Archive for November, 2010

Ideas and questions for change

Going beyond just complaining…

The need for change is a continuing and arguably increasing one. It has not been satisfied, in the U.S, for example, either by the election of Obama to the presidency, nor by its partial repudiation by the midterm victory of many Republican, conservative, Tea Party or Libertarian supporters. It is affirmed every day by the complaints, rants, revelations and accusations by writers and bloggers from all sides. A serious discussion of the remedies, the tools for change, the solutions suggested would therefore seem to be in order. This discussion appears to be somewhat lacking, in comparison with the complaints. If there are actual recipes behind (implied or perceived to be implied in) the complaints — depending on the alleged or admitted camp association of the respective writer — these are often not very clearly articulated. This may be because those recipes are, from the so-called ‘left’ as much as from the so-called ‘right’ or ‘independent’ camps, mostly quite well known: tried and (not so) true but found wanting, even sometimes found to be at the very heart of the problems they are supposed to remedy. Thus, a ‘return’ to the values and principles supposedly guiding the provisions of the ‘founding fathers’ for the fledgling United States inexplicably misses the fact that over time, those provisions have demonstrably not been able to prevent the emergence of the present problems, no matter how strenuously they have been invoked by politicians and others. And the revolutionary solutions proposed by critics of this system seem to have been proven equally deficient in the places where they have been tried, at least in their ‘pure’ early incarnations.

So is there anything to be learned from these developments that can be assembled into a strategy for more promising change?

It may be useful to begin by surveying things that do not look like good ingredients for such a strategy.

First, the reliance on the current ‘democratic’ apparatus of electing representatives — ‘throw the bums out’ and electing different bums into office every four or two years, appears to have become so ineffective that it must be regarded as a mere ploy to perpetuate the stranglehold of other — real — powers over the system. Powers that have so thoroughly taken control of the democratic institutions that it does not seem to matter which party is winning elections. To be sure, the traditional provisions for democratic governance were not only well-intentioned and probably, at the time, the best available means for keeping things on course: division and balance of powers, limits on the length of time representatives and office holders are allowed to serve and remain in power, free speech, free elections decided by majority decision. All if not most of the proposed remedies for today’s problems still rely on these provisions; there are few if any really innovative ideas for strengthening, improving, or even replacing them. So does the insistence on relying on these provisions begin to look like what someone described as the definition of insanity: keeping on doing what has been proved not to work?

This does not, in my opinion, mean that the second traditional ‘remedy’ should be seriously considered: that of ‘revolutionary (wholesale) change’ — the all-out radical overthrow of the existing regime, replacing it with a different one. The alternatives to the democratic model that have been tried during the last two centuries or so have all proven fatally defective. Many different reasons have been proposed to explain this. In my opinion, again, the feature they share is a profound failure to install workable safeguards against the abuse of power — a feature that also afflicts the democratic model, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent. The difference between them is that the socialist, communist, fascist and totalitarian governance models failed to control government power, in fact banked on government power as the solution to all societal problems. This eventually led either to their collapse, or to prolonged brutal stranglehold of dictators over their constituencies, in growing misery. In contrast, the democratic model failed to apply proper safeguards against the abuse of power by the private enterprise systems. In the name of ‘freedom’ (and the pursuit of economic ‘happiness’), these systems were allowed to grow to become so big and powerful that they were able to take control of the democratic institutions of government, while overtly leaving its ‘democratic’ trappings in place, such as elections, which could easily be controlled with campaign money and subsequent corrupting temptations of the elected representatives.

A third alternative must be discussed — the radical libertarian position of ‘personal sovereignty’ that seems to advocate complete disassociation from the existing collective societal entities, be they governmental or private-enterprise in nature. This remedy looks attractive as long as one considers only individuals or family-size organization of society. It becomes more difficult to imagine workable solutions for the simple survival of these entities in today’s state of humanity: even recipes such as each family ‘growing its own food’ for survival so as to escape the slavery of big agriculture and distribution chains run into familiar problems, say, of equitable allocation of land, given its undeniable differences in quality and productivity, and a growing population that would seem to call for a continuing re-sizing and reallocation (decided and supervised by what entity?) of the land available for growing food. Or: what to do if these sovereign individuals decided to embark on collective projects with some more formal organization, where inevitably, the problem of control of power by the people ‘in charge’ will again arise? So these problems will be the same as in the other collective governance models.

