A new pledge

buddha_us_flag.jpgcommons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Buddha#/media/File:Buddha_1251876.jpg (CC BY 3.0)
US Flag, in public domain

Over the holidays, there was some flack given to me regarding my thoughts on the current US Pledge of Allegiance.   It’s a pretty simple thing:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

… but for me, it smacks of blind obedience, rather than a rational and thoughtful pledge of one’s allegiance to an idea.   It is drilled into you when you attend US public schools, and it doesn’t make you think at all.   You pledge allegiance, and the why or how isn’t even mentioned.   The bit about ‘with liberty and  justice for all’ is also a bit of a joke, considering that a great deal of justice in America depends on how much you can afford to pay.  The Republic is more of a plutonomy, as the folks at Citigroup have soberly noted (you can still find the memo, by a bit of searching around; Citigroup has tried to erase traces of it, but it is out there). The Pledge is also a recent thing; invented by the (socialist!) Edward Bellamy in 1892, it was designed to instill loyalty to the country’s flag and by extension, the country.

The problem with this pledge, though, is it doesn’t really cut to the core of what the country is about.   Pledging allegiance to the country, especially when the country has lost its bearings, seems to me the wrong tack.  What we really want is something that reminds us that a) we are all in this together, and b) that we are citizens of a nation governed at its core by the Constitution,  and c) we aren’t perfect, but certainly are doing our best.  Check  out the Oath of Allegiance, which naturalized citizens recite:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

Not only is it more clear about what it means to be a citizen, it (the act of specifying allegiance) was something that was recognized very close to the founding of the Republic (1790), even if the wording has been modified and codified over the years.

This oath is very similar to the oath that enlisted servicemembers take when they join the military:

“I, (state name of enlistee), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Officers take this one:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.[1]

In all three oaths, direct reference to the Constitution is made.  The Pledge has no mention of it, and perhaps that’s what bugs me.   As a natural born citizen, no such oath or statement has ever been required.  We are to pledge allegiance to the flag, not to an idea; you don’t even need to know that Constitution exists, or know what is in it.  Yes, there is the bit about ‘the republic for which it stands’, which might obliquely refer to the Constitution, but appears to be a bit of a stretch.

A while ago, the possibility of a new Magna Carta was written on this blog.   In a similar vein, we may want to tweak or entirely replace the pledge itself, so that the Constitution’s importance is more magnified, and more prevalent in our civic outlook.  A new pledge should also remind us that we aren’t perfect, but are trying to at least “hit the center of the target.”   Something like this might work:

I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, for it represents the Constitution, with our rights and responsibilities as a united and free people.  No nation is perfect, yet we strive for as much liberty and justice as humanly possible.

In some ways, this new pledge, with the recognition of our imperfect nature (but our striving for perfection!) would be along similar lines to that the Buddhists:

Though the many beings are numberless,
I vow to save them.
Though greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly,
I vow to cut them off.
Though the Dharma is vast and fathomless,
I vow to understand it.
Though Buddha’s Way is beyond attainment,
I vow to embody it fully.

The version above is from here.

It may seem strange, that this new, proposed pledge asks more of our citizens, but blind obedience and pledges aren’t what we need.

Questions:

  • What would your version of a new Pledge of Allegiance look like?
  • What key elements would you include?
  • Shouldn’t we acknowledge the Constitution, our rights *and* responsibilities, *and* our imperfectability?
  • Others have discussed alternate pledges; this one of government workers to the citizenry.  What do you think about that?

 

 

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The Christmas Thing

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree#/media/File:Christmas_tree_sxc_hu.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0

Many folks prepare for the Christmas holiday for weeks; decorations, food preparation, and (of course) the frenzied shopping for gifts.  It is sometimes an orgy of consumerism, although thankfully, some people in the world have turned away from this (Join the Christmas Resistance!).  What has always bothered me about the holiday season is the push for people to get gifts at a specific time of the year, put on a happy face, and be in a jolly, giving (and forgiving) mode, and generally forgetting about the rest of the year.  This observation is brought up by more than a few folks, with admonitions and attempts to keep that “Christmas spirit” around at least past the second week of January.  Mostly, the hustle and bustle of modern life takes control at about the same time the Christmas trees are being tossed out, and society goes back to its regularly scheduled ways.

