Enough Already December 16, 2012
The long slow slide
There's been a long slow slide away from the direction of "being a team" to "every man for himself" for a good part of my lifetime. It must stop. The Newtown shooting prompted this post… and don't worry, I'll get there… but please read through the whole piece.
The Great Depression & WWII
The bubble that was the roaring 20s led to the Great Depression as the wealth of the middle class was systematically transferred to the wealthy. Because the middle class no longer had enough wealth to create demand, the economy collapsed.
The Great Depression led to great, world-wide social unrest. Ultimately, that unrest allowed Hitler to come to power and mobilize the Germans.
An amazing thing happened after World War II. Somehow, we focused on building the future. We did this in the form of the Bretton Woods Accord, the Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, and other plans. Somehow, for a moment in time, we somehow collectively forgot about punishment and grabbing our individual slice of the pie and we focused on growing the pie. We focused, as a nation, on investing in our future trade partners and our own people.
The greatest period in human history
For the generation after WWII, there was the greatest increase in per-capita income the world has ever seen. We created institutionalized programs to take care of the poor and the elderly. We increased the education level across the board. Most industrialized nations ensured that every citizen would have health care. The US covered North America in highways.
We created the second greatest communications network the world has ever seen (TVs in almost every home and telephones in every home and on every corner.) We also sowed the seeds for the greatest communications network the world has ever seen, the Internet.
We made the transistor and computer possible and lowered the costs of each to the point where many businesses could afford them. We also sowed the seeds to logarithmic price decreases in computers. We made it possible for everyone to print whatever they wanted at reasonable prices (the Xerox machine.)
We made automobiles reliable and sufficiently inexpensive that almost everyone could afford a car.
We made cross continental and international travel something that most people could do with safe jet airplanes and a network of airports and air traffic control systems.
Almost every home had hot water (my mother grew up in the 40s and did not have hot water in her house… this was not uncommon in Detroit.)
During this time, infant mortality in the western world plummeted and average lifespans increased radically.
During this time, we worked to rebalance the power between labor and capital such that there was some reasonable balance… business profits were more evenly distributed across all the parties responsible for those profits. We also created laws and institutions that worked to balance bargaining power between individuals who were not experts and large businesses: consumer protection laws. We started to recognize and manage industrial externalities with environmental protection laws.
We freed women with birth control, legalized abortion, and laws that protected women.
We made major advances in treating every human in the US as a human with the civil rights act of 1964.
By the end of the generation following WWII, almost everyone had hot water, heat, safe food, a phone, a TV, a car, and radically increased safety, health, and longevity. In 30 short years, we went from a politician running on the platform of "a chicken in every pot" to the reality that almost everyone in the US and Western Europe lived like the kings lived just 100 years prior.
But perhaps the greatest thing we did during the generation after WWII was put a man on the moon. We realized a dream that mankind has had since the dawn of history… we escaped our planet.
The investment we made in people and education and working together yielded magic and beauty. During this period, a period of high income tax rates, a period of increasing government intervention, a period of increasing labor power, a period of increasing wealth transfer, our civilization grew and flourished in unimaginably beautiful ways.
Then Something Broke
I'm not exactly sure when things broke… but they did.
Perhaps it was the Vietnam war and the baby boomers breaking the contract that if we all work together in harmony, we can move the country and the world forward.
Perhaps it was Richard Nixon and Watergate… a time when everyone suddenly realized that we could not trust our elected officials. A particularly angry side note… most of the people who are perpetuating the "government is bad story" are the same people and the same kind of people who were Nixon supporters. Folks… it's these people who are evil and cannot be trusted. They have latched onto a narrative about how bad the government is because these people are part of it… but I digress.
Perhaps it was the oil shocks of the 70s that pointed out that our increasing use of finite natural resources would come to an end.
Perhaps it was labor and management focusing on inward fights rather than on a reasonable allocation of profits.
Perhaps it was the hubris on the US with all of the puppet dictators we installed all over the world and the spirit of Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan were simply a facade for continued campaigns of world domination, even though those campaigns had ceased to happen in Western Europe.
But something broke. We stopped believing that if we played by the rules, things would get better. We stopped believing that the government was on our side. We stopped trusting and started letting fear rule us again.
Reagan Played it Brilliantly
Reagan was elected in 1980. He systematically began dismantling the social protections, the government programs related to wealth transfer and protecting smaller players from larger players. Reagan changed the tax code in a way that made it easier to reverse the wealth transfers from the top tax payers to the country. Reagan started financial services de-regulation.
