Monday, November 28, 2005

Trade your pound of flesh for freedom

John Perkins – Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

This book is the system exposed by an insider and it gets to the simplicity that is lacking in so many other works exposing the truth of the system we currently live in.  Perkins began his life as an Economic Hit man (EHM) at Chas T. Main, an engineering consultant company, as an economist.  His job was to produce inflated reports of economic growth that would justify huge infrastructure projects which the World Bank would finance, and which would benefit only the richest families in the country.  These forecasts of growth would not happen of course and the countries would be burdened with a debt that they could not repay, allowing the USA to demand its “pound of flesh” whenever the corporate agenda was in need of natural resources.  

This is empire building.  The control is indirect, but that is how the British ruled their African colonies, the fact of the matter is though that effective control lies in foreign parliaments.  This control has also opened the door to a less blatant form of imperialism, that of consumption.  In an earlier book Perkins wrote, he talked about the world is as you dream it.  The USA has created the American Dream, based on conspicuous consumption.  Some of the world has bought in to it, and that part of the world is now a colony of the USA, because they depend on it for their dream products.  

The truth is that this system is widening disparities of wealth and killing the world we live in.  The world we dream of has to change, we can’t dream of big houses with infinity pools that disappear into the ocean.  We have to dream of sustainable living with decreasing disparities of wealth.  Interesting that I can describe the dream of conspicuous consumption but just the idea of equality, there needs to be a vision of it.  So the world may be as we dream it.  

My dream world is a world where all the products are fair trade, where there is no 3rd world debt, where there is no desire for conspicuous consumption and it isn’t pushed in our faces everyday, where we don’t rely on oil, and indigenous cultures that hold some answers we need to look to.  The world where public services are not privatized, healthcare and water and education will be accessible by everyone.          

The wizard of economic growth is just an old man behind a curtain.  It is not the saviour it is made out to be.  Perkins had a good point that the US economy isn’t invincible.  It has a 7 trillion dollar debt (securities mostly exchanged by China and Japan for consumer goods) this isn’t a problem because the world economy is in US dollars, if they want their money Bush just goes to the basement and photocopies enough money to pay them.  But if the world economy switches to the Euro, which could be done by OPEC selling oil in Euros instead of dollars, then Bush can’t go to the basement, the USA actually has to produce goods to trade.  Paul William Roberts (reporter for Globe and Mail) projected that if this happens the US dollar will fall by 40% immediately, the US economy will fall.  I find it ironic that the fate of the US economy is in the hands of the leaders of the Middle East.   Maybe its time the Middle East demands its own pound of flesh.  The only hope though is that the disease of conspicuous consumption isn’t transmitted in that pound of flesh.  But I am not holding my breath.  
This gets to something that I have been thinking about.  It actually is expressed in the idea that the world is as you dream it.  Institutions can’t change people’s dreams.  The institutions however can support a different dream, so we don’t have to worry about changing the systems so much as the people in them.  

Friday, November 18, 2005

I don't value what your good at

Nietzsche, Part 2

The weakness that Nietzsche despises was explained to me the other day and it really helped me understand what he is talking about.  He hates weakness that doesn’t accept it’s weakness nor struggle to overcome its weakness, but the weakness that legitimates its weakness by attacking strength.  For example, if I am a bad painter, it is alright to admit it, or try to get better at painting, but not ok to call what I do good art and what good artists’ work bad art in comparison to my art (hum, I wonder what he would say about modern art?)  

Being a development studies student I have the largest ego on campus because I am saving the world while everyone else is learning how to blissfully go along with the system that is killing everyone (George Bush opened up the equivalent of Banff national park in Alaska to the extraction of oil a couple days ago).  This ego was a topic of a good discussion, the question was do we have a big ego and accept this paradigm because we weren’t winning in the other way of looking at the world?  My immediate reaction is no, my thinking changed because I saw life from the other side of the exploitative relationship the first world has with the rest of the world, but the question is was that a more favourable position for my ego?  I would have to say no, because I was very excited about going to business school and making the money, but it was my faith that changed my perception.  

