Sunday, August 14, 2005

More on Diamonds... and those who hate them...

DemetriosX wins the Best Response Of The Week award. Several excellent points concerning our recent topic of the Diamond-Shaped Social Structure. The irrefutable fact that America and most of the West has lived a miracle for half a century - in societies wherein the well-off and empowered Middle Class has - for the first time in human history - actually outnumbered the poor.

Of course, critics of the diamond metaphor have attempted to refute its core lesson - that progress and the modernist agenda of human and social improvability work, and indeed work much better than anything else that humanity has ever tried. They try to do this by ignoring the diamond, or calling it doomed, or else by claiming that it is a mirage, resting atop an ongoing pyramid of privilege. As modernists who welcome criticism, we analyzed two of these proposed pyramids last time, finding one of them somewhat plausible and the other easily disproved.

Of course there is some level at which this complaint about the diamond must be true. As DemetriosX aptly points out, the real "pyramid" that our diamond rests upon is a vast number and variety of patient and (mostly) uncomplaining machines that has replaced the servant/peasant/slave classes.

Just go to India, today, and look around. Someone in YOUR class and occupation will have servants, who do many tasks that you assign to your dishwasher, clothes washer and microwave oven. Much is still done by hand. It is wonderful that the Indian economy is rising. But it is a rising pyramid, at least so far.

Moreover, many of our machines consume copious resources, exactly as a human servant would. Hence the multiplier effect of how vastly more resource-hungry an american household is, compared to others around the world. For this reason, we are behooved, obligated, to expend a large portion of our surplus on research to make all servant machines vastly more efficient. Only thus could it ever be possible for everyone on the planet to enter the diamond-pinnacle of citizen-humans, living in relative decency.

Note that the right does not foster such research, choosing instead to undermine it at every opportunity. Why is that?

1. Some believe it interferes in capitalism. Nonsense, of course. One of the chief roles of government is to invest in portions of future horizon space that lie beyond the 3-5 year ROI (return on investment) limit of the typical CEO. (Actually, this is relatively visionary, for CEOs today. Most have an eye only on timing stock peaks to coincide with their options-parachute.) In any event, this stance is utter hypocrisy. The latest energy bill is filled with so called "research" that suits the short term needs of the most influential in-group CEOs, plus many billions of tax breaks for companies that are already highly profitable. (See below)

2. They cannot allow their minds to encompass an ambitious goal of actually eliminating poverty and welcoming ALL of the world inside a rising diamond, even though we face a time limit. When there are ten billions on Earth, many of them far more educated and skilled than happy, do you really think that terror and destruction will not spill across us all?

3. Certain elements of our current ruling Troika actually relish the prospect of a looming doomsday, driven in part by a failure of human problem-solving. (In a month or so I will discuss this, when we start a series about religion.) Indeed, they consider the whole Modernist Agenda to be sacreligious. Arrogating the miracle-working powers of God.

In fact, modernism should impel any reasonable person to pull out the stops on efficiency research, almost above any other priority. It should be the top imperative, a goal driven by sure knowledge that our childrens' lives and comfort will depend on vastly muliplying wealth while reducing resource impact by two orders of magnitude. There should be a dozen "Manhattan Projects" aimed at achiving this sustainability goal - including the resumption of building modern and improved nuclear power plants. (Aha! Brin swerves and delivers a kick to the LEFT!)

Note that all of this is driven by this one metaphor... that of the diamond social structure... our greatest accomplishment. THE greatest human accomplishment, possibly, of all time. It is the very emblem of the Enlightenment and its servant, modernism. And it can only endure if we do everything in our power to nurture it.

DemetriosX is right that the diamond LOOKS unstable. Because it is. Pyramids are reinforced by the utterly predictable and almost-automatic self-serving actions of empowered elites at the top, who do not need sophisticated science to tell them how to stay on top. This is what's natural, as testified by 4,000 years of recorded history.

