Saturday, December 22, 2012

More security for the least secure means more security for all

It is easier to tear down and destroy than it is to build and create. This is true whether we are talking about a tower of blocks, a work of art or a civilization. Our civilization will be stronger and more resilient when most people believe that we are all better off when we seek to improve our society and the health of the ecosystem that sustains it. Ideally, each of us should appreciate and fully identify in the development of a promising and beneficent global civilization. We should strive to make a world that recognizes the people as the rightful owners of natural resource wealth, so that the world we create together will not be a world that has more paving or pollution or noise or extraction of limited resources than what most people would say is acceptable.

A society that recognizes the people as rightful owners of the Earth's natural resources will not tolerate inequitable exploitation of this shared legacy. An owner of natural resources is one who has a right to use these resource, a right to share in the enjoyment of natural opportunities. So not just humans. An owner has a right to stop others from messing up the resource, and a right to receive compensation when damage is done or value taken. (Human beings are a life-form unique on the planet; unique in our ability to devastate ecosystems that sustain other lifeforms. Any sense within us that we have a right to use what we find in the environment and to enjoy the benefits of clean air and water, we must acknowledge a similar sense in our fellow inhabitants. If other lifeforms also have a right to share in the benefits of natural wealth, we need to limit how much we actually disturb the ecosystems that sustain them. We could do this when we recognize those rights and resolve to limit our disturbances only to levels that (most people agree) are respectful of the rights of our fellow Earthlings and are therefore also respectful of our conscience.

If fees are charged to those who use or mess up wealth of the commons (natural resources), the proceeds should go to the people. A guaranteed minimum income for everyone on Earth could result from the collection of fees for use of natural resources in agriculture, industry and commerce. A minimum income would decrease the problems associated with disparity of wealth and would end abject poverty, while the universal nature of such a payment would ensure that no one would forgo productive work for fear of loosing their public property dividend. As our economy becomes more fair and transparent, more people will come to feel an ownership in the system. They will be more likely to want to protect and improve rather than destroy. By making the least secure among us more secure, we will make everyone more secure.

Attaching fees to the use of natural resources would create a mechanism whereby citizens could exert their will on the larger economic system, to define appropriate limits to potentially harmful human activities. What levels of pollution and what rates of extraction of resources are acceptable? We could all share in deciding limits to human activities insofar as those activities impinge on the commons. If most people polled in a random survey say that they want stricter limits on monoculture or paving or a particular kind of pollution, for example, then the associated fee would increase, causing industries to try harder to reduce the offending activity. And the inverse is also true: Any activity that had been discouraged more strongly than the people now deemed necessary would have its associated fees reduced. The actual conditions on the Earth that result from the sum of all human activities would come to reflect the expressed will of the people, as reflected by random polls. (We can know that a poll is reliable and that it can serve as the basis of public policy if anyone is able to take a second poll and thereby verify the first one. Solid and reliable documentation of methodology could compliment (or substitute for) repeating a poll for verification purposes.)

In such a democratic society, we would not allow loss of biodiversity, pollution of our streams and rivers, high rates of mineral depletion, (including fossil fuels), loss of our starscape every night of the year to light pollution--at least, we would not allow these things beyond what is acceptable to the people. Given a voice in the management of natural resource wealth (which owners should have) we likely would not consent to the conditions in the world as we've made it thus far. When we fully apply our principles of ownership and fair compensation to questions of natural resource wealth management--when we recognize commons or public property rights in our accounting--much will change. We will have a synthesis of capitalism and communism in a truly democratic society. We will have a civilization that is sustainable or much more likely to be so. We will have a more just society.

Systemic flaws are not reported

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Critique of the Gaia Brain paradigm, a Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Title: Gaia Brain: Integration of Human Society and the Biosphere

Summary: On the basis of an analogy between how nonhuman organisms (from unicellular to bees) affect and are affected by their environment and how economic forces affect the use of natural resources, this paper proposes a radical transformation of human life: Children are to be educated differently, governments as they now exist will be abolished, and the labor market will be liberated from its current constraints.

