Sunday, December 30, 2012

Competition and Cooperation Pt. 2

Cooperation in economics is often over looked despite being fundamental to the very concept of commerce. After all, trading goods and services in a way that eventually lead to a common currency requires that actors in the system cooperate from the very start. However this is not the prevailing view of economic systems currently. Everyone is focused on hostile mergers of corporations, or predatory lending practices, or coercive marketing and debt encumbered slavery. Yet none of these systems are the intended purpose of cooperative commerce.

One of the most fundamental aspects of currency, is tacit agreement. I agree that this otherwise worthless piece of paper is worth a bundle of carrots. If it was suspect, no one in their right mind would trade their carrots for a scrap of paper that has already been filled with print. The value of the bill is agreed upon by everyone, every time they allow it to be used. This requires cooperation on a massive scale, between billions of people every day. If one out of every five farmers in the world were to decide tomorrow that paper was no longer worth the carrots, the whole system would collapse in days.

Cooperation is important and over looked in other economic systems as well. An employee is agreeing to exchange a commodity for currency, their time for wages. Again this requires tacit agreement and cooperation. Labor struggles are characterized by a loss of cooperation. When a group of employees decide they are not collectively being treated fairly and strike, the act of non-cooperation is the weapon they wield.

The stock market represent a cooperative agreement as well. The system currently has been perverted so it no longer even resembles its intended purpose, but it was designed so that private sector innovation could be financed and implemented. Today it has degenerated into nothing more than a complex series of  systems for harvesting profit from disfranchisement. (I would LOVE for some one to explain to me how I am wrong on this one.)

Marketing also used to be based on cooperation. The system started out on the basis of informing people of a good or service being offered. It was implicit that both actors, the merchant and the consumer, were in cooperation. Both needed one another. Then the system skewed sharply towards competitive focus and the tacit agreement of the consumer was no longer valued. This can been seen today as people coerce a disfranchised "market" of consumers to buy $0.14 worth of gold for $9.95 through televised advertising. "Buyer beware" is the banner of crude competitive influence.

By focusing economic policy towards protecting competition instead of encouraging cooperation, we have created  society based on waste, dishonesty, and avarice. Some times I wonder just how far we could have gotten by now as a species, if we realized that by working together, we can accomplish more than we ever will competing with one another.

As always, I encourage your comments and criticisms, and will never edit or omit anything.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Competition and Cooperation pt. 1

It seems to me that one of the most fundamental driving concepts driving the world today is competition. Economic theory is based on it. Our personal lives are shaped by it. The most predominant view of nature is colored by it. We are drawn to sports that feature competition and rarely cooperation. We idolize individuals not for their ideas and generosity but for their mastery and strength. I believe this is the result of genetic predisposition and not an actual reflection of the world around us.

It is easy to imagine the natural world in the "red in tooth and claw" variety, because that is as close to our own evolutionary track as it gets. Life for higher mammals, including our ancestors, is very competitive. We competed for: food, mates, social status and sometimes even for our very lives. The current model of economics is very much in this same vein. Individuals compete for jobs, businesses compete for markets, countries compete for resources. 

But this is not the end of the story. Lost in all of this competition is cooperation. We forget that we are as much apart of the world, if not more, then we are in competition with factions of it. Now before you start in thinking I have been spending too much time around hippies, let me explain. I have written about the ecosystem services in the past. I have already made the point that it takes countless interactions between several dozens (if not hundreds) of species just to serve one meal. Some of those interactions are mutually beneficial, some are deleterious, some are a push. 

The bigger point is, we are completely wrapped up in the caveman competition model of the world, and will expend great amounts of energy just to eek slightly ahead of some competitor. Some of these battles we have won handedly, for instance when was the last time you had to fight off a cougar while picking up a steak at the grocery. Some we have only gained a slight and fleeting advantage over, mosquitoes and biting flies for instance. Some of these we will never stand a real chance at, like multiple antibiotic resistance staff infections. 

True, human nature is competitive, but when we really started to take off was after we evolved cooperation. Less innately intelligent animals are adept at "red claw" type competition, most snakes and birds for example. But very few animals have adapted true cooperation, wolves who hunt in packs, or whales who trap fish. Humanity truly surpasses them all. It is our ability to coordinate, communicate, and ultimately cooperate that has lead us to the technology and comfort we enjoy today. If we were still constantly mired in competition, selfishness and avarice would have stifled scientific progress more than it has.

We even have the rarer ability to cooperate in between species. We have domesticated plants and trees that provide us with staggering varieties of foods. There are other animals that we can ride or herd live stock with, some even started out by keeping vermin from our grain stores with-out consuming our grain. It is time to take this time honored and successful methodology and apply it to more and more systems. 

Competition while sometimes healthy between two competitors on a level playing field, quickly becomes pointless when one competitor irresistibly takes advantage of some power unavailable to the other. Further more, competition leads to waste as two complete and competent, yet mutually exclusive systems must be generated. Uneven power distribution and wasteful redundancy, are the result of unchecked competition.  

