The Nature of Freedom

A few cultural events have caused me to think a lot about freedom lately. Of course our new Presidential administration has had an effect, but also some films, television programs, and documentaries. Also, I have been assisting my local political community and the results are pretty depressing.

One film that I saw was “Arrival“. It is based on a short story called “The Story Of Your Life” which goes into more philosophical detail than the film, and centers on the idea of free will. The aliens in the film can see time in a planar rather than linear fashion. Because of that, they have no concept of free will. Knowing what is coming leaves them with no choice but to play their parts to contribute to the known outcome. Speaking to others isn’t so much an exchange of ideas as it is a declaration or codification of events, like announcing a winner, or pronouncing someone dead. Reading the story left me feeling that I had broken my brain in some fundamental way.

Not long after that, I started watching “Westworld“. The hosts in West World are driven by code which is interpreted by their central processing units. Because they store memories digitally, they don’t remember things, and instead reload (relive) them. As a mercy to the hosts, their memories are erased on a regular basis. Something within the code that governs the hosts causes them to start remembering and all hell breaks loose. Again this idea, while fictional, made me think about the nature of freedom.

The idea of reality as a lived experience, the cognitive lens that we see the world through, is based on recollection of previous experiences. Our human memories are not perfect; we cannot retrieve bit-for-bit copies of stored data the way that a computer can. We cannot go back and relive an experience the way that a host from Westworld can. As we experience something, it is colored by a complex mix of emotions and bias. These imperfect and colorized recollections then shape how we experience new things. These new experiences, perceived through our flawed cognition, are then stored using that same flawed mechanism, making it even more flawed. As humans age and grow, their cognition becomes a kind of degenarative corruption of observation. Your lived experience might actually just be shitty encoding.

As I watched these works of fiction, I have also begun to listen to intellectuals dissect the ideas of freedom. I watched a series of documentary films by Adam Curtis. The idea of this series, is that efforts have been made to reduce the idea of humanity into self-serving automata. This numeric representation of humans relies on a kind of rational strategy that guides us. The problem with this simplified view of course is that it ignores the shitty encoding that guides human decision making.

The documentary series points out the use of Zero Sum Game Theory in modern political, economic, and even biological research. This cynical approach led to the dissolution of the idea of human individuality and the rise of popular psychology which uses drugs to manage human behavior. Oversimplification of human behavior leads to a kind of segregation based on small sets of variables, rather than meritocracy. The result is the corporate-run caste system that we have today. More importantly there are two varieties of freedom: one of struggle and coercion based on violent radicalism, and one of meaningless consumerism. Meaningless consumerism is how The West operates without violent revolution; people are free to do whatever they want, so long as all they want to do is watch TV and buy things.

This my issue with the western idea of freedom. It is a comfortable existence; it’s largely devoid of bloodshed, but it is also largely devoid of meaning. Buying new things – says the guy with 4 laptops – isn’t making yourself any happier. Watching TV – says the guy who came to this conclusion by watching movies and TV – doesn’t help you to improve yourself. Being a radical freedom fighter isn’t the alternative, and it’s not like you can bring down corporatism in a bloodless and market-friendly manner. What you can do, however, is diversify. Instead of using violence to coerce others into your idea of freedom, I think that you can build communities around ideas other than meaningless conformity and draconian order. Organizing into communities is the start, but you have to go much further.

Paradoxically (or perhaps ironically), I criticize the tendency for governments and corporations to reduce humanity into numerical figures, yet I cannot help but to see political and economic systems as complex networks. I am an avid proponent of peer-to-peer networking, of decentralization, and the mistrust of authority. In a peer-to-peer network, there are no clients and servers, there are only nodes. The power of the Internet is not that it connects nodes, but that it connects networks of nodes. We, as individuals, have to organize ourselves into networks that pursue and produce meaningful things. Individuality is important, but agency may actually be more important. Having freedoms that you do not make use of is pretty much the same as not having freedoms to begin with. If you are a corporate-run fascist state, it’s probably a better for you if your subjects ignore their freedoms. Convincing them to do that might be part of your game plan.

This is the idea that I am moving around in my mind. What is freedom? Do we in The West actually have it? Did we lose it or did we give it away? The thought process is similar to the Orwell vs. Huxley debate, but I think it goes further because it should take into account human tendencies. Huxley kind of does with his societal focus, but Orwell does not because he is more focused on politics. My concern is with more essential things, like the nature of cognition, the nature of free will, and the nature of humanity.

