Monday, November 8, 2010

That Creeping Feeling

Some horror films, especially those with half a dozen sequels, are very melodramatic in style, presenting one or more people walking into a situation where the audience knows danger to lurk but the characters have no inkling of that danger, or haven’t admitted it. Scene by excruciating scene, the plot unfolds, the author having arranged matters so that the helpless characters cannot see ordinary safety unraveling all about.

Climate change is like that. It unfolds slowly, patiently, its plot never moving in a straight line, making sure that there’s every reason for most of the characters to to feel comfortable. As with a good melodrama, a few characters are aware of the problem and they struggle to warn the others, but always to no avail as a gruesome ending becomes increasingly inevitable.

The sick plot twist here is that we are the authors and we are the ones arranging for our own complacency, even in the face of the clues our fellow characters have discovered. It feels sometimes like the people who know what’s really going on are locked in a sound-proof plexiglass room, able to see out clearly, watching it unfold, but powerless to stop it or even to just get a message out.

Would that it were just a sci-fi or horror movie, or even a simple nightmare from which one could awaken.

* * * * *

Cancer is a subtle enemy. It presents itself in such small ways, almost imperceptibly. We may see signs, but hope we don’t. It creeps. Worst of all, it accelerates.

We want to control its rate, to force it to be linear, measured, paced. But try as we might, we cannot hold it still. It resists commands.

We seek to impose onto it, by force of will, by clutching at every definition and argument we can lay our fingers upon, that it must move, change, or grow only when we say.

We command of it a cartoon physics that says it will not bite us until we look, and then we steadfastly refuse to look.

As with all things Death, we are skilled at ways of looking away from it, hoping that if we don’t meet its direct gaze, it won’t come for us today. We hope it will simply walk past, taking no notice, our apparent indifference having saved us.

Climate change is like that, too.

* * * * *

Author's Notes:

These are just my subjective impressions. Please comment accordingly.
(We'll do objectivity another day.)

Originally published November 8, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): acceleration, accelerates, creeping, creepy, death, denial, pace, cartoon physics, cancer, novel, mystery, escape, melodrama, warning, warn, cassandra, paradigm, sense, feeling, emotional, emotion, visualization, analogy, metaphor, global warming, climate change, politics

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Legal and Ethical Issues in Suspending Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann's suspension from MSNBC on Friday brought 250,000 people out of the woodwork over this one weekend to sign a petition asking that he be reinstated.

Yesterday in my blog at Open Salon I did an analysis (On the Privacy of Political Campaign Contributions) making the claim that because human contributions are limited to a modest amount ($2400), it’s not realistically possible to unduly influence an election by making them and so they ought to be a private matter, out of the reach of employers to control. I also made the claim that because corporate contributions are potentially unlimited, that disclosure is quite important. It’s not the kind of simple rule people like, but then it comes because of that stupid legal person fiction.

Today I also did a big run-down on the grab bag of other issues I thought this suspension (MSNBC Ethical Theatre 2010). This basically takes the position that MSNBC is using the situation to try to appear more ethical than Fox (who gave $1M to the Republican Governors Association), saying they are strict with their employees about what can and cannot be given. But since the contribution is legal, I assert they’re just creating theatre that makes them look ethical. Which is a little weird since I think they are pretty ethical and have nothing to prove. Commenters on my blog post seem to think there's an internal feud at MSNBC.

Oddly, in a Google search for the Olbermann petition, this shows up alongside another petition that wants him fired for being a "maniac" and has 1316 signatures. See my article The Freedom to Hear if you want a guess on where I come down on that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Big C

Climate Change. There are a great many things I could say about Climate Change, but today I want to make a pretty simple point about the likely health effects of Climate Change: They won't be good.

It's also common in discussions of Climate Change to talk about the effects on large systems, like cities or business sectors, or on large groups of people, sometimes even the entire population of entire countries. Such talk, I worry, can make your eyes glaze over, like trying to talk about whether the war cost one or three trillion dollars. Who can even know the difference? And yet, the difference most certainly matters.

So I'm not going to focus on large systems or groups. Most assuredly, they'll come up incidentally, but really I'm just going to talk about myself, what I fear will be the impact on me personally. But really you should know I'm not just talking about me, or meaning to say my situation is more important. I'm just using my situation because I know it best. There will be many like me. If you like, as you read along, substitute the name of someone near and dear to you, and substitute their situation. If you find a way to put a personal face to Climate Change, I'll have achieved my goal today.

Cancer is another aspect of it for me. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year. I was fortunate to be covered by decent health care. Just lucky. There was a gap some years back where I could not afford health insurance and, had the cancer happened then, it might have ended differently. Fortunately, I was beyond that rough economic time and evaded what might have otherwise been a death sentence. Others have been less fortunate, which upsets me greatly. We should have universal health care.

I didn't write about my cancer at the time it was happening. Well, I did, but only indirectly. I wrote a post about roller coasters the night before I went into surgery as a metaphorical way of expressing how out of control I felt. Everything was on autopilot, and I was plenty scared. But at the time I didn't want to acknowledge the situation publicly. In fact, this article is my first time writing about it in a web-accessible location.