I just finished another book, The other side of Eden by Hugh Brody, and at the end of this book Brody says that what makes us who we are is inheritance, the way our bodies are, and the “hard-wiring” of the brain, also language.  The thing with language though is that it is shared, so part of what makes us who we are is our relationships.  When I was a kid I always went on the team that was losing.  I remember switching teams to help out the losing team.  I never wanted to be on the winning team because I always felt sorry for the losers.  That is who I am in a nut shell.  I hate oppression, of the weak.  I always liked playing for the underdog team.

Actually I do remember thinking that I liked playing for the underdog team because I would get to play a lot more, my contribution was more valuable, I had the chance to be “that guy” if the rest of my team sucked.  So maybe I am not so noble.  I found a way of reconciling my two conflicting forces: wanting to be valuable, and wanting to help the underdog, the weaker party.  

I value strength in myself, but like to be surrounded by weaker people.  But I think that is something that I have come to terms with because my best friend is better than me at everything.  But he is my best friend and I trust him not to demean me.  

That is what I despise is mean people that are strong: people that take a weakness in comparison to their strength and rub it in another’s face.  How does a person deal with those kinds of people?  Taoism – avoid them, Christianity – turn the other cheek?  I think a popular way is to focus on the areas I am better at then he or she is.  For example, I am an average athlete, so I am smarter than the dumb jock, so I value being smart.  Our values are how we get around it, but the tough question to ask is how we come to those values.  A good test of this is to ask yourself if you value what you are good at.  

Getting back to Nietzsche, he despises the person who deals with their weakness by changing what strength is, so the truly strong person is stifled.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Strong are the Weak Struggling

Friedrich Nietzsche – The Genealogy of Morals

Throughout most of the readings I have tried to defend / synthesize my version of Christianity with the views espoused.  I suppose I have done this as part of my liberal tendency to give merit to other opinions.  My goal has always been to show that Christianity (in my interpretation of it) isn’t antithetical to what seems to be good to most people who aren’t Christians, and that the values of our society are not that far off from Christian values.  This goal of synthesis of culture and faith is probably not looked on favourably by “fundamentalist” Christians, amongst whom I do have friends.  

I have not been able to do this with Nietzsche because I do not believe his view of what is good.  However, his view of what is bad I cannot defend either, except to say that it is not the way he presented it.  

First off, what is his view of what is good?  Strength, “To expect that strength will not manifest itself as strength, as the desire to overcome, to appropriate, to have enemies, obstacles, and triumphs, is every bit as absurd as to expect that weakness will manifest itself as strength.”  To be fair I will also present his version of strength that most appealed to me: “The noble person will respect his enemy, and respect is already a bridge to love…Indeed he requires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction, nor could he tolerate any other enemy than one in whom he finds nothing to despise and much to esteem.”  I could respect strength that struggles against its equal or even its better, but strength that oppresses those weaker than itself, I think that is the weakest weakness.  It is being nothing more than a bully.  It isn’t challenging yourself, it is taking your natural advantage and using it to feel strong, it is not actually being strong because there is no struggle if there is no chance of failure.  

Perhaps I am misreading Nietzsche in his advocacy for bullies.  If I am than my problem with his ideal is that it is based on competition, not cooperation.  I believe there is enough in the world to struggle against and for without having to struggle against each other to secure our place in the world.  

So, what is the good, to struggle and succeed or to work together and live in peace?  Maybe there is a season for both.  The former reflects the value of the individual and the ability to test oneself and know what one is capable of.  The latter is the support of community and the sense of community that provides a place to belong.  I think both are important.  But are both Christian?  Certainly the sense of community is, but what about the individual struggle.  Self-control is the answer to this, what is a more formidable opponent than myself?  