The detrimental impact human beings have on the environment presents us with the "greatest challenge" the species has faced since it began to walk and talk. Economics provides the key to its solution: a "resource fee" that will be assessed to every product and service. These fees will penalize the use of environmentally damaging things, providing the "feedback mechanism" that is needed so that human culture will be in touch with its impact on the biosphere. This fee will provide the marketplace with information about the product's or service's environmental impact. They will be determined democratically by every person on the planet. Proceeds will be used to support "things we would like to see more of."

Evaluation: This paper is eminently clear; the author is able in a few paragraphs to present and weave together findings from microbiology, ethology, and economics into an intriguing and intelligible picture. On the basis of his assessment of the current "environmental crisis," he proposes an interesting (and to me, novel) solution. An effective way of affecting people's behavior is through their wallets, so charge them for the damage they are indirectly doing to the environment. The author also recognizes a number of problems which might be raised to this suggestion (Who determines the fees?, How will this money be used?, Etc.) and attempts in the limited space available to address them. Although, as proposed, this suggestion seems to be thoroughly unrealistic, there could be merits to its basic idea. Something like a "resource fee" might be worth considering as environmental policies are discussed.

The significant "leftist" tendencies of the paper weaken it. The author continues to have hopes in a world (non-) government, a radical transformation of society, a radical and universal democracy, and an elimination or significant reduction of alienation. His solutions to the problems inherent in his proposal seem weak. It is not clear to me that all people (including children -- p.7, ln.20) can ever be in a position to assess the conflicting "findings" of the "experts" of interested parties as to the true environmental impact of every product and service of every activity of every person and company of the whole world. And, without governments, how will the money be spent? Will every person on the planet have a say? How could that occur?

Recommendation:  If a clear and interesting voice from those who continue to propose radical transformations of society and of human nature is needed, this paper could find a place in the proceedings. If the volume needs to be limited to realistic proposals, it does not belong.

-- End of this anonymous critique --

Author's response:

The idea of a pollution fee or fee on use of natural resource, the commons, is not new with me. I learned about it in a college text during a course on political economy, in a book called, 'The Economics of Social Issues'. What is new, to my knowledge, is the connection drawn between this method of management of resources and the feedback mechanisms that operate in biological organisms, such as sensory nervous systems. Also new is the (proposed) practical realization of the idea that all people share in the ownership and management of the air and water, the commons, the natural resources, by receiving the proceeds of the user-fees, and by deciding what absolute limits will be placed on the use of the resources.

I do not propose that a fee be assessed on 'every product or service', but on those human actions which adversely impact the environment. If I am a reading tutor and I ask a student to read to me and I give little hints when needed, I am providing a service, but I am not adversely impacting the Commons, and would not expect to have to pay the people to compensate them for degrading a public resource. If I drive 50 miles to get to the school, I expect to pay a fee to compensate the people for degrading their resource, the air, but payment of this fee would not be a separate act. The fee would be incorporated in the price of fuel by the fact that extracting petroleum for use as fuel would have the appropriate fee attached. If I take some kind of waste products and recycle them into new product, I would not expect to have to pay a fee. " ... [C]harge them for the damage they are indirectly doing to the environment", sounds like we would examine each life, each person and make an assessment, a judgement of their impact on the earth by recording their purchases or examining their habits. That does sound totally unrealistic. But that is not what I propose. I would rather charge the corporations that damage the earth or cause environmental impacts. If individuals damage environmental health in ways that are not already accounted for in prices through this fee mechanism, then charge individuals for the damage they do directly.

As a practical matter, if a material is produced and marketed for a particular application, such as petroleum for fuel, then the producer ought to be assessed at the point of production as if delivery to market was equivalent to actual use. This way, the market will reflect in price the (perceived) ecologic impact of use. I would judge, for example, the 'damage to the earth' as the act of taking oil out of the ground, where it can be easily measured, rather than have gasoline delivered to the market prior to the assessment of any impact fees, and assessing the fees on the end-user. Making the necessary measurements as close to the point of production as possible will reduce the potential for subversion through black market trading.

