100 Questionable Assumptions – 4

The Trickle-Down Economy

Concentrating wealth in the hands of a few increases the total wealth available to all

Too much food on not enough tables - ©Bard 2005Too much food on not enough tables – ©Bard 2005

When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.

But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?

There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.

For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?

An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.

For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.

But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.

It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.

So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.

I Struggle With My Cultural Heritage

It seems an inevitable truth that we are defined by where we come from: our country, our city, our religion, our upbringing, our culture… So many forces shape and confine us, knead and define us, mould and refine us, I sometimes wonder if any of us can say we are ourselves, truly our own individual self, rather than just an amalgam of everything that was poured into us from the moment we were born. Maybe what we call our ‘self’ is just the emerging complex of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours rising up from the chorus of voices from our past – not something we can claim as ours, but something that claims us for itself and its own sense of identity. “You are what we made you into” those voices from the past seem to say, “There is no escaping your cultural heritage.”

And that poses a dilemma for me, a struggle that seems to become more prominent the more I feel the need to find a voice of my own; a voice that feels genuine; a voice that I can stay true to because it feels like the voice I would adopt if I had been free to create my own identity from the start. For many years now I have been trying to find that one true voice inside me by systematically extracting all the influences I could identify as coming from outside, studying them, and deciding what part of each of those influences I felt close to, or – on the contrary – did not want to be part of anymore. My hope has always been that by stripping away everything I objected to, everything that didn’t feel completely right and fitting, I would end up only with the parts that I could truly own and agree with: my own true and genuine voice.

But is that even possible? Aren’t the very preferences I am guided by in choosing what feels ‘true’ as much a product of all those past voices I’m selecting from? Can I claim my choices as my own?

And why do I even bother?

What is wrong with letting go of this elusive genuine self I’m chasing and just accepting the self I have ended up with? What is wrong with being a product of my past, my upbringing, my culture, and my history? Why not be content with the collected wisdom and experience of all the generations that came before me; the countless men and women that lived, struggled, and died so that one day I could be born and be who I am today? Isn’t that ungrateful and selfish?

Possibly. Maybe there is merit in just accepting the wisdom of the past and the collective learning of my ancestors and the culture I was raised in. Maybe I should just let go of my fixation on being an individual, let go of my ego, and go with the social flow.

But… and herein lies the struggle for me … my cultural heritage is a mixture of great deeds and horrible crimes, heroes and villains, sages and fools, merit and malice, greed and generosity, angels and demons, all woven together into this complex tapestry of contradictions, conflicting assumptions and dubious certainties I see when looking at ‘my’ culture.

Symbol of greatness and genius, or of cruelty and oppression? Or can it be both?
Symbol of greatness and genius, or of cruelty and oppression? Or can it be both?

Am I supposed to mindlessly accept all of this heritage? Must I accept the horrible deeds of our history’s villains and call them heroes, because that’s how they were seen and portrayed by the chroniclers of their time? Do I have to be proud of my country’s past achievements and accumulated wealth, knowing that these accomplishments often came at untold and barely imaginable suffering of millions of unfortunate souls born on the wrong side of history? Am I supposed to adopt my culture’s self-righteous and self-aggrandising image of itself, when even a cursory look at the facts shows that there is as much wrong as there is right about our values and practices, as much stolen and appropriated as actually genuinely produced by our ancestors themselves?

I don’t think so.

I think it should be perfectly reasonable for individual to look at their culture and history, critically examine that mixture of good and bad, and make their personal judgment of what they want to adhere to and what they want to distance themselves from. That should not just be permitted, it should be actively encouraged, so that the culture can actively learn and improve itself by the conscious choices made guided by the conscience of its members.

But that is not how it works, is it?

In reality, the moment a member of a culture (be it team, company, region, country, class, ethnicity, or even hemisphere) openly questions the past deeds and implied merits of their culture they will inevitably encounter fierce opposition from their fellow members. Just by not blindly accepting all that their culture contains, it seems, they are placing themselves if not outside then most certainly at the fringe of it. And from that fringe it is a small step to being outcast and ostracised completely. Apparently we – as a species – so much need a collective identity we can feel part of that even the simple act of questioning some of the constructs of that identity is felt like an attack on our very lives. To protect our collective identity the person raising doubts must be made an outsider, so they can be dehumanised, made into the “other”, the lesser being that does not deserve to be part of the cultural identity that makes us feel strong, safe, and special.

I think I understand the instinctive reaction that drives this fiercely defensive behaviour. And I don’t want to unnecessarily antagonise people or cause them to feel less safe and special. I also want to genuinely admire the good things my cultural heritage has to offer: to acknowledge the heroism of the past, the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors, the victories, and the sheer determination to survive and thrive. I want to learn from and lean on the wise and holy men and women that lifted their culture above the merely material and immediate and brought us science, philosophy, spirituality, and morality.

