The Fear Disease

Looking at the increasing level of fear which has crept into both the American populace and American politics over the years since 9/11.

This article, Terrorism Derangement Syndrome, hits a lot of good points. In particular, it talks about how what we once saw as a “reasonable response” to terrorism right after 9/11 is now seen as “too weak.” It seems like we just keep getting more and more afraid:

It’s hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn’t been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There’s only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

Some of this can be explained as simple one-upmanship; when your political platform is “fighting terrorism,” each time you run for re-election you kind of have to vow to “do more” than you did last time (or more than your opponent did), which leads to “more security” and “tougher stances” and so forth.

The problem is that the American public is going along with this. That’s what really worries me. It’s like the whole country is infected with some sort of “fear disease:”

We’re terrified when a terror attack happens, and we’re also terrified when it’s thwarted. We’re terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we’re terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn’t been read his rights. No matter how tough we’ve been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

You may agree or disagree with his policies, but you can’t argue with the truth in what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his inaugural speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I think it’s time and past time we all remembered that.

What “The Lord of the Flies” Taught us about Free Markets

Taking the lessons of the book “The Lord of the Flies” and applying them to the so-called “Free Market.”

I’ve often said that: Laws are only needed when you can’t trust people to do the “right thing.” Looking at another way, you could say that the honor system only works when you can trust everyone involved to be… well, honorable.

Because of the simple facts of probability, as a population grows larger and larger, the probability of everyone being “honorable” decreases, until you reach a population size where it is 100% certain that some people will be dishonorable. At this stage, laws are required if you wish to retain any semblance of order.

When people are left alone in a situation where there are no laws, no outside authority, chaos results – call it the “Lord of the Flies” effect.

Flickr image by Enrico Fuente
Flickr image by Enrico Fuente

This has ramifications for what is traditionally called the “free market.” Remember that the entities involved in a “free market” are, if not people themselves, they are companies which are run by people (and are treated legally as people).

The ideal “free market” is one “free” of any regulation – letting the market “regulate itself.” When you consider that the “market” is just people (acting through companies) – you realize that the “free market” approach is, essentially, leaving corporations (run by people) alone in a situation with little to no laws or regulation.

Obviously, the idea of such a group “regulating itself” is absurd. The inevitable end result of such a system can only be chaos: a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but with companies instead of people. Brutal authority from the strongest, meanest, most vicious and largest. Innocent people – the ones who try to do the “right thing” are pushed aside and eventually killed.

Consider this carefully. This is a very disturbing consequence for those of us on the “outside” of the market, because we are effectively the “Piggies” in this situation.

Traditionally we have tried to deal with this situation with laws – the rallying call of “regulate! regulate! regulate!” But laws have their own problems, which stem from deep, fundamental flaws with our classical lawmaking mechanism.

The problems with laws are that laws reflect the culture of the lawmakers. (I don’t mean the “culture” in the larger sense of the people from which the lawmakers come, although that plays a factor. Instead, I refer to the culture of lawmakers themselves.)

In a society where lawmakers’ primary vested interest is not the “rightness” of what they do, but rather their own welfare (in the form of being elected again), the resulting policy created will be one reflective of these values – short term solutions that only serve to get lawmakers elected again, rather than doing the “right thing.” Problems are pushed on the next generation, after the current generation (of lawmakers) is gone (term limits). The “planning horizon” of such a government is limited to the length of the terms of its constituent members. This creates a problem in that these term lengths are usually much less than the lifetime of the people who are governed. As a result, laws are short-sighted and ill-conceived – the “law of the week” effect.

It would seem then that the challenges involved in solving the problems which afflict us are so deep-seated as to be unsurmountable. But I do not counsel despair!

We know the changes we would like to see, the behavior we would like to encourage – so the answer is to simply reward the behavior we want, and discourage (or punish) the behavior we don’t. This answer is so simple and obvious as to be almost laughable – but it has been proven to work, in more ways than you might realize.

We often use these same techniques on our children – allowances for when chores are done and behavior is good, revoking privileges (TV, access to the car, computer time, etc.) when behavior is bad. We use similar techniques when training animals – reward desired behavior, punish (by way of revoking attention or treats) undesired behavior.

These then are our possible solutions: to make lawmakers accountable to the laws they create long after they have left office. In democratic societies, perhaps to make the people who elected lawmakers accountable for the mistakes of the lawmakers after they have left office. In other words, make the primary motivating factor of the lawmaker not be their immediate re-election, but rather their long-term reputation; the long-term reputation of the laws they create.