People do tend to get philosophical during the season, and yes, it is good that donations tick up a bit, and some people, at least for a short while, put aside their more selfish ways and thoughts.   Holidays can focus a community and family, and can remind us of what is important.   For sure, the various holiday specials and movies try to convince us of such.  As we like to say, “all well and good,” but our society still rockets along an unsustainable trajectory, with no happy ending in sight.

There are a few other holidays and dates that share idealistic worldviews, centered around specific ideas:

  • St. Valentine’s Day – about romance
  • Memorial Day – about remembering the fallen
  • The Fourth Of July – about remembering how we became independent
  • Labor Day – about the workers in society
  • Thanksgiving Day – about giving thanks for our family and fortune
  • Veteran’s Day – about remembering veterans
  • New Year’s Day – about new beginnings and new resolutions

There are others, of course, but these are the biggies.  One of the more modern ‘holidays’ is Earth Day, and likewise, it is centered on a specific idea; having people think about ecology, environmental protection, and our impact on the earth.   One of those snappy comebacks that my parents gave when we complained that “there is no Children’s Day!” (there is, of course) is that, “Every day is ‘Children’s Day.’   Likewise, there are those who have said the same about environmental protection; “Every day is Earth Day.”

It takes some wind out of your sails when you see people go to Earth Day, listen to speeches, and really think about their own environmental impact… and then go back to their own ways a few days or weeks later.   This isn’t to say that Christmas, Thanksgiving, Earth Day and so on should be banned.  But certainly, these events and holidays have been so hyped and warped by consumerism that we’ve lost track of the entire point of these days and holidays.

Questions:

  • How do we bring back the true meaning of Christmas, Earth Day, Thanksgiving, or any of our national or societal holidays?   How do we change the way we “celebrate” them?
  • Which holiday has been perverted the most?  The least?
  • How much success have we had in turning back consumerism during these yearly markers [kudos to REI for trying to turn back the tide on Black Friday, for example]?

 

 

 

The real heroes

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(Generic Superhero Logo)

Last week, it was noted that sometimes, people way up a the top of the food chain actually tell the truth, and “tell it like it is.”  This is in contrast to their usual modus operandi; they generally stay in power by telling whatever fairy tales are necessary to keep themselves in power.   In contrast, there are people who do honest work, and do work that has to be done right, or else people suffer.

In A Voice From The Gulag, by Ivan Chistyakov, recommended here, a wonderful bit of truth was quoted:

Observing an accident brigade repairing a broken train rail, he writes: “Silently and confidently, everyone does his bit and the passengers in the trains have no idea that their lives have been saved in this quiet, straightforward, businesslike, understated way. It’s a simple truth that, in many ways, people going about their daily work without a fuss are the real heroes.”

For those of who are doing your daily job, it is sometimes not easy to see the impact you have on the world, especially if it is something as “simple” as repairing broken rails and roads, making sure our drinking water is safe, or a zillion other things that need doing in our complex society.

Questions:

  • How do we celebrate and recognize real day-to-day heroes?
  • Could we ever lose the hero archetype in our culture, the “save the day” superhero that cartoons and histories champion?
  • When we believe in and celebrate superheros (or save-the-day kinds of heroes), rather than day-to-day ones, is this part of the same wish-fulfillment/hopium that thinks “Science/Technology will save us!” ?  It’s the plodding day-to-day ride-your-bike-to-work/don’t-take-airline-flights-halfway-around-the-world-for-fun-every-year sort of stuff that really needs to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recognition of reality

Original photo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House#/media/File:White_House_north_and_south_sides.jpg , ‘matrixed’ via funny.pho.to/matrix-image-generator/

It is a very rare thing, but from time to time, the occupant of the Oval Office will say something that resonates with the outlook of the Long Emergency.    The notion that the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can actually speak without obfuscation and political smoke and mirrors is novel, but it does happen.  Most of the time when presidents speak, they give us grand gestures, promises, and pie-in-the-sky platforms that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually solving the problems that need solving (perhaps because they are unsolvable problems (predicaments), rather than true problems).

In 2006, George W. Bush blew me away when he made the comment “we are addicted to oil.”  A stunning admission, especially coming from an oilman and a Texan.   Other presidents, from Nixon to Obama, have also mentioned oil,  as Jon Stewart (transcript) bravely/hilariously/sadly cataloged (video) years ago.

