Confessions of a Capitalist

After Newtown, I have spent much time devoted to considering the society I live in, the possible conditions which could give rise to such a tragedy, and my own responsibility.  We have all been listening and reading and thinking about this time in the world, and our place in it.  And at the end of the year, we reflect back.

While there is no scientific basis to suggest that the Mayans were able to predict the future, it can be fascinating to know that anthropologists and astronomers have decoded the Mayan calendar to find that it points to roughly this moment in history as a transitional or revelatory time.  The earth and sun are now aligned with the center of the Milky Way, to where a “deep rift” resides, cleaving the galaxy in two.

Duality is nothing new.  Since early civilization we have been pitting night against day, good against evil, and creating mythologies to illustrate these dichotomies.  In a more complex society, and perhaps in times of stress, the rift between our poles is greater, our attitudes more resolute.  The din of our collective voices tends to glom together into two camps, often with radical results.  However, it remains that most of us are not “one way or the other.”  We each contain multitudes.

Considering all of this, I have attempted to arrive at what I hope to be an enlightened “conclusion” about this difficult time in history; more pointedly, what I refer to as “it” in my last post, and what my role is in relation to “it.”

What I believe transcends the war between Right and Left is that we live within the structure of a money-market system, affecting both sides and all types in between.

Every day, I participate in and contribute to the money-market paradigm.  Let me just briefly explain what it is, and then I’ll address why I am part of the problem.

This is our economy, in two broad strokes.  One: The Federal Reserve Bank loans money to the government, to be repaid with interest.  There is no gold or other standard to back the value of a dollar bill – it is what economists call “fiat currency.”

Fractional Reserve Banking is another part of the money-market system, and the way all banks operate.  A fraction of a customer deposit is held in reserve, while the rest is loaned out to be repaid with interest.  This incurs debt, and a need for more money in the system, so more money is printed.  This is where inflation comes from, and why our debt will never be paid down – there is nothing of actual value to pay it.  This is “Finance 101” and is the “money” part of the paradigm.

Two:  Whether a mom ‘n pop store or a mega corporation, a business is created to make money.  If it is selling a product or providing a service, the business must operate with minimal costs and aim for maximum profit in order to be successful in the market place.  This is “Business 101” and the “market” part of the paradigm.  Together, finance and business comprise the economy, which is, in our case, a mainly capitalist, free enterprise system.

The theory of capitalism is that competition in the marketplace will give rise to the best products and services, thus benefitting the society.  In other words, to do the most good for one’s self will do the most good for all.

This is an excellent theory (I’m a huge fan of Ayn Rand), and would work well if it weren’t for three things.

First, it requires that banks and businesses function in a way that is antithetical to basic human need.  Human beings, according to every bright mind in the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology, need love, empathy, and equality to be healthy and flourish within a community.  In the capitalist economy, a lack of empathy is rewarded in finance and business, great stratification occurs within the society, creating inequality, and love is not germane.  There is no level playing field, since the marketplace shows preference towards those with certain backgrounds, and negative biases towards those without (one need only to look at women’s historic struggle or the persistent black ghetto for examples).

Second, using the most scientific knowledge, the most advanced technology and employing the highest skilled workers (paid the best wages) is counterproductive in business.  It is far more profitable to cut costs, so the businesses which are the most successful offer inferior goods, creating “intrinsic obsolescence” (meaning products that will soon fail).  This is a one-to-one equation; in order to succeed, a business needs to operate more cheaply and make more money than its competitors.  This means an imperative to pay low wages, minimize benefits, and often outsource, taking jobs away locally and infecting foreigners with the system.

Third, sustainability is acidic to businesses.  Any product or service that is acquired once, or shared, and never needed again is the opposite of what a commodity business needs – cyclical consumption; repeat customers. This is known as “planned obsolescence,” or, creating products which are intended to fail, need to be replaced or, upgraded.  (Often it is one component of a product which needs the upgrading, but the entire thing is thrown out or traded in for the new thing, as with phone, computer, or car.)  This system is threatened by anything which sustains itself.