Reagan got everyone talking the "government is bad" narrative and that narrative has stuck. Reagan sowed the seeds of the current Republican "winning is more important than America" obstructionism, although it was perfected by Newt Gingrich.
Reagan played on our greatest fears. Reagan took the stuff that broke after a generation of awesomeness and painted a picture that if the government just got out of the way, then everything would be fine.
I voted for Reagan. I yelled "get a job" to some union picketers (and got punched in the face for doing that.) I was a libertarian until I went to law school and saw that libertarianism is a euphemism for "the guy with the biggest stick wins."
I also understand how dealing with any governmental institution can be frustrating. "You can't fight city hall." It turns out that this is true of any large institution. Dealing with Comcast and United Airlines (the deregulated United, not the United of the 70s) is more difficult than dealing with the government. In fact, I have (or at least before the whole security theater that 9/11 resulted in) more control over the government because I can petition the government, call my representatives, and ultimately sue the government. It is only a government that is captured by the corporate interests… only a government that thinks that corporations are people… that is hard for the citizens to control. But I get ahead of myself.
WWII allowed us to motivate our nation in a way that was just spectacular. Sadly, we somehow thought that if it worked well once, it would keep working well. We had a couple of hot wars (Korea and Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq). We had a prolonged cold war. We had the war on drugs, the war on terror, and a whole pile of other wars. Not a single one could be called a success (okay… the first Gulf War could be called a success). But it colored our language and our national dialog in such a way that us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, you're with us or against us became the norm.
It is not okay to be at war. It is not the norm to be at war. War should be the last resort rather than the first inclination. We are a nation of great resources and should be able to patiently apply those resources to do the right thing.
So, over the last generation, we have done a huge backslide. We have started dismantling the things that bind us. We have started to go to our respective corners and reduce every discussion to a blue vs. red discussion. Sure, there have been significant strides, especially in gay rights as well as a generation that is simply color blind.
But we've slid in terms of protecting each other, caring about each other, growing the pie together, doing great things as a nation, taking care of our own and our brothers. Birth control is on the table again. Unions are busted. Teachers are evil moochers that teach our children the wrong values. Someone's Christian God somehow has a place in our national dialog rather than our individual Gods having a place in our heart.
We have slid so it's somehow okay from the government record every email that goes across the Internet and every phone call, somehow it's okay for the government to record conversations we have in public places, somehow it's okay for the government to have access to the names of the guest at every hotel, somehow the government can hide behind state secrets when the government does something wrong, somehow it's okay for the government to cut off access to money for folks it disagrees with, but people think that having a gun will protect against government transgressions.
We've slid to the place where we don't trust our government, our government doesn't trust the citizens, and folks think that having a few guns is going to help. Put another way, the 1st and 4th Amendments, if properly applied, will give a whole lot more protections to people than a gun in a closet because even if you have a gun in the closet, if the government is listening to what you say, controlling your bank account, and limiting your access to others, then you're isolated and helpless… even if you have a gun.
We must reset the conversation.
Reseting the Conversation
At the end of WWII, we had a moment of lucidity where the conversation was about people working together to make the US, western Europe, and the world as a whole better. It's time we reset the conversation, and I think we have a model to look to.
I live in a particularly interesting place. I live in the Open Source world. It's a weird world of collaboration and competition. It's a weird world of working together for common goals because it's the best way to achieve personal and professional goals. It's a world where money is not the key driver of collaboration. The open source is increasingly impacting the whole world. In fact, iPads and Macs and your digital TV and the entertainment system on airplanes and so much else is built on open source… built on software that is freely available and in some cases must be freely available.
The War metaphor
Much of human history and the 20th century was dominated by wars and hierarchies. When you have armies and slow communications, you must delegate to the folks that are closer to the situation. These hierarchies became part of the way we structured businesses and the vast majority of our institutions.
We also channeled our competitive nature into war metaphors. We focus on beating the competition rather than doing excellent things for our customers. We spend a lot of energy focused on our "enemy" rather than focusing that energy on building better stuff. This is, I believe, because we bask in the language of war rather than basking in the language of achievement.
I'm not suggesting that we should all sit down in a circle and sing kumbaya. We are competitive creatures. But we can channel our competitive energies towards a positive goal. They have done this in Sienna Italy for hundreds of years. We do it in high tech with Linux and PostgreSQL and other software that powers a large part of the world.