Donald Trump made a comment about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and buried in his remarks, he stated, “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”  Now, if he (or anyone else) could wrap his head around the reality of our energy/financial/environmental situations, and say the same thing, we’d have something.

Eisenhower’s farewell speech is probably the most haunting, and the most prescient.   In a time when America was economically on top (and still exporting oil), he had these words:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Questions:

  • What other realities have politicians been blatantly obvious about?
  • When are politicians more likely to mention reality and unpleasant truths?  The higher up in office they go?  Only at the end of their term in office, as per Eisenhower?
  • Are politicians in other countries any more or less blunt?

If you want to search for bon mots of presidential truth, you can do so at the Miller Center of UVA.  Try searching on the terms “reality”, “hypocrisy”, “existential” versus terms like “hope” and “freedom”.  And, if you want to bring the Matrix effect to your images, go to  funny.pho.to/matrix-image-generator/.

 

 

Jevon’s Paradox, Ride Sharing, and Self-Driving Cars

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Taxi#/media/File:NYC_Taxi_in_motion.jpg

For the moment, forget about some of the things Uber has been accused/criticized of; its sky-high valuation, data breaches, very variable pricing, and general criticism in the financial press.  All those particular problems could, in theory, be rectified with new management and/or tweaking their business model.  The fact that they have a new CEO might mean they are trying to actually solve those problems.   Sure, on the whole, ride sharing is a nifty idea; why drive or take public transit when someone else can do it for cheaper than a taxi?  The idea of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services sounds great; you get what you want, when you want it, for cheaper, and faster.

Not so fast – and that may be literal.

Jevon’s Paradox (which makes people use more of something the cheaper it becomes) seems to be putting in artificial bumps in the road when it comes to these services.   Ride sharing services appear to be making gridlock worse.   Of course, ride sharing services make life easier for you for now (one of the articles below mentions a ride of over an hour on the DC Metro, vs 21 minutes in a ride share), but as these services proliferate (unless they start carpooling intensely), things may start to slow down.  Even worse, they may siphon off ridership from public transport, making a death spiral for buses, subways, and other forms of mass transit.   Here are a few articles on the topic:

http://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/02/27/its-settled-uber-is-making-nyc-gridlock-worse/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/despise-your-commute-metro-uber-and-lyft-are-conspiring-to-make-it-worse/2017/12/04/cca0cebe-d915-11e7-b1a8-62589434a581_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/upshot/is-uber-helping-or-hurting-mass-transit.html

https://www.thezebra.com/insurance-news/5339/uber-actually-make-traffic-worse/

Perhaps when people start paying the real amount of a ride-sharing ride, this effect will be reversed.   Subsidizing rides for market share can work for a short while, but unless you actually grab market share and stop subsidies, you’ll go broke.

https://www.fastcompany.com/4026256/investors-are-paying-2-billion-per-year-to-subsidize-your-uber-ride

Questions:

  • So, if (and that’s a big if), they figure out self-driving cars, what do you think will happen then?   Will the roads be clogged with self-driving cars?
  • What restrictions would you put on ride-sharing services, so that these problems are alleviated?
  • Surge pricing can cause a standard ride-share price to inflate significantly.  If local governments could take a bit of that very lucrative income and put it towards public transportation, would this help?
  • Just like BitCoin, the idea of ridesharing is an idea; there are thousands of cryptocurrencies, and a host of ridesharing companies.  Can the idea of a ride-sharing company be stopped?

 

 

 

On self control

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cruise_control#/media/File:Tempomat.svg

Continuing with the idea of societal control via self-control – what can we say about such a concept?  The general idea is that the more folks that have self control, in general, the  less need there is for societal control.  The self control that most of us have prevents us from doing lots of counterproductive things like exploding in rage, or using technological levers to magnify our base emotions, so yeah, it sounds like a great plan.   If everyone has enough self-control not to blow up their neighbors car or other harebrained things, you don’t need laws (or enforcement) on the books for outlawing such actions.