But it seems that one cannot receive the blessings of one’s past without having to accept its curses as well. If I am to believe the cultural arguments I observe around us, you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re either with us or against us. Any attempt to be discerning, to ask questions, to point out the darker sides of being us automatically voids your membership of us. By trying to be selective I have forfeited the right to claim a place inside that circle.

I am human, too. I, too, want to feel proud of all the forces that shaped me and brought me to where I am now. I, too, want to show gratitude and respect for the countless generations that lived, struggled, and died so that I might have my moment under the Sun. But I cannot do it unconditionally and I cannot simply ignore the darkness that is there as well. And so I struggle with my cultural heritage: wanting to be part of it, learn from it and benefit from it, but by its own rules apparently doomed to be apart from it the moment I dare to question things.

And if there’s one thing I know it is that I will never stop asking questions.

A Critical Examination of Democracy – What Do We Assume About It?

Democracy is a powerful concept that many of us are taught to believe in. But what exactly are we asked to put our faith in?

In a previous blog I called for a critical examination of modern democracy. Not because I don’t believe in democracy as an idea, but because I feel we have become complacent and much too accepting of a system that is far from perfect. Only a critical examination can help to uncover its flaws and – I hope – help us find ways to improve and strengthen the system.

One way to explore a human-designed system is to look at its underlying assumptions: the ideas implicit in the system itself or the way it is being presented. So here is a rather random list, in no particular order, of assumptions I believe are usually seen as part and parcel of most Western people’s perception of democracy. Since they are implied assumptions, they are mostly taken for granted, and seldom questioned. I am quite sure there are many more of such assumptions upholding our current system of government. But at least this is a start.

In a Democracy, people choose those individuals that can best govern the country for the next few years.

That is the whole point of democratic elections, isn’t it? So that the whole population has a change to critically look at the state of the country, make up their mind about the kind of government that would be best suited to deal with the current problems and challenges, and then carefully select the people they think are best suited to form that government.

The reality is, I suspect, far less rational and far less deliberate. Most people, it seems, do not actually vote for candidates because of their abilities, skills, or track-record in managing the country, but base their decisions on much more emotional grounds. They look at candidates and judge how well they like them, based on what they see them say and do in public. And that judgement of likability is necessarily skewed by the media, the careful orchestration of public appearances and press releases, and the kind of scandals candidates can unleash upon each other.

The problem is that this way of selecting likable candidates is hopelessly inadequate as a way of choosing a capable government. Since there is no direct way to interact with the candidates, or at least observe them in action when the spotlights are not on them, elections have turned into a popularity-driven media-circus. Public debates are not set up as a meaningful debate about issues, options, and arguments, but as shouting matches and point-scoring exercises, where no actual content needs to be discussed in any discernible depth. And instead of politicians being expected to be serious, well-meaning, and capable people, the system filters such people out in favor of the publicity-seeking, grand-standing, empty-gesturing, media-attention seekers the public seems to like. Which leaves us with people who may be able to secure enough votes to win an election, but have not much of any value to offer beyond that. In fact, the way many politicians behave in order to get elected would disqualify them for office would they be asked to undergo a standard job-selection process.

Candidates come from the people and govern for the people: they are themselves just normal citizens, with only a temporary mandate to govern. When their term is over they return to society as ordinary citizens

That may have been true once, but over time politicians have become a professional class, a group of people that chose politics as a career, not as a calling next to or after a normal career. While there are aspects of politics that require professional training to really understand and perform well in, the problem with having a class of professional politicians is that such people become closer to each other than to the people they are supposed to represent. Someone who has never worked a job other than politics has not been exposed to the kind of challenges life presents to most people. And the more politicians surround themselves with politicians, the harder it will be for them to even empathize with the very people they are meant to be spokesperson for. Instead of representing the people on whose behalf they are meant to govern, professional politicians are almost bound to represent themselves more than their voters, and have the interests of the political class closer at heart than that of the people.

Democracy is a transparent form of government: a government of the people by the people is free and willing to share their information, decisions, and actions with the people as a way for the people to stay informed and provide feedback and control over the actions of their elected government.

Whether is is because of the second assumption above, or because power craves more power, or because governments believe there is power in secrecy, whatever the reason, even the most democratic of governments end up hiding behind layers of secrecy and deception. And it is not just individuals trying to keep things secret. The bureaucratic system itself seems designed to obfuscate rather than clarify the true workings of government. And on top of that we seem to have entered an era in which fear has become such a constant narrative that our democratic governments have been allowed – one could almost say forced – to create more and deeper power structures, for the apparent purpose of keeping us safe from harm. But, and this is the catch, one cannot be safe and free at the same time. And the same goes for information: it’s either safe and secure, and therefore unavailable, or it is free and accessible, but not safe. Our governments by erring on the side of safety, are eroding the basic principles of transparency and accountability democracies need to maintain even the semblance of a government under control of its population, rather than the other way round.

Democracy is a balanced form of government: the extend of power bestowed on the elected government is limited by a body of law that is enforced by an independent policing power, and interpreted and overseen by an equally independent legal power.