Last night I had coffee with a close friend and one thing we discussed was the transcendence of God as opposed to the social gospel.  The transcendence of God is exactly what Nietzsche disliked so much, “They call it Judgment Day, the coming of their kingdom, the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Meanwhile they live in ‘faith,’ in ‘love,’ in ‘hope.”  He disliked this so much because, first of all, weakness has been made a virtue.  Not fighting has been made an effect of choice not weakness.  I think that the social gospel is something that he ignored.  He did not touch on what Jesus said so many times, that the kingdom of God is at hand.  It is here now in part.  This means that evil is to be struggled against, not apathetically accepted.  It is however, as I mentioned before, only here in part.  This means that there will still be oppressors, and the struggle will not always be successful, but this is not an excuse to struggle against the oppressors of people, it provides a motivation that they will eventually get what they deserve (I personally believe this not in the cliché sense, but that everyone will go to heaven and God will give them over to the kind of people they have chosen to be, the kind of person he or she created, I borrow this idea from CS. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce).  

I actually think that Nietzsche might like this version of the gospel (minus the transcendence of God part, and the bad guys getting what they deserve), but in my defence, I think it is much like how Thoreau writes.  Start off with a bit of idealism, then spend the majority on dealing with reality, and end off with a bit of idealism again.  

So in conclusion, I have found that maybe I am not so far away from Nietzsche, unlike my initial analysis.  I also think that he brings an important critique to dispensationalist thought (the idea that the world has gone ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ Christians should go down to their bunkers to wait until Jesus returns to clean up the mess).  

Monday, November 07, 2005

Morality not Majority

Thoreau – Civil Disobedience

A couple things stuck out to me.  First was Thoreau’s commitment to both idealism and reality.  He spent the first and last thoughts on idealism, imagining the way things should be, but the bulk of the text is about the application of this vision to his current circumstances.  I think this is revealing because it is an important balance to maintain.  If we don’t have a vision then there might as well not be a discussion to start off with, basically not having a vision is like saying that everything is the way it is supposed to be.  However, focusing only on the vision will not get anything done.  If there is no practical application or fix of what you see is wrong, then that can be quite depressing.  
The substance of Civil Disobedience is that a state is best served by morality not by what the whole feels is most expedient for itself.  Sometimes the state acts in a way that is immoral and it is the duty of the individual to uphold morality and act as a balance for the voice of society.  He talks about citizenship as being more than voting, but fulfilling your duty to the state to oppose immoral actions.       

It is too bad that the system is set up to reflect what the majority (educated or not) wants and not what is moral.  I suppose an accomplishment is that standing up for something isn’t considered treason.  

Sunday, November 06, 2005

If your bored, your missing the meaning

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Finding meaning in simple things and simplicity (having a life about simple things)
“I got up early and bathed in a pond; that was a religious exercise” said Thoreau.  There is a verse in Leviticus about going 40 yards past the border of your camp to go to the washroom.  I thought this was quite insightful because of the medical implications of going to the washroom within the camp limits.  This is done today through sewers.  But what are we missing.  Maybe it is about more than just avoiding bacteria and being clean.  Maybe it is a time away from life, from camp to think.  Maybe some of the “primitive” habits have more meaning than just the physical implications we associate with them because we are a materialist society.  We have stripped the meaning out of every day life and it is hard to find, so people search for meaning in complex places instead of in the simplicity of a pond in the morning, or in the solitude of the bathroom.  Maybe there is more to the joke that the bathroom is where people get the best thinking done.  

Being alone
Thoreau argues to the farmer that he can spend all day in the field working alone, but when he comes inside he is bored.  The student can spend all day inside alone because she is busy doing her work. As for leisure time, he offers his own life as an example.  He said that he only once became lonely when he started to think about other people in the town not far away, but he then got to thinking about “such sweet and beneficent companionship in nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the imagined advantages of human neighbourhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.”  As I was writing this quote it occurred to me that nature is much like poetry.  It takes work, you have to read it a couple of times, and on the first read the mind wanders, it is like two poles of a magnet; once you start concentrating your attention is immediately on something else.  But once I can read it through a couple times it is addictive.  It conveys so much meaning in just a couple short sentences, something prose takes a long time to convey.  