Each day, I contribute to the money-market system.  I buy the products that will need to be replaced; I participate in cyclical consumption.  I pay into our national debt when I buy something I cannot afford by taking a loan, and then pay interest on that loan, thus feeding the system.  By my actions, I endorse a paradigm which considers the basic human needs of empathy, love, and equality as mutually exclusive from an economic structure which inherently requires inefficiency and social stratification in order to keep going.

I am part of a system of stratification which, by definition, creates inequality.  Inequality breeds a variety of problems.  When asked what the most violent people he worked with for over forty years shared in common, Dr. James Gilligan, a Harvard-trained Criminal Psychologist, said (you guessed it): “Inequality.” I can then deduce that human emotional needs are not mutually exclusive from the society’s economic structure, nor are they served by its compunction to progress.  Instead, they are a direct result of it.

When we hear the term “inequality,” we tend to think of those less fortunate.  I know I do.  But, more objectively, inequality affects everyone from the top down in a stratified society; the Newtown shooter, for instance, came from a well-to-do family.

In a series of experiments conducted on volunteers with annual incomes ranging between $16,000 and $150,000, some fascinating results arose.  One was that the wealthiest among the participants were most likely to cheat in order to win a $50 prize.  They were also most likely to take candy from children, and pocket extra change given to them by mistake.  Those who drove more expensive cars were four times more likely than those who drove cheaper vehicles to cut off other drivers and pedestrians.  The author of the study, Paul Piff, concluded that being wealthy seems to insulate a person from the outside world and make them “less likely to perceive the impact” that their behavior may have on others.  In other words, they are less empathetic.  (This is also considered a symptom of psychosis – a loss of touch with reality, which Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist, writes about in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece.)

I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether or not Adam Lanza committed the atrocious crimes at Sandy Hook because he was too “insulated” or alienated from reality.  I cannot diagnose him as schizophrenic, or say that I endorse more stringent mental health policies – like hospitalizing people with mental health issues sooner and for longer than is currently legal.  I can’t know whether or not Lanza was psychotic, had Asperger’s syndrome, or anything else.  While I may know that Lanza’s mother kept an arsenal of weapons (the media speculates that she was paranoid of economic collapse), and that Lanza’s affluent suburban home was acquired through the money-market system, there is no way I can know exactly why a young man walked into a school with machine guns and did what he did.

What I can diagnose is my own guilt in contributing to an economic system which places the needs of money, business, and “progress” over the intrinsic needs of its citizens – that does, in fact, mask its agenda as “good” for the citizens, when it is anything but.  And I can certainly extrapolate that this very system creates people like Adam Lanza.

Personally, I don’t need any more goods or services.  95% of what I have goes above and beyond my basic physical needs for food, shelter, and clothing, and none of what I have that ever cost a red cent serves my emotional and spiritual needs for love, empathy, and equality, no matter what Madison Avenue, Hollywood, or Wall Street might try and convince me of.

At heart, I’ve always been something of a capitalist (or, at least a fiscal conservative).  I’ve never joined a union, never taken a government handout (though I was a single father for three years), and always believed that persistence and diligence were the keys to success.  And I still do.  But what I have come to understand is that my beliefs in the power and rights of the individual are not necessarily wrong, but simply plugged into the wrong economic paradigm.

It is that paradigm which, by vice of its inefficiency and inequality, manifests extreme violence and horror. And while tragic shootings draw our attention, they are merely one symptom.  Gandhi once said that poverty was the worst violence of all.

I am responsible. I desire money and recognition, when creativity and innovation are their own rewards.  I buy questionably nutritious food and cheap goods, because sustainable products and processes require effort, and I’m busy.  I am impatient to live beyond my means, so I consider a bank loan to buy a house, or get a new, comfortable car.

The cure?  I need to be moving myself and my loved ones towards a resource-based economy.  I need to be making inroads to an economic paradigm in which sustainability and reciprocity beget equality and render greed and power obsolete.

