synthetic zero

March 29th, 2010

Polls show the core of the Tea Party movement are hard-core conservatives, not independents, but polls also show the strength and fervor of their politics is, in fact, influencing the views and votes of independents. The problem is, of course, their fight against “big government” appeals to a fundamental American rebellious streak, a desire to fight the power, and that rhetoric sounds good when you are angry at the status quo. However, fighting against “big government” is, in our society, equivalent to fighting for big corporations; government in a democratic society is one of the few institutions that can be changed by popular opinion. The whole idea of the old establishment class was to counter the influence of liberals by invoking this phrase “big government” — yet this is simply code for less regulation of large corporations. The working class people who have bought into the Tea Party rhetoric are now fighting for the preservation and expansion of the very system which has thrown people out of work and held down wages with increasing force for decades.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to engage in dialogue with people on the right. Basically, they have bought the idea that what they’re doing is “fighting big government” 100%. It never occurs to them that there’s anything missing, whatsoever, from their pantheon of evildoers; that corporate malfeasance could be anything like government power. Their arguments are simple, the same arguments libertarians have used for years: that government has the power to force you to do things whereas corporations do not.

Entirely missing from their analysis is the fact that a democratic government can be influenced by the people and thus can act as a popular counterbalance to the power of money. They’ve bought the Chicago School malarkey hook line and sinker. They quote Friedrich von Hayek as though he were a god.

Their basic notion is that ANY deviation from libertarian orthodoxy is a step towards Stalinism. They refer to Hayek’s analysis of the economic calculation problem as definitive proof that government ought to be restricted to simply enforcing contracts and rooting out fraud, and NOTHING else.

The funny thing is, there’s something to these arguments. Hayek’s analysis is correct when applied to the Soviet Union. He argued that even the most altruistic central planners could not possibly allocate resources anything like optimally because they would face an information bottleneck. I came up with this very same argument when I was in college, as an argument against Soviet-style central planning.

The problem is, Hayek’s analysis, the Chicago School analysis, leaves out one gigantic piece of the puzzle: the problem of local versus global optimization. A purely libertarian world can and does optimize better than central planning because it follows, essentially, the path of least resistance. And path of least resistance optimization can lead a system to a dead end (i.e., total depletion of renewable, but slowly replenishing, resource, like fish in a lake) or to various other suboptimal outcomes which actually turn out to be suboptimal for the system as a whole (i.e., massive income inequality leads, I believe, to a drag on the economy as a whole as the poor are unable to fully contribute to the economy, their children are disadvantaged and cannot reach their potential, people die or go bankrupt from health problems, and so on).

The solution is government regulation: not to micromanage the economy a la central planning, but to monitor the system and bias it to avoid dead ends, systemic instability, and too much inequality. None of these systemic biases run into the problem Hayek notes because they continue to use the market to do local optimization, they just take away the market’s dictatorial power.

In other words, to prevent unrestricted corporate power from destroying lives, you use a democratic government to restrain it.

I really think that we haven’t done what we need to do to spread the message. Fighting against “big government” means fighting FOR “big corporations”. It means further empowering the already powerful. People were mad about the bank bailout, but if the government had let banks fail in a straightforward way that would have been just more of the same “small government” stupidity that got us into this mess. What we DON’T need is simply to “let the market decide” — the market by itself is unstable, that’s the way it is! Sometimes you need massive intervention to stabilize the system. What you need to do after that is reintroduce meaningful regulation — yet that part is now stalled in Congress.

What the world needs now is someone to fight to restrain the adolescent beahavior of big corporate power. Unrestricted corporations are not the friend of the working class, yet so many of them are being influenced by the populist message of the Tea Partiers.

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March 21st, 2010

Reading various right-wing comments on the health care reform bill prompted me to write this rant (only slightly toned down from its original form):

It’s astonishing how uninformed people are about both this health care bill and the current grave state of our health care system.

First of all, the bill in its current form is very close to Republican proposals of years past. It is to the right of a proposal that President Nixon himself offered to Ted Kennedy (who foolishly turned it down). The rhetoric that this is a “socialist takeover” of health care is pure, uninformed idiocy of the worst kind. It’s incredible to me that so many of my fellow Americans are so averse to doing basic research and understanding what we have in front of us. Calling it “socialist” basically means that Republicans will call anything socialist in order to score points with the public.

