Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Accelerating Change and The Corrosive Effects of Relative Poverty

Clip: “Poor people have been demonized, poverty has been criminalized. 42% of our precious children, of all colors, live in or near poverty. That is a national disgrace,” Dr. Cornell West.
As we've written over the past several years, we believe that America on the whole is a magnificent Success Story, one of the great success stories of all history. Yes, even in spite of such startling statistics. What we have attempted to convey is the fact that, as the result of Capitalism’s success – not it’s failure – we subsequently carry the burden of a sobering existential obligation; to responsibly model the end game and exit strategy for industrialization, so that other nations and civilizations may follow. This is not hubris, this is accountability.

Just 235 years into our American experiment, it would number among history’s greatest travesties should we arrive at this pinnacle of achievement, only to collapse under the obesity of our own gross overconsumption, strident fundamentalism, and self-entitled, hoarded super abundance. In the context of the sheer scale of our technological achievements, history will mock us far more harshly than it mocks the downfall of earlier experiments in Democracy. Yes, looking back, it is oh so easy to see the obvious mistakes that those unenlightened ancients made. Surely, we are so much more sophisticated than they. Or are we?

Current Economic Reality

Author Philip K. Dick wrote, timelessly, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.” Today, we can’t get away from the inescapable reality that we live in the miraculous, robotized, space-faring, techno-utopian future imagined by our 18th century founders. We’ve made it. We have arrived. Great, great, great Grandma and Grandpa would be proud. Except for the fact that we haven’t slowed down for even a nanosecond, to take notice, to reflect. To introspect. To understand.

Accelerating change, like the very universe around us, is accelerating itself. How can something infinite, be expanding? Yet, that’s what we observe, thanks to the kind of fundamental research that enables Nobel Prizes. This is the reality that won’t go away, even if we close our eyes, hearts, and minds to it. We observe and interact with multiple artificial intelligences – from sophisticated, high frequency trading stock market bots to smartphone apps – extended and amplified human minds, where millions of hipster hip pockets are packed with a full blown Global Multicast Station, live-streaming anywhere an internet packet carrier signal can be found; where augmented social cognition, and synthetic life are ho-hum, everyday features.

So cheers to us! We made it. We have arrived. I'll hazard to propose that it’s safe to say, from such a vantage point, no thoughtful person argues against the fact that 19th century industrial capitalism is the very best way to transition a society from agriculture, to industry, to material abundance. Of course it is, okay Larry Kudlow? History has proved time and again that capitalism works -- for a particular phase of industrial development and cultural evolution. Today, we have successfully traversed that road. We did it! Good for us! Are we encouraging ourselves enough, yet? Maybe not.

Marshall McLuhan said, “The future of the future is the present; and that is something that people are terrified of.” An insight to which Alexi Murdoch might respond, “Its only fear, only fear … that keeps you locked in here.” So, we find ourselves living Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, hunkered down in isolation, hoping Kurzweil’s Singularity will be nice to us.

People are confused. Utterly dependent on vestigial routines staying the same, even as accelerating change has become the new normal. Yet, somehow, we know deep down in our knowers that 19th century methods are simply not viable means for adapting to the sustainable 22nd century planet, presently under construction. Right now, today, we are creating that world.
NOTE: Unfortunately, MSNBC's clip-n-share didn't generate a new thumbnail for this second clip; it's not a dupe. So, mute the commercial if you prefer, but please don't skip it, it's brief and explains the corrosiveness of relative poverty better than I'm able in this short space.
Clip: "This really isn't about Wall Street, it's about a society in which our values are out of whack," says Howard Dean.
No less than former libertarian and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is equally quick to explain that growing and unsustainable resource skews threaten American Capitalism, itself. Yet, from Hollywood, to Silicon Valley, from Hamptons cocktail conversation to tea party affairs, relative poverty is dismissed as irrelevant, when compared the the utter blight of absolute poverty. A mistake that both cocktail and tea party crowds make is failure to accurately assess the corrosiveness of all poverty, period. Relative poverty is, in essence, another thinly veiled form of institutional corruption; a topic that Lawrence Lessig has been tirelessly educating us about, for years (Loss of Trust and Other Ramifications of Institutional Corruption). As Howard Dean and Joe Scarborough put it, “When Americans no longer believe in the system, then you know we have crossed the Rubicon."