It would be easier for me to accept 'unrealistic ... radical transformation' as valid and true argument against this paradigm if not for the fact that this plan could help to alleviate or eliminate some of our society's seemingly most intractable problems. This possibility of multiple benefits through the realization of this new paradigm could overcome the resistance to change that usually makes radical change such an unrealistic possibility. If not now for radical transformation, when? We have just invented a whole new media: Interactive hypermedia; the internet. Perhaps soon, this new form of human communication will be as extensive as the telephone network, which also continues to expand. We are in the midst of a long period of accelerating change. It is in times of invention of new tools that we see the greatest social, political and economic changes, because they so affect the ways that human beings interact with one another.

The basic idea here, or basic ideas are that we all own the air and water and natural resources, and to the extent that any person or corporate entity appropriates any of these resources for their own use, that entity ought to compensate the owners of the resource, the people at large. The monies paid in exchange for the use of resources should be controlled by the people, who may use these funds for whatever purpose they choose, but perhaps with a portion dedicated to community projects that enjoy the support of a large majority of citizens, and the remaining portion available for individual needs and wants. The people also should control the level of the fee, or the overall rate of resource use: The people are owners and managers of the commons.

"Something like a resource fee..." What does this mean? What thing like a resource fee might we consider? How would this something be like a resource fee and how would it be different? (Who would decide on the fee amount? How would the proceeds be spent?) 

What is meant by 'leftist' tendencies, and why is it in quotes? (I did not use the term in the paper.) Perhaps 'leftist' refers to the idea that all the people own and would help manage the commons, and would receive the proceeds of the fees charged against their use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this idea is readily understood and accepted by members of the public who have been apprised of it. Many people feel that, yes, this is a good idea, but 'they', the established interests, will never go for it. To the extent that politicians, captains of industry and citizens successfully turn the purposes of government and corporate institutions toward these ends, they can help restore a sense of integrity and efficacy to our public institutions. This idea, put in practice, would reverse the trend toward greater disparity of wealth, while preserving, even improving, free market rewards of individual effort and initiative. It would help to promote a sense among the populace that we all share a power and responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. For these reasons, 'leftist' tendencies seems to be not a weakness, but a strength.

I did not intend to suggest that children would be responsible for making decisions regarding resource use. I do suggest though, that children, students, might be involved in the process of gathering information about the opinions of the adults in their neighborhood. But the reviewer's statement brings to mind the idea that some communities might choose to celebrate exceptional, exemplary schools that cast their own mock votes about what environmental impacts ought to be allowed with such careful consideration and clear explication of the why behind their votes that they stand as a model to others of how this responsibility for stewardship of the commons might be carried out. The community might want the school's mock votes published so that they can be copied by others, in effect letting the adults delegate their vote to those outstanding students.

We could ask someone from a trusted accounting firm (or someone who knows more about accounting principles than I) how we might make scalable structures, accounts of each person's preferences, then each community's preferences, etc. that could be surveyed at any level, just as search engines survey large amounts of data through a network. The example of the school above may offer a clue to how this might be done. If teachers and students made it their business to ask community members what their opinions are about conditions in the community, they could post the results of their surveys on the internet for all to see. To the extent that the expressed wishes of the people conflict with actual conditions, we would expect resource user-fees to rise or fall as appropriate, until the disparity is resolved.

What better time to consider and make radical transformations than now? These are times of rapid, accelerating change, when the situation is dynamic and plastic, when we can make a great difference for the future depending on what decisions we take today, what we do today. A radical transformation, in the right direction, could be a very helpful and timely change.

But what change in human nature does the reviewer believe is required by this proposal? If anything, this paradigm is more respectful, more accepting of human nature as it is. The current system has a problem with externalities, which put every economic actor in the uncomfortable position of having to sacrifice community interest for self-interest, or (perhaps less frequently) vice-versa. We all are driven by a mix of desires: to promote the community interest, and our own individual interest. This proposed system of incorporating external costs into the price of economic goods allows us to quickly and efficiently find a balance between self-interest and community interest, simply by seeking the lowest price for the things we buy, which we are naturally inclined to do already.

