Thursday, July 12, 2012

Age and Perspective

In the novel Assegai by Wilbur Smith, a group of men are tracking a bull elephant that is running away from them now aware of their presence. The elephant can walk faster than the men can run and unless he stops, the elephant will out pace them and arrive in a place the men cannot follow. The old man in the group warns of this probable future. The young native Loikot has a different perspective.

'Do not listen to him, M'bogo,' Loikot advised. 'It is the habit of old men to be gloomy. They can smell shit in the perfume of the kigelia[1] flower.’

I’m going to have to remind myself of this parable. Is what I see as a probable future colored too darkly by my aged perspective?

However, this parable has a deeper meaning. The fruit that comes from the flower is poisonous to humans.

Does living in the present and enjoying the beauty of the moment, the fleeting instant of the now, leave you blind to its poisonous fruits?

[1] Kigelia Africana is also know as the sausage tree. The sausage tree boasts long, open sprays of large, wrinkled, maroon or dark red trumpet-shaped flowers that are velvety on the inside and that virtually overflow with nectar. The unique fruits look like giant sausages!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Gardens of Democracy

This little book is a "must read" for every thinking citizen of America. It offers some fresh thoughts about the issues we face and potential solutions. In actuality, it is neither liberal nor conservative, but a third position, a new progressive based on the newer sciences, especially complexity. The central paradigm shift described in this book is from "machine brain" to "garden brain".

“The failure of American politics to address and solve the great challenges of our time-climate change, debt and deficits, worsening schools, rising health care costs, the shriveling of the middle class-is not just a failure of will or nerve. It is equally a failure of ideas and understanding. And the failure to address these challenges isn't just a matter of politics, but of survival.

To begin with, we labor today under a painfully confining choice between outmoded ideologies on both the left and the right. On the left, too many remain wedded to paradigms first formed during the decades between the Progressive Era and the New Deal. They are top-down, prescriptive, bureaucratic notions about how to address social challenges. These state-centric approaches made sense in a centralizing, industrializing America. They make much less sense in the networked economy and polity of today.

On the right, we hear ideas even more historically irrelevant: laissez-faire economics and a "don't tread on me" idea of citizenship that might have been tolerable in 1775 when the country had 3 million largely agrarian inhabit-ants, only some of whom could vote, but is at best naive and at worst destructive in a diverse, interdependent, largely urban nation of over 300 million.

Our politics has become an over-rehearsed, over-ritualized piece of stage combat between these two old ideologies. False choice after polarizing false choice emanates from Washington. Both ideologies-indeed, the surrender of American politics to ideology itself, and the abandonment of pragmatism as a guiding political philosophy- make it harder by the day for America to adapt.

We wrote this short book to offer a new way. We aim to reach not "moderates" or "centrists" who split the difference between left and right. We aim to reach those who think independently. That might mean those who claim no party affiliation, though it also includes many loyal Democrats and Republicans. It definitely means those who are uncomfortable being confined by narrow choices, old paradigms, and zero-sum outcomes.

If you can hold these paired thoughts in your head, we wrote this book for you:

• The federal government spends too much money. The wealthy should pay much more in taxes.

• Every American should have access to high-quality health care. We spend far too much on health care in the United States already.

 • We need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to ensure our economy continues to grow.

 • Unions are a crucially important part of our economy and society. Unions have become overly protectionist and are in need of enormous amounts of reform.

 • We need strong government. We need strong citizens.

Contemporary American political discourse sees these pairings as either-or. Independent-thinking Americans see them as both-and. Our goal in these pages is to push past the one-dimensional, left-right choices of contemporary politics-between more government or less, selfishness and altruism, suffocating collectivism and market fundamentalism-and find orthogonal approaches to our challenges. The great challenge of this age-and the point of this book-is to rethink how we as citizens create change, how the economy truly works, and what government fundamentally is for. The great challenge of this age is to change how we see, and by so doing, improve our ability to adapt.”

 I don’t personally think that the metaphors of machinebrain and gardenbrain as all that useful, and may be confusing, if it helps people to understand the concepts, then OK.

 “This is not just about economics or politics; it's about imagination and our ability to conceive of new ways of conceiving of things. It is about our ability to adapt and evolve in the face of changing circumstances and the consequences of our actions. History shows that civilizations tend eventually to get stuck in the patterns that had brought them success. They can either stay stuck and decay, or get unstuck and thrive.

We posit in these pages that this country has for too long been stuck in a mode of seeing and thinking called Machinebrain. We argue that the time has come for a new mode of public imagination that we call Gardenbrain.

Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presupposes stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction-"regulation"-is mechanical in origin and regrettable in connotation.

Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well constructed and well cared-for.

 Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumers to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of a dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

 Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.

Gardenbrain changes everything.”

The authors write:

“We acknowledge that we could have written separate books on these three topics: citizenship, economy, role of government. But our aim was precisely to show that these things are connected-not least by a need for new thinking and new seeing. In making our book short, we know that we trade detail for perspective. We simply believe this is a time when perspective matters most.

Thus we close the book by trying to put into historical context the need for America now to grow up-and the need for us to understand freedom not only as personal liberty but also as the collective force that fuels adaption and survival. Our extraordinary experiment in democracy and capitalism is over 230 years old. We Americans are not children anymore. Indeed, some think that the nation is in rapid decline. We completely disagree. We think of America as an adolescent or young adult coming into our prime, full of promise, energy, and enthusiasm for the challenges of our times-but in need of maturation of thought, habit, and awareness. The words enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial, written 40 years after the Declaration and 43 years before Darwin authored Origin if Species, capture this spirit perfectly:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Later, they write:

“Our century is yielding a second Enlightenment, and the narrative it offers about what makes us tick, individually and collectively, is infinitely more sophisticated than what we got the last time around. Since the mid -1960s, there have been profound advances in how we understand the systemic nature of botany, biology, physics, computer science, neuroscience, oceanography, atmospheric science, cognitive science, zoology, psychology, epidemiology, and even, yes, economics. Across these fields, a set of conceptual shifts is underway:

Simple → Complex

Atomistic → Networked

Equilibrium → Disequilibrium

Linear → Non-linear

Mechanistic → Behavioral

Efficient → Effective

Predictive → Adaptive

Independent →Interdependent

Individual ability → Group diversity

Rational calculator → Irrational approximators

Selfish → Strongly reciprocal

Win-lose → Win-win or lose-lose

Competition → Cooperation

These shifts, of course, are not as clean or simple as they may appear in such a list. We acknowledge that there are volumes of nuance condensed here. But at a macro level, these shifts are real, consequential, and too often unseen.”

In my opinion, most of these shifts are encompassed by complexity science, game theory and evolution.

A summary of the concepts developed in this book are:

• Self interest: true self interest is mutual interest

• Great citizenship: society becomes how you behave

• True capitalism: we're all better off when we're all better off

• Self government: big what, small how  

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2011, 173p