Frankly, I'd really rather have such matters remain private. It's a curious thing about politics. I've been a strong advocate of privacy rights for all of my adult life. My personal web page begins with an essay talking about the separation between my public and private persona, and how I don't like volunteering personal information to the public eye. There are too many ways to abuse it. There are a lot of things about me that are not the world's business and that ought not be fodder for people at search engines to browse or for marketeers to slice and dice for sale.

Citizen participation in a democracy sometimes requires otherwise, however. It's no one's business what my religious beliefs are, what I think of abortion or being gay, or how my family chooses to deal with end-of-life issues. Yet modern American politics is typified by invasive meddling in areas such as these, and so I find myself joining those who feel the urge to stand up and be counted on such important matters, even at the sometimes risk of having what should be our private lives out on display. I don't like it at all. But I see no way around it.

To speak of my medical position is scary because it's possible the information can be used against me. Of course, my medical situation comes as no surprise to insurance companies which can force me to disclose my medical history as a condition of coverage. At least, thanks to recent legislation, they can no longer exclude me for having a pre-existing condition. But they can still raise my rates, or those of an employer who has me in their “pool.” So an employer at some point in the future may quietly let me go or another may fail to hire me, never saying the reason. Who can know? What I do know is that insurance companies pay people to figure out clever ways to get around government restrictions and back to business as usual.

I guess that's why I read every day in the news that voters are ready to vote the Republicans back in. I guess voters think the protections we have now are too strong, and they'd rather go back to a time when the insurance companies weren't screaming in pain from the thumbscrews to which we consumers have put them.

Commerce is also a key component in my story. Adam Smith's much-touted “unseen hand” of capitalism has seen fit to decide that we should not make things locally any more, you see. We buy them from elsewhere. Who knows where? We assume the fuel will continue to flow, and flow cheaply, to get things from here to there. We assume there won't be floods intervening. We assume there won't be disease that causes us to restrict travel. We assume a great many things. And because of those assumptions, we're comfortable believing that commerce will just continue to function reliably no matter what.

And as long as it does, I'm probably fine. Or as fine as one gets having had a recent cancer. There are no guarantees. A highly competent surgeon removed my thyroid and with it the cancer. So I'm ahead of the game in that regard. I can't complain. I probably had more problems fighting the provider of my short term disability coverage than the cancer itself. At least with the cancer I had skilled professionals acting as my advocate. With the insurance company, it was the other way around. But I persevered in spite of administrative obstacles, and subsequent tests have so far shown me all clear. Odds are that I'll die of something else, not thyroid cancer. Of course, I still have to manage life without a thyroid, but that's mostly a routine matter in modern society. I just take some pills every day, which I can always get from the local pharmacy. Always. No matter what.

And that brings me back to Climate Change. It threatens us all in so many ways. The water level might rise. There might be more and stronger storms. The food supply is certainly in danger. If that falters, there could be famines, even wars. Any of those things could affect me, but I don't dwell on them a lot, at least not in the obvious way. But all of these problems have something in common, and that's where my mind often goes: Even in mild form, they can disrupt the normal flow of society.

Carrying capacity of the planet figures in here, too. It's defined by Wikipedia as “the population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” I've had many debates with people about what that number is. I agree with those who think we're already there. I've heard others suggest that carrying capacity is not a number but a function of technology—that as technology improves, so will carrying capacity. I don't agree. Hanging our hopes on technology is dangerous because if technology ever fails us, we will suddenly and “unexpectedly” find ourselves with far less ability to sustain ourselves than we thought we had. It's not written in stone that technology will get ever better and more accessible.

Ask someone who's been through a hurricane or a flood and has had to back up and start over. The march of increasing technology is more variable than we sometimes allow for. The temptation may be to dismiss such things as “local effects,” but there can be global disruptions. Peak oil and the looming shortage of rare earth elements will have profound effects on the sustainability of present technology. And Climate Change is affecting food supplies in the ocean and even on land, as Russian droughts have caused a global wheat shortage. We've also built a society that relies on global assembly of goods; things are not made in one place any more. If transportation becomes suddenly expensive or inaccessible, that's a problem that can be highly disruptive.

When the stock market crashed, we found suddenly that we had been overleveraged. People who thought they were making enough money or spending it in the right places came to realize that they had based these thoughts on assumptions that the world would always be precisely as it was, only always better. Suddenly they realized how fragile this assumption was and how little prepared they were for deviation. Climate Change is going to be a rude awakening that we have spent our technology enabling spectacles rather than increasing basic robustness. I think we'll find that this is what carrying capacity is really about—not how are we living in normal times, but how capable are we of surviving exceptional times, of dodging the global extinction events that have taken down the dominant species of past eras. Do we have good plans for emergencies? I look at events like the Katrina hurricane and shudder.

Calamity, you see, has this very personal aspect in my mind. If the complex engine of our society's continues on track, if commerce continues without interruption, I'll probably continue to have access to the pills that compensate for my missing thyroid. My most personal fear isn't all those big things—the sea level rise, the storms, the fires, the pests, the diseases, the famines, the wars. If those problems happen, we all have to fight them. I won't be alone.