The plan uses ONLY private insurance companies. There isn’t even a public option in this plan, at all. There are no hard price controls in the plan, though there are plenty of cost control ideas. It’s in every way one of the most conservative attempts to reform health care there could possibly be.

As for complaints about the mandate; let’s think this through. There are only two options: government health insurance, or private insurance with a mandate. If you don’t have a mandate, but you get rid of prohibitions on insurance companies preventing people from getting insurance who have preexisting conditions, then insurance rates will skyrocket for everyone, because people will have no incentive to buy insurance until they get sick. Just wait till you get sick, buy insurance then, and take your free ride! This makes no sense at all and would never work.

You can’t have it both ways: if you don’t want government health insurance (public option), but you want to get rid of discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, then you have to have a mandate. There’s no logical alternative.

Most Republican ideas regarding health care reform are already in this bill. The bill boils down to: preventing arbitrary rescission, preventing discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, creating insurance exchanges to give individuals group purchasing power, enabling some form of interstate competition, creating a mechanism for the development of alternative payment schemes for Medicare, mandating insurance companies spend, in most markets, 85% of their premiums on health care, subsidies for people who cannot afford insurance. It is a balanced, private sector approach.

We are ALREADY paying through the nose for health care (or our employers are). In the United States, we spend roughly twice what other countries spend as a proportion of GDP on health care, and yet we still have waiting times as long or even longer than many countries with government health care, and our health care outcomes are just middle of the road, or worse, on average. The price of health care is exploding at twice the rate of inflation; it has doubled in less than ten years. If we don’t do anything now we face financial ruin.

Wake up, America, and stop listening to right wing blowhards who haven’t even bothered to understand the basic issues. This is a good bill, it is a moderate bill, it is the minimum we need to get or country back on track.

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March 20th, 2010

Somehow SXSW and the resulting stream of thoughts, ideas, and responses have combined into a kind of repeating theme in my mind which I wanted to elaborate upon a little, here.

In my last post I talked a little about the issue of naturalness; that is, one approach is self-abnegation, self-discipline, thinking of your nature as something you have to fight with, overcome… but there’s a complementary view, which is that there’s a deeper sense of “naturalness” which doesn’t mean simply going along with habits, reactivity, etc., but it can include a larger context of life, and you can approach life not with the idea of fighting with your own nature, but with the idea of relaxing into a larger sense of what is “natural.” That is, you can think of, for example, overindulging in something as following a kind of restricted sense of the natural, yet it’s also natural to be more aware of a larger picture, i.e., that, say, so eating healthily, for example, can be something that feels right rather than being the result of a kind of self-discipline or fighting with one’s impulses.

Thich Naht Hanh likes to say you should see a cloud in a glass of water. It’s simple: we tend to see things in a very local sense; we see things, as well as ourselves, and the forces in our lives, as objects, separated from each other. Yet everything we see is interpenetrating with everything else; they come from other things and go into other things, arise, dissolve, like waves. There are vast cycles, yet we tend to assume everything is static, constant, and the factors in our lives are also static, and that we are static, for the most part, changing only in small increments through defined, atomic movements.

But in fact it’s more accurate to say we’re temporary metastable aggregates, loosely defined and strongly coupled to everything around us, and every action we take comes from and feeds back into that network of connections which surrounds and interpenetrates ourselves and everything else. To put it more simply, what we do now affects not only our immediate circumstances but has a long-term impact which can play out over longer and longer periods of time and over larger and larger contexts. And yet, though we tend to systematically ignore these larger contexts, they have a huge impact on our lives, in the long run.

The “discipline” approach, to some extent, acknowledges this, but it does so by coming up with rules and then attempting to impose these rules on ourselves and others (in the extreme, to get past the apparent conflict between the rules and our immediate impulses, those attempting to impose this approach appeal to dogma or blind faith). But there is another way, involving presence or awareness: trying to bring a larger context of life directly into present awareness. There are many ways of doing this — contemplative practice is one approach to helping us notice this larger context and bring it more fully into our moment-to-moment life: it addresses a certain direct perceptual/participatory aspect of this. More generally, however, it seems to me, what’s at issue has to do with bringing a direct awareness of a larger context into the present moment, so we see the potential long-term or larger context effects in a more direct, visceral way.