We did it after WWII. We were so war-weary that we channeled our energy into creating the greatest generation the world has ever seen.
Reseting the conversation
But in order to channel our energy, we must reset the conversation. We must reset the conversation the way we did post WWII. Perhaps we will need another war, the way we needed a war post the Great Depression, to destroy large swaths of the world and at the same time to get folks to align their goals. But I think we can use The Lesser Depression and the Newtown shooting and some of the other stuff that's going on right now to reset the conversation to one that's about working together and respecting every human and treating everyone at the table with dignity. I think we can reset the conversation so that we are civil and respectful of each other.
How I'd like to see the conversation
I'd like to see a reset in the conversation so that it's about all of us… all of us working together the value all humans. I'd like the conversation to be like the best conversations in the open source world… what can we do together that will maximize the outcome.
We are all brothers and sisters
I think we need to realize that we are all brothers and sisters. We are 330 million people in the United States and 7 billion people in the world. What happens to any of us impacts all of us, one way or another.
Segmenting and discarding by race or sex or belief just doesn't work. We are all one and we need to respect and embrace our differences.
Any of us can be anywhere in the world in less than a day. Any of us can talk to almost anyone in the world instantly. My kids will play video games over the Internet with kids on 6 of the 7 continents.
There's only room for cooperation and working together.
It's time to reduce the weapons
It's also a matter of a few years before anyone with a few hundred dollars can build a drone that can deliver huge destructive force hundreds or thousands of miles away. We carry the computational and guidance power of one of these devices in our pockets daily.
I think the US should simply outlaw the personal ownership of guns and significantly restrict police gun access. Put a GPS and a camera on every gun so you always know where they are and can always see what they're doing.
If you're someone who wants to kill animals, go get a crossbow. They are darned effective and don't autoload. But as long as there's a 1st and 4th Amendment, there's no reason to have personal guns.
The police force should be focused on neighborhood patrols and getting to know the folks in the neighborhood. Make friends. Get people on your side by helping.
We should end all the wars. The war in Afghanistan. The war on terror. The war on drugs. The US should be a nation of peace.
Does this mean laying down all our weapons? No. But it does mean spending no more than 2x the 2nd largest spender on military stuff in the world. We only need to have twice as much military than the next guy to keep our shores safe.
We are the wealthiest nation, ever. We've got the resources to be patient. We've got the resources to lead by example. And if the example we set is peace, we'll see a lot more peace. If the example we set is hot wars and shadow wars and cold wars and senseless wars, that's what we'll get… and there are a lot more people out there who can hurt us than we can defend against.
There are measures of worth more important than money
The interesting thing about open source is there's far less discussion of money than there is most other stuff. Yes, folks who participate in open source need to make money to feed and shelter themselves. But it's a funny thing that happens when the incentives in a community are built around things like helpfulness and engineering excellence and good communication and solving user-needs. The things that the community prizes are the things that people compete on.
Sure, money is a factor, but when money is the prime factor, it will be the prime thing people compete over. But when community recognition and education levels and excellent sportsmanship and the like are the things that are prized, then people will compete over those.
We are competitive animals. But we need to focus on the things that are important. Money and consumption are less important now that we can satisfy the basic needs of everyone. Put another way, the cost of keeping everyone in the US fed, housed, educated, and healthy is about 35% of our gross domestic product. Folks, we've got 65% of our productive capacity going to discretionary spending. Perhaps it's time to focus away from cash and focus on creating a dialog around helping and contributing to society and educational excellence and artistic exploration.
We don't need to compete over allocation of food and shelter, so let's compete over more important stuff.
Keep your God in your heart
Many people find their God helps them be better people and helps them through very difficult times as well as having their God with them every day on their life journey. That's awesome.
But we all have different Gods. We cannot have one single God. The US was founded on the separation of church and state because there's no way to resolve the problems that are brought on by all the various Gods that all the people in the world have in their respective hearts.
Personally, my God is not named and does not have a shape. The best way I can define my personal God is some intersection of morality and compassion and love. That's what gives me peace, keeps me going, and guides me. But whatever you keep in your heart and whatever guides you and motivates you and gives you peace… that is your God, even if it is not a God that has an official definition or an organized following. [editorial note, this paragraph was added the day after the original post to clarify what I mean by God.]
