Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Human Society as Neural Network

A truly democratic political system would offer ways for citizens to share their opinions (information) about what they feel are acceptable levels of pollution, rates of taking or depletion of resources, extent of paving or monoculture, etc. As members of a society, we have a collective duty to share in deciding limits to certain kinds of human impacts on the Earth. In a truly democratic society, opinions (information) about what limits are acceptable would be conveyed to the economic actors (e.g.: corporations) that produce these various kinds of impacts on the Earth. This information would be conveyed in a way so as to affect the behavior of these actors. If most of the people polled in a random survey express the opinion that there is too much pollution or too rapid extraction of limited resources of particular kinds, industries would change the amount of pollution they produce or the rate at which they take those resources. The expressed will of the people would be borne out in reality.

In an economic system, information is conveyed and value is represented by money. If the signal that the people want to send to industry is that we value clean air and water so much that we feel it is necessary for industries to try harder to avoid fouling the air and water, then the most efficient and fair way to communicate this information effectively (so it has an effect) is to attach a fee to those actions that are causing the detrimental impact. If most people responding to a survey feel that a particular pollutant should be more strictly limited, then imposing a fee or raising the fee would give a signal to industry to try harder to reduce that kind of environmental impact. On the other hand, if a random survey revealed that most people feel that a particular kind of emission is not a problem and that it would be OK to allow more of it, then the associated fee could be reduced. Reducing or removing the fee would send a signal to industry that they need not try so hard to reduce that form of environmental impact. When pollution or resource depletion or noise or other potentially adverse impact is not a problem, then a lower fee or no fee makes sense. Attention and resources can then be turned toward more pressing concerns.

A fee is a straightforward way for society to manage pollution and the taking of limited natural resources. Alternately, free market auctions of a limited number of natural resource user-permits could be used to make industries pay a price when they cause adverse impacts on the environment. The auction price of environmental impact permits, or the appropriate fees, would make environmental impacts cost what society collectively decides they must cost in order to induce industry to put the necessary amount of effort into conservation and pollution prevention. 'Necessary effort' is the amount of effort required to bring overall impacts to levels that most people find acceptable. And in a society that respects public property rights, the people would receive a monetary payment equal to their share of the value of natural resources taken by corporate interests in pursuit of economic gain. Fee proceeds would go to all people, to each an equal amount.

Biomass is increasingly being used as fuel. Fuel prices will increase in the coming years, as fossil fuels become more scarce and as governments enact policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There will be more pressure to convert meadows and forests (what is left of them) into cropland to produce biomass fuel. Also, some farmers who now grow food will switch from food crops to fuel crops. These changes will push food prices higher.

Higher prices for food and new markets for biofuels will mean more incentive for farmers to destroy wildlife habitat to grow more food and fuel. But a public property rights paradigm (a respect for public and private property rights) could mean less incentive for farmers to destroy meadows and forests. If we were to decide as a society (if most people polled in a random survey were to say) that monoculture cropland adversely impacts ecological health because it involves the destruction of diverse ecosystems and wildlife habitat, then we could decide through a random survey what limit on the overall extent of monoculture is most appropriate. In a democratic society, we can identify the 'most appropriate limit' as that which reflects the will of the largest number of people. We could charge a fee to landowners who convert diverse communities of life to monoculture cropland (or who maintain monoculture on landscape that otherwise could support a diverse ecosystem). We could charge such a fee, and we should charge such a fee, if most people felt that such disruption and destruction of wildlife habitat had become excessive and should be curtailed. When we have fees in place according to what land-use types people perceive as problematic and what limits to those activities are deemed appropriate, then on questions specifically related to those impacts, we could say we live in a democracy.

A public property rights paradigm would tend to decrease the social instability that comes with poverty and wealth disparity. Equal sharing of environmental impact fee proceeds (equal sharing of the value to the economy of natural resource wealth) offers a simple, direct way to reduce the hardship caused by rising food prices. Increasing cost of food hurts the poor and dispossessed the most, of course. But an equal payment to all people in the form of a natural wealth stipend helps the poor more than it helps the wealthy. By expanding our respect of property rights to include public property rights, we make a more equitable society. A sharing of natural wealth promotes economic stability because a natural wealth stipend will assure every citizen that, even when they loose their job due to economic slowdown, they will maintain some economic clout. Within this alternative paradigm, a complete loss of confidence and a precipitous drop in spending by individuals simply will not occur under any circumstance. Sharing natural wealth makes a more just and stable economy.