It may seem silly, but I just worry the drug companies won't make my pills any more. Or they'll make them, but the free market won't find enough value in getting them to my town, especially in an emergency. I'm dependent on what feels like a Rube Goldberg mechanism to get them from wherever they come from into my hands. If that breaks down—if the stores close, or can't get stock—I worry no one will notice. It's such a small thing that I fear it will be overlooked. I'd love to stock an emergency supply, but my doctor has to prescribe only what I need, and the insurance companies work to prevent my buying pills ahead of when I need them. Talk about death panels. They try to placate me by noting the pills don't have a long shelf life. Or they mention I can buy a 90-day supply instead of a 30-day supply. But, 30-day or 90-day, they still make me burn that supply down to almost zero before I can get more.

So I obsess about what may seem to others as a comparatively mild risk of Climate Change—about the mere interruption of business as usual. It's not the biggest effect one could imagine. But it's how I personalize it. Your circumstances being different, you'll probably personalize it differently. That's okay. Just please do try, once in a while, to think of Climate Change not just as a global phenomenon, but as something more local, tangible, and personal. After all, Climate Change won't just affect the future of our species and perhaps of all life on Earth, but it will also, as part of that, affect you and me personally.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published September 14, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. I have reproduced the article here, but to read the original discussion, you'll need to click through to the snapshot created by the Wayback Machine.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, climate change, cancer, citizen participation, convergence, carrying capacity, calamity, catastrophe, personal, personalize, supply chain, leverage, over-leveraged, stock market, crash, medication, drugs, supplies, hurricane, drought, war, disruption, society, capitalism, planning, population, overpopulation, zpg, health insurance, health care, health, bad for your health

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hawking God

Stephen Hawking (and co-author Leonard Mlodinow) made a lot of news this week with the new book, The Grand Design, in which there are apparently provocative statements made about the proving there is no need for God. I've downloaded it on unabridged audio from but haven't yet listened to it. I'll get to it in due time, but presently listening to the very important book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Still, I've wanted to make some remarks on religion anyway, and the fuss over this new book gives me an occasion to make them.

I often refer to myself as “not religious” at this point in my life, although as you'll see later in this article, that's not quite a proper description. I use the phrase because it works for other people, not because it works for me. It answers a complex question in very few words, adequate to many casual social situations, which is often good in such contexts. But it leaves me feeling that I have papered over some underlying issues that are more complex. So I hope you'll indulge me a longer answer here.

A Brief History of Religion

Religion is probably as old as man, probably long-predating written word. And so your guess is probably as good as mine about how it arose. Even if you showed me a document that told me what day it arose, I wouldn't believe the document. So I'm going to offer a theory that is simply my personal theory. You can subscribe to it or not, it doesn't matter. I don't offer it to get you to agree, only to allow you to understand where I'm coming from.

I think religion was invented by businesspeople. No, not modern businesspeople. I don't mean it's part of some modern corporate conspiracy, although there are probably people who think that. Not even some two thousand year old conspiracy, even though I'm sure some people believe that. I mean something much older, dating back to a time before any civilization we now recognize, when mankind was probably already organized into communities and had been communicating non-verbally, and was finally starting to share ideas using this amazing new technology: spoken language.

I imagine this to have been long, long before eras like ancient Greece, where people had gotten so organized that there could perhaps be a legitimate leisure class. I don't know if there were people in charge of others or if people were just collaborating as equal. Probably the former, but who knows? What I imagine is that there was a lot of opportunity to use language when people needed to be working, and that this could have been dangerous. It was probably important to focus on food and protection. And yet, the questions of life are staggering and must surely have occupied much of early man's thoughts.

Certainly the surviving records of later times show religion as central to nearly everything. How could a species new to linguistic thought and the exchange of ideas not feel overwhelmed by concerns about “why”? I think it could legitimately have occupied a lot of time. And yet surely most of the time of early man needed to be focused on work—feeding and protecting communities. Some clever person surely figured out early on that people had a lot of questions and, like Farmville today, it was sapping everyone's time to spend hours a day fussing. So they just offered answers. The actual answers don't matter, in my view. They didn't have to be the best answers. What mattered was that there were answers. And so, having answers, people were able to get back to work at feeding and protecting their families.

That's the odd thing about antique writings. We can no longer question them and so we must either take them at face value or dismiss them. But the quality of being dead is that you can no longer engage in conversation, you cannot be persuaded or asked to compromise. Somehow here I'm reminded of a remark by Rene Belloq in the movie Raiders of the lost Ark, where, while trying to bury Indiana Jones alive, he says to Indiana: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.” So, if you believe my hypothetical history of religion, someone once a long time ago “just made something up.” Just like if you or I did. But his words being buried a couple thousand years make them something people have to either embrace or ignore, with very little middle ground.

So, I allege, and you can believe it or not, that the function of religion is to stop people from going around and around in an infinite loop, asking questions for which no answer was likely to be forthcoming. “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Is there life after death?” We all have must face these questions. Our answers differ, but really the questions do not. Fussing over such questions overly is and always has been a drain to productivity. And so we set aside time to think about these things, and that leaves the rest of our time free to do other things.

What Counts as Religion

I have often said, “there are no political answers, only political questions.” That is, it can't be the case that you can ask a question to which one answer is a “political answer” and another answer is “not political.” Politicians often try to disguise political outcomes by claiming they are “just” the status quo, for example, as if the status quo were not a political result. People often try to persuade, or even coerce, others into a different choice by suggesting their response is political, and somehow could be otherwise. In my view, if a question is political, all possible answers to that question are by definition political; they do not subdivide into political answers and non-political answers. If you find someone suggesting otherwise, it's time to stop the conversation and point at the question and identify that as political.