The Poor Will Always Be With You

Without waxing religious, many readers will doubtless be playing that partial tape in their heads. The poor will always be with you. It’s a convenient cliché commonly used in proper prosperity gospel company to dismiss our own personal responsibility with full Pharisaical self-righteousness. Jesus was not exactly the most cynical character in history. He wouldn’t say, “The poor will always be with you, so feck ‘em.” Rather, he said in a hundred different ways: take compassion on, and care for everyone in the community. Take care of the least. When you take care of the least, you care for me. It’ll be easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle; and so on. This isn’t the place for a sermon, only to dismiss another fatuous objection to doing the right thing for our communities, our country, and humanity.

I have no doubt that the best place for mainstreamers to begin getting educated about the magnitude of poverty in America will be Tavis Smiley and Cornell West’s collaboration, “The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience“ series now airing on PBS, October 10-14, 2011.
“Poverty in the United States is cyclical in nature, with roughly 13 to 17% of Americans living below the federal poverty line at any given point in time, and roughly 40% falling below the poverty line at some point within a 10-year time span. Poverty is defined as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 43.6 million (14.3%) Americans were living in absolute poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million (13.2%) in 2008.
The poverty level for 2011 was set at $22,350 (total yearly income) for a family of four.
Seriously. Imagine a couple trying to live on $22,000, let alone four. No individual will be riding high on the hog with a $1,200 monthly Basic Income Guarantee, or $14,400 annually, in 2011 US dollars. The 2006 American Enterprise Institute book, “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State” called for $10,000 annually.

Similarly, when commentators use the inconsequential sounding, "15% of Americans are poor," remember that means 15% in absolute poverty. Like understatements of unemployment that use the low-ball U3 number instead of the closer-yet-still-understated U6 number, beware the "15% poor" deception. At least double that number barely subsist, not far above the official boundary. Don't just believe us or the commentators; double check our numbers and sources, do the homework for yourself at the U.S. Census Bureau and online. We're always happy to publish your corrections and better data.

So the fundamental challenge – and it is mostly a mental frame of reference challenge – at this historic juncture, is to continue the American Legacy of Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," of Henry Ford, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business,” of Abraham Lincoln, “The fiery trials through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation,” and of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death."

“As if” Liberty is not American Liberty

Wage slavery is not liberty. Working paycheck to paycheck, often at more than one job, in order to provide just the essentials of life is exactly the life that our sharecropper great grandparents lived. Work the land as if it were you own, but it will never actually be yours. You are owned, cradle to grave. That’s not the 21st century that our forebears had in mind.

America's opportunity and obligation today is to demonstrate the real incentive for the billions of human beings living on less than $2/day to adopt the model that served us so well, to pass the baton to them – not by clawing back 19th century manufacturing jobs that they need to advance – rather, by proving the attainable pay-off. The actualization of authentic and abiding liberty from tedious toil, and the flourishing realization of substantive economic justice for all.

Let’s be clear, my fellow Americans: liberty from tedious toil has nothing to do whatsoever with the end of WORK. Nor does the end of the J.O.B. as the only legitimate Justification Of Being as a contributing, valued member of civil society spell the end of productivity. As you study the dozens of web sites linked herein, you will learn that the concepts of work and job are as different as hope is from optimism. The former will always be with us; the latter are merely indicators of a particular set of conditions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are a number of ways to demonstrate true American Leadership for the 21st and 22nd century, to not reject the dynamism of free markets, but to increment Capitalism (to use the programming notation, Capitalism++) into healthy and sustainable hybrid econo-systems. Most assuredly, new ways and means to raise the bar for humanity will emerge as the extended and augmented intelligence of the global cognition grid evolves, adapts, and becomes an increasingly natural and seamless feature of the fabric of global civilization; what Kevin Kelley refers to as The Technium; toward what Ray Kurzweil refers to as the Singularity.

Presently, there are two undeniably obvious realities which we can leverage to our advantage. First, and this one might surprise you, Wall Street's very own A.I. High Frequency Trading bots Secondly, over a half century of exhaustive and comprehensive scholarship and successful Case Studies for a Basic Income Guarantee; a simple matter of scaling up the long successful Alaska Permanent Fund. The two are like peanut butter and chocolate.