Is it plausible to think that we do not need radical transformation of society? Is it realistic to think that if we could just teach a few more people to stop dumping motor oil in the back alley, get the miles per gallon numbers up a bit more, get some more people to separate out their paper and glass and other recycleables, take their shopping bag with them for re-use, and such things, then we will have met the environmental challenges that confront us and achieved a sustainable society? I wonder what alternative proposals the reviewer would suggest that might have the potential for resolving the 'tragedy of the commons'. Or would he/she take issue with the suggestion that this proposal does that, or that the tragedy of the commons is an issue of concern?

This paradigm, by the way, does not only address environmental problems-- although ideas about how we might better address the problem of pollution did provide the germ that it grew from. This proposal also addresses problems of poverty and wealth disparity. It is hard to over-estimate, I think, the combined effect of both a completely free labor market, which gives everyone the greatest incentive to increase their knowledge, skills and abilities, and a guaranteed income, which protects all from abject poverty, which currently debilitates a large portion of humanity.

John Champagne

Systemic flaws are not reported

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Natural Law remedy for systemic flaw: Civilization can be made sustainable and equitable

An unsustainable civilization is a consequence of a systemic flaw -- Natural law points to a solution.

If we look at basic human rights as reflecting underlying laws of social interaction, we may notice some important facts about these basic rights that could help us meet the greatest challenges of our time.

Human rights are a kind of natural law. We can recognize fundamental claims that citizens might make, such as a claim of a right to be left to do as we choose in our private spaces; a claim to a right to move about freely in the public space; a claim of a right to share in deciding limits to pollution and limits to rates of taking of natural resources by industries... We can understand these claims and rights as natural phenomena or natural law. We might recognize that, for the healthy functioning of society, citizens must assert these claims to natural rights, and we must create and maintain systems of governance that assure these rights are respected in practice. Presently, our systems of government do not function in a way that manifests respect for these rights in reality. Our society does not reflect an equal sharing of natural wealth, which can be understood as commons or public property. This is wealth that is created through processes independent of human effort--wealth to which we all can assert a moral claim.

This systemic flaw allows harm to be done to the environment without any direct and proportional economic cost being incurred by those who do the harm. This means that prices of things do not reflect environmental impacts such as pollution, resource depletion and habitat destruction. With prices skewed in a way that obscures environmental costs, consumers don't fully register these costs when they weigh the pros and cons of this or that purchase of a product or service. These hidden costs mean that our economy does more harm to the environment than what would be the case if environmental impacts were reflected in prices.

Natural science and direct experience tell us that living systems, including human society, are delicate, intricate phenomena. It is always easier to tear down and destroy than it is to build and create. This fact reflects the nature of the enabling conditions that underlie any complex phenomenon. We need order, structure and process rather than random chaos. This is true whether we are talking about creating a tower of blocks or a work of art, raising a child or building a civilization. Our civilization is stronger and more resilient when almost everyone believes that we will all be better off by working to improve on what we have made. We cannot have many people wanting to destroy this nascent global society to see what else might take its place. For the benefit of all, there must be very few of us who believe that the world we have created is ugly, unjust, hurtful or evil. We need a society that all can believe in and want to be a part of. Among other things, this means that we must have a system that recognizes the people as the rightful owners of natural resource wealth, so that the world we create together will not be a world that has more paving or pollution or noise or extraction of limited resources than what most people would say is acceptable. We need a political system that matches reality to what people want, in terms of appropriate limits on environmental impacts. Then we will have a true democracy.

The idea that natural wealth ought to be shared equally is reflected in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith and others.

If we discourage excessive taking of resources or putting of pollution by charging a fee to polluting industries, then the fee proceeds (a monetary representation of that which we all own in common) could be shared equally among all the world's people. By assuring a substantial level of economic security for every person, we ensure that poverty and disparity issues are no longer an existential threat to the system. We will have a more stable and equitable society. No one would live in abject poverty.

Equal sharing of natural wealth cures the defect that we see in the thriving and collapse of civilization. It also makes the boom and bust business 'cycle' into a less wildly gyrating phenomenon.

Biological Model for Politics and Economics: Human Society as Neural Network

Friday, October 12, 2012

Moral foundation allows us to adapt to circumstances

Our global civilization is headed for another great collapse unless we bring our behavior more into accord with our principles. Natural resources belong to all.