I feel the same about religion and so hereby announce a corrolary: “There are no religious answers, only religious questions.” That is, having asked a question, you can't point to one answer as religious and another as not. If the question provokes a religious answer in some, it provokes a religious answer in all.

Using this newly coined rule of reasoning, I can observe that if the question “Is there a God?” results in a religious answer by saying “yes,” it must by my definition result in a religious answer if you say “no.” Likewise, if you ask the question “How do you characterize God?” then if the answers by some people go on to describe religious thought, the answer even by atheists of “I characterize God as non-existent.” must, by definition, describe religious thought.

And so, by this reasoning, my remark “I am not religious.” is not really true, and probably not even meaningful, being itself paradoxical. One cannot usefully say “I answer religious questions with non-religious answers.” I am also not atheist or agnostic, however. Those terms each have implications that don't describe me. Coming up with a good descriptive term is hard!

And yet, though the terminology is hard, expanding the notion of what a religion is to cover even things like atheism and agnosticism creates a useful simplification that ought to be seen as important even by atheists and agnostics, since it suggests a philosophical and legal foundation for claiming atheism must be offered First Amendment religious protection. I don't see any reason that atheists should be threatened by that classification.

Hawking his Book

According to some media reports, Hawking has said there is no need for God, although other reports say this summary is somewhat sensationalizing. It probably won't hurt his book sales any. The Telegraph quotes him as saying specifically, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. ... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” It seems to me he's just saying that his personal theory does not require any entity that he would call God.

That seems a reasonable claim to me, though still a religious one. It answers the questions that religions answer. And it's okay with me to have a religion that has no God. Certainly there are religions that have more than one God. Once you're into the realm of “other than one,” the number zero presents itself as an obvious “non-one” option. I think that's a place is where people get confused.

Even if Hawking's theory doesn't need a God to explain Creation, that says nothing about other theories of Creation. So people who are worried that he's proven there is no God can rest easy. All he's done is provide one more way to conceive The Great Unknowable, one more choice among religions.

And I've heard no claim that Hawking's theory explains how any initial set of conditions came into existence—if “initial” is a good word for a system with no beginning and no end. Even if the Universe was here for all time, that dodges the question since there has to be a context in which time exists, especially if you believe Einstein that it's just another dimension like the three dimensions of space. It begs the alternative question “Where did that context come from?”

René Descartes offered us the useful observation “Cogito ergo sum.” It follows from our very existence and ability to ask religious questions that we do exist. In my personal philosophical belief, our Universe's origin is the only observable that cannot be explained by physics. It seems to me a simple matter of fact that the Universe did not create itself. And yet it is here. We must accept as fact that Creation happened, but any sense of why or how is outside of our own frame of reference and cannot be known.

The Universal Question

I sometimes refer to the circumstance or situation that put our Universe into play or that offers it a context in which to exist as “God.” God, in my view, is that which is outside, that which explains Creation. It's impossible to say whether that's active process or entity, or whether perhaps it just is or was an enabling circumstance. So I don't try. Hawking's apparent goal was to find a minimal set of initial conditions. I'll look forward to reading about how he worked through it. it sounds like an approach that would be emotionally satisfying to me.

I most certainly don't believe in any God who created the Universe while muttering “let there be light” under his breath. I don't believe in any God who keeps tabs on the world, like a baby-sitter, or who answer requests or prayers, like Santa Claus. It makes no sense to me to conceive of God in so complex a way. It really doesn't match the data, and it's far from being a simple hypothesis, so it runs afoul of Occam's razor.

For God to watch over us would be like me having an ant farm where I meddled in the lives of the ants—except that we here on Earth are much smaller to any such God than ants are to people. And already ants are so inconsquentially small even to me that I can't imagine following their lives closely enough to be opining on questions of whether they kill each other for moral reasons, whether they use my name in vain, or whether they violate any of the other Commandments. If there were a thinking God, I'm sure we'd be too small to be of interest. He'd probably be thinking about much bigger problems instead—like “Is there a God?”

No matter what the power of any extant entity in whatever frame of reference, the question would still recursively present itself: “In what frame of context do I exist?” The question is, if you'll pardon the pun, truly universal. And whether God were religious or an atheist, that would be a matter of his personal faith, not a proof he was right.

Maybe Hawking's contribution will be to have found God not in some omniscient superbeing but in something small, like a set of physical laws. Reducing the size of the initial conditions needed to kickstart the Universe might be a step in the right direction, like trying to find how life began. Can one reduce and reduce the necessary conditions of creating the universe until they simply vanish? Or will there always be a question remaining, however trivial? It feels a bit like Zeno's Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles and it's hard to say for sure.

I may have more to say when I've listened to Hawking's book.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published September 12, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, God, religion, philosophy, creation, hawking, book, stephen hawking

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Cost

For those of you just waking up from a coma or returning from a sensory deprivation chamber, the last “US combat brigade” officially left Iraq last week. It seemed an appropriate time for a pause to reflect on the cost we've incurred.