I would argue that our complex lives are very simplistic in meaning, but the simple life is very complex with meaning.  The more meaningful something is, the less busy we have to be to escape boredom.  

Maybe this is best communicated by poetry:

Busyness is a substitute for meaning
Use boredom to find the meaning
Then expand it, into the rest of your life
And find the boredom retract

That wasn’t really poetry, its distilled prose, I’ll keep trying.

I found another application of this principle in my own life.  I just got married and my wife and I are just finishing the process of setting up our home.  We needed to find a pepper mill, and in the store they have one just like my parents have.  That pepper mill has a lot of memories attached to it, you could even say it has meaning for my life.  If I surround myself with things that have meaning, as opposed to surrounding myself with things that are fashionable it escapes the fading of fashion.  I think it is a form of contentment, probably a degraded form, but still the beginning of it.  

The news
A big critique of civilization Thoreau had was the fascination with the news.  He said it is all pretty much the same, once you’ve read about one murder the rest are the same.  I think what he was getting at was that people just read about stuff to keep busy.  It serves no other purpose than entertainment, so why read the news at all.  

What to do with this life
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to life the life which he has imagined, he will meet with unexpected success… If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost’ that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” The problem that I have is that I am not sure what my dream is.  I find compassion very beautiful, so I want situations to be compassionate.  But being compassionate is only part of a beautiful world, and I want to live in a beautiful world; a world that is full of meaning and empty of busyness; a world where everyone gets along and genocide isn’t in the dictionary.  This seems to be young and idealistic, but then didn’t Thoreau just say that “he will meet with unexpected success”?  Thoreau wouldn’t want me to give up my dreams even though they won’t happen, but in having them I will get things closer to them.  This is young idealism.

Dream big, but judge realistically
Reality isn’t meant for dreams
It’s meant for judging accomplishments

This is another side of life, one that contrasts Tocqueville’s prompt and easy with delayed and difficult

Content to Exist

Walt Whitman

I’m not big into poetry, but when I get into a poem, it is almost like a drug.  

I liked the last line of As the Time Draws Nigh

“O soul, we have positively appear’d – that is enough”

Chesterton wrote a short poem of the same vein…

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

This almost mystical appreciation of the earth and existence makes me feel humble, content to exist, it informs my environmentalist side.  Humans aren’t here to rule the earth, but as stewards; to appreciate the existence of every living thing.  Enough of my words, read the poetry again, I don’t have to say anything, argue for anything.  

Grade 2 John

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America & Beer at the Black Lounge

Tocqueville begins by exhorting the value placed on equality by Americans: “liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol.”  He then goes on to show that this is indeed a myth, that equality may be valued in word, but not in deed: “It is much more easy for them to admit slavery, than to allow several millions of citizens to exist under a load of eternal infamy and hereditary wretchedness.”  Also, Tocqueville’s analysis of the relationship between men and women shows misogyny and a lack of equality: “While they have allowed the social inferiority of women to subsist, they have done all they could to raise her morally and intellectually to the level of the man; and in this respect they appear to me to have excellently understood the true principle of democratic improvement.”  Just in case you missed it, he used the words social inferiority and the excellently understood principle of democratic improvement.  He is saying that women are allowed to “develop” to the level of men, but they still don’t have equality.  

In class, the educator put this social inferiority in a framework.  He said the equality was a myth, the hierarchy was now based on the economic system (as opposed to aristocracy).  The losers feel like garbage, so they oppress another group.  Hence, people labelled white trash are racist against black people.  

I personally am not winning in the hierarchy; I deal with this by demonizing the hierarchy.  Luckily, this fact does not lead me to a moral dilemma because I still think that the system will kill us all if we keep going.  Scientists have said that we are facing the 6th mass extinction in geological times.  George Bush is proposing drilling in a national park in Alaska, someone told me it would be the same thing if Encana started drilling for oil in Banff national park.  