It can seem like a pipe dream, yet I know it is within my grasp.  I’m certain it is within all of our grasps.

And by writing this, I hope I am taking the first step.

Newtown

Each time I think about writing anything which addresses the tragedy in Newtown, I find myself at a loss.  When I first heard about it Friday morning, my mind immediately went into a protective mode.  I have two kids.  I couldn’t bring myself to imagine the scenario.  When I told my son about it at dinner the next night, tears stung my eyes.

Over the next five days, I quietly scanned the news, the op-eds, the posts on Facebook and the articles in the blogosphere.  A lot of good people seem to be trying to come up with ways that we can prevent something like this from happening again.  After this time to absorb things, I figured I ought to give it a try.

Sort of.

Among the various responses I’ve been observing, someone mentioned Gandhi.  When Gandhi was a school teacher, one of his students was bullied and beaten up.  Gandhi then went into a deep meditation on how he may have been responsible for the situation.  This has struck me more than anything else.

Thinkers like Gandhi seemed to have an advanced understanding of what emotional reactions are all about.  Rather than rush off to figure out how to stop bullies in his school, or to retaliate, Gandhi’s response was to stop and sit and meditate and search his soul for his own culpability.

I admit, it’s challenging to think of this as a legitimate response.  I live in an action-oriented society.  My heroes are action heroes.  I don’t watch movies about people who go and meditate after a crisis.  (Unless I’m watching the biopic, “Gandhi,” starring Ben Kingsley.)  I watch movies where the heroes beat the crap out of the bad guys.

In my own life, if someone were to try to do harm to me or my family, I would probably try to beat the crap out of them.  (Or, who knows, I might do what Louis C.K. does in the episode where he and his daughters are accosted on the street – throw something through a window and attract the police – that was both smart and funny.)  But with the Newtown shooting, while it is “my life” in a larger way, it’s different.

What I can do about Newtown tragedy is something within the scope of my personal life.  I can consider my own responsibility for this unbelievable tragedy.  I can be a considerate and responsible parent to my two children.  I can talk to my eight year-old about what happened, and answer any questions he may have.  I can continue to limit the “entertainment” in his life to the most non-violent movies and kids shows.  I can balance any fantasy he indulges in by consistently re-introducing him to the natural world.

It is my humble belief that we are losing ourselves to fantasy.  We are going ever inward – inward to our phones, computers, and brains.  I am guilty of it, too.  I spend too much time watching shows like The Walking Dead or, sitting around writing made-up stories and not enough time giving back to the people around me.  This doesn’t mean I “blame TV” for what happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  But I do feel my culture is more immersed than ever in “second-life” video games, war games, the occult and all the rest.

The thing is, we have too much of everything.  Some people talk about the U.S. as a repressed culture.  I don’t see that.  I see every kind of gore, fantasy, pornography, and perversion.  There is nothing left which is taboo, nothing which is hidden from the eyes of our youth.  Granted, fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Warcraft has its good guys and its bad guys, but I wonder if some people can tell the difference.

These killers of late, they are all in their early twenties.  My gut tells me that they are people disconnected from reality, but that’s just an instinctive guess.  Diagnosing them would be dubious at best.  Maybe there is bipolarity, maybe there is antisocial personality disorder.  Maybe they are cold and calculating and have their wits about them as they meticulously plan out their heinous crimes.  Maybe they are narcissists who think the media will turn them into superstars.

I am responsible for them.  I live in a society which pits stardom and fame above all else.  Where people rush the counters and maul one another to get the latest shiny toy craze on Black Friday.  Where zeitgeists like Harry Potter and Call of Duty absorb people like a cultish craze.  I have an iPhone made by people who make diddly-squat and live in conditions so deplorable that suicide is endemic to their lives.  I drive around in a car that guzzles fossil fuel.  I am selfish and self-indulgent, even on my best days when I am trying to be a nice guy and a good father.

