Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Story of B

I have encountered the writings of many incredible people over the past few years, but none resonate so greatly with my own view of humankind and what's wrong with it than the writings of Daniel Quinn. In short, his view is that there isn't anything wrong with humankind as a whole, but only with one particular culture: our culture. By "our culture," he is referring to intensive agricultural peoples, East and West. Very simply put, if you put more food into a population than it needs, that population will increase. Our lifestyle is designed to always produce more food than the population needs, so the population is constantly increasing. The problems we see today began thousands of years ago (not tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago), and are simply the result of overcrowding. The other problem is that we could see this for ourselves, if we didn't have such blind faith in our own system.

He suggests that what we need isn't simply a change in what we do; we need a change in the way we think. He doesn't know how the people that think in a new way will live, any more than the people who first began living our way could have predicted the way we live today. The change is that we need to stop thinking that we were created to conquer and rule the world, and that anything we do is excusable, and need to start living in a way that won't end up driving ourselves to extinction.

Unfortunately, this blog isn't flowing like water like I'd hope, so I'll cut to the chase.

Ultimately, the changes we need to make are no longer material changes, they are moral, spiritual changes. We have plenty of food. Indeed, over the whole population of humankind, we have always had plenty of food. How else could the human population have kept increasing as it had? Hunger, starvation, and famine are localized things, limited to specific classes which are denied food by other classes, or specific populations which are denied food by a localized crop failure, and a lack of other food sources to fall back upon.

In this day and age, there is simply no excuse for hunger. In the past, logistical difficulties could be considered an excuse—a food surplus in one place means nothing to a faraway land, due the difficulty of getting it there. But today, we have trains, trucks, airplanes, even spacecraft; there is no difficulty getting food from one place to another, when necessary. We don't need to increase production. We need, instead, to get the food where it needs to be. Probably the best way to go about this is to change the way we go about producing food.

Intensive agriculture is not good. It is probably one of the most pollutive activities we engage in, as my groundwater studying wife knows. It is an undiversified approach, meaning a crop failure is a total failure. When the whole land is covered in farmland and asphalt, a plant disease, a new insect pest, or anything that can cause a crop failure causes a famine.

Probably better is to localize food output more. Rather than relying upon "bread basket" areas to feed entire nations, perhaps we should find ways of getting more food out of other areas, and perhaps getting less food out of the "bread baskets." It might be good to leave more land completely uncultivated, so that, in the event of a crop failure, we can fall back upon the resources the wilderness provides, back on what little hunting and gathering can provide at least until a food shipment can be brought in.

Unlike Quinn, I do not consider the teachings of Jesus to be necessarily a part of the problem. Rather, I think that, were his teaching held to, we would not be in the mess we are in today. We and our ancestors hold to two different ideals: Do not murder, but love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Thus, it is okay to murder our enemies. Do not steal, but love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Thus, it is acceptable to steal from our enemies. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy—but Jesus directed us to love our enemies also! Do not murder—but Jesus directed us not even to think ill of our brothers! Do not steal—do not even covet the things of others.

Were our civilization truly a Christian civilization, we would not be in the mess we are in. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and Moses told the Jews not to steal, and yet we have stolen the land of every people we have ever encountered. Do not even curse your brother, Jesus said, and yet we have declared as unfit for life every person and every thing that is not directed toward the goal of maximum productivity. We continue to do this today—I have little doubt that the primary motivation behind the Iraq war was gaining control over their oil resources. Its the most likely reason Bush will not privatized the oil resources of Iraq: a government can always be pressured, but a private citizen can choose where he sells. The oil, owned by the government, can then be used to pay back debts to the United States, debts which, ultimately, are owed to the corporations the Bush family, and George W in particular (as well as the Saudis and Bin Ladens) have been entangled with for years.

I'm getting off the subject. If we would simply respect the property of others, we wouldn't be in this mess. We would never have reached the population level we have, because there are many cultures that actually prefer living the way they do, rather than maximizing food production. These people are inevitably swept away, though, because that which we cannot trade for we take by force.

Think about it. Back in the early days of the United States, treaties and land deeds were handed out to the native populations. Those treaties and land deeds were then ignored, and the natives expelled from their land. It wasn't ours, it was theirs, and we took it from them. If you believe in property rights, our ancestors had no right whatsoever to do as they did. It doesn't matter that they didn't know to draw up land deeds. Our land deeds merely record and specify land rights, they do not create them. The moral thing to do would have been to draw up a land deed for them, and then respected those deeds and demanded that others do the same. They would have been, of course, transferable, as all property is, and those that sold willingly (and the considerable wealth our culture generates would likely have been a considerable incentive), would not have been cheated. We'd probably still have considerable pockets of land where sustainable food production practices are practiced. There'd be no need for a national park system; they would be the national park system, where they didn't end up adopting our ways.