The problem with everything is central control

I have been reading postmortems on the election, and it basically came down to a failure of media and political elites to get a read on the voting public. Basically, a small number of very powerful intellectuals operated in a kind of silo of information.

All the stuff I have read and watched about the 2008 financial meltdown comes down to a failure of large banks. A small number of very powerful banks, operated in a kind of silo of finance.

This country is a mess because of centralized control and centralized culture. It’s a mess because of intellectual laziness and emotional cowardice. It’s a mess because we rely on crumbling institutions to help us.

Centralizing seems natural and logical. There is an idea in economics called the economy of scale. Basically, a big operation (a firm, a factory, a project) has better purchasing power and is able to spread fixed costs over large numbers of units. In network topology, the Star Model is the simplest to manage, putting all the resources at the center. I tend to think about economics and computer networks as kind of similar.

One of the primary criticisms of the Star Network is the single point of failure. If the center of the network has any sort of problem, the whole network suffers. This is also a problem with economies of scale. A lot of electronic component manufacturing is centralized in Taiwan, in 1999 an earthquake caused a worldwide shortage of computer memory. It seems that any time there is bad weather in New York City, flights are delayed across all of North America. In 2008, trouble with undersea fiber cables caused widespread Internet connectivity problems throughout Asia. A lack of biodiversity in potato crops contributed to the Irish Potato Famine. Centralized control is prone to failure.

This isn’t just a business or a technology problem. It can also be a cultural problem. Centralizing stores of information leads to gatekeeping, where a point of distribution controls the access and dissemination of information. This may be for financial gain, in the case of television and cinema, or it may be for political gain, in the case of the White house press corps. Media outlets repeating what the white house said, and the white house using media reports to support its assertions is how the us ended up invading Iraq under false pretenses.

The diametric opposite of the Star Network is the Mesh network, specifically the Peer-To-Peer network. These models eschew ideas of economy and control in favor of resilience and scalability. Economy of scale eliminates redundancies because they are expensive. Peer-to-peer embraces redundancies because they are resilient.

Embracing peer-to-peer from a cultural standpoint means embracing individuality and diversity. Not just in a left-wing identity politics sort of way, but in a Victorian class struggle kind of way. It means eschewing the gatekeeper-esque ideas of mono-culture in favor of cultural and social diversity. Peer-to-peer culture is messy. It’s full of conflicts and rehashed arguments. It’s not a “safe space” where people of similar mindsets never encounter dissent. It’s a constant barrage of respectful and learning argument.

The cultural division in this country is a failure of our core values. It’s a failure of the right’s anti-intellectualism, and it’s a failure of the left’s elitism. It’s faith by many in crumbling institutions that are out of touch. It’s a failure of corporate media that forces us to turn to our social networks for news that discourages discussion and only seeks to confirm our individual biases.

I’ll be writing more about this opinion (and make no mistake, it’s just an opinion) in future posts. Hopefully it will foster some of the discussion that I am seeking.

Election Year Economics Are Stupid

I am no economist, but elections aren’t about economics, they are about rhetoric, which I know a little bit about. Political rhetoric is about narratives. In an election year, the narrative of fiscal policy is about reinterpreting the basic principles of macroeconomics in order to garner votes. The problem, as I see it, is that these narratives, these talking points, are passed off as solid leadership. All politicians lie, but this is different. These are carefully crafted messages that people follow. Messages that people believe.

Both liberals and conservatives are establishing the same narrative: that their side has all of the answers, and the other side is ignorantly wrecking the country. Both sides do this, make no mistake. This is why I don’t care for either. It doesn’t matter which side you fall on politically. If you give that premise one ounce of rational thought, you can see that that idea is -in a word- stupid. Why would a group, backed [presumably] by half the country, back a plan that would doom the very nation that they want to control? This isn’t about good vs. evil, or smart vs. stupid. This is about two essential pieces of a natural process: the need for business to make profits, and the need for a social safety net. Not only are these great ideas, they are also essential components of a healthy economy. They may actually help each other in the process: good social safety nets could mean more freedom for businesses.

Conservatives are pushing tax cuts at every turn in order to stimulate private industry. Liberals are looking to implement government programs to help people that they believe are being ignored by private industry. LOL/JK they’re just lining the pockets of their corporate cronies 🙂

Private industry and social stability are both good ideas; there is nothing wrong with either idea. The problem is that both ideas are postured in such a way as to appear mutually exclusive. Tax cuts are inherently plutocratic, while programs to help those who need it are the fast track to communism. This has nothing to do with actual plutocracy or communism and everything to do with political posturing.