We don’t like to look at these things, though.  We would rather talk about mental health care because we, the ones talking, aren’t in the throes of a mental health crisis.  (Or if we are, we are getting the care we need.)  We would like to announce our very noble position on gun control – assault rifles weren’t what the Constitution’s authors were saying, we like to point out.  And they weren’t.  You could throw all guns away and I could care less.  But I don’t think doubling mental health care dollars or stricter gun regulation or security-patrolled elementary schools would make any difference – if anything they would require more legislation and enforcement adding to our already complex society.

The issue behind Newtown is so deeply enmeshed in us and so protean that it’s hard to really see.  A religious person might call it “evil.”  Let’s just call it “it.”

The Newtown tragedy is another one of its expressions, or manifestations.  We see it revealed in the vicious and vehement partisanship of the recent election.  We see it in the debate surrounding global warming and climate change.  It is a part of the storms tearing us apart; atmospheric, polemic, and spiritual.  It is watching us as we are divided and conquered.

We have a tragedy like Newtown, and the global community switchboard lights up.  People point fingers and push their agenda.  I am guilty of this, too.  Here I am using this opportunity to advance my opinion.

But that’s what this is, really.  An opportunity.  To risk being cliché, it’s an opportunity to “be the change” I wish to see in the world.  It’s not time to say “We need the Bible in school” any more than it’s the time to get all up in arms about the dude who says “We need the Bible in school.”  Whether I’m pro-gun control or all for amped up mental health care doesn’t matter.  Whether I’m old-fashioned or new-aged, it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter one bit to the children who were killed in Newtown.

The way I choose to honor those children is in how I live my life.  I need to meditate each day about the tragedy in Newtown, and consider my own responsibility.  I need to renew my beliefs.  I need to reinvigorate my own personal campaigns; eat better, grow my own food, invest in sustainable energy, refrain from excess consumption, monitor my children’s habits, and stay in touch with them – stay in touch with them, stay in touch with them.

It sounds corny, I know.  But if all we do is continue bickering about who’s right and who’s wrong and how to “solve” this, history is just going to keep repeating.

And repeating.

My response to Newtown is to take a fresh look within.  To ask myself how I can be someone who, by example, by the deeds of the action-hero I like to think I am in my own personal life, can participate in the creation of a better world.

everything is harder now, so relax and have a beer

Technology making your life easier?  No way.  Technology is probably taking a potential job away from you right now as you read this.  Unless you’re a young Millennial born with an iPod in your mouth, much of the technology we cherish is giving us more to do, not less, and simultaneously replacing human power in the workforce.

We are also racing towards what eminent inventor and author Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity.”  The singularity is, roughly speaking, that moment when the exponential growth of technology gets so rapid that one advance is indistinguishable from the next.  This singularity could even give birth to true artificial intelligence.

Which is weird, about time speeding up, because college seems to be taking people longer than ever.  And more women are now in college than men.  For men, that means less chicks around to pick up their dirty socks and tend to the young ‘uns. For women, that makes picking up the dirty socks and raising the young ‘uns less tenable than ever.  Maybe the robots berthed in the singularity will help with all of that, like those maid-bots from The Jetsons.

Will robots actually make our lives any easier?  Not likely.  Having an autonomous robot around will make that toddler eating pine needles from the Christmas tree and pooping down the side of her leg seem like a piece of cake.  Robots will be high maintenance and there is always a chance they will go crazy and start trying on your clothes, emulate your voice and try to be you.  This may sound like the clone you dreamed of as a kid going to third grade in your stead, but that clone wouldn’t try to kill you when it realized it wasn’t a real live boy.

We used to be tribes.  Even in our agrarian history, which has all but vanished, we could depend on our extended families to help us raise the kids, keep the house in order, and keep our sanity.  We’ve gone from tribes to nuclear families to perpetually neurotic, single Jerry Seinfelds.  It no wonder the US birth rate is on the decline; raising a kid now is often a solitary job.  In a Huffington Post article, Amy Morrison talks about why you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

In the good old fashioned nuclear family days, people either believed in creation or in evolution.  Today, the Pope has a book out claiming that a sixth century monk got the birth of Jesus Christ wrong, screwing up the entire Christian calendar.  Plus, co-opted pagan celebrations, such as the Romans’ mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December, the feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) or the holidays of the barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe are considered to be largely responsible for our biggest holiday of the year.  If you look closely, pagan solar festivals and strange druidic traditions (keeping a pine tree indoors for a month) hardly smack of the warmth and innocence we like to attribute Christmas.