I heard someone remark on TV the other day about over four thousand lives lost and a trillion dollars spent. The four thousand people I understand. It's a lot of people, but I can conceive of it. Forty rows of a hundred people each. Or perhaps eight or ten large passenger jets full of people. That's a lot. Each was a person, with a life, probably a family, all affected.

But I don't think that's the full count of lives lost. I hope to convince you it's a terribly low number. I think the number of casualties of this war was much, much larger. And I didn't mean the injured or those with psychological damage, such as PTSD. Those are also costs, and I don't mean to discount them. But those are not the ones I mean. I'm actually meaning to count deaths. And yes, there are Iraqis dead. They're often not counted. That's sad as well. But I mean the count of American deaths is low, at least as I tally it.

But first, let's return to the trillion dollars. That's an incomprehensibly large amount of money. A million dollars is hard for many to comprehend. A trillion is a million million. It makes it seem almost quaint to think back on the late Senator Everett Dirksen's familiar quote, “A few billion here, a few billion there and before you know it, you're talking real money...” A trillion is a thousand billion. That's a lot. It's more than seventeen times the wealth of Bill Gates.

To understand this number better, I'd like to speak for a moment about something called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is not the direct cost we pay out, but is a measure of what we lose by not doing something else. One can't do everything in life. Usually making a choice to do one thing locks out the opportunity to do other things. So sometimes you can't just look at what you got by taking a certain choice, but you also have to look at what you lost.

For example, there are 310 million people in the US. Instead of going to war with Iraq, we could have borrowed a trillion dollars and just given $3226 to each person (man, woman, or child). We'd still owe the trillion dollars, just like we do now, but everyone in the US would be that much richer. We didn't choose to do that. But one way to conceive the cost of the war is to say we denied ourselves that money.

It's unlikely we'd have ever had such a handout, at least not like that. But here's another thought: Lots of people get sick and don't have health care. Sometimes they get sick because they don't have health care—maybe they weren't getting screenings for things they should have. So the cost of saving them might be trivial. Perhaps a few hundred dollars. Or maybe it would be a simple procedure or some medication. Perhaps a few thousand dollars. Maybe it would require serious surgery. Let's be very, very conservative and guess that it takes $100,000 to save a life. It will make my point and then we can come back and look at the other possibilities.

Instead of paying a trillion dollars on a war, if it cost $100,000 to save a life, there are ten million $100,000's in a trillion dollars. That means we lost the chance to save ten million lives. Let me say that another way: Ten million people died who didn't have to. Or maybe more, if you think my $100,000 number is high. If you could find a way to save a life for $10,000, there are one hundred million such bundles available in a trillion dollars. But let's be conservative in our back-of-the-envelope calculations here and say just ten million. It makes the point well enough. Either way, we didn't spend our money that way. We made our choices, and those who could have been saved were not. We spent the money on the war instead of on them.

So going back to where I began and trying to fathom the depth of meaning in “a trillion dollars and over four thousand lives,” one way to conceive the phrase is to say “ten million civilians dead and four thousand military dead.” And, in a sad irony, if the money had been spent on those ten million, the four thousand military would probably still be around, too.

Ten million people. That's six times the population of Manhattan.

Let's not forget the chilling imagery created by Condoleezza Rice when she said, “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” We didn't want even the chance of losing one actual city to terrorism, yet in order to avoid it, we spent enough that we could have probably saved that many people six times over. That was a lot to spend, both in dollars and in lives.

And if you don't like me making up numbers about how much it costs to save a life, another way to sum up the human cost is by looking at the cost of universal health care. It's estimated to cost somewhere around $70 billion (annually). So we could have paid for universal health care for 14 years with that same trillion dollars we borrowed to help out Iraq. That would, again, be a lot of healthy people. At no more cost than we're paying today.

Oh, right. I'm being unfair. We supposedly gained something from the war. We didn't fight it for no reason. We were told we were fighting the war in Iraq so we wouldn't have to fight the terrorists here. Is it likely that we're safe now? After all that expense, did we achieve that goal? Bush said “mission accomplished.” (I've noticed that Obama has avoided that phrase, even as he pulls so-called “combat troops” out of Iraq.)

Are we safe now? Do we have no more risk of terrorism here now that we fought that war? I don't know about you, but I think not. It's not the soldiers' fault, of course, but we didn't accomplish our mission, not that one. That mission was not possible to accomplish. We couldn't rid ourselves of terrorism by fighting with people in Iraq. And we won't be free of terrorism if we keep on in Afghanistan. We'll just be poorer, and that makes us less safe.

The big risk to our national security is wasting our wealth. We neglected the lesson of the Cold War, that one can lose a war by simply overspending. We've squandered our dollars and, I claim, in ways that we'll never bother to tally, we've squandered lives.

Yes, a lot of our military died. We should mourn them. But there are hidden casualties—really a lot of them. We should mourn them, too. Many Americans died here at home but won't be counted as war dead, even though if we hadn't fought this war, they did not have to die. We could have been wealthy enough to afford to spend that money on life.† But we gave up that opportunity. That is the true cost of the war.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published August 26, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): saving lives, opportunity, pro-life, choice, mushroom cloud, body count, death count, casualties, casualty count, opportunity cost, million dollars, billion dollars, trillion dollars, health care, life, death, cost, civilian, military, war, politics

Click here to see the cost of the ongoing wars.