Intelligence is the ability to make connections that foster adaptive responses, to preserve the life and promote the health of an organism. Intelligent societies respond to environmental conditions in ways that promote sustainability. Societies lack intelligence if actions by members cause damage that is not readily apparent to those members. Then individuals may unknowingly do things that harm the interests of all members of society, and that may even cause harm to the larger community of life. When we do things that cause harm and cannot see the effect of our actions, we cannot respond in a way so as to reduce or stop the harm. We cannot consider the effects of our actions on others if we remain unaware of those effects. We are unable to abide by this basic moral precept.

Economists call the disconnect between what it costs to produce things (including costs in terms of pollution and resource depletion) on the one hand and the prices of products offered in the market on the other hand as 'externalities'. Fees assessed to industries according to how much ecological damage they cause would make the prices of things reflect the harm (the costs) that otherwise would remain hidden from consumers. A democratic society would set the fees so that they are just high enough to cause industries to try hard enough to reduce pollution, resource depletion and other harmful environmental impacts. We will know that industries are in fact trying hard enough when most people say that environmental impacts are acceptable, with a good balance being struck between 'freedom', so that our economic system can function and human needs can be met on the one hand, versus 'control', so that the interests of future generations and the larger living community are protected on the other hand.

We could decide that it is in the public interest to limit the rate of taking of natural resources (by applying a fee), so that the shock of having to adapt the scarcity of resources can be reduced by spreading resource availability out over a longer timeframe; or so that, in the case of renewable resources, a sustainable and healthy resource base can be maintained.

We could decide, collectively, that it is in the interest of stargazers (that's most of us at some point) to dim our outdoor lighting somewhat on a regular basis, so that we might enjoy a better view of the night sky. Perhaps we would want to further reduce outdoor lighting on select nights, to avoid disorienting night-migrating birds, perhaps, or so that we might more fully appreciate occasional meteor showers, thin crescent (blue) moons and passing comets. A system of fees on outdoor lighting could achieve this. The fees would float up or down, if there were an imbalance between the number of people who want more outdoor lighting vs. the number who want less. Lighting fixtures could be designed to automatically dim or shut off when the fee reached a threshold amount, as determined by the user. Small changes in opinion about acceptable levels of light pollution (or any other environmental impact) would translate to modest but real changes in actual conditions. The reality, the actual human impacts on the Earth would come to match what most people feel is most acceptable. When the reality matches what the people want, then we can say we live in a democracy.

Outdoor lighting is but one of the many kinds of impacts on the environment that human beings must limit, in an efficient and fair way, if we are to build a global society that is sustainable and consistent with democratic principles. The fee system could result in the world that the largest number of people say they want to live in. We would have a more democratic society. When prices show us the harmful effect on the environment of what we do, we will choose the more environmentally-friendly habits and practices.

John Champagne

Equal sharing of natural wealth promotes justice and sustainability: A solution to the matter of instability we know as the 'arc of civilization' (thrive and collapse)

Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Minimum Wage vs. Minimum Income

Equal ownership of natural resource wealth promotes social justice and sustainability.

Minimum wage laws would seem to help those who have jobs at or near the defined minimum level. And they help those who make and sell machinery that replaces low-skilled workers. Minimum wage laws would seem to hurt those who might earn below the legally-defined limit but who have not yet developed skills or experience sufficient to command a higher wage. Minimum wage laws harm everyone if the rising cost of labor causes employers to choose production methods that lead to more pollution or faster depletion of resources than what a more labor-intensive method would cause.

We cannot create wealth by legislation, but we can alleviate poverty by ending the current practice of allowing theft of natural resources from the people. We all own the air and water--that is, we all have an equal right to use the air and water, and to say what the limits on pollution levels should be. (Some peple may recognize this basic right as a function of natural law, while others may see our right to breathe air and drink water as flowing from God's grace, but these different views may not be mutually exclusive.) We also have an equal right to access the shared mineral wealth of Earth, and a right to share in deciding overall limits to levels of pollution and to the rates of taking of resources.