But, instead, we stole, and we continue to steal. There's something else we're doing today.

I recently heard a story about how a Native American population (in Canada or Alaska?) had to be relocated because the ice on the lake they normally went ice fishing on every year (a vital source of food for them) was no longer thick enough to support their weight. The culprit: global warming.

Now, suppose one of our own farmers noticed that his land wasn't producing the way it had in previous years. Suppose he discovered that the reason was that a nearby farmer was engaging in a practice that not only poisoned his own land, but the first farmer's, as well. He would have standing to file a civil suit against this other farmer, demanding that he cease his activities and/or pay reparations for his actions.

Yet we as a culture readily dismiss the claim that when our activities harm someone who is NOT of our people, it's not our problem. What is the difference, where justice is concerned? Is it that we are so callous and indifferent a people that, without judges and officers, we will quickly fall upon one another in a predatory fashion? That can't be the case, since we established those authorities in the first place.

Hah! My first real ramble in years. Now, where was I going with this?

Don't get me wrong. I think there is a place in the world for our style of civilization, I just don't think the entire world is that place.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

High Tech Barter

I have been considering what a financial system without a "legal tender" would look like. Obviously, it would be barter based, and everybody who is anybody would look at that idea and hold their nose. We all know the benefits of high finance; our economy couldn't function without it—or could it? Journey with me into a fantasyland (or is that science fiction?) of high finance, by high tech barter.

Suppose you work at a factory, say a Capri Sun plant (as I once did). Today, you go in to work, work your eight hours, and go home. You then pick up a check, written in dollars, every two weeks. You then spend those dollars on food, clothing, rent, and whatever else you want or need. Those dollars are backed by the legitimacy of the United States Government, and nothing else. Their value is determined by the combined policies of the United States Congress (who affect it through taxation and spending) and the Federal Reserve (who affect it through the manipulation of interest rates).

Now, imagine there is no "dollar." Imagine, instead, that you have to get paid in Capri Sun. That seems a real inconvenience, since you probably don't have much room in your home to store the stuff, and the time required to sell it off would likely be prohibitive. And without a medium called the "dollar" to smooth that transaction, it's all barter. And since your factory probably makes enough Capri Sun to quench the thirst of an entire state, it likely would have little value in your hometown, making you rely on traders, which is cumbersome... it's all very difficult.

However, you don't necessarily have to be paid in the stuff itself. Instead, you could be paid in "Capri Sun Dollars," or something like that. They'd probably have an expiration, which would preferably be connected to the shelf life of the product. Now, you can store a lot more Capri Sun in your house; they can be redeemed for Capri Sun anywhere they are presented. Shipping them would be easier; you could ship them via first class mail, and let traders and companies worry about getting the product around. But, you still have to trade it yourself...

But how bad would that be? I'd bet there'd be some people who would love the opportunity to try their hand at trading. And in this day and age, they wouldn't even have to leave their home to do it; there'd be plenty of places on-line to do it. They'd just deposit their Capri Sun Check with some financial transmission institution (who'd take a small cut for their service in maintaining the integrity of their network), and transmit it to "bigbarterplace.com" where their Capri Sun share would be registered, and they could engage in an exhilerating round of trading. Ebay is already positioned to do this kind of business; they'd just have to allow bids to be in terms of something other than dollars, and act as a sort of "holding center" for product shares. It'd probably be a lot of fun for some folks, and would result in a vibrant economy.

But for some, bartering isn't exactly their cup of tea. For these folks, we'd have "barter banks." Banks would once again be in the business of issuing their own currency, and would employ barterers of exceptional skill whose sole purpose would be to trade and trade and trade, attempting to accumulate a good quantity and variety of stuff for the bank. People who don't want to barter would go to a bank and deposit their commodity checks; the bank would issue them bank notes in return. They'd probably either have partner stores, or run stores of their own, at which these notes could be spent. They would serve the purpose that "legal tender" currently serves, and the best part is that no central administrative body could influence the system in any particular group's favor (particularly its own). The market would determine any and all prices. If some chain of banks attained a monopoly, that would only smooth the system out even more, but if the monopoly became abusive, people could go back to bartering. They'd still have their commodity checks, and could bypass an abusive system.

So what would government officials get paid in? Well, we refer back to my discussion on a Senate elected by contributors, and the logical conclusion suggests itself: political influence via the Senate.

"Government notes" would be paid to any employee with access to a market in which those notes could be traded. They'd also be paid to any suppliers, whether they be the ones providing office chairs for the bueareaucracy, or bullets for the military. These individuals and companies would then trade these notes on the open market like any commodity note, and anyone with a political bone to pick would very likely be willing to buy it. The value of these notes would be directly related to the demand for seats on the Senate, which would be influenced by how badly people want to tell other people what to do, or else.