Click here to see the Iraq War casualty count.

†Yes, you're right that the Republicans would have opposed spending the money on such saving of lives. They're not that kind of “pro-life.” But letting such people have a say in our government is still a political choice we make. Electing them at all may indeed imply that such opportunities are lost from the outset, but I still feel obliged to point out that the opportunities are there to decide these things every time we go to the ballot box. We're just locking in that cost earlier by letting them be involved.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged

Erik Naggum died last summer. He was a very intelligent, interesting and highly controversial human being. Before his untimely death, he wrote these thoughts about the meaning of life at his web site:

[Erik Naggum in 1999]

People search for the meaning of life, but this is the easy question: we are born into a world that presents us with many millenia of collected knowledge and information, and all our predecessors ask of us is that we not waste our brief life ignoring the past only to rediscover or reinvent its lessons badly.

Because I am not religious, I have no mystical conception of an afterlife. To me, a person lives on not in Heaven or Hell but instead in the minds and hearts of those they touched while alive—or, even if no one knows it, as an integrated part of the world through the effects of their substantive contributions on the way in which the future comes to unfold. In that spirit, I hereby offer some remarks he once wrote about the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I wanted this writing to persist as part of the public record, rather than quietly fading into the obscurity of my personal mail archives. I think he’d be happy I thought this worth sharing.

Atlas Shrugged is the source of immense controversy generally, but is specifically relevant lately since this book is often cited as formative by many among what I would call the “Modern American Ruling Class,” by which I mean those who control the corporations and the big money that buys politicians’ votes. Erik here gives his views of this book, and discusses how those views have changed with time.

And, to clarify, I don’t offer this piece for the purpose of saying that I either agree or disagree with everything he has to say; as with all things Erik, this piece is complex and bravely resists reduction into the deceptive simplicity of words like Good, Bad, Right or Wrong. I like some of what he says, parts of it makes me uneasy, and all of it makes me think.

These are actual thoughts, reified into text by one who was fearless about self-expression. This is a view into the mind of a person unafraid to think, a stark reminder of the power of our words to transcend our existence, to speak for us even when we are gone.

I hope this text, in being offered posthumously, reminds each of us that we have at our respective fingertips the power to leave such a gift to others, so that when it’s our turn to join our predecessors in history, we will do so having augmented the knowledge, information, and wisdom of the world that came before us.

This was not an essay written for publication. It was just a casual message shared with a friend who had asked a question and earnestly sought an answer. Coming from a man who had a well-documented lack of patience with people who he perceived to be wasting his time, it honored me by suggesting I was worthy of the time required to express a lifetime’s evolution of thought on an important issue, that his time writing it might be well spent.

It is a reminder—a challenge—to each of us to write, to write something meaningful, to write something passionate, to write something worth reading, to write something worth saving.

If you’d prefer not to read white-on-black, click here.

Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged
March 13, 2003

I first read it in 1978 at the ripe old age of 13, much to my parents’ chagrin, and I therefore enjoyed the company of other people who had enjoyed the book and more of Ayn Rand’s works throughout the 1980’s. In addition to the science fiction fans who hated Ayn Rand, these two groups of weirdos from another planet formed the basis of my social life, including my choice of university, until about 1991, when I attended the inaugural meeting of David Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies in New York City and was promptly shunned by the orthodoxy back in Oslo, who had become Peikoffians. I did meet with a bunch of objectivists in California when I worked in Sunnyvale in the last half of 1993 and re-established ties with some of my old friends, who had returned to sanity after tumultous breaks with the Peikoffians, but I had found something really evil in the human nature: The survival characteristics of the group. I have later come to define freedom as the maximum tolerable amplitude of the diversions from the most accepted norm of the community, and this is a function of both the group’s surplus resources and the ability of the individual to produce more than it demands from the same community.

I think Atlas Shrugged portrays an extremely strong model of the world which it can be difficult even to detect that is different from the Real World. This model is a romanticization of a handful of aspects of the human condition. There is nothing wrong in this per se, since e.g. the rule of law with constitutional democracies and human rights and all that good stuff is also a romanticization of a few select aspects, too, but the real question when it comes to dealing with real people is how able the model is to accomodate those who disagree with it. In normal society, we have married the good of the rule of law with the unbridled evil of locking people up in prisons or even killing them when they disagree with the model. This evil is, however, deemed acceptable because the good it is married to is the foundation of so much human progress. However, like socialism, which is a far simpler model than capitalism and which has proved fantastically evil in its treatment of those who disagreed with it, objectivism has turned out to be completely inept at dealing with disagreement. Constructing a social system that tends to those who agree with it is a piece of cake compared to constructing one that makes those who disagree with it want to obey its principles.

If I had not been as unscathed by real life when I read it, I would have noticed that the whole principle underlying Atlas Shrugged was precisely that of a massive, systemic failure to deal with disagreement. I mean, appealing as it seems to people who have failed to deal with some people who think differently (or not at all), going on strike against something you can externalize and segregate from yourself as Evil is really the strongest evidence of intellectual defeat there is. Suppose we take one premise for granted, that only those people who have been able to grasp certain ideas are necessary to run the new world and to hell with the rest, the question that is never asked, because it would ruin everything, is: What do you do with the offspring of the chosen ones, who maybe wanted to disagree with these ideas? In other words, how long would it last? Or, put differently, what kinds of freedoms would one have to think critically about anything in this ideal society? Constructing a social system that tends to those who agree with it today is really not a worthy accomplishment when you measure it against the standard of a system that not only needs to encompass those who do not agree with it, but with future generations, as well.