Evolution is under the microscope, too.  In another recent article in the Huffington Post, Tia Ghose writes:

“For decades, scientists have tried to recreate the primordial events that gave rise to life on the planet. In the famous Miller-Urey experiments reported in 1953, scientists electrically charged a primordial soup of chemicals that mimicked the chemical makeup of the planet’s early oceans and found that several simple amino acids, the most primitive building blocks of life, formed as a result.

But since then, scientists aren’t much further along in understanding how simple amino acids could have eventually morphed into simple, and then complex, living beings.”

Ugh.  So some very important and smart scientists are basically saying… “Ah, so exactly HOW did all of this evolution happen?”

As it is, we humans have struggled since the libraries of Alexandria were first built to decide on what constitutes the beginning of even an individual life, or how much that life is worth, and now the whole thing is in question 5,000 years later.  So much for this Age when we are supposed to be expanding into some sort of super consciousness and getting all the juicy answers to things.

But maybe that’s just it.  Maybe this time in our lives, this placeholder zone between epochs, this moment anticipated by the Mayans and Nostradamus and celestial observers of old is not about academic answers.  Maybe this is a time when this question-and-answer method no longer applies.

…Making it all the harder to navigate today’s swiftly moving, technology-hogging, every-man-for-himself world.  So relax, take a break.  If you’re one of those thirty-something statistics still living at home after getting your masters or PhD, or still just trying to figure out what the hell you are doing with your life, it’s not your fault.

Put your feet up on your parents’ coffee table and have a beer.  Or, if you don’t drink alcohol, have a coke.  And not a diet coke either.  The aspartame could kill you.

Like the grapefruit juice you mix with your prescription drugs could kill you because it slows down your body’s absorption and you could overdose.  Oh, and stay put; don’t go to the movies or to the mall because there has been a rash of rampaging killers lately.  Avoid vacation spots like the ocean because the sea level is likely rising.  And now you see, on top of all of your angst about what to do with your life is the big question of what we are all going to do about life in general.

The options are before you:  Become an urban homesteader in the event that the coastal flooding begets mass migration which begets food shortages?  What about the fact that the growing population and ostensible working class prosperity in the Middle East is expected to require more of the earth’s resource to sustain itself then we currently have at our disposal?  What about the fiscal future of our country?  What about the fact that government seems to be getting so big and invasive, and privacy such a retreating memory that you have nowhere left to go and just do your own thing?

Sure, every generation has had it rough.  You hear about guys who used to log the Adirondacks.  The first lumberers in the 1800s. French-Canadians and Scots-Canadians.  Men who went well beyond what we think of as ‘hearty.’  Men before the cross-cut saw or even the double-bitted axe.  They slept on shoddy blankets laid over balsam or pine boughs in foul-smelling shacks.  They woke at three in the morning in the winter and worked the woods by pine torchlight.  They ate marsh hay sprinkled with whiskey.  When they got their time off, they would head to the taverns and brothels where they would screw everything that moved, fight a man who looked like something they didn’t like, drink until they had to work again, and then they would go back to work.  They were called distempered and indolent.

Oh and before that there were the Dark Ages.

So people have had it rough for a long time.  But, were they aware of how tough it was, though? That’s the key.  They probably weren’t.  You, you know how tough things are, and that makes it all the harder to bear up under the pressure.

Everything is harder now, and you know it.  So take some time for yourself.  Figure out what the next step is.  Like the Dalai Lama says, the world doesn’t need any more successful people.  What the world needs now are healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers.

We have been given a golden hall pass from the Lama.  Let’s use it wisely.

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