The thing is, all the resources the government could acquire would be voluntarily given in exchange for government notes. The government could print them like mad, and all they'd end up doing is inflating the value of government notes, unless there was a real demand for government action. It wouldn't affect the rest of the economy much at all, since the only thing a holder of that note is guaranteed is the right to vote for a Senator, proportional to the number of notes held. In a society that loves government action, notes would likely trade like dollars. In a society that doesn't, they'd be just another low-value commodity.

It's an interesting thought. I'd like to know yours.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Republicans and Democrats

I have long considered the question of which of America's major political parties I should join. Shall I join the Republicans or the Democrats? It's a harder question than one might think.

I believe in the equal protection of civil liberties, but whose civil liberties? Because, when it comes right down to it, joining a party means chosing a side. Shall I consider the civil liberties of the religeous right over those of others? Then I should be a Republican. Or am I more concerned about blacks, or immigrants? Perhaps I should vote Democratic. The rich are a minority who's rights are always at risk in a Democracy, so I should vote Republican. But then again, the Republicans are generally insensitive to women's rights, so I should vote Democratic. Which party shall I choose? Because neither is concerned with civil liberties in general, only pitting some groups against some others.

What about the economy? It used to be that if one cared about economic liberty, one voted Republican. But can there be any liberty in a system which favors shareholders over anyone else? Perhaps I should be a Democrat. This one is the easiest one to dismiss both parties over. The Democrats tend to raise taxes and spending. Republicans may lower taxes, but they end up raising spending anyway, handing most of it over to their supporters in the defense industries. Sometimes I wonder if they do this knowing full well the Democrats will be in power soon and raise taxes for them. Republican-style economic liberty is nice, so long as you accept an economy dependent on and subordinate to the military-industrial complex. Then again, the Democrats aren't planning anything different.

How about foreign policy? Which do I choose, a party that is composed of representatives from the defense industry, a religious element that considers the United States of America to be a holy nation with a mission to punish sinners and keep foreigners out, and an element that blindly follows them—or the party that nominates a man who insincerely mirrors the Republicans' nominee? Shall I vote for a party that has convictions I don't believe in, or a party that has no convictions at all? I might have voted for Howard Dean, on his anti-war stance alone—but that's not what the Democrats are about. The Republicans may be composed of people who blindly follow a cabal of men from the defense and energy industries, but the Democrats seem to blindly follow men who will say anything to get elected.

I've been considering this question for over eight years now, and have not found a satisfactory conclusion. However, the Republicans and the Democrats are NOT the only options available.

I am happy to announce that I have officially joined the Libertarian Party.Link

Friday, November 05, 2004

In Search of a Monotheist Synthesis

Lately, I've been taking the studying of religious texts and praying rather seriously. I have found myself in the company of a wife who is equally inclined to do so (meaning she didn't do so before this, either), and have come to the conclusion that just because one can't be absolutely sure about anything in this area, that doesn't mean one can't behave in a way concordant to that which one is reasonably sure of. After all, engineers successfully used Newton's Laws for centuries, and that didn't turn out to be any sort of Absolute Truth. It was just True Enough For Our Purposes. And I think the existence of a One True God is reasonable enough to act according to.

The upshot of this is that I'll be blogging about religion, as well as politics, in this space. I may even stop blogging about games, which I am starting to think a bit fruitless. This isn't my old Weekly Ramble. So this space will likely take a more serious tone.

The thing is, I have never trusted any Organization of Men to be the sole possessor of the Truth and the People of God. I look around, and I see many people proclaiming the worship of God, people from all over the world, many with different historical backgrounds. I'm talking about Jews, Christians and Muslims, Zoroastrians, Stoics, possibly Brahman Hindus (forgive my ignorance), Sikhs, and so on. I look at the traditions and texts of these peoples, and see similarities. I see decent people in all these groups, and I see really cruel and evil people in all these groups. I can't believe that, for example, God loves all who call those Christians, no matter what they do and think, but hates all who call themselves Muslims, no matter what they do and think, or vice versa, or Protestants and Catholics, or Jews and Everybody Else, or anything like this. The very idea goes against the very core of my being.

I also can't believe that, outside that group of people descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, that the whole world was without any road to "Holiness" (whatever that means), before news of Jesus reached them. I see forms of Monotheism which have sprung up throughout the world and have had features similar to "Judeo-Christianity;" why can these not have been God's way of reaching out to other people? Shall we condemn Others simply because they are not Us? Shall we place the Cult of Nation over the Worship of God?

All this could well be based upon my own ignorance. Seeing surface similarities, I am inclined to lump them together as different people from different places and times, all honestly seeking God. Perhaps I could be wrong. I intend to deal with that ignorance. In the future, I'll be blogging about my experiences studying various religious texts. At present, I am working on the Qur'an.