One particular problem that has been highlighted by the abject irrationality of George W. Bush and his cohorts is that in a society where you have the freedom to keep the products of your work, the kinds of accidents that take it away from you become a question of life and death at the personal level and hence define your risk and threat assessments. In societies where people band together and form nation-wide insurance systems designed for accidents large and small and where people have to pay a hefty price for the freedom to go their own way, the same accidents mean that people still pull together and manage to pull through a large number of accidents that would have crippled and killed individuals. The deep irony of the rationality of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that a supremely rational individual does not want to be left in a post-accident situation where he has to fend for himself without the social fabric that formed an invisible tapestry of freedom pre-accident. The even deeper irony is that the level of education that would be necessary to teach the vast majority of the people how to set up insurance and spread risks would be unimagineably more expensive than forcing people to participate in such a system. The fundamental problem is that you cannot “choose freedom”, which President Moron has suggested that the terrorists have not and the Iraqi people would want to. What one can and does choose in life is the level of risk, and the level of freedom falls out from the consequences of how competently you manage your risks. The absolutely stupidest thing you could possibly do if you want people to embrace freedom is to increase the risks in their lives. Just like the United States has dispensed with its freedoms to feel more secure, so does every other nation and group of people.

Ayn Rand grew up in a society that intended to provide people with a nearly risk-free existence provided that they also gave up all their freedom to disagree with the decisions that would remove all the risk. Now, if you remove all risks from someone’s life, they will want both freedom and risks and will most likely fail to grasp that freedom from the consequences of risks is what human society has been working on for the few thousand years it has existed. Capitalism and rational egoism is vastly superior to communism and rational altruism in solving this problem of communal risk management, but if the problem is forgotten and the solution is seen as an end in itself, the problem will come back and destroy you. For instance, if you seek the freedom to enter contracts and seek the force of society to protect the sanctity of contract, there will still be a point at which you will have to accept the risk that the other contractor fails to deliver. We do not want a society where one man’s failure to protect himself from risks can be used to enslave his offspring for generations. We do not want a society where people are left to starve to death and therefore will kill others to survive if their risk management network breaks down. In the end, whether you create a society of all people who pay for a communal risk management system involuntarily (that is, the system becomes more advanced than the individual is able to understand) and so makes a tradeoff between freedom and risk through what will be considered force by those who disagree with it, or you create a society with a voluntary communal risk management system with much smaller groups of people who can opt in or out and then have a form of involuntary support for those who fall through the cracks to keep them from having to use force to survive, whether you choose one over the other is merely a question of the size of the group who band together for communal risk management.

There is ample evidence that if the group becomes too large, the first problem becomes that of the impossibility of opting out of it. Atlas Shrugged solves this problem by taking the one group that matters out of the greater system’s circulation, but it still is not a group of one person. The internal reward for taking part in the communal risk management system is productive work, which provides a short and very powerful link between how much risk management a person can provide to the group (i.e., the profits of producing more than it consumes) and how much it needs in return. Capitalism and the United States are based on the premise that what needs protection in society, that is, the focus of the communal risk management, is each individual’s productive capacity. The rule of law and the laws themselves are both set up to protect those who are vastly more productive than sustenance requirements from those who are unable to sustain even the standard of living that they enjoy in the society they live should they be left to their own devices. The core problem is that those who consume more than they produce refuse to die and cannot be killed. The surplus of the community that those who have overproduced have built up, and which is their pension funds, insurance, drought supplies, etc, will be stolen by those who face the death of their overconsumption. The big question is whether it is more cost-effective to keep people fed and clothed and housed than to prevent those who need food and clothing and shelter from stealing it.

There is very strong evidence, historically, biologically, and psychologically, that the survivability of the individual is a function of the group’s ablility to hoard and thus to protect itself from risks by overproducing when times are good. Failure to overproduce is in fact the single greatest threat to group as well as individual survival, because each accident that comes along will cause a net loss that is not recovered and replenished. Now, accidents are not only inevitable, the accidents that the group survives defines the group. It is a truism that “that which does not kill you makes you stronger”, but the summary of evolution and natural selection is all wrong: It is not “survival of the fittest”, a phrasing that has prevented billions of people from grasping the mechanism, it is “death of the unfit”, by which is, of course, meant that which failed to deal with a particular accident, which means that those individuals or groups that had less surplus than was required to stay alive long enough to recover after an accident had wiped some of them or their stored resources out, strengthen the group and the survivability of all fit individuals by dying. Therefore, each individual is not only morally obliged to overproduce if it wants to stay alive, it is morally obliged to underconsume, i.e., not consume all that it can.