We could attach fees to the taking of resources and the release of pollution, both as a way to measure the value of natural resources and services (owned by the people and used by industry in pursuit of profit), and as a way to discourage unwanted and potentially harmful environmental impacts. We could set the fees at the levels that would result in only the amount of pollution and rate of resource extraction that the people deem permissible. (Industries would not be able to afford to pollute so much as the cost of doing so increased.) The fee proceeds could and should be shared among all people equally, because these proceeds would in fact be a monetary representation of the value of resources owned by all. Public policy would assure not a minimum wage, but a minimum income.

If we look beyond questions of air and water quality and minerals management, we can see that this method of charging a fee or rent for causing adverse environmental impacts could be applied to the management of other commons resources. The number and diversity of fish in the sea is decreasing. We could attach a fee to the taking of those species that are threatened with depletion. We could attach VERY HIGH fees to the taking or killing of any member of a species that we do not want anyone to take, so that no one will see that activity as profitable.

Biodiversity is being lost at an astounding rate. Considering the current rates of desertification and loss of topsoil, the pace of forest destruction, the speed of encroachment on and paving of wilderness areas, the increasing threats to coral reefs, and our ongoing assault on climate stability, one might wonder whether we really care what kind of world we will leave for our children. If we were to decide that protecting biodiversity and promoting ecosystem health is a worthy public policy goal, we could charge a fee for any land use that disturbs or decreases biodiversity, from monoculture to asphalt, with the fee greater for those activities that produce more harmful impacts on the Earth and that are more disruptive of wildlife habitat.

With all people voting (through random-sample surveys, to be conducted by any interested person or group) on whether the amount of paving, rates of taking of resources, levels of pollution, etc., are acceptable or should change, we would have a system where we could all share in sculpting the overall human impact on Earth. We would shape the world to match what we want it to be. Our economy would function in a way that would bring about a balance between supply of and demand for produced goods and services, AND it would achieve an appropriate balance, as defined by the people, between our duty to preserve environmental quality and promote ecosystem health on the one hand, and the convenience and necessity of availing ourselves of natural resource wealth in pursuit of human goals on the other hand.

The amount of money collected through fees on the putting of pollution and the taking and degrading of resources would be quite large. We may not be able to afford such a system while also keeping the current system of taxes on income and sales. We may want to eliminate those taxes, or substantially reduce them. (Some sales tax might be appropriate, to cover the cost of policing the marketplace.) We could fund community services from our 'accounting for externalities' fees. The monies collected could be shared among all people equally. We could each spend an agreed-upon fraction (perhaps half) on community needs (e.g.: libraries, schools, public health, police and fire protection, etc.) and spend the remainder on our own personal needs. We would all share in creating the kind of environment that we would choose. We would share, in a more direct and obvious way, decisions about what our community priorities should be. And no one would live in abject poverty.

This paradigm sees the role of government as an arbiter between the individual and community. It recognizes no authority of government to initiate the use of force against citizens. Only those actions, by individuals or corporate entities, that adversely affect others would come within the purview of government. In fact, government, per se, would not exist as we know it. The decisions of government would be decentralized, dispersed among the people. This 'public realm only' focus for government action is an important point because such profound change cannot occur except through the active support of the people. Many people subscribe to the libertarian view that the government ought not initiate the use of force against citizens. Libertarians will appreciate this paradigm if they are persuaded that it appropriately draws the line between regulated or restricted actions (those that affect others or the community) on the one hand, and actions which are the free choice of individuals (private behavior) on the other hand.

Some people believe that the prevalence of outdoor advertising signs and billboards is too high to allow for an aesthetically pleasing visual landscape. Is the prevalence of outdoor lighting so high that our ability to see the stars has become too severely diminished? We may want to adopt a few "lights out" nights, to remind ourselves that there are stars out there. If enough people share these views, then this vision will be borne out in reality.

Perhaps someday the people will hold the power to decide these kinds of questions. This power will be vested in the people if we, the people, care to shape our society toward these ends.

Equal Sharing of Natural Resources Promotes Justice and Sustainability.

More security for the least secure means more security for all:
- A Capitalism-Communism Synthesis

More security for the least secure means more security for all - Shorter, older version