When we have done this, then we can give proper attention to the “markets” which seem to dominate so much of our society in this day and age, and make laws that are not just punitive, but thoughtful and deeply connected to encouraging good behavior in all respects.

If we can do these things, we will have set up a situation where markets can truly be both “free” and “good” in that they will be encouraged to do the “right thing” always. Instead of enforcing arbitrary “thou shalt not” laws, we will have set up a system which by its very nature is conducive towards creating and maintaining a responsible, ethical, and fundamentally “good” market. I think that such a market will be infinitely better – and, arguably, more free than our current, so-called “free market.”

Don’t Be a Slave to Technology

Despite being a huge computer geek, I am not a slave to technology – and I would say in today’s world it is increasingly important NOT to be a slave to technology… despite the fact that an increasing number of people are.

It might come as a surprise to some people to hear me say that I am not a slave to technology – after all, I’m a self-described “computer geek.” You’d think, therefore, that I walk around with an iPhone or Blackberry (or both!) strapped to my chest at all times, checking email and looking up information on-line everywhere I go.

However, you couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While it’s true that I am a major computer geek, and I would love to have (say) a nice little netbook for looking up information, sending email, writing blog posts, etc., the fact of the matter is that it’s because I’m a computer geek that I’m not a slave to technology.

Because I’m confident about it, I don’t allow it to control me – I control it.

For example, I know many people with mobile email who are, quite frankly, addicted to it (think: crackberry). They’re always checking email – all the time – no matter where they are. Even if I had a mobile email device (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be checking email all the time. As it is, I don’t check email often, even when I’m at my computer. I’m confident enough with the technology to know that I don’t need to answer every single email at the moment it comes in – that I don’t need to be “on-line” all the time. I control the technology – I use it when I want to, not the other way around.

Another example is when the power goes out – for people who are slaves to technology, to computers, the Internet, email, Twitter, social networking, what have you, the power going out is like having their “fix” cut off – they don’t know what to do. Without email, chat, or whatever, they’re lost. They’re so badly enslaved that they don’t know what to do when they are “freed” from it, for whatever reason.

As for me, even though I spend my entire day at the computer (and often much of the evening, too), writing code, answering emails, being online, writing blog posts like this one and so on – when the power goes out, I just shrug, grab a book from my bookshelf, and go read. Or, if it’s dark, I’ll go for a drive, or a walk, or just plain go to bed.

I control the technology around me – it doesn’t control me.

For many people today, the opposite is true. It’s worth it to sit and really take a look at yourself and see whether you are one of those people – whether you’re a slave to technology. Even in today’s connected world, it’s important to be able to just leave it all behind sometimes, to just “let go.” It’s the difference between being controlled and being in control.

Clearly Stupid

Take a look at this ad I saw just the other day:

This has to be the single stupidest thing that has come about since the increased airline security policy went into effect after 9/11. It’s a card that supposedly will let you get through airport security faster – something about being “precleared.”

If you think about what that means for a little bit, little liberty-alarm bells should start going off in your head. This card effectively creates a new “class” of people – people who are “precleared.” People who are (supposedly) “safe.” Everyone else – and right now, unless you have one of these new cards, that includes you – is “untrusted.” Everyone else is “presumed guilty.”

Let me rephrase that – YOU are presumed guilty.

In effect, this is segregation – in the year 2008. Forget upper, middle, and lower classes – now we’ve got “precleared” and “possible terrorist.” And unlike the traditional social classes (upper, middle, and lower), you can’t work your way up to the new “precleared” class by yourself – you have to be “allowed” in.

“So what?” you might ask, “if I don’t want to be discriminated against, I’ll just sign up for the card.” Fair enough – but what if you are rejected? What are the criteria for being “precleared,” anyway?

What if you can’t sign up for this card because of the church you belong to? Or because of campaign donations you’ve made in the past? Or because of who you work for? Or because of your publicly stated beliefs?

Never mind that the whole idea of “precleared” is just plain bad security practice. (There are 3 links there, folks – read them all to understand the problem with “precleared” cards.)

Travel within the United States is supposed to be free and clear – we have no border posts between states, we don’t have to show papers to travel within our own country… or at least, we didn’t use to. Now we do – we have to show our new “national ID” – the specter of REAL ID rears its ugly head – and what your national ID says about you might determine whether you’re asked to step aside for “special” screening.