This works well in theory, but how well does it work in practice? Only when those three forces are truly independent can they keep each other in check the way they are supposed to. In most modern democracies, however, there is a fourth force in play that is both much more pervasive and much harder to control than the other three: the power of commerce. We live in a commercial society, where business for business’ sake has become a rule unto itself. Because of this, in spite of the supposed delicate balance of the power triangle, commercial interests can overrule each and any of the other forces, rendering the checks-and-balances design obsolete and unworkable. Privatization of public services is one example: when public services become privatized they become largely removed from the kind of transparency and public scrutiny expected of public services. And because of this lack of transparency they are no longer kept in balance by the power triangle, nor can the public form an informed opinion about how well or badly these services fulfill the functions they are expected to.

Democracy in the hands of commercial interests

In a democracy every voice counts.

In a democracy everyone gets to vote so everyone has a voice to add to the total of voices that end up determining the government that gets chosen. In reality, however, since in a democracy only majority voices end up determining the chosen government, many minority voices get lost in the process, even those that represent better alternatives than those espoused by the majorities. More importantly, the whole democratic process must of necessity stay close to the majority consensus in its decision-making, prioritization, and social engineering. Voices that do not fit in with that consensus will not just be ignored, they will be actively shut down and persecuted since – it will be argued – they destabilize the social structure democracy itself relies on.

Of course not each and every dissenting voice should be acted on, but democracy – by limiting its perspectives to those that conform to the stable consensus – thereby limits its ability to read the signals and early warning signs of the sweeping changes happening around us. The majority concensus tends to downplay such signals or builds defensive arguments against them, trying to shut them down rather than considering how to act. This paralyzes a democratic society untill the signals get so loud they can no longer be ignored. By which time it may be too late to act.

I have been working on this blog for over two months now, and have just decided to stop here. There are many more assumptions I considered, but most of those seem variations on the 5 I describe here. Also, I think, several of those assumptions require much more thinking to figure out whether they are actual assumptions people have, or just flaws in the system most people acknowledge but choose to accept as inevitable.

And completeness wasn’t my goal here.

I just want to show that we must remain vigilant and keep questioning the systems we have created to organize our society. Not because they are necessarily wrong and need to be torn down – even if they are not perfect – but because unquestioning acceptance leads to a societal blindness that can lead us to move in a direction none of us want, but none of us tries to stop either.

A Critical Examination of Democracy

We are often told that democracy may not be perfect, but it is the least undesirable of the types of government we know. But is that really true?

I was born in post World War II Western Europe. As a child I was often told to be grateful for that. Not only had I (just) missed the world’s largest global conflict in human history, but I had the incredible good fortune, so I was reminded frequently, to live in a democratic country – the best kind of country to live in. This was often contrasted with all the non-democratic countries (primarily the Communist countries of that time, or the fascist tyrannies of the recent past) I could have lived in, to stress the fact that I was living in a place that was as close to Paradise on Earth as human design could make it. Sure, it wasn’t perfect – after all, humans aren’t perfect, and compromises always have to be made – but it was close. Very close.

As I grew up I had very little reason not to believe this view of democracy. After all, there were plenty of examples of the alternatives, and none of them looked even half as good as my own democratic corner of the word. We had freedom of speech, proper education, proper healthcare, social security, our politicians were chosen by the public and were held accountable by that public, we had law and order without unnecessary police brutality, we had a growing economy, … all things that were in short supply or lacking completely in any of the non-democratic countries elsewhere in the world or in the past.

Over the years, however, I have begun to doubt modern democracy’s claim to superiority. Is today’s parliamentary democracy really as beneficial and functional as is claimed? And is it really the best system we can come up with?

Shouldn’t we remain critical, and keep looking for signs of disfunction, of things not working properly, for systems and structures that are, or have become, less beneficial to the general population than they are said to be? And shouldn’t we keep trying to come up with even better ways to govern the people on this planet? How can we claim with such surety that this is the best we can do, when so much has changed and is still changing:

  • the world population has grown dramatically;
  • humanity’s impact on the global climate is spiraling out of control;
  • technology is rapidly creating a truly global community, on top of an already global economy;
  • we have more data about anything than ever before, and more power to process that data and interpret it;
  • we have made great progress in our understanding of the attributes and behaviors of massively complex systems, such as economies, populations, and eco-systems.

The Complexity of Our Changing World - Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity
The Complexity of Our Changing World – Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity

But our politicians are still bickering about the same topics, and proposing the same (or very similar) short-term, local, overly simplified ‘solutions’ to problems that do not even come close to touching the real issues affecting our future. And they do so because that’s what they need to survive in the system we call democracy. It seems to me our current democratic system is encouraging all the wrong behaviors, and pushing all the wrong people into leadership positions. Even if the democratic system was as good as it was claimed to be 50 years ago, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that the changing conditions of the world we live in make it necessary to critically examine the system and see if we can improve it where it falls short?