So with reliance on (unmodified) traditional mechanisms on the one hand, and revolutionary change on the other, both rejected as inappropriate, and the radical individualist option apparently unrealistic or in the end identical to the others, what features of change proposals should we be looking and working for? The following are some aspects — in the form of questions for discussion, that in my opinion should guide these efforts.

• Whatever alternative model will be chosen for adoption, should its implementation be in the form of a sudden wholesale ‘revolution’ imposed from ‘above’ (which in itself implies an entity wielding enough power to effect the change and thereby being in danger of falling victim to the temptations of size and power…) or a gradual piecemeal transformation? Might it be preferable to have the transformation follow a pattern similar to that of a ‘parasite’ attached to an existing hierarchy, slowly growing until it can peacefully transform its structure? The ‘skunkworks’ model of early R&D companies which survived changing conditions by harboring unorthodox and low-cost innovation groups in their basements while working on larger scale traditional projects aboveground, until the innovations developed by the ‘skunkworks’ teams became the standards for the organization, might be a worthwhile one to adopt for the needed transformation.

• Would the ‘skunkworks’ model also permit the competitive explorative pursuit of several alternative models at the same time? It is quite unlikely that only one experimental solution woud be avalable for discussion for the transformation of governance or economic systems. Some experiments with a variety of models might be needed to find out what works and what doesn’t.

• Consistent with the notion of several experimental alternative models to be tried out at any given time, would it be useful to provide for the possibility of several systems to be operating — in any given place, region, country etc. — in parallel? This would not only offer people the freedom of choice between several ways of running their lives with respect to collective activity, but also make it possible for more gradual transition between them in the face of changing conditions and emergencies.

• Should the structure to be aimed for be a ‘monoculture’, or provide choices of several forms of organization? Should too large entities be broken up into smaller independent organizations? How might this be achieved?

• Would not both the evolution of new structures (that must be able to utilize existing infrastructure and services) and the coordination, communication and conflict resolution of several ‘competing’ but coexisting structures require a basic foundation of common agreements (e.g. negotiation of conflicting interests without coercion of any kind)? The set of such necessary agreements should be kept to a minimum. What should those common agreements be? Agreements that are intended to apply not only to a single transaction or project can be adopted as ‘laws’ but should also be open to periodic re-affirmation and / or re-negotiation. (To extend the status of ‘law’ to over 90,000 or more pages of provisions pertaining to taxation (the U.S. tax laws) seems to strain this understanding of meaningful laws…)

• The set of common agreements would arguably have to include provisions for sanctions or other forms of preventing or correcting violation of such agreements. While ‘enforcement’ of agreements and imposition of sanctions traditionally require that there be an entity capable of applying greater force than any party violating agreements (‘laws’), should there be a concerted effort to develop forms of arrangements that prevent violations rather than punish them after they occur, and sanctions that are triggered automatically by the very act of transgression, not prosecuted and enforced by the ‘bigger’ enforcement agency? (This would seem necessary to prevent the larger entity from falling victim to the temptations of power, specifically, of itself engaging in violations without fear of consequences. As long as such measures cannot be found and applied, the traditional safeguards of separation ofpowers, independent judicial branch, freedom of speech and information etc. should be strengthened and improved; both enforcement and governance entities should be kept at small scale and enabled to investigate each other.)

• Should similar ‘automatic’ regulating provisions also be developed and put in place for the growth of the size and also the profits of private and public entities? Given the fact that continued exponential growth is unsustainable in the long run, it stands to reason that curbing growth e.g. of profits before they grow to cause catastrophic breakdowns would be preferable to trying to fix the breakdowns after they occur. Curbing excessive accumulation of wealth (causing the ever-growing wealth and income disparity of capitalist societies) beforehand would seem not only more prudent but also more feasible and less controversial that the unpopular ‘redistribution’ tools of progressive taxes that are so easily decried by certain talk radio programs (who tend to hide the fact that such wealth may have been the result of very undeserved inequitable distribution in the first place…)

• Just as there is universal consensus about providing at least basic survival networks for children and elderly people, should there be a basic survival safety net for every citizen, as part of any collective enterprise? One that might be covering such essentials as food, health care, education, access to information, legal services, participation in collective activities and decision-making? Should the right to access for such basic necessities continue to be tied to either ability to pay for them with funds earned from employment, in an era where human ‘work’ in production and other services is increasingly made obsolete by automation) or involuntary collective services?