So, keep your God in your heart. Let your God guide you through the conversation with your fellow brothers and sisters. But please do not share the pronouncements of your God, but they are likely to conflict with the pronouncements of the God in someone else's heart and that will all lead nowhere good.
Transparency is paramount for any large institution
Once we have transparency back and have the rule of law back, it will be much easier to continuously improve our government.
We are all Makers
Each and every person in the world has an impact on the world. We are all makers. Some are famous. Some are highly skilled. But each of us can makes somebody's day with a smile. Each of us can create art or literature or a remix or software or products in a factory or a song in church. We all make and we all share. As part of a dialog, we must all respect one another.
We have the resources to be patient
We have the resources in the western world to do it right. Even in the current Lesser Depression, we have the resources to feed and house and care for every single person. We have resource allocation issues, but we have plenty of resources to go around. We must be patient and work through the discussion and the trials and the improvements in order to make things continuously better for everyone.
Money is not real
US dollars are not real. Gold has no real value store. Each of these things and many other forms of money or near substitutes are not real. They vary in value based on so many factors. If you're stuck on a desert island with 6 other people, having a trunk full of gold or US cash is meaningless.
Money has value because as a society, we have marketplaces where money and money substitutes can be exchanged. Money has value because as a society, we have police and courts and banking systems and other institutions that protect the value of money.
During a dialog, we must keep this in mind. Taxes are not taking something absolute away from one person. Taxes and other transfers to the government are a way of preserving the value of the money you have. Without the government, you'd have a pile of paper or a target painted on you that says, "come, take this thing of value from me." The government is the cheapest way I can think of to preserve the value of whatever assets you have.
Yes, there are evil people out there
Yes, there are evil people out there. There are people who are so disconnected from the reality that most of us share that we can't understand how they decide to do such bad things. People who lead and inspire others to kill and destroy are evil. Those loners who hurt or kill others are evil.
But responding to evil with aggression can easily lead to more evil. The US funded Osama bin Laden and helped perpetrate his evil against the USSR. He later turned his evil on the US. We should have never gotten involved with him.
The more we see evil, the more evil we will see. The more we're terrified of evil, the more easily terrorists will do what they do.
We should and must treat evil as an outlier rather than a part of our every day conversation. Yes, evil will succeed in hurting us from time to time. But if we elevate evil to front and center in our discussions and our daily life, evil will grow.
The government is us
The final part of the conversation is that the government is us. Think of the challenges in satisfying the needs of your friends or your spouse or your family or your workplace. There's really no optimal way to do it, yet we all keep trying and keep getting better at it.
The government is just balancing the needs of hundreds of millions of people. That ain't easy. But if we think of the government as us. As our friends. As our neighbors. As our brothers and sisters, we can have a different discussion.
We can have a discussion about how to balance our needs with the needs of so many others. How to get what we need or want… get things allocated in a way that's better for us while causing fewer problems for others. But at the end of the day, our government is us and we should be able to be proud of what we can do together.
At the end of the Second World War, we managed to create a government that was us… a government that represented the best and kindest that we could be. We helped our neighbors rebuild and improve. We banded together to learn and create. We put a man on the moon.
It's no different now than it was then. We can have the dialog. We can band together. We can create something that reflects the best that mankind can offer.
I didn't talk to my kids about Newtown
I've got 8 year old twins. I did not talk to them about Newtown. It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy that hit white middle class people en mass. But the gun related death-rate among black teens is 22 times higher than whites. That's a tragedy… and an ongoing one. 4.8% of black men are in jail vs. 0.7% of whites… that's 7 times more black people in jail than whites. The war on drugs has caused us to write off a substantial part of the black population. That's an ongoing tragedy.
We've got a war on gays going on. Societally, we're forcing people who love each other, but are the same sex, to justify marriage, adoption, child rearing, and other things that 90% of us take for granted. This is segmenting and damaging 10% of the people we call our friends and neighbors… making it that much harder for them to reach the potential of being excellent partners and parents and neighbors and contributors to our collective human endeavor.
There are ongoing tragedies… perhaps not as stark, but certainly more broadly destructive to the fabric that makes us all human… playing out every day. My kids don't need to know the specifics of one of these tragedies that might lead them to fear for their own safety, when they can learn about many of the tragedies and learn to be more loving people who care about helping each person they come into contact achieve the most they can achieve.