In contrast, markets - oft mythologized as "natural" are the most unnatural things going. Libertarians will tell you "market laws are laws of nature", what baloney. Markets -- and the other great modernist cornucopian tools -- are magnificent wealth generating machines, built ad-hoc, through trial and error, constantly fine-tuned and refined, tinkered, adjusted. The same way the diamond needs tuning, adjusting, reforms and investment, in order to keep its shape and keep rising. (Remind me some time to resume this line of thought. Meanwhile, have a look at: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html)

All right, I've psychoanalyzed why the RIGHT despises the diamond. What about the LEFT?

What's interesting about the left is that they DO call for many diamond-tending processes and reforms. (After all, civil and gender rights were overwhelmingly important to altering the old pyramid.) And, despite their own kind of anti-science antimodernism, the left does support efficiency research.

But they hate the image of the diamond because it implicitly admits that there's been progress. In their sanctimonious contempt for the masses, they believe that ANY admission of progress will remove the guilt-driven pressure to do more. A dismal obsession that actually undercuts their credibility and effectiveness. Refusing ever to use praise, only guilt, they wind up driving people away, and turning "liberal" into a curse word on the lips of citizens whose votes they desperately need.

But let's probe just a little deeper, into the implications of the Diamond Metaphor.

First a challenge. I defy anyone to go back more than two hundred years and find anyone urging practical programs and social measures to eliminate poverty entirely from society. I doubt very much that you'll succees. Yes! There were countless sages and saints who urged good people to give alms, and even the shirt off their back, to the poor. But this was always myopically aimed at easing nearby suffering and elevating the karmic state of the giver. No one ever spoke of eliminating poverty altogether. Instead "the poor will always be with us" more numberous than grains of sand.

The reason is obvious. When society is pyramidal, the broad bottom is the poor! Hen poverty is a vast sea, surrounding a steep island of privilege, the mind is limited in its imagined range of ambition. How can you empty the sea?

But this changes when progress finally creates a diamond shaped structure. Now, the poor are fewer than the well off! Suddenly, poverty is a bitter lake, surrounded by affluence. And it is possble to imagine draining a lake. Indeed, suddenly poverty itself becomes a scandal. If we can imagine ending it, then why hasn't it happened yet? It must be somebody's fault.

It began with the American Revolution, when European observers reported the first true diamond. And the blame casting commenced in the French Revolution, with Marxism and the New Deal and Johnson's War on Poverty. Some moves were delusional, others crude-though ambitious. Nu? You expected competence, when humanity started taking on a previously unimaginable task?

I will officially end here, having talked (again) much too long for a blog. But stay tuned for some supporting material (below)

Till next time....

=======

ADDENDA: Here's what the only hardhitting and unafraid journalist in America - Jon Stewart - has to say about the recent "energy bill": "Oh, Oil!! Giver of power, corrupter of governments, non-sticker of surfaces... Must you taunt us with your slick, non-renewable goodness?

"Yes, energy is clearly an important topic with Americans. That's why, before going on recess, Congress broke a 4 year impasse by approving a massive energy bill. And while it did nothing to address our dependence on foreign oil, or fuel efficiency, or in any way simplify the strategic nature of our relationship with the Middle East, it does give oil and gas industries 500 million dollars for research and 2.7 billion dollars in tax breaks, even though a company like Exxon-Mobil made 7.6 billion dollars in pure profit just this last quarter..."


Or, as expressed by Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas: "This bill is based on the premise that we believe in private, free-market capitalism to develop the resources of this land in a cost-efficient manner."

Um.... And as deficits skyrocket, impoverishing our children in favor of the "Great Raid" of pork -- the biggest charge of outright theft from our treasury in all our lifetimes, here is a trip down memory lane for a quotable goodie from George W. Bush's 2005 State of the Union address: "America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline."

You can see what we are up against, oh modernist boys and girls....

==See: Class War and the Lessons of History

55 comments:

fpoole said...

I, as a leftist, do not hate the diamond. I only hate that the general public fails to see that the rest of the world has not come so far. I hate that the general public fails to see from whence this diamond came. I hate to see people shouting about their very ancestors, calling them socialists and hippies. America and Europe have forged diamonds. We deserve to take great pride in that. Never before have we lived such full lives. But others aren't living them. They need the chance, and we, as the jewelers, hold the future in our hands.

I'm a leftist