• Is there a case for rethinking the very concept of ‘work’ in the form of performing activities under the command of other people in return for less money than the value they create with their work (the larger share of the value being skimmed off by the ’employer’)? For example, should the current taken for granted pattern of rewarding the most disgusting, boring, unhealthy and unpleasant work with the lowest wages, while work in which people not only take pleasure and are provided with comfortable workplaces, responsibilities and power are als rewarded with higher salaries, be re-examined? (Perhaps the pleasure of a powerful position in pleasant surroundings should be paid for, rather than reaping the highest salaries?)

• Should arrangements be considered such as the following step towards at least a more flexible work economy: a ‘dual system’ of employment in which citizens are automatically ‘public employees’ with the option of working for collective infrastructure according to their capabilities, remunerated with ‘civic credits’ by means of which they then ‘pay’ for their allotment of basic necessities, and also working for private enterprise entities? Health insurance, taxation, social security paperwork then would no longer have to be done by employers. The ratio of ‘private enterprise’ to ‘public’ work would be sliding and voluntary. This would allow private employers to simply reduce the amount of work they ask of employees in periods of financial or economic crises (such as the recent crises) instead of having to lay off worker, losing their expertise and causing disruptions in the economy because of the forced displacement of workers, moves to other locations, foreclosures of homes, children having to disrupt their education etc. The public sector would then easily absorb the extra available work capacity of such workers (if these don’t take advantage of extra time to further their own education or start independent small businesses), producing better infrastructure and services helping the private sector overcome the crisis, among other things, using the expertise and skills of workers it already has ‘in the system’.

• Private enterprise entities may choose to become involved in public work — a means of survival in times of economic downturn — by taking on the implementation and management of public programs, but at not-for-profit conditions. For example, current private insurance companies may take on the administration of public basic insurance programs (for everybody), putting their facilities, equipment, personnel and expertise to work for those programs (again, on a not-for profit basis). Thereby making it unnecessary to create large bureaucracies to run such programs, while allowing the companies to continue to market ‘enhancement’ for profit policies to their now enlarged ‘captive’ audience of the ‘basic’ public system enrollees.

• Could the introduction of ‘civic service ‘points’ — earned by certification of skills (such as driving tests or education certificates) serve not only to grant certain rights (driver license) but also as the vehicle for sanctions and penalties as well ‘ante-up’ prerequisite for positions of power, (to be automatically forfeited upon violation of agreements and abuse)? A form of rewarding officeholders for good work while actually holding them accountable — ‘paying for’ — mistakes and mismanagement?

• Should voting be extended — and tied — to actual assessment of arguments for and against proposals and candidates, rather than mere votes influenced by mindless repetition of campaign slogans paid for by entities that then will insist on legislative votes in their favor from the elected representatives? Might voting also be extended to voting for specific percentage designation for different government tasks and programs (what percentage of my taxes for this program as opposed to that one?), whose budgets then will be set according to the voted-upon percentages and the expeced tax revenues? If revenues change up or down, budget cuts would be in the form of across-the-board percentage cuts, not by simply eliminating programs and departments that have previously been voted upon as desirable by citizens. All parts of the government just will have to do their work with the funds available, — each according to their own best judgment, not according to wholesale legislative mandates that are systemically ignorant of specific conditions in each department.

These are only a few examples of principles and ideas that might guide the development of better ways of running society. There are obviously several problems with such proposals. One prominent difficulty will be the development of ‘legal’ forms of organizations that can begin to operate as ‘skunkworks’ alongside of the current one, to experiment and gain experience for an eventual transformation of the entire system by peaceful and constructive means. Another will be to find ways to overcome the widespread opinions that people or groups harboring different ideas are irredeemable criminals that must be destroyed, defeated, or idiots that must be institutionalized (unless the respective institutions have also fallen victim to budget cuts or eliminating government ‘waste’…