Our economic system is based on competition; everyone has to have what their neighbour has.  It reminds me of when I was a kid and no toy was really interesting until my sister had it and I couldn’t play with it.  This led into wanting what was in the store, except then I didn’t fight the cashier for it; the method of getting what I wanted was to go to work and buy it.  Then next season the marketing department told me that what I had wasn’t the toy they were playing with anymore.  Have we in the west passed grade two yet?

Tocqueville talks about the subject in this quote: “It may readily be conceived that if men, passionately bent upon physical gratifications, desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged: as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy, or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself.”  The key words for me are prompt and easy.  After class on Friday there was a group of people who went to the black lounge.  In the discussion we were wondering how to change people’s behaviour to be more environmentally friendly.  This led us to wonder why Wal-Mart is such a huge success (of the richest 10 people in the world, 4 are Waltons).  We came up with the fact that it is fast and easy, or “prompt and easy”.  Of course the link was made to prostitution (university students in a bar).  I like things that are fast and easy, does that make me an economic John?  

“Hello, I am in grade two and my name is John” (Western Civilization)  

Friday, November 04, 2005

I am a Pragmatic Radical Conservative Liberal

Bakunin – Anarchism

Until I read Bakunin I made no distinction between anarchy and chaos.  The image Bakunin describes is quite nice, everyone taking responsibility for their own actions, living off their own labour.  Liberty flowing from liberty, meaning by giving liberty (through rights, and education) to people it will ensure the liberty of everyone.  

I also think that it solves the problem that Berman raised about liberalism.  The case when there are some people who just don’t want to participate and you can’t argue them into participating.  Bakunin will simply allow those people who want to live like animals do so, and be treated like animals.  

Even as a Christian I would like to live in the ideal state Bakunin has imagined.  I have no problem with his proposition of de-establishing organized religion.  I think it might actually do the cause of Christ a great service.  Also, Bakunin has space for religion in the ability of free association.  

There is a parable that says what you sow you reap.  I think this is both the strength and the weakness of anarchism.  Bakunin envisions a society that sows liberty and will reap liberty, a person can’t be forced into liberty, and I think the liberty of this society while a form of liberty is a degraded form because of the social pressures and doing what is acceptable places control on liberty, also, the lack of personal responsibility.  This is the great strength of anarchism.  However, my contention is how Bakunin will get humanity to this state.  Through violent revolution, “a war of extermination is bound to erupt, with no quarter and no respite.”  This is not sowing liberty and responsibility; it is sowing murder and violence.  My prediction is that once the revolution is over peace will not reign, but chaotic warlordism.  

This is why I am a radical visionary and a conservative liberal pragmatist.  A bit of a paradox, but being a Christian, I am all about paradox.  My interaction with Bakunin has shown my radical visionary side (the more popular of the two).  Now to explain my conservative liberal pragmatism; first off, what is it?  It is someone, like me, who thinks that change needs to come slowly and be well thought out.  I think this must be the way because otherwise too many people get killed (not that a lot of people aren’t getting killed already).  Here is an example of a case of development.  There is a community that is starving to death, it is a horrible thing and we have to do something quickly to stop people from dying.  So what usually happens is a supply of aid is flown in and the crisis is averted, then they try to implement the “big fix” that is supposed to save the people.  All this happens in six months.  Well the big fix fails and Red Cross is back in five years with another emergency package of food aid.  What if we worked with them over the five years to identify their issues appropriately (ie. by asking them) and build off what they have already done?  Develop a relationship instead of being the saviour in a crisis and applying a project that worked wonders in another area, in another context.  The idea is that if we just sit down with the people and talk it through then maybe we will get somewhere, instead of wasting five years of the community just surviving.  