Over the next few posts leading into the new year, I will take a closer look at the nature of systems like economics and politics through the lens of cooperative vs. competitive systems. Please feel free to comment and critique, I will not edit or omit anything.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A System in Crisis.

I have talked about the application of competitive capitalistic models to altruistic systems. Education is a stark reminder of how this fails to meet the goals of system. When Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, decided to reduce the subsidy on education and force the system to compensate by charging tuition, he fundamentally changed the purpose of the system. He grabbed the reigns of a system that had been working towards building communities and developing society, and perverted it into something that parallels private sector service industry.

Today, the system bares many of the hallmarks of a private sector corporation. Social stratification within the organization, with high paid directors and administration, a strong buffer of bureaucratic tangle protecting it, and disenfranchised labor who actually provide the service. The disenfranchised labor class (faculty), strives to provide the best service to the customer base, but the bureaucracy is indifferent at best, and often this places them at odds.

The modern CSU system is a textbook failure of the application of private sector models to public institution. From ballooning executive compensation, to a lack of interoffice communication, and a complete lack of compassion for human interests systemically. Instead of producing citizens who are focused on improving communities, the focus of the system seems to be extracting resources from a stream of raw material as we pass through a cookie cutter ready to support further expansion of the stratified society at large.

The role of education traditionally is exploration and innovation. It is meant to influence artists and scientists so that they can make informed progress, instead of having to reinvent the wheel each generation. Science in particular operates on a system that extends far beyond a single lifetime. If every person had to rediscover everything their predecessors developed, there would have been very little progress to separate humanity from animals.

That places the goal of education in a clear direction, to expand human knowledge, to inform and inspire, and to help the next generation discover the best place to invest their efforts. Once the purpose of a system is corrupted by profit motivation, the first causality is society. Any society that doesn't view education as purely altruistic, or worse as entitlement, is doomed to stagnation.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Compromise

I have had a lot of jobs in my life, but nothing I would have made a career out of. Often I find I am making some sort of moral compromise in order to earn a paycheck. For a while I worked at an international port running heavy equipment. I spent several years working as an auto tech and most recently I worked in hospitality. Each of these jobs left me with some moral uncertainty as to how I was contributing my effort to the world.

It is impossible for me to just work. I inevitability end up considering the system I am apart of and how I fit into it. Working at the port left me wondering about the effects of globalization and the effects of out sourcing on domestic manufacturing labor markets. I also thought about the effects of mass consumption and the environmental effects of centralized distributional networks. The working conditions overseas was impossible for me to ignore when I saw foot prints on cardboard put down on the floor of containers to protect merchandise that obviously came from barefoot children.

My time spent as an auto mechanic left me wondering about perpetuating a system of petroleum consumption. By suggesting to people that they need to get oil changes every three thousand miles instead of actually researching the maximum life span of oil and tailoring recommendations accordingly, I was directly contributing to environmental degradation. Worse yet, every un-fixed oil leak that left my shop because the customer was more interested in making sure the stereo worked than minimizing their environmental impact was like a stain on my soul.

Through all of this people told me I just think too much. No where was this more bluntly put to me than when I work in bars. We sold people alcohol, we encouraged drinking, we were witness to people choosing to compromise their moral structure and their standards night after night. I served people intoxicants purchased by other people with a single interest in mind. I watched as people "loosened up" and were sometimes swept away in momentary hedonism but rarely had to witness the morning after when they paid for it. I don't actually know for sure, but I was probably party to: rape, addiction, depression, and the erosion of people's lives.

I sit here in my mid-life. A turning point. I realize that all I really have in this world is the time I am alive in it, and my perspective while I experience that time. Having a job is exchanging one of the most precious commodities I have, my time, for money. I do not imagine at the end of my life I will wish I had more money, but I might wish for more time. It is much more important to me that what I spend my time doing is working for good. So as I experience the last days of the year, I want to devote my next year to finding a position in the world where I can exchange my time for income, but I am going to do everything I can to ensure that position does not make me feel like I am compromising.

This career must not perpetuate a cycle of disenfranchisement. It must not contribute to the environmental damage that is apart of so many systems. It must not have a negative effect on communities or on people's lives. I want my time and my efforts to have a net positive influence on the world. I have no idea as of today where my vocational track is going to take, but I am going to spend the next year turning over every rock and rooting through every aspect of our society until I find something that fits. Let this be the year I turn my back on compromise. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Medical Science and Petroleum

Besides environmental causes, there are several other good reasons to restrict the consumption of petroleum. My chemistry professor pointed out that most industrial manufacturing processes require the use of petroleum derived products. Most notably of these processes is medical technology. Imagine for a second every medical procedure you have ever had. I'm willing to bet every one involved the use of plastics at least. Take that in combination with the fact that most chemically derived medications require a petroleum product in at least one step of its synthesis.

Petroleum is not the infinite resource we have been lead to believe. It takes millions of years to form and requires specific environmental conditions. You have to have a large amount of biomass buried deep in the ground and exposed to heat and just the right amount of pressure. Too much or too little of these conditions and you will get diamonds, graphite, or other carbon formations. Oil is finite.