We can see the tension between the immediate and the larger-scale or longer-term in so many areas of politics, social issues, environmental issues, etc.: global warming is a perfect example. This is a phenomenon which occurs so slowly that the changes from year to year are hard to notice; the relationship between our actions today and the longer-term effect on the future of the planet are difficult to perceive directly. Through careful analysis, observation, and modeling we can understand a bit better how the various aspects of the system might evolve, but it takes something visceral for us to visualize the problem directly and see it as a present, rather than a hypothetical future, or even imaginary, threat.

We have, however, existing perceptual systems which are designed to take in vast amounts of information and process them directly and quickly; this is the power of data visualization and why, I think, further experiments to extend and expand the range of ways in which we can visualize complex relationships and patterns can yield powerfully important aids for us in understanding and responding to our lives at every scale, from our individual lives to larger and larger scale communities. A lot of what interests me about philosophy, ontology, etc., also indexes back into this; the way we perceive and conceptualize our world can have a big impact on what patterns seem immediately evident and which are obscured by habit or by the fact that the patterns can’t get past our conceptual blinders.

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March 17th, 2010

I’ve been having some interesting online conversation regarding the issue of naturalness in a contemplative/Buddhist context. The question is, what is the structure, the basis, of any impulse we have to overeat or overthink or overworry or lash out or whatever it may be? On the one hand, we might think of these impulses as somehow natural, and to avoid them we have to in some sense work against our natural tendencies. But there’s a deeper sense of “natural” which I think is worth bringing into the picture.

I like to think of these situations as akin to feedback (such as when you have a microphone too close to a speaker). You get the microphone too close, or you turn up the gain too much, and you get that self-reinforcing feedback loop which really hurts the ears.

In order for this to happen, the microphone has to pick up sound and it gets amplified and output through loudspeakers. So you could say that the loud screech is “natural” because it is relying on the basic tendency for the microphone to pick up sound, for the amplifier to amplify it, and so on. You could certainly think of the ameliorating action as one of going against what is natural, to tone it down, and so on.

On the other hand, the microphone and amplifier and speaker do have a more “natural” function, a way of being used which feels more comfortable and right, which doesn’t hurt the ears. And this is also natural at a sort of meta-level. Is it really “natural” to use a microphone with the gain turned up too much or too close to the speaker? In fact, without struggling or feeling bad about yourself or whatever, you simply move the microphone a little bit away from the speaker because that, too, feels natural and right.

I prefer to think of this latter sense of natural as the more appropriate metaphor on a larger scale because then the feeling you have isn’t struggling with your nature, but rather going along with your nature in a deeper sense. Because ultimately the direction being recommended by the teachings (of various schools, not just Buddhism) is really more akin to relaxing, going with the flow, being in accord with Tao. The benefit of this metaphor I think is simply that once you “get” the sense of ease, the feeling that it is a matter of relaxing in a larger sense, then it feels far more possible to maintain it more stably, because in fact you’re not thinking of it as something you have to constantly maintain (an effort to fight against your nature) but rather a surrender to a larger reality which has a natural ease to it.  And when you start to get into trouble again, your impulse will be to relax, rather than to struggle: because struggling tends to accidentally ramp up the feedback loops far more often than relaxing does.

Of course, the “relaxing” is a specific kind of relaxing: it is relaxing in a vast context, including the whole situation beyond your direct control, not relaxing into a set of habits and so on. And some effort may still be required as needed, including some idea of discipline. But if there is a goal it should be to switch over to the “relax” approach, I think, as soon as you can, even if it isn’t available at first. There’s a kind of small-scale sense of naturalness involved in the microphone feeding back (it’s natural for the microphone-amplifier-speaker system to function in a way that creates screeching feedback in some instances), but if you include a larger sense of naturalness and ease (where we acknowledge that feedback hurts our ears and no one in the room can hear what you’re saying, etc.) then in a larger sense it’s more natural for you to use the microphone in a way where you can be heard. If you can tap into that larger feeling of ease, then it’s a lot more easy, I think, to stay in a stable sense of relaxed presence in the world.

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