Marx and Bakunin saw a system that wasn’t working and envisioned a new system.  This is a job that is too big for one person, even for that person and his group of friends.  It is easy to criticize, but hard to build something new.  Lets avoid building something new and tinker with what we have got, and by the end of the process we will have something new.  It is a lot easier to build a car by replacing the old pieces with new parts, even adding new parts, but it is really hard to put a car together from a bunch of parts sitting in a box.  

I am conservative because I think we should work off the good things that are existing
I am liberal because I think we should talk to everyone about what is going on
I am pragmatic because I think we should think things through in their context
I am not a revolutionary because I think we don’t have the capacity
I am a radical because I think we can work toward utopia

"After Socialism" (and capitalism)

Kors – Can There be an “After Socialism”?

The basis of this article is that it is time to stop idolizing socialism and face the ugliness that it has caused, the millions of people that have died in all the socialist countries in the world.  History is in a period that is “after the Nazis” because there was a sort of reckoning, the Nazis have become our generation’s manifestation of evil, but the Nazis didn’t even kill a tenth of the people that socialism did.  So why is socialism still so popular, why isn’t there a recognition of the millions of people that were murdered?  

In short, I think it is because socialism is going toward an ideal that western intellectuals like, while the Nazis were going toward an ideal that western intellectuals despise.  This is the idea that I have been living with, it is manifest in the statement, “well, if the circumstances were better, or if this variable were different, etc.”  This is not getting past socialism; it isn’t dealing with the millions of people that have already died.  Kors brings up a good point, maybe a system that has killed hundreds of millions of people should be laid to rest.  

This point however is where Kors and I part ways intellectually.  Kors goes on to the thinking that since socialism can be proclaimed dead then capitalism has won and everyone can sing and dance in the streets (except he would probably charge admission with the price depending on how badly you want to be on the street).  But to seriously approach his arguments, he did have one that I had to deal with.  He said that “profits are the measure of other people’s satisfactions of want and desire.”  This at first sounded virtuous to me because of the ability to satisfy the needs of other people, but what about advertising, and fashion, that manufacture wants and desires, even more, what about basic needs, are wants and desires more important than basic needs?  

I think the statement Kors made is really telling.  First off, he didn’t say needs, he said wants and desires.  I think (maybe hope) that this is because there is a perception that profit from the needs of people is immoral.  Second, North America is a place of consumption; that is how we sustain life.  We buy food, clothing and shelter.  The problem isn’t consumption; everyone needs to consume things to survive.  I just have a problem with consumption with the purpose of validation.  It just doesn’t work, if you’re a loser with bad jeans, better jeans won’t make you more popular.  The truth is that my jeans don’t make me a geek, my self-consciousness about my jeans do.  If I am comfortable with myself, so will other people.  

Back to basic needs, in one of my classes we are doing recommendations on Alberta’s water for life conservation strategy.  In this project we are trying to think of how to get people thinking about basic needs.  It is really hard to do, and I think it is because we don’t know where the raw materials come from.  For me, water comes from the tap, I can’t tell you what stream, or treatment plant it has gone through, so I am not thinking about the use of a natural resource.  In this same class my prof talks about a Homeland verses a frontier perspective.  The homeland perspective sees this land as our home, something to be taken care of.  I take car of my car because it is my partner in the job of getting me to work, if I abuse my car, then I won’t get to work.  The frontier perspective is that of exploitation.  I will just drive it till it dies then get another one.  That is a pretty common perspective for vehicles, but it just doesn’t work with the earth.  We don’t have that option with our water supply.  The first law of thermodynamics is that we live in a finite system.  The view that “profit are the measure of other people’s satisfactions of want and desire” is just not sufficient.  

My professor does work with the Inuit and the other Northern populations of Canada and other artic countries.  The Inuit don’t see a distinction between capitalism and communism.  Western intellectuals have been drawn to communism for so long because it is the only alternative to capitalism, and capitalism just isn’t working (unless your rich white and have no conscious).  But the world isn’t binary; there are more viable options of how to organize society.  It’s just that we can’t see past the boundaries of the west, the place precisely where some answers lay.