While many of the SUPs (single use plastics) and petroleum derived chemicals we currently enjoy can be replaced with less convenient materials, medical technology is a different story. Plastic utensils, water bottles and food containers have been developed that are made form plant cellulose and can be composted. The limited life span of these types of SUPs makes this kind of innovation a perfect fit. But many medical devices and medications require petroleum that cannot be so easily replaced.

What does this have to do with you? Well if you do not and are not planning on having kids, very little. But if you have already contributed to the gene pool, you can safely bet that once petroleum resources have been exhausted, western medicine as we know it will be devastated. Many of the drugs, medical supplies and equipment used for even basic procedures (like syringes or antibiotics) will be much more difficult to come by.

Imagine every plastic product in your life today. Then imagine your great-great grand children not having access to any of it or being forced to pay cost prohibitive prices for access to it. Welcome to the future we are currently on track to create. This is a one to one for your life. Every gallon of gas you save by riding your bike, might just save one more life in the future. Every time you refill a stainless steel water bottle, you might be helping someone years from now get access to a dialysis treatments. Be a hero, don't consume.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The future looks bright! (for spiders and plants)

So I have written previously about reasons for people to become personally involved with combating global climate change. The worlds coca crops, for instance, are threatened by the changing climate in the narrow band near the equator where it grows. But with 2012 coming to a close, and humanity still prioritizing trips to the mall over environmental stewardship, we are crossing the threshold some predict will lead to irreversible climate change.

But it might not be all bad. There are several species that might seriously benefit from the direction the climate is trending in. Arthropods for instance, who depend heavily on ambient temperatures for homeostasis, would seriously benefit from a warmer average climate. A recent study shows that spiders that live in warmer "urban heat island" cities tend to grow larger and can generate more body fat over their rural cousins.

Much of the kingdom of Plantae will also benefit from the increased carbon dioxide we are dumping into the atmosphere. When we burn fossil fuels, we are merely shifting the climate back to the conditions that were present on earth during the Paleozoic era when most of the biomass that fossil fuels are composed of was buried. Massive tree ferns and other mega-flora will surely dominate the post human landscape.

This may lead to significant changes in diet for us as well. Most animals we raise for food are adapted to surviving in a very different climate than the one we are influencing. It is more than probable that, in the future we are creating, our ancestors will be carving up a three foot millipede rather than a turkey for thanksgiving. If they can compete with larger, much more successful reptiles who wont be wasting energy creating their own body heat.

The bad news for us; however, is that mammals are not particularly well adapted to these conditions. The earliest mammals didn't even evolve until almost 50 million years after the carboniferous period ended and the earth started cooling down. Even then we were tiny creatures, relegated to nocturnal or secretive lifestyles. We didn't become competitive in the cordata phylum until after the cataclysmic end of the Cretaceous and the long trend of cooling that followed.

But our future is not planned. We are adaptable and resilient as a species in general. I am sure we will get used to giant spider ranches instead of cattle and consider our selves lucky when we feed a family of four from a single giant carrot instead of the hassle of washing and preparing dozens at a time. Who knows, maybe our distant ancestors will thank us for forcing them to grow up learning to ride giant dragon flies while hunting massive lizards.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mother Nature's Lobbyists

As the new year rapidly approaches, a new political force is making its self heard. For decades now environmentalists have warned that the path humanity is on is unsustainable. We squander the precious resources that are provided to us by the natural environment without carefully weighting out the potential costs. We have used the air, water and land as dumping grounds for all sorts of anthropogenic wastes assuming that we will never reach its capacity for renewal.

Global climate change will continue to make dry places drier and wet places wetter. Natural cycles of hot and cold weather patterns will continue to be exaggerated, but at a pace more rapid than most of the ecosystems we depend on are capable of coping with. This will be compounded by direct anthropogenic problems, like contaminated fresh water, until only a few of the most resilient systems will survive.

Today, as the severity of natural disasters grows, politicians still insist on discussing environmental stewardship in economic terms. Protecting tax loop holes or safe guarding "entitlements" are more of a litmus test for political popularity than scientific literacy. As long as financial interests are held paramount over everything else, the path forward is clear, and it does not look good.

But that might soon change. Hurricane Sandy represented one of the most expensive weather related catastrophes in our recent history. This is mother nature trying to wake us up. Civilized nations have for the most part realized that like it or not, we are not above nature, but apart of it. Now is the time for America to step up to the plate and take responsibility for our actions. We cannot afford to selfishly revile in our teenage years much longer, but take our place as a maturing nation capable of harnessing our skill and determination towards becoming leaders once more.

These responsibilities include paying full price for the services we enjoy. No more youth discount, we must factor the environmental costs into our consumption. Cradle to the grave product life spans need to be considered. The convenience of single use plastics should come at a price commensurate with the ecological damage they create. Designed obsolesce needs to be rooted out and abolished from business models. Striving for carbon neutrality should be as, if not more, important than any symbol of social status.

Elected leaders that still cling to outdated models of success cannot be allowed to endanger our future any longer. Make your voice heard. If we do not act offensively right now to stem the "profit at all costs" attitudes that infect our culture, mother nature will put us on the defensive. That will surely be much more expensive in the long run.