Personally, I’m going to be very disappointed if we just roll over and accept these sorts of things – as it appears we are doing. We have gone from the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” to the “Land of the Fearful and the Home of the Sheepish.”

Pathetic.

On “An Inconvenient Truth”

I finally got around to watching “An Inconvenient Truth” tonight, and I have to say, I’m all riled up.

Stormy WeatherThere can be no doubt that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. That’s not what I’m all riled up about. I’m all riled up about what we can do about it and more worryingly, is it already too late?

One of the first things to really “shock” me in the film was the graph of the world’s population. I suppose I’d always “known” it, but I’d never really “known” it, if you follow me. Our population isn’t growing exponentially, it’s growing in some way that defies my knowledge of mathematics to explain it. It’s more like a straight line rising straight up than any sort of curve. In the 1950s there were only a little more than 2 billion people in the world – now we are over 6 billion. In another 30 years there will be close to 9 billion.

That is one hell of a lot of people.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the percentage of the population that is “industrialized.” Because that percentage is rising at an astronomical rate as well. And if you consider that the more “industrialized” a people are, the more energy they consume, well… you don’t need a degree in economic theory to understand basic supply & demand. With that many people, demand for energy will go up a lot. And there is no way our supply can keep up – even if there were vast, untouched resources on the same scale as the Middle East, it wouldn’t be enough to keep up.

Without change, we are going to consume more and more energy. As supply dwindles, and as demand increases, economic pressure will push us to consume every last bit of energy possible – and to hell with the consequences.

We will put the future of the human race – the future of our children – at risk, just for a few more years of energy, of the lifestyle we’ve gotten used to, that we’re “comfortable” with. And this risk is far more than the risk we used to be afraid of at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

There are only 3 possibilities to deal with this problem:

  1. Reduce the population (thus decreasing demand)
  2. Relocate the population (I’m talking about space colonization)
  3. Invent new technologies to make better use of the limited energy we posses

Let’s address them in turn.

Number 1 is going to happen if we don’t do something yesterday. If things continue as they have gone in the last 50 years, we will see mass starvation and massive death all across the globe. One way or another, there will be fewer people around. But it won’t be a pretty sight.

The Moon and some electric power linesNumber 2 is my personal choice. Space colonization brings with it the ability to harvest energy from the sun – or even terraform other planets and use resources there instead of bringing them from Earth. At least then, if we screw up the Earth so bad, we ourselves won’t totally die out.

Number 3 is starting to happen – although still too slow in many people’s opinions. And new technology can only take us so far – we can only squeeze so much out of a limited resource, no matter how efficient we make the technology. Without deep, radical, fundamental changes in our understanding of how to get energy, we will run out.

When you look at it like that, all 3 choices seem pretty dismal. But the great thing is that we don’t have to choose just one – we can take the best part of each solution and try to use them all at once, and maybe together we can do something about it.

But there’s a dark side to all this. To make a difference, we all really have to do it together. I mean everyone, everywhere, every nation, every city, everyone. We can’t do it piecemeal. It can’t just be one or two or even three countries – even if they are the biggest polluters or energy consumers. It has got to be everyone. Because our human nature demands it – if you have to restrict yourself, change your lifestyle, you’re going to resent your neighbor if he (or she, or they) don’t have to do the same – if they get to keep their lifestyle, if they don’t have to make sacrifices like you do. Our human nature demands that we all give equally, or else none of us will give. (This is, of course, a form of the “tragedy of the commons.”)

And we will all have to give. This sort of change isn’t going to be easy. I have a favorite little quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Lion King,” that goes something like this:

“Change is good…”

“…Yeah, but it’s not easy!”

Truer words were never said.

But we must change. It’s not going to be painless – let’s get that right out in the open right now. It’s going to hurt. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. That’s the way change is. And like most major paradigm-shifting changes, you can’t really see how things are going to be until you’re on the other side – and so will it be with this change. We don’t know what the future will bring, or even what it will be like. But we know we have to make the change. Because we do know what the future will be like if we don’t change.

It is not going to be easy. But it will be good.

Once we are on the other side, things will be better. We’ll have the technology, the policies, the systems in place and it’ll all be easy. Because once you’ve made the change, and it’s over with, well, it’s no longer change anymore – it’s just the way things are.

As the movie credits rolled, I was reminded of another quote that I really like – maybe you’ve even heard it before. I think that it is just as appropriate now as it was when it was first uttered:

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

John F. Kennedy
Address at American University
Washington, D.C., 1963

(Image credit to muha… and Kliefi for their Creative Commons licensed images.)