The first proposal is straightforward. Clusters of HFT bots can be programmed to maximize revenue for a handful of people, or they can be instructed to fund Basic Income. Yes, we still want and need markets. Yes, the coolest new cars and electronics might come from Namibia in 2024; good for them, is good for all of us. Yes, there will still be people astronomically richer than most of us. No, there will be nobody living in tents, cars, or under bridges for want of sufficient minimal greenbacks or equivalent. Mental health and homelessness? Yes, an ongoing challenge. In every case, Basic Income is a permanent economic stimulus that will only improve corporate sales.
Note to Wall Street: If your mighty trading bots are smart enough to create the Giant Pool of Money and fractal tranche synthetic CDO's, then they're smart enough to figure out #BasicIncome in the U.S. and worldwide. You don’t get it both ways.
As for the second approach, oil is rightly accounted the common resource of all Alaskans, hence the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). Similarly, so is the collective output of our highly advanced technium: aka, our GDP, the sum of all our efforts. From veritable armies of unpaid parent-labor raising the next Intel or IBM executives FOR FREE; to tutors; to volunteers; to peer counselors and friends and clerics who provide everyday psychological services that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars on the open market. People's lives contribute inherent value. Social capital is the substance of all enduring value.

If all that's too much to grok, it can't get simpler than The Basic Income and the Helicopter Drop.

Couch Potatoes, Cheetos, and the Idiot Box

The raggedly tired 18th century Protestant specter, as we all know, goes something like this: “most of you – yes, you, readers – will sit in front of a 1950’s style 3-channel broadcast idiot box with a bag of Cheetos all day, happy to barely breath or think, bloating to maximum body mass and then popping in 40 or 50 years, all on a $1,200/mo. basic income.”

The first and most obvious problem with that argument is that this is the year 2011. Similar to opposition of marijuana legalization, people who are prone to do that are obviously already doing so. Remember the part about reality being that which doesn’t go away, just because you don’t believe in it? Yep, they’ll probably continue to do so until we learn better ways to reach them and help them heal; all too often from the injuries of post traumatic stress disorder suffered in childhood, at the hands of abusive parents who themselves were being pummeled by poverty – absolute and relative – who didn’t know any better themselves, for absence of role models, and were ill equipped to protect themselves and their families from the devastating psychological impacts of fighting for survival in such a hostile environment.

Moreover, as varieties of self-destructive behavior becomes apparent, this too is of greater benefit, for we will finally be able to better identify those of you – yes, you, if you choose to play the humans are lazy sloths card, because you likely most fear that others will act as dysfunctionally as you suspect of yourself – who need the help, education, and encouragement to lead normal, functional, balanced and productive lives.

The New Normal++

For most of us, the Basic Income Guarantee will simply encourage us to not give up in between work assignments; to not settle while seeking the best opportunity for both us and our next employer collaboration; maybe, to scrape by long enough to really create that work of art or literature; or enable these 40 lazy space engineers to keep helping that amazing, game-changing startup until they can connect with customers to really make a go of it. Instead, those engineers will be on the skids; told that they are not above taking a job at McDonalds or Wal-Mart if that’s what it takes to be a responsible human being.

The old normal wouldn’t blink to say, “yep, unemployed rocket scientists should compete with high school kids at McDonald’s if those are the only jobs available.” Utterly absurd.

Human beings are inherently industrious; not indolent, slothful, and lethargic. If humans were so deficient by nature, we would literally be hanging from our toes in the trees along side our kin, or evolution would have taken us out, long, long ago. We are not lazy and useless, by nature. We are imaginative, daring, productive, adventurous, curious, persistent, and creative creatures.

That's what implementing a Basic Income Guarantee says about us. That’s why we utterly reject the cynical, hateful violence of the brutish, bare-knuckles political opposition who's only arguments consist of red-baiting character bashing, "we'll become like those lazy Europeans, Marxists, Communists!" Oh, do you mean those lazy Europeans at CERN who invented the World Wide Web and are now pursuing the Higgs boson? Or the scientists in Moscow who put the first human being into space and without whose cooperative leadership there could be no International Space Station?

Bottom Line: The truly lazy people are those too torpid to think through the opportunities and obligations incumbent upon our generation. Here is what laziness looks like in 2011: demanding predictable, interchangeable, easily performed jobs, jobs, jobs, so you can vacate your mind for 8 hours a day of monotonous distraction and then go home and consume, consume, consume the rest of the planet into oblivion. That, is laziness.

The fear of Breaking the Job Trance is what keeps us locked in here. Maximizing human opportunities to do exciting and meaningful WORK is the solution. That simple distinction may be the most important one that we realize, stepping forward, leveling up our world game, to Capitalism++.

Permalink: http://j.mp/WarOnPoverty

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