This paradigm that has natural resource wealth being owned equally by all promotes justice by eliminating extreme poverty and reducing disparity of wealth. It also embodies within the economic structure the awareness that biodiversity is more valuable than biomass.

Within this paradigm, expressions of opinion by the people about what are the most appropriate limits on human transformation of the Earth would directly influence the things people do that affect the human community and that impact the larger environment. Similarly, signals from neurons in biological brains affect the behavior of other neurons, and they affect conditions in the larger organism. A system of fees on those human activities that people feel are harmful or should be limited would function as an autonomic nervous system for Earth by helping to maintain a healthy ecological balance. The fees could also be seen as a sensory nervous system for the planet, reducing and preventing injury to or disruption of ecosystems. We become not a cancer on the Earth, fouling and depleting resources beyond what is sustainable for ourselves and for the larger community of life. Instead, we become more like brain cells for a healthy planet, with an economy that functions within limits that the larger ecological system can support.

Neurons, as members of a community, help themselves by helping their neighbors

Natural law requires respect of PUBLIC property rights along with PRIVATE property rights

Friday, March 12, 2010

Charity is no answer to systemic injustice.

Only a deep commitment to basic moral principles can resolve the systemic flaws that produce a civilization that is neither equitable nor sustainable.

The Golden Rule requires a strong respect for human rights, which include rights to property. Respecting property rights means respecting the right (and fulfilling the duty) of property owners to participate in the benefits (and responsibilities) of ownership. But we are committing a serious error when we only pay attention to some of the fundamental human rights that we can call property rights. We respect private property rights with the full force of law, while almost completely neglecting questions relating to ownership and management of public or commons property--the natural resource wealth of the planet. Legitimate governments must respect the moral principle that recognizes the Earth and natural resource wealth as a shared legacy, a kind of commons or public property vested in the people at large. Citizens who desire to live in a society that is democratic and just have a responsibility to ensure that their governments function in a way that ensures that commons or public property rights are respected.

Ownership in the Earth and the benefits and responsibilities of ownership ought to be vested within all of us equally. We need a paradigm shift – profound and sweeping change in our politics and economics. A society that respects public property rights will require industries that take natural resources or emit pollution in pursuit of profit to pay money to the people when they take or degrade that which belongs to all. The fee amounts to be paid could float up incrementally, until they are high enough so that businesses have the necessary incentive to change their practices so as to bring overall environmental impacts into line with the will of the people. A system of random surveys could reveal whether environmental impacts caused by human activity are being kept within acceptable limits. A democratic society would aim at creating conditions (rates of taking of resources or putting pollution) that most people say are about right. If most people felt that there should be more strict controls on pollution or slower taking of natural resources, we could raise the fees charged to industry to put pollution or take resources. Our political system would serve as an arbiter between owners and users of natural resources. As owners, we would all share in the benefits of ownership. We would share the rent proceeds from those environmental impact fees. We would share the civic duty to help decide what the overall limits ought to be for various human impacts on the Earth. Perhaps when we periodically receive our natural resource wealth stipend, we might also answer a few random survey questions on topics that most people agree are questions of public concern.

Within such a public property rights paradigm, the survey question about whether we ought to be more strict or more lenient in our control of environmental impacts is the same question as whether we ought to require corporations to pay more or less money to the people when they take resources or cause pollution. The self-interest of citizens to prefer higher payments to the people when corporations cause environmental damage or degradation helps to promote the general interest of the larger community of life and future inhabitants of Earth to establish stronger incentives to reduce environmental impacts of various kinds. Corporations seek higher profits, then, not by trying to ever-more-effectively externalize their costs onto the larger community but by trying to reduce environmental impacts in whatever way feasible. The happy coincidence between individuals' self-interest and the general interest is mirrored in the relationship between the corporate interest and the general interest. What is better for the corporation (reduce expenses; Reduce environmental impacts) will also be what is better for the larger community of life.