Where Ayn Rand objected only to a society that was mired in overconsumption, as in “account overdrawn”, and desperately wanted a society marked by the aristocratic exuberance that e.g. José Ortega y Gasset described, where massive overproduction would be the rule rather than the exception, she failed to enunciate this latter point, and I have serious doubts that she understood the ramifications of her “sense of life”. Perhaps it would have been unpalatable to her American readers, perhaps she could never have lived with the full force of the realization, considering that she herself mooched off several people and retouched her past when she met with success and the profits of overproduction herself, but at least she followed through completely in her own failure to procreate. The single greatest source of overconsumption is procreation to exhaust resources. The single factor that best defines civilizations as they become richer and therefore offer more freedom, is that people procreate less and at a later age. Capitalism has proved to be inordinately effective in keeping people from procreating when they could not produce enough to feed and care for their offspring. Nothing has been done more wrong against the poor black in America than encouraging them to breed like rabbits, and the new groups of people who are still stuck in poverty are precisely the groups that breed out of control, like the latinos. The strongest contributing factor to the rise out of poverty by the Chinese slaves, was that they did not procreate. With considerable historic irony, China has non-procreated itself out of third world economy, as well, while Africa has been encouraged to keep up their overconsumptive procreation.

As for the success of capitalism, its success is not in higher degrees of freedom, not in better communal risk management, not in a higher standard of living, but in causing people to volunteer to delay procreation and to opt out of it altogether. Only by providing women with something to do that is vastly more worthwhile than rearing children have capitalist countries improved their standard of living. By giving women something that it costs so much to give up by having children that they weigh the cost that having children is and decide against it, capitalist society has short-circuited the senseless wastes of procreation with wild abandon that have marred every pre-capitalist society that happened to overproduce. By giving each woman a present that is very attractive, women have not felt the urge to spawn a new generation that they could hope would get a better stab at life than they got. Not only is the easiest way to underconsume simply to avoid procreation, the time and energy released by breaking the natural cycle and not having children goes into overproduction. And the childless die younger, too.

Atlas Shrugged is a novel set in a fictional reality that is entirely incompatible with the Real World. To many people, this fictional reality is incredibly enticing and attractive. Rational egoism, not this base, natural altruism of child-rearing, it appeals to people who are not of child-bearing age themselves. The more people want to take care of their children, the more they work to set up communal risk management systems that will not break down when some major accident occurs. Freedom will always translate to the death of those who can afford to take too large risks. To be able to afford freedom, some people will need to accept the burden of spawning the children that those who seek their freedom do not. A politico-economic system that managed to encourage people who were able to bring forth viable offspring to do so at a higher than replenishing rate, while it encouraged those who were not so able to spend their lives doing something else, would be both genetically and financially optimal. This is profoundly incompatible with the capitalist society as it has evolved in the United States. By sheer luck of a narrow window of opportunity, Ayn Rand escaped the Soviet Union and entered the United States at a time that allowed her philosophy to sound rational and profound. Indeed, much of it was probably predicated on timing, and so much of it points the way to a better way for human beings to live on earth, but there are some glaring flaws in the core premises that modern-day readers should “check”.

Atlas Shrugged is a “time piece” that works exceptionally well to set off something bad as destructive and evil, but it does in reality not offer anything at all to replace it. The core principle of overproduction (in defense of profits) is not coupled with underconsumption, although her heroes are prudent and physically slender people compared to the fat villains. Today’s capitalism is marked by both overproduction and overconsumption, and our social insurance systems encourage reckless wastes such as single welfare mothers. The really stupid religious conservatives who want to prevent both responsible parents and abortion virtually force a segment of the population into poverty and makes them produce the nation’s future generations, like the most braindamaged dysgenics experiment one could think of, where the least fit are “breeders” for society. Atlas Shrugged appears to reach for the same solution to its next generation: Whoever on the outside just happen to become usable to them, will be included. There is a stark parallel here to the Biblical Garden of Eden, which was also unsustainable and required people from the outside to make the next generation “work”.

However, all this said, I think Atlas Shrugged and the philosophy of Ayn Rand has set up a number of interesting warning signs and just as a group is evolutionally defined by what they survive, those who have read Atlas Shrugged and have thought about how it can let them learn from the world they live in more productively, will form “The New Intellectuals”. It is just as impossible to become a contributor to a free, humane society without having read Ayn Rand as it is to become one having only read Ayn Rand. To make the crucial leap requires that one be able to think about a society that must deal with its discontents and its detractors humanely and fairly, without jeopardizing the benefits to those who choose to subjugate their desires to those that are allowed within its freedoms. To many young people, the concept that one can benefit greatly by succumbing to the desires of the group, or at least not to deviate too far from them, appears to be intellectually unavailable, but to live in a society means precisely that one understands that one benefits from that society.

I have changed this text only to add a title and to add better typography, since our exchange in email was unformatted. For example, he used notation like “/text/” in plain text for emphasis, which I’ve upgraded to “text” for this publication. But the choices of what to italicize are his, not mine. I’ve also updated the quotation marks to be curly instead of straight. The text is otherwise a direct and complete quotation, without editorial correction.

I added hyperlinks in a couple of places, but they aren't visually marked so as not to disturb the text. Some of the references he makes may be unfamiliar, so if you want further reading, there are places you can click through. Adding these is not an endorsement on my part.

To learn more about Erik, see my eulogy of him.

If you would rather read Erik’s piece in black-on-white,
click here to visit the post on my home site.

Photo cropped and resized from a photo by Kevin Layer,
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Author's Note: Originally published January 8, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

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