Sunday, January 26, 2020

Inspired By Science Fiction

                                                                                              written 19 January 2020
                                                                                          published 26 January 2020

            Shortly after Christmas, I came down with a touch of the flu.  By good fortune, I was able to stay in bed, drink lots of water, sleep as often as I wished, and read as much light fiction as I desired.  Always a treat!  On this occasion, I reread one of my favorite science fiction classics, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy", including the two prequels and two sequels.
            The core trilogy describes a time when the human Galactic Empire is failing after 10,000 years, due to the triple diseases of despotism, maldistribution of goods, and inertia.  As I read, the Trump impeachment was unfolding against the economic inequity of capitalism, with the global climate crashing due to entrenched inaction.  
            Asimov wrote many science fiction books and defined the Laws of Robotics for the protection of humanity.  First, a robot may not injure a human, or allow a human to come to harm.  Second, a robot must obey the orders given it by a human. Third, a robot must protect its own existence.  As his robot series evolved, a more fundamental "Zeroth Law" was defined, a robot must not injure humanity or allow humanity to come to harm.
            It struck me that action guided by the Zeroth Law would be very ethical, much like the Buddhist concept of bodhisattva. From Wikipedia: "In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind for the benefit of all sentient beings."  This is similar to the Golden Rule, treating all others with the same regard as myself, an expression of compassion and empathy.
            The evolution of life on Earth includes two jumps from individuals to organized collectives.  The first was the rise of nucleated cells, building blocks of all higher organisms.  Collections of autonomous simple cells merged within one large cell, sharing critical functions for mutual benefit and increased efficiency.  The second jump was the rise of multi-celled organisms, of which humans are an example. The human body is organized to nourish every part, and draws strength from the unique capacities of every part. A healthy body operates from the Zeroth Law, avoiding deliberate injury to the body or, through inaction, allowing the body to come to harm.  A healthy body operates from the Golden Rule, with love and regard for every part.
            In the Foundation series, Asimov initially presents two solutions for reorganizing the Empire.  The first creates structure through technological and commercial domination, and the second creates structure through philosophical and psychological domination.  These are both shown to be unstable, and a third alternative is introduced, Gaia: organization through planetary self-consciousness. This eventually expanded to the concept of galactic self-consciousness. 
            Asimov's describes Gaia arising as the awakened self-consciousness associated with a human expanding to include every living being on the planet, even to the slow consciousness of all the matter of the planet.  This reflects a currently emerging quantum mechanical understanding that every speck of manifested matter is the consequence of focused consciousness redistributing the vacuum energy underlying material reality. Aboriginal cultures around the world know there is living awareness within even the most basic material forms.
            "Spontaneous Evolution", by Lipton and Bhaerman, describes the arc of life on Earth as a series of evolutionary jumps in response to extinction threats.  Their book concludes with the suggestion that our current extinction threat may be demanding a jump to planetary consciousness, similar to Asimov's fictional Gaia, with humans eventually serving as the neo-cortex for the planet.
            But this is all just concept, much like the Golden Rule.  The real trick is to experience the deep connection, not live by rules.  We don't "try" to keep our body safe. Our actions are guided by the direct experience of immediate pain when we fail. Joanna Macy suggests that we already experience the grief of our dying planet.  With practice, we can consciously experience the pain of others and the planet, due to our capacity for empathy and compassion, and the biology of mirror neurons, despite thousands of years of culture teaching us to fear and hate the other.  
            I like this hopeful vision better than thinking humans are just a disease on the planet, killing our host out of ignorance and short-sighted greed.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Rising Tide

                                                                                            written 12 January 2020
                                                                                        published 19 January 2020