On a thoroughly populated planet, neglect of basic moral principles can make a world of grinding poverty and environmental degradation inevitable. Neglect of public property rights means that extreme poverty can exist alongside great opulence. Such neglect means that environmental damage and depletion of resources is more profitable than what would be the case if industries had to pay money to the people when they use or use up natural resources that belong to all.

If citizens of a free and democratic society resolve to live and act only in ways consistent with moral principle, we will see a shift in voting patterns toward green and libertarian alternatives (or left-libertarian). If we combine these threads, we may find both the principles that define a proper limit to government power (no first-use of force or coercion by government) and the programs that allow us to fulfill our responsibilities to one another and to the larger community of life on Earth.

Societies require for their proper functioning that members give due regard to the interests and concerns of their fellow members. If we look at a collection of neurons as a community or society of members in communication with and interacting with one another, we may see patterns that bring to mind some basic principles or rules of social interaction.

Because of the kind of molecular-quantum-machine entity that it is, a neuron has the tendency to want to be either in a resting state or in a state of steady activity. A neuron is no more likely to want to remain in a state of being somewhat active than is a ball likely to 'want' to roll along the mountain crest between two valleys. Neurons make adjustments in how they interact with their neighbors such that, if they are operating at a pace that is a bit slower than their most comfortable steady pace, they will increase their connections to their more active neighbors, so that they themselves become more active and thereby approach their ideal steady pace. Conversely, if a neuron is nearly quiet, it will want to decrease connections with active neighbors so that it can enter a state of more restful quiet.

But a neuron may not make these discernments and adjustments only with an “eye” toward what will improve its own state. It is a decision machine and it may try to make its adjustments in a way that allows it to meet its own goals while also aiding its neighbors in achieving their goals. There may be several ways that a neuron could adjust its pattern of connections with its neighbors that would improve its own state. The neuron may try to make those adjustments that most benefit both itself and the larger community. Otherwise, any attempt by one neuron to improve its own state might interfere with or frustrate the efforts of neighboring neurons in their efforts to improve their states. By trying to discern the states of and the interests of neighboring neurons (which of them are trying to become more active, and which are trying to move to a state of rest) and then acting to improve those states or serve those interests, a neuron improves the efficiency or functionality of the neural network and the quality of its work.

Within each neuron, there are countless microtubules that can connect and disconnect with neighboring microtubules to create, from a large number of possibilities, specific pathways for ions to travel. Both the tips of the tubes and the molecules in the walls of the tubes are in a peculiar state of oscillation between quantum and classical realms. There are moments when the pattern of connections among tube tips are in quantum superposition. It's as if the tubules were simultaneously connected to several of their neighbors (and those neighbors to several of their neighbors) and were sampling the various possibilities to see which pathway provides the best 'fit' for the context.

For a neuron, the golden rule says to make your decisions about how to interact with your neighbors in a way that aids them in achieving their goals of reaching a more comfortable state. Likewise for members of human society: We must follow our own Golden Rule to ensure the proper functioning of our society and civilization. We must act in ways that show concern for the interests of our fellows. Brains function only because neurons follow their own golden rule. So should we follow our Golden Rule if we seek to establish justice and sustainability as the foundation of a properly functioning global civilization.

The Golden Rule requires that we not use government as an instrument to initiate violence or coercion against any person. We would not want others to use government against us in this way. We should not support policies that involve government agents initiating force against peaceful people. Private behavior within private spaces should not come within the purview of government.

When we learn that our systems of governance are at odds with our most basic moral precepts due to our failure to adhere to principles relating to proper moral restraints on the use of force, and to principles relating to the sharing of natural resource wealth—when we learn that our inattention to these basic principles is the cause of abject poverty and environmental degradation—we have a moral duty to take steps to remedy the situation. A different way of thinking about the power and responsibility of government (and of citizens) could ensure that our political and economic systems will serve as a foundation for a sustainable and just civilization.

Where are the voices challenging us to exercise our moral sense as we form and participate in our political and economic systems? What responsibility do our religious communities have, if any, to address questions of public property rights, to ensure a sustainable and just civilization?

Natural law requires respect of public property rights, too