Self-control is essentially a very local control of a system, and that’s generally been a good strategy as well.  The Soviet economy didn’t do well because of overly centralized planning, for example, and top-down-command planning may not work too well because of imperfect data, long lags between signal and response (“dead time”, the bane of any control system), and imperfect models of how things work in various places.  Local control allows different regions to adapt different strategies in solving problems, all which are more tightly coupled to local conditions.

Alas, self-control (and local control that has net positive benefits to all) means that you have to know a bit about yourself (educate yourself about yourself, have self-knowledge), and that is the tricky bit.   Sun Tzu, in The Art of War noted:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

As discussed in earlier posts, education is generally horrible, precisely because people up the food chain may not want it.  Education, which leads to self-control/local control/self-knowledge is something that some governments and people who are used to ruling large numbers of people with an iron fist (in a velvet glove or not) may not like either.

Without self-control, and in the absence of external control, things tend to get messy.    Self-control may be a way forward, but it is going to be a tough slog.

Questions:

  • How have you gotten self-control over your own life, situation, or small issues, and how do you instill this in others?
  • Local control is nice, but when does it fail?  Air pollution, for example, can’t be regulated locally, because of its nature, so how to do we handle controlling it?
  • If self-knowledge, and knowledge of your own situation (especially things like your own mortality) is the key, then this may be why self-control is in short supply.  How do we get people to face such things?
  • Self-control and self-knowledge alone doesn’t mean we’ll get a perfect society (although many classic libertarians may want it to be so!).  What balance/level of global and self-control do we need in modern society?

 

On Control

PID_varyingP.jpg

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PID_controller#/media/File:PID_varyingP.jpg

Last week, the group of roving mediator/roving neutral parties (Rangers) was brought forth as elements in a particular community (Burners) that helped keep things together.   One of the key elements that budding and returning Rangers are taught is that sometimes, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing, or close to it.   For a much more “intense kind of nothing,” read how Charley Clarke, a constable in London, interacted with an agitated citizen.

The overall conclusion that you might draw from the points above is that true control of a situation or society can happen… if it isn’t the kind of scientific, mechanistic control that we immediately think of when we think of control.   You can try and get absolute control over many things, but it generally takes a great deal of effort, and when it can’t be controlled, the situation, machine, or process flies apart in sometimes amusing, and sometimes in deadly ways.   Some modern aircraft, like the F-16, are designed to be a bit unstable (for better maneuverability), but without computer control, they do non-standard things, like crash.

Societies, and the many parts that make them up, are complicated and squishy things.   Trying to impose draconian control, rather than trying to control with a softer touch usually leads to a “negative outcome.” Let’s take a look at some of the things we try to over-control, and what their side effects are:

  • cleanliness – It is theorized that maybe too much cleanliness causes allergies to basic things, like peanuts;
  • behavior – Trying to over control the behavior of children can backfire, if you are too strict, children may rebel, causing all sorts of mischief and grief;
  • alcohol – Over control (Prohibition) can lead to worse situations; teen binge drinking in the US is worse than Europe (is this because of over-control of drinking?);
  • drugs – Over control of drugs (again, modern Prohibition) causes violence and lots of money flowing into criminal enterprises;
  • food production – Over control of the genome (GMOs) and monoculture crops have the potential for disaster, since natural resiliency for a crop has been bred out;
  • communications – If the government tries to control or tap communications, it might lead to bigger problems; if everyone encrypts their communications because they feel they are being searched without reason, it may make it harder to catch actual people doing bad things;
  • government – Executive orders by a President on the left seem like a good idea, until a new government is elected, and you don’t the president (and vice-versa!).

Ideally, the best sort of control in societies is brought about by self-control, where people control themselves in one regime by learning about control in another, unrelated one.   In the book Jurassic Park (the full bit is here; http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/Seventeenth/jur.html), this boils down to the simple comment:

A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands.

Self-control seems to be the best way of control, but it requires discipline, which doesn’t seem to be in great supply these days.

Questions:

  • In spite of this loosey-goosey approach, some things we need to control; clean air, clean water.  Dmitry Orlov writes about this  (Shrinking The Technosphere), and references the “potential harm/potential benefit” ratio.  If this ratio is infinite, absolute prohibition (control) is needed.   What are other critically controlled elements?
  • How do you limit control, and keep people from wanting even more control, even when it is easy?
  • How is self-discipline learned?