            Trump and his Republican chorus keep pointing out that the economy is strong, the stock market is high, and unemployment low; proof that everything is fine.  "A rising tide floats all boats".  This comforting old capitalist aphorism suggests that economic growth is a benefit for everyone, assuming you own a seaworthy boat.  However, increase is not always good.  If your weight increases every year, you eventually experience morbid obesity, with diabetes and other health risks, and shortened life expectancy.  
            Metrics like the stock index are easy to quantify, but being broad averages, they smooth out important details, and are of little help in illuminating the condition of our society.  What does it mean that the stock market is at a record high?   Has real value increased, or is the dollar worth less each year, requiring more dollars to buy the same thing?  We bought our house 8 years ago and the "value" has increased by 50%.  We are grateful to live here, but nothing real has changed about the house, except that we couldn't afford to buy it today.  What is the social benefit of this value increase?
            Another smoothing metric is the unemployment rate, which ignores the social, or economic, value of the job a person holds.  In 1962, my widowed mother, a new teacher in San Diego with a starting salary of $8K, was able to buy a modest home for $15K.  A starting teacher today earns more than $45K, but the median home costs over $500K.  The fact of employment says nothing about the quality of life that employment can support. A significant portion of the homeless are employed.
            In the last two decades, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has more than doubled from $10T to $22T, but the national debt has quadrupled, from $5.6T to $24T, now more than the GDP.  This debt fueled growth bailed out a fraudulent banking industry and funded the endless wars in the middle east and Afghanistan, all of dubious social value.  It is easy to look flush running up debt, but it is ultimately unsustainable.
            In the last decade, massive investment in the fracking industry made America a global leader in oil production for the first time since 1972. This looks great on paper, and seems to indicate that America is energy independent.  But like much else in this economy, the process is not sustainable. Fracking is a desperation extraction technology, used only when other forms of recovery have failed.  It is extremely energy and material intensive, going after very thinly distributed oil reserves.  From an energy perspective, it returns about 4 barrels of oil for every barrel of oil expended in the recovery.  That is less energy efficient that burning firewood, and much less than the minimum energy return of 10:1 needed for a modern industrial economy. The result has been an economic loss of more than $250B since 2010.  Investors have been sinking money into the ground on the promise of good returns, but the best fields have already been developed and are declining, with no profitable payout on the horizon.  When economic reality finally hits, America will once again be at the mercy of foreign oil suppliers, many of whom we have infuriated with our incompetent operations in the middle east.
            Another way to make a sick economy look good is to defer costs and critical maintenance.  The fire situation in California is a glaring example of deferred maintenance eventually destroying parts of the entire society.  The health and environmental costs of inadequate waste disposal in the agribusiness, mining, and power industries keep increasing, while the corporate bottom line tries to look good.  In another case of denial of reality for short term economic gain, the Trump administration is now eliminating consideration of climate change in future economic development, despite the fires in Australia, or Pentagon concerns that climate issues threaten national security.  This is like designing a building while pretending that gravity doesn't apply; resulting in inevitable collapse.
            "A rising tide floods all homes" is the new aphorism coming from Florida.   But even that image implies only gradual change.  The real image of downside risk of capitalist collapse comes from Super Storm Sandy; "a storm surge destroys all homes".

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Rogue Nation

                                                                                              written 5 January 2020
                                                                                        published 12 January 2020

            The dictionary defines "rogue" as "a dishonest or unprincipled man".  A "rogue nation" is a state that does not respect other states in its international actions.
            Last week, President Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani, a very popular Iranian military leader.  This attack was done within the sovereign nation of Iraq, without their permission or notification.  Typical of Trump's decisions, he gave no notice to Congressional leaders.  Despite possible consequences, he made no plans for protecting the 45,000 American troops and untold American contractors in the region, or the citizens of our supposed allies.  
            Without a doubt, Soleimani was an enemy of the US, and responsible for the death of many Americans over the years, but the wisdom of this execution is suspect.  President Bush had an opportunity to kill Soleimani in 2007, but the decision at that time was it was more damaging to national security to make him a martyr, than to let him live.  This kind of complex assessment, involving consideration of impact on the future, the entire region, and geopolitics, seems beyond President Trump.  He acts impulsively, without forethought, and then blames everyone else for the consequences.  
            Trump may have ordered the assassination because Soleimani antagonized Trump on social media, or Trump needs a distraction from the ongoing morass of impeachment and criminal investigations.  Trump proclaims he made the call to "stop a war", despite all indications the situation is now more precarious.  The Republican hawks are puffed with pride about how tough their man is.  This is the same insanity we saw the last time Republicans ran things and we invaded Iraq in 2003, costing money and lives to this day, with nothing to show for it. A war with Iran will be an even bigger deal, with the possible disruption of the global oil economy.  We have already moved thousands more troops into the region, and called for civilians to leave.  The stock market reacted down, and the price of oil reacted up, and that is before any actual response for Iran.
            This reckless rogue behavior is typical.  During the last three years, Trump has unilaterally destabilized the middle east by; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and imposing crippling economic sanctions; pardoning U.S. soldiers and military contractors convicted of war crimes in the area; supplying arms to Saudi Arabia so that the kingdom can bombard Yemen; changing the Israeli-Palestinian situation in Israel's favor.  He abruptly betrayed of our Kurdish allies in Syria, which cost American prestige and respect in the region, to the benefit of Russia.  He ridicules foreign democratic leaders and fawns over dictators.  He has casually disclosed sensitive intelligence information and assets, compromising coordination with allies and weakening NATO.  He has started trade disputes with both allies and adversaries, depressing the global economy.  He unilaterally withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement, despite mounting evidence that the crisis is real and increasing, demanding unified global response.
            An October, 2019 article in the Huffpost, titled "What If The World Treated The U.S. Like A Rogue State?" considers the problem, and what leverage could be brought to bear.  "Under Trump, America is in the business of actively creating or deepening threats to the world.  For a while, it looked as if Trump might attack North Korea, and recent events may lead to war with Iran.  Along the way, his administration has trashed so many diplomatic rules and norms that the entire edifice of postwar stability is at risk." Where America was once a trusted leader of the free world, we are now an object of concern and ridicule.
            America has a huge economic advantage because the dollar is the primary reserve currency, with most global trade passing through our banking system, even if the goods do not.  This postwar advantage couldn't be challenged until recently.  The Euro and the Chinese Yuan are beginning to be used in international transactions, particularly in oil trade, as the rest of the world looks for an alternative the dollar thuggery.  It would be costly to sanction America, and disengage from the dollar, but as Trump flaunts his rogue nature, the incentive grows.  
            Even if Trump resigned tomorrow, the damage is done.  It is hard to build a reputation for integrity, but easy to lose it.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Good Versus Evil