Presenting your set of goals, however noble, as superior to those of the other side is deliberately ignoring half of the problems that our nation faces. We face a need for employment, which comes from businesses, and a need for a strong social safety net, which comes from taxes. People need to work so that they can pay taxes. Businesses need to profit so that they can employ workers and pay taxes. What’s more, pitting the interests of business against the interests of the population is at best a waste of already finite resources, and at worst a recipe for societal collapse.

Economies rely on two forces: supply and demand. These forces are often represented in the political narrative as business and consumers. The problem with this narrative is that the market is actually made up of two interdependent cycles where businesses and consumers fulfill the roles of supply and demand at various stages. These cycles depend on each other to keep repeating. The people who participate in these processes perform different functions in the cycle. Even if you own a company, you still have to go home and buy things. Even if you earn only minimum wage, you are still selling your time and energy for a wage.

In the graphic above, you can see where businesses and consumers are both buying and selling to each other. There are different markets where consumers supply and businesses demand, only to have the roles reverse. This is a good representation of the interdependence of these two cycles. If you are a business, you are working to turn your resources (raw materials, production capacity, energy) into profits. If you are a consumer, you are looking to turn resources (land, labor and capital) into income. If consumers don’t have income, they can’t buy stuff from businesses and they cannot invest in businesses. If businesses cannot make profits, they cannot employ people. If this balance is upset, no one can pay taxes. Conservatives would have you believe that Americans sacrificing in order to keep private industry going is the way to keep the country going. Liberals would have you believe that government programs financed by corporate taxes will keep the country going. Both parties are right at some point in the economic cycle, and they’re both wrong at the opposite end.

Capitalism works when everyone acts in their own rational self interest. Political rhetoric focuses on “self interest” at the expense of rationality. Election Year Economics is the antithesis of rationality. Pitting consumers against businesses is irrational. Businesses are employers. Employees are customers. If people can’t work, they can’t buy your crap. If you aren’t buying crap, there are no jobs. Expecting the government to care for you is irrational. Subverting the democratic process to avoid taxes is irrational. The politics of fiscal policy is the politics of irrationality.

You see, while markets cycle clockwise and counterclockwise, the economy itself cycles up and down. Things go well, the economy grows, and then it runs out of steam and contracts. This is natural. The contraction not often pleasant, but it is natural. Expansion and contraction is unavoidable. The purpose of the government in this process is not to keep the cycle perpetually expanding. That is impossible, and believing it to be possible is irrational.

The role of government in the business cycle is to even out these natural ups and downs. This is where Monetary Policy should come into effect. It should keep things from expanding out of control, and then soften the blow of recession. The government does this during expansion by limiting the money supply (Federal Reserve conspiracies notwithstanding) and during contraction by providing a social safety net. During times of recession, the government increases spending, cuts taxes, and programs like unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance keep people buying until things pick up again. These are good things that get people votes on both sides.

During times of expansion, however, conflict arises. At the other end of the business cycle, the government needs to control the supply of money to keep the economy from overheating and then crashing. It does this by raising interest rates, raising taxes, and by reducing government spending. Higher interest rates encourage saving and discourage risky investing, lending, and borrowing. Higher taxes create a budget surplus that can later be used for benefits programs. Reduced government spending encourages maximum employment in the private sector and efficient allocation of funds. These are good economic decisions, but they are bad political moves. High taxes and interest rates draw the ire of Wall Street and its conservative votes. Reduced spending affects public institutions and their liberal votes. The goal is for the government should be to create a budget surplus and then use it to jumpstart the economy during downturns. This is politically painful for both the left and the right, and it costs votes. That means no one on either side wants to do it. When you run a business one fiscal quarter at a time, and when you run a nation one election at a time, good fiscal  and monetary policy become a sort of leaky roof problem. You can’t raise the funds you need when everyone is unemployed and broke, but you don’t need social safety nets when everyone is employed.

All-tax-cuts-all-the-time is bad fiscal policy. All-government-spending-all-the-time is also bad fiscal policy. If the government can’t raise funds by taxing, it has to raise them by borrowing (from China!) which is also bad fiscal policy. In this process, we as the electorate have to understand where we are -as a nation- in the economic cycle. I guess this would be a good place for the media or the education system to help the process, but media is a private industry where celeb gossip is more profitable than macroeconomics, and education is a money pit for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, you can’t fit that message on a bumper sticker, and my Facebook feed seems to only have enough attention span for clicktivism.