Thursday, October 30, 2008


For several days I found myself growing progressively more agitated about the possibility that my wife and I might join the ranks of the homeless. Job listings seemed to be getting scarcer, no recruiters were calling, and the economy was still in free-fall. Though the worst case was probably still a few months away, it was looking more and more probable. My years-long rumination about the future of the world and the satisfaction I found when my research seemed to reach some solid conclusions, were instantly replaced by trepidation about its very real implications for my daily life.

In addition to those concerns, the presidential election was coming to a head. Despite encouraging poll numbers, there was still the prospect that the worst of the choices – Republicans whose philosophy had been behind the screwing of the country and the world over the last eight years – might still win, by deceit or outright stealing. If John McCain did win and due to age or health problems couldn’t complete his term, his hand-chosen successor was likely to make an even worse mess as an amplified, if dumber, version of George W. Bush.

Then an event occurred that changed my perspective so radically that, had I still been religious, I might have assigned supernatural status to it.

Attendance was falling at meetings of a writers’ support group I headed (another disappointment); as I was getting ready to leave home for one such meeting that would possibly have no other attendees, my sister-in-law called for help. Her car had stalled on a side street, possibly because it was out of gasoline. I brought a gallon of gas to her, but the car still wouldn’t start. Deducing that the car’s incline might be interfering with the gas reaching the engine, I brought another gallon. As I was pouring the gas, a half-hour after my meeting was supposed to start, one of the brightest and most spectacular meteors I had ever seen flew by. The car’s battery was practically dead, but with some help from a passerby we were able to jump-start it.

On my way home I felt the warm glow of having done something selfless, a feeling I had felt many times in the past. But this time it had special significance because it so totally changed my mood. I was, in an odd way, happy again. Fear had been overcome by something other than its polar opposite, anticipation. The term “grace” came to mind, which I recognized as the state of willingness and acting to improve people’s lives – everyone’s – with no special priority placed on one’s own. It was a characteristic, when shared, which enabled people to come together and act together instead of pulling apart; that in a strange and beautiful way helped the individual more than self-interest ever could, but without the guilt of taking from others.

I felt that whatever the future might hold, the minute-by-minute experience of life, that in fact defined life, was what really counted. In an earlier time, I would have scoffed at such a statement or its common variant “live in the moment” as a hollow philosophy that was irresponsible or just plain ignorant; and I would have been right, if grace was not involved. With people interacting with each other out of care for each other (not just “working together”), truth and knowledge would flow freely, what I had long ago theoretically derived as a prerequisite for universal happiness. With a healthy respect for the rest of Nature, the future really would take care of itself, because the feedback mechanisms necessary for adapting to a changing environment would be healthy and functional.

Holding on to this state of mind, I was able to re-frame the conditions that had earlier lead to my fear, and better understand what drove others to embrace their fear. Simply put, we were all thinking of ourselves as being isolated in a hostile world. Substituting groups for individuals (those people like us, such as families, professions, or cultures) only partially dulled the sense of isolation that emanated from the “us versus them” approach to the world. I was seeing myself as corporations saw me, as an object (“service provider”) in competition with other objects and thus forced to sell a limited set of my “capabilities” in exchange for the right to survive. Politics is by nature competition, and I was afraid that “we” might be subject to the will of a “them” that thrived on the fracturing power of the arbitrary definition of “good” and “bad” people.

It is one thing to intellectually acknowledge, as I have many times in the past, that people are not good or bad; actions are. It’s quite another to live it. We are all hardwired to objectify our world, and I am no exception. Grace, when we can attain it, enables us to transcend this basic flaw in our makeup; what the founders of Judaic-Christian religion might have really been referring to as “sin.” This state, which I now recognize in Barack Obama and that he appears to be triggering in many of his supporters, is what may ultimately save us all, in the truest senses of “save” and “all.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Government and the Economy

A familiar mantra on the political Right argues that the nation’s economy is best served by reduced government spending, taxes, and business regulation. To do otherwise is to restrict growth, encourage waste, and invite socialism. This argument assumes some things that have not been proven true: (1) much of the money spent by the government is wasted; (2) the government does not support economic growth and capitalism; (3) businesses are sufficiently self-regulating; and (4) the public and private components of the economy are interchangeable, except that the private component is inherently more efficient.

Of the assumptions built into the Right’s assertion, the last one blows the others apart. Government and industry have two distinctly different economic roles, and are therefore not interchangeable. Government’s purpose is to maximize the wealth and longevity of society, while private industry’s purpose is to maximize the wealth and longevity of individuals. There is some interplay between the two: By providing resources and infrastructure (both physical and social), government supports private industry and individuals, and therefore economic growth and capitalism; in return, industry and individuals support government by paying taxes and following laws. Since industry is composed of people whose goal is to acquire as much power as possible, it has no inherent stake in controlling its impact on anyone other than its direct suppliers and customers (self-regulation).

Because their purposes are different, the definition of “waste” must be different for government and industry: For government, resources (including labor) are wasted if they do not serve the public good; for industry, resources are wasted if they translate into costs that restrict choices available to individuals. The solution to excess waste in government is therefore not to reduce its inputs, but to make it more efficient, since society (industry included) depends heavily on what it provides.

There is a grain of truth in the prediction that increased taxes and regulation can lead to socialism (social control of the economy). Many taxes (and tax “breaks”) are used to encourage or discourage certain behavior, and regulation explicitly alters the behavior of business. The controls used by government (in our country, the society) are legitimate to the extent that they protect and provide equal access to resources and infrastructure; they lose legitimacy when they attempt to do anything else. Government intervention in the economy may temporarily appear socialist if it must wrest control of resources and infrastructure from private individuals or organizations who are limiting its access by everyone else. True socialism exists, however, when the government institutionally and permanently controls all aspects of the economy (private, in addition to common elements).

Like it or not, a society is most healthy when everyone has equal access to adequate resources and infrastructure, and individuals have the freedom to maximize their own happiness through what they do with those things. Because individuals can’t do everything, especially in large populations with highly complex interactions, they create organizations with specific roles. Government, one such organization, acquires and provides the basic requirements for everyone, while businesses in private industry are organizations that enable individuals to pursue their own happiness. As long as these organizations stick to their specific roles and perform them well, there is no reason for them to clash.

Unfortunately, the world is running out of useful natural resources, which is forcing a colossal shift in every economy – especially the rich ones like ours. Dissatisfaction with governments, given their responsibility in this area, will only grow as we get closer to the limit. We must be careful not to assign blame for this universal problem, to government or anyone else, but rather we need to all work together to deal with it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Preparation Deficit

If new economic growth must be prepared for by identifying additional resources and creating the infrastructure to consume them, then existing growth that is proceeding without sufficient resources and infrastructure should ideally cease until such preparation can be completed.

Every group, from families to nations, depends on a basic set of resources and infrastructure which has typically been provided for by Nature and primarily provides life support (air, water, food, and climate). That which cannot be supplied directly by Nature has been provided by institutions in a society (such as governments), and includes both physical necessities (for example, transportation infrastructure such as roads) and support of organized and non-destructive behavior (such as common rules of behavior and education). Built on top of the common infrastructure and using the common resources are the specialized transportation and processing structures that organizations within the population need to provide the variety of complexity they desire (enables consumption).

When activity becomes dysfunctional throughout a population, its most influential causes are likely to be systemic; this is the main reason that people expect their governments to address them. Troubleshooting the problem begins with the question of whether there is a deficiency in common resources, infrastructure, or both. Damage control must also proceed – minimizing the impact of any such deficiencies – which should include cessation of growth which tends to exponentially multiply the effects. The troubleshooting process should also include testing the validity of the society’s assumptions both about itself and the environment in which it operates (ongoing testing of this type is a role of basic research).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wasted Growth

One sure-fire way to accumulate waste is to assume uncontrolled growth.

In the case of an organization such as a corporation, growth requires that additional resources be located, extracted, and converted into useful products and services which in turn must be marketed and exchanged for other products, services, or resources. All of this requires infrastructure (or as businesses call it, “capital” and “overhead”), which enables everything else to happen.

If growth in infrastructure falls behind growth in operations (everything else), the tendency of many organizations is to skimp on the quality of the infrastructure. This may enable short term gain, but it will ultimately degrade the effectiveness of the additional operations, thus wasting some of the resources spent on them. The waste generated in this fashion tends to grow exponentially, since additional infrastructure (and the resources spent on it) often depends on existing infrastructure to function properly.

Degradation of operations due to inadequate infrastructure can lead to reduction of resources needed to fuel an organization’s growth, or even its survival. The mechanism for this is the reaction of consumers of the organization’s output to unmet expectations: choosing to pay less or find another supplier. The reduction translates into lower consumption by the organization and possibly further decline in quality and quantity of both infrastructure and operations.

To avoid this potential death spiral, infrastructure should always precede the operations it supports and be built and maintained with the highest quality. Resource availability should always be factored into planning for growth, with enough on-hand to support the organization before income from operations can be acquired, and the amount of total resources identified so that the lifetime of the organization can be estimated and its termination planned for (a vital step that is often overlooked).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Economic Consumption

Just as the interesting aspects of an electronic circuit are the variations in energy over time (“signals”) rather than the net amount of energy used, the world’s economy is primarily concerned with more than just the extraction of resources. Using the example of batteries and a light bulb, the point of the circuit is to create light, not to drain the battery.

Economic theory assumes that natural resources are inexhaustible. When one type of resource is running low, people will find and substitute another kind of resource for it. This same logic applies to the configurations of those resources -- products and services. The mechanism for substitution is the law of supply and demand, which in the electrical model corresponds to the truism that the amount of energy consumed by a load (such as a light bulb) can not exceed the amount of energy available in a source (such as a battery). To maintain constant power to the load (demand), the depleted energy in the battery must be replaced (the supply must remain constant, typically by switching to another battery).

The electrical term “load” can refer to any combination of devices, just as its economic analog can be a combination of factories, homes, and cars (among many mechanisms that people use to convert resources into artifacts and waste). Any electronic device can be modeled as a group of “impedances” -- resistances (which use up energy) and reactances (which modify how energy changes over time). The time variations in per-capita consumption (voltage) may therefore be explained as the result of a complex interaction between economic “reactances” within our “economic circuit,” as well as a set of impedances in the environment that permit resources of different types to pass into and out of the circuit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Consumption Potential

The relationship I’ve identified between consumption and population is analogous to the relationship between power and current in a direct current electrical circuit. In the analogy, per-capita consumption corresponds to electrical potential (voltage) and the multiplier of population to get per-capita consumption corresponds to resistance (as in Ohm’s Law).

My mathematical modeling suggests that the overall “resistance” is unchanging in the world “circuit” and that “voltage” is the primary variable that affects “current.” The voltage varies exponentially with changes in the amount of available “energy” (resources), a variation that is primarily offset by control of the “voltage source” (resource extraction and distribution technology).

Because in a closed system “energy” (non-renewable resources) cannot increase, “voltage” must inevitably decrease – and with it, “current.” The world, in a sense, is like a light bulb and a fixed number of batteries; first one battery is attached to the light bulb, then another (in “series” with the first), and then another, until all the batteries are connected. Just as a battery has internal resistance that increases over time, causing the voltage across the battery to drop, the resources consumed by humanity become waste which inhibits further consumption, causing per-capita consumption (and population) to decrease.