                                                                                              written 31 December 2019
                                                                                                published 5 January 2020

            Last week I saw the latest Star Wars film, episode 9, "The Rise Of Skywalker".  I still remember the impact of seeing the first Star Wars movie, episode 4, "A New Hope", in 1977.  Lines stretched all around the theater and people went back multiple times.  As is typical of this kind of a series, episode 9 was adequate, but a pale version of the first film. 
            In 2002, three blockbuster movies opened for the holiday season.  The second episode of "Harry Potter", the second episode of "Lord Of The Rings", and the fifth of the "Star Wars" series.  All were mythic stories of the hero's journey, facing challenges, coming to power, and prevailing.  Small groups of people fight against the apparently insurmountable force of evil in order to preserve their society.  The fact that all three series were financial successes shows the appeal of such a story to the larger community.
            All three series end with similar crescendo.  Lord Voldemort has regained power and gathered a great army to destroy Hogwarts and dominate the wizarding world.  Sauron has regained power and gathered a great army to dominate and enslave Middle Earth.  The Sith Lord Palpatine has regained power and gathered a great army to dominate and destroy the free Republic.  Each is overthrown at the last minute by the valor, skill, and fortitude of the hero or heroine in the story.  The moral is that good overcomes evil eventually, a story that is as relevant today as it was "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away".  
            Much like the "Force" in Star Wars, there is a connective energy that underlies all manifested reality.  The foundation of evil is the denial of that fundamental connection, and the illusion of exclusive gain.  I believe there is more going on in the world than we have been led to believe so far. One of the sources of hope and inspiration for me is a website called  Their most recent email included this thought from Amber Mucjanko. 
            "Courage is being in moments of darkness, yet never losing sight of the light, a courageous heart knows that darkness is simply the absence of light. A wise heart uses the power of light to see through the dark."   
            The national election this year is a test of our capacity to hold the image of light in the face of apparently overwhelming darkness.  Most Americans are not misogynistic pigs.  Most Americans are not racist bigots or white supremacists.  Most Americans are not corrupt or greedy.  Most Americans believe that corporations have too much economic and political power.  Most Americans want good education for their kids, and responsible gun regulation.  Most Americans don't believe corporations should poison us for short term profit, and want clean air, food, and water.  Most Americans believe climate change must be addressed while we still may have a chance.
            There are about 235M Americans eligible to vote, but 20%, 47M, are not even registered.  Most of them have never even been asked to get registered.  In the 2016 election, 58% of registered voters actually went to the polls, meaning almost 100M Americans didn't think it was important enough to vote for president.  Of the 136M American who did vote, most (54.1%) voted for someone other than Trump. His voter margins in three states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania totaled 77K people, 0.06% of the total number of voters nationally, giving him 46 electoral votes, and the majority in the Electoral College, so he was sworn in as president.
            We know that voting roll purges, and other voter suppression tactics in Republican controlled states, combined with Russian disinformation campaigns, helped sway the vote.  Trump was impeached for trying to bribe foreign influence in the 2020 election, and Republicans are unrepentant, so we should expect election problems this year as well. However, these tactics only win when the race is close.  Massive voter turnout everywhere is what shifted the House from Republican control in 2018, and that is the solution for 2020.  If you care about the future of our country, make sure you are registered, and then actually vote.  Talk with everyone you know, particularly in other states, encouraging them to register, vote, and spread the word.  
            May the Force be with you.