, however, this rejection would be an error. Yes, Syria’s current political problems are centered on the Assad regime that has been in power for over four decades. However many regions of the world, in all times, have had experiences of regimes that are similar to the political regimes “enjoyed” by Syria in its long history. As you may know, I prefer to analyze political behavior in human beings as the creation and (constant re-creation) and distribution of honor, status and rank in human societies, (leading to the tribal and state governmental structures that have elaborated so convincingly in human affairs from their roots in our concepts of status and rank).

Would it be fair to say that nearly all human societies have had their share of giving rank and political power to some of the most unworthy, authoritarian, selfish, deceptive and otherwise despotic men to be found in their societies? (And it has been overwhelmingly and nearly universally a male problem, despite the many tribal structures that have empowered women in various ways, or the more modern kingdoms that have allowed Queens and Empresses to supervise traditional structures of male authority.) Nor will I allow my native USA to wriggle out of this on some claim of liberty-loving constitutional exception, because certainly there have been plenty of local, institutionalized tyrants and abuses of power from political actors and cliques in all eras of our American history, not to mention race riots and lynchings. And how do we rate the current situation of a highly centralized, highly institutionalized national security state apparatus quite literally monitoring all our modern communications at all times and undressing us at airports, which somehow “just grew” (very specifically out of our military structures since 1945) without ever being asked for, voted on by the public, or discussed in any full or free manner in our most visible political or mass media debates/analysis, and which appears to be completely beyond any control by ordinary citizens. So yes, even if you might argue that it’s not fair to say “nearly all,” I do believe that it is fair to say that the vast majority of human societies do have an understanding of selfish, authoritarian political power wielded by those whom they honored, rightly or wrongly, with these ranks and offices.

And let us make no mistake, this is the nature of the problem in Syria, an authoritarian regime which will use any murder, any weapon, any barbarity to maintain its power. And yet the regime survives, primarily because it does have a legitimate population base of civil society – the various non-Sunni-Muslim ethnic groups and communities who find their fears of the prospect of repression and/or massacre by victorious Sunni Muslim insurgents to be greater than the fears induced by continuing the bloody, unproductive Assad regime. These 5 to 10 million people (my guess based on my quick glances at Syrian demographic statistics) are not just going to disappear from the stage of human history in the Eastern Mediterranean region in the 21st Century. They deserve support and protection as much as anyone else, I hope for their sake their fates are not tied to the fate of a regime whose attempts to protect itself seem to engender more and deeper opposition.

And if we take a pessimistic view that humans will not solve the problems of un-sustainability in our present state of civilization, the crisis that will be facing our children and grandchildren will be the problem of entrenched political and business elites who refuse to alter their regimes, no matter the seriousness of the ecological problems confronting us, whether this is the ecology of a relentlessly rising coastline combined with much greater hurricane activity, or a human economic ecological disaster like successfully launching a robotic manufacturing and simple-services economy while refusing to make any basic changes in economic postulates to ensure the survival of hundreds of millions of people now deprived of traditional means of sustaining themselves. So in this instance, the prospects of the world as a whole over the coming decades does mirror the prospects of the Syrian polity over the coming months and years: very poor prospects indeed, in any kind of “realistic” assumptions about human ability to reform political and economic institutions that give undue rewards to small elites while depriving large masses in small, less-than-obvious ways.

Here I would like to take some time to shoot down a notion I saw expressed in comments on a Syrian article on a major press service’s website, to the effect that “we don’t need to care about these quarrelsome little ethnic groups that have been fighting each other for millenia.” Again, I hope my other writings express why we need to care about everybody in world history if we care about ourselves, and our history. And as for the Eastern Mediterranean region in general (in which “Syria” was seen as a vague region within a general Arab-Muslim culture and was not formally defined until the map-making exercises of the victorious Allies of World War I) and traditional and modern Syria in particular, actually the various little ethnic groups (and the predominant Sunni Muslim Arab ethnic group) did a fair job of living and letting their neighboring communities live. There was not a continuous war of community against community, and all the major wars of the region after the establishment of the Islamic hemisphere in the 6-800’s AD represented invasions by Muslim, Mongol or Crusader imperialists arising not from Syria or its immediate neighbors. And the book I pulled from my dated shelves to refresh myself on Syrian history, Howard Sachar’s excellent “Europe Leaves the Middle East, 1936-54″, 1st ed. 1972, starts off by reminding us that the Mongol invasions and epidemic diseases of the 1200-1300’s AD had seriously depopulated and impoverished the region, “ravaged its forests and silted its irrigation canals,” (p. 5), and no regimes until the colonial regimes of the Europeans after World War I had attempted seriously to remedy the situation. Nevertheless, during all this time, the various ruling empires maintained an overall peace, and the various ethnic groups of the Syrian territory did not continually war against each other. And that when the Europeans did come in after 1919, they did so in complete contempt of the Arab majority’s attempt to establish an Arab kingdom in Damascus. And in the overall story of how Syria achieved its full independence of colonialism relatively peacefully in 1946, the relative unity of Syrians in their many strikes, protests and riots against French colonial rule was an important factor.

Indeed, if the conflict in Syria now gives us the horrifying prospect of extreme ideological versions of Sunni and Shi’a Islamic thought locked in mortal conflict – al Qaida and Hezbollah battling over the Syrian landscape, in conventional journalistic shorthand – this must be seen as a reflection in today’s Syria of the grand ideological wars of the 20th Century world in Europe and East Asia, and certainly not as something arising from the political and economic competition of two neighboring communities in the hills southwest of Damascus. The roots and models for this type of ideological conflict lie in London and Paris and Berlin and Moscow and other European capitals in late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in the development of nationalisms and socialism/communism, its ugly reflection in a fundamentally deadly schism in the Islamic world of the early 2100’s is an example of history echoing it previous cries — yet an example that is neither fully appreciable by many as a tragedy, yet cannot be, in any viewpoint, a farce that is pleasant and amusing.

And so, in our intellectual exercise of considering Syria as a mirror to the world, we see how both how the world resembles the Syrian mirror, while Syria reflects the world that interfaces with it. Whether the image that we see of Syria and the world is ugly and pessimistic and doomed to catastrophic collapse, or whether there are possibilities that increased self-education and organization amongst the world’s peoples, and increased success of democratic-progressive tendencies among national and global political bodies, and increased world political/diplomatic cooperation on all types of issues, everywhere, from stronger efforts at caring for refugees and providing food stability and other positive institutions of civil societies, while somehow negotiating a sustainable peace among bitter enemies, whether this can actually occur to really result in positive outcomes in the Syrian situation over the next few years, and whether similar efforts on our part can result in positive outcomes for the world situation over the next few decades, again that is a function of our own psychological structures, our emotions and our presumptions, our cynicisms and pessimisms, or our hopes and efforts to find a viable solution.

Is there any glimmer of hope that can relieve our forebodings over Syria? A few days after this article originally posted, we must praise the Russian-American accord on identifying, controlling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons — hopefully with the real cooperation of the Syrian government — as a very real step forward by some of the world’s largest political malefactors. True, the actual outcome is still uncertain and these governments have much, more more to accomplish towards actual world peace and progress, yet the situation of an awkward agreement today is still a better outcome than the unilateral American missile strikes that looked likely yesterday.

Yet overall, the global question haunting our futures remains: can our desperate belief that we will somehow maneuver our civilization to survive the crises created by our own waste products (and counting our authoritarian, despotic government actors among the most toxic items in our garbage), will our desperation somehow bring about actual fundamental reforms for long-term viability? All of these dancing images flash across our intellectual mirror as our attitudes and emotions carry on their eternal dance of joy and despair … yet inevitably, our verifiable actions (and our unconscious omissions) will, in their overall sum totals as the 2010’s and the 2020’s and the 2030’s roll along, second by second and minute by minute and hour by inescapable, inexorable hour, these actions and omissions on our part will determine the history and outcome of our human future.

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Advanced Theodicy for Practical People

Let’s see if we can’t get a little deeper into the question of theodicy, the question of why “god” allows evil to exist in the world. I am qualified to be your guide today, as I do consider myself to be both a man of science, and a man of the spirit. I see no contradiction in this, as I do believe my spiritual journeys have been empirical and evidence-based – at least in my own opinion. And all spiritual discussions and pronouncements, by anyone, need to be prefaced, of course, with the statement ”in my opinion.” I do believe, for myself, the evidence I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings; however I do NOT expect YOU to also believe, necessarily for yourself, my evidence that I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings.

And in the last few days since the tragic, and most likely terroristic, bombings in Boston Massachusetts, we have heard, on all types of media, a lot of poorly informed, artlessly expressed and just plain old silly and shallow discussion of what the world is like and how terrible it is that terrible things like this mass murder can occur. Let’s see what we can do to raise the level of discussion of these problems on the internet.

So why does “god” allow evil to occur in this world, why does “god” allow a hateful person or persons to fill backpacks with pressure cooker bombs filled with projectiles meant to cause severe and widespread injury and detonate them at a time of public celebration?

First off, as a spiritual person, this is why I put the word “god” in quotation marks, and why in my own writings I refer to the “Unknowable Universal Essence” as my synonym for words like God, Jehovah, Allah, The Lord, and so on. The image of an all-knowing patriarch who “knows” every detail of every life, who knows the course of every set of future events, is not an image that has ever attracted me spiritually, or one that comports with the reality of the spiritual Universe as I understand it. I do maintain that what I call the Unknowable Universal Essence “is present in” or “participates in” all the matter and all the energy in the Universe – yet please notice how this formulation is deliberately much more vague, uncertain and open-ended than the idea that a Fundamentalist Protestant Lord knows and controls your every future action. (And for the skeptical, I will point out that I specifically acknowledge that the “spiritual essence” I find to be present in the Universe as a whole, may well turn out to be some aspect of cosmic astrophysics which we humans just can’t yet understand or define scientifically.)

So, in my understanding of the “Unknowable Universal Essence,” it embraces ALL LIFE – viruses, mosquitoes, strange life-forms using non-carbon/oxygen chemistries in extreme environments – and it also embraces all apparently “non-living” matter as well. As long as matter and energy don’t violate the “laws” of physics and chemistry, they’re good to go in this Universe and be a portion of the universal love song. We do live with viruses and bacteria and cancer cells in our bodies nearly all the time. If the viruses or cancer cells grow stronger than the human body, I can be sad for you and your family, however the Unknowable Universal Essence is not offended. Or another example, we do live on earth with an atmosphere that helps keep our environment within a limited temperature range, while providing us oxygen to breathe and shielding us from the harsh environment of outer space. If the waste products of our economic activities upset that atmosphere so it can no longer be counted on to provide those elements of our convenience, the Unknowable Universal Essence will embrace the new life forms that evolve to thrive in the new, changed atmosphere which no longer supports our survival.

If you have an ideology that there is a one unified intelligence with Lordly Powers over all life, and which is specifically interested in earth-bound human lives over all other lives, then you do still have a problem with the question of “theodicy,” or why your Lord allows evil things to happen to human beings. And as I don’t really share your assumptions, I can’t help you much with a solution. The suggestion that your Lord who is especially interested in human beings, allows evil human behaviors to occur (over and over again!) as a test of individual human choices in a context of free will – making it all the more important to make non-evil choices – is as good an explanation as any other, given the assumptions.

As for the question of humans creating “evil” behavior which tortures, torments and murders other human lives, that, unfortunately, is a practical and scientific question which requires scientific answers (which we should be smart enough to provide). The problem is complicated further because the term “evil,” while it is a widely used term which everyone thinks they can recognize when they see it, is (like all the other words we commonly use when talking about “morality”) a subjective term of personal definition, rather than an objective scientific term with a definition that scientists can agree on. Everyone will have somewhat different definition of what “evil” or “morality” is (or should be), and there is no authority we can rest on to be sure of our definitions (besides the authority of having more human beings agree with our definitions of “good” and “evil” than disagree).

For today, we can say that the vast majority of humanity does agree that mass murder, for any motive, is indeed “evil” and is indeed to be condemned and repudiated. Nevertheless, we do find, and we will continue to find, that individual human beings do create for themselves sick, strange and angry psychological structures, and these same people will embrace divisive, arrogant and hate-filled versions of science and/or religion. From here it is but a short step for such angry people to gravitate towards choices of what human behaviors to give honor and status to, which enable political ideologies that allow them to think it is somehow “good” to commit specific mass murders in specific circumstances. And while many of the small minority that take these first three steps towards mass murder may never, fortunately, find the circumstances that allow them to express these murderous thoughts in action, a few will find themselves in economic circumstances that do allow them to gather the tools of murder, and the time and personal “security” to believe that they can and should take action on their murderous belief (whether or not they believe they can “get away with it”).

Humans create their own evils, just as they create their own positive accomplishments. As I’ve done my best to explain scientifically, we human beings create both good and evil through our creation and borrowing of our personalities/psychologies, through our creation and borrowing of specific philosophical, scientific and religious ideas, through our creation and borrowing of specific ideas of what human persons and behaviors should be given honor, status, and official rank/authority (a set of behaviors we understand under the heading of “politics”), and through our creation and borrowing of ideas of economic values, and our creation and distribution of specific goods and services to fulfill those economic values.

Our human lives, our thoughts and actions, our human history, are in the end our own human responsibility. I firmly believe our thoughts and actions are subject to scientific explanation. I do believe there is a universal spirit, which mostly feels like “love” to our subjective minds, which is present in all matter and all energy in this universe. This spirit may nourish us psychically to the extent that we seek it out. Yet if we wander twisted paths that lead to hateful and murderous behavior, the universal spirit will not directly interfere or intervene (to the extent that we remain within the realms of ordinary physics and chemistry.)

We like to think of ourselves as “good,” we like to think of ourselves as supporting the best values of humanity. We don’t like to confront ambiguous situations of mixed morality over which we feel we have little direct control, for example, being American citizens who believe in republican virtues and democratic values, who have somehow in the last 70 years created an over-arching military empire claiming supremacy over all human beings on earth, or the situation of being residents of the economically-advanced areas of North America and Europe in the last two hundred years, whose pursuit of economic values for our families and our communities (while neglecting the effects of the waste products of those pursuits) puts us in the position where our “goods” today seem to directly threaten the health and prosperity of our own children and all the future children of the world.

Fewer and fewer of us seem to believe in a patriarchal God who can or will rescue us from our own moral ambiguities. My understanding of the Unknowable Universal Essence tells me it will certainly not rescue us from our problems without a lot more specific, positive political and economic action, immediately taken, on our part. There is no “god” who is going to prevent human beings from being evil, there is no positive force in the Universe that is going to clean up our human messes for us. It’s entirely up to us, human beings. We can’t change the past that our human predecessors have given us, we can change our own thoughts and behavior going forward into the future – and my understanding of “morality” insists we get started on that process, right away.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Ron Brandstetter, Social Sciences, spiritual ron | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

No, Public Managers Shouldn’t Get Business Manager Salaries

Author’s note: This article is a result of my recent foray into local activism, investigating the situation of my dysfunctional local agency that provides water to myself and thousands of my neighbors. The results of that investigation are a bit too locally-specific for this website (however if you too are in this locality I’ll be glad to tell you about it elsewhere). However, the whole experience of interviewing local officials and trying to write up the results did lead to the larger argument that I make below.

I did try to write this up for some local publications, who chose not to use it. Here I am keeping the initial paragraphs that refer to the local political situation in 2013, however here are some notes to make things more clear for my global readers. Clackamas County is the local government where I live, with an overall population of about 384,000 people over a fairly large geographic landscape with a variety of urban, suburban and rural communities. It is one of 3 counties (with Multnomah and Washington Counties) that make up the “metropolitan Portland” area, which contains a third or more of Oregon’s population. Tri-Met is the local regional government agency, first formed in 1969, which provides bus and rail public transit services to the most urban portions of the 3-County metropolitan area. In the most recent elections, Clackamas County’s governing board of 5 Commissioners was won by a new majority group generally representing the Republican Party, right-wing “tea party” movement which claims to favor smaller government and lower taxation in nearly all circumstances.

No, Public Managers Shouldn’t Get Business Manager Salaries

Is TriMet trying to ensure that Clackamas County voters will ban their already-deeply-into-construction light rail expansion into Milwaukie and Oak Grove, setting up years of legal and political conflict to come? It seems that will certainly be one result of the news that came last week, that TriMet was secretly giving top managers a collective $910,000 salary increase – while raising fares, cutting routes, and publicly claiming that they had a pay hike freeze in effect.

That’s all very interesting to speculate on, and as a Clackamas County progressive activist I feel slapped in the face by TriMet’s fiasco. How can I stand up at a Board of Commissioners meeting and defend light rail after this fiasco? It was bad enough last June, when the little-noticed confab of labor and environmental activists revealed that even the progressive activists of the Laborers Union, who are getting some of the TriMet construction jobs, thought that TriMet was too focused on light rail and not enough on buses. Still, I defended TriMet’s light rail as an investment in the future – even though it was already clear that TriMet didn’t share my grandparent’s sense of thrift as a virtue. Now that we see it was an investment in a select clique, why should I give up my time for activism to fight the hordes of tea-partiers in any upcoming Clackamas County special elections against TriMet?

TriMet’s latest snafu, however, is only an entry point to a larger argument that I would like to make: we need to push back against the argument that is so often heard, “We need to pay public managers the top rates ever earned in the private sector, to attract the best people.” No, absolutely not, for two major reasons. The two environments of private business management and public government management are completely different, and we do not need to attract the greediest people to public government management.

I have been a self-employed (micro) businessperson full-time for 29 years, and have continued as a part-time businessperson another decade. Much of that time I have been an activist observing local governments. The two environments are completely different.

Private businesses experience a much higher degree of month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter fluctuation of basic revenue than public government administrations ever do. Perhaps the revenue fluctuations of the slowest, most stable industries can be compared to government revenues – but those are the businesses where most managers still make significantly less than six-figure salaries. Public government administration is generally far more stable than the business world, revenues will fluctuate with the most major ups and downs of the economy as a whole, but usually not too much more.

And in business environment, the manager’s decisions appear to be much more important for the entity’s revenue results than in public government. Now in the reality of millions of people engaging the marketplace in American life, many people are mediocre and many things even out over time, that’s how people and capitalism survive. Yet it can happen that if you the business manager make one or two bad guesses, while your competition rolls out a popular new product, you really suffer. And on the other hand if your latest brainstorm is a hit, while the competition’s new line stinks, you’re celebrating in the best restaurants. Government administration is generally not like that, a welfare agency or a water district doesn’t have competitors actively trying to take away their “customers.” A transit agency like TriMet does have to “compete” with cars and other alternatives in general, are they really doing such a great job that their managers deserve the top rates of pay of any categories of business managers? Further, when revenues do fall in the business world, managers are much more likely to be de-budgeted or sidetracked, if not fired — even if the shortfalls are not directly their fault. This happens much less often in the government environment, even if lagging results are in fact management’s fault.

A business plan does need to be tweaked every 30 to 60 days; intensely competing businesses are constantly responding to each others’ moves. A well-designed government policy and administration should need much less marketing attention: the revenues are coming in because the population needs your government service, and/or the population is legally required to pay their taxes. And while many types of government agencies have some legitimate need to maintain good public relations, frankly the decline of the print journalism industry offers the chance to pick up very experienced people for public relations management for less than six-figure salaries. If government managers are so great they need top rates of pay, why are they so seldom as cost-conscious and bargain-seeking as business managers can often be?

Frankly we don’t need the most selfish, most “gimme” managers in public service. Which brings up another part of the problem (and further illustrates the difference in the public and private environments). While being a highly successful business manager has many rewards, there are limits to how far the most selfish can “institutionalize” their power. Sure, this year your business is booming and you’re head of your industry group and you’re a big wheel in your political party, but in 10 or 12 years you probably won’t be all those things. On the other hand, the clever and selfish government manager, well-versed in the arts of the misleading press release, the rewarding of friends and the punishment of enemies, can entrench themselves in local government and politics and be a “power” for 15 years or more. Those powerful public managers are precisely the reason that bureaucracy is a dirty word, and that many citizens feel that government doesn’t listen to them. Do we really need to recruit and encourage such selfish managers with the top rates of pay for any industry?

Every citizen, every elected official needs to stay awake and fight back against the argument that “we need to pay government managers the top salaries of the most lucrative industries to attract good talent.” No, absolutely not. We should be able to offer public management jobs at rates 10-15% less than private managers in comparable categories are getting, and we should consciously be seeking people who see value in stability, who appreciate the lesser risks generally encountered in government service, and who feel rewarded by knowing how they are of service to their community.

I do believe that government workers making less than $50,000 annually should probably be getting raises; and saving money by getting better public agency management for less money is a great way to fund that goal. We don’t need the most selfish managers; if they really think they’re worth it, they need to go find those big bucks in the private sector. We do need managers who understand that the taxpayer is their ultimate employer, and that the taxpayer’s need for cost-conscious, service-oriented government is paramount in the public environment.

Business doesn’t exist to provide government or wisdom; it exists keep us all fed, sheltered and entertained, and give people incomes to do those things. Government does exist to do tough jobs that business can’t take on profitably. Let’s not get the two very different environments mixed up.

Posted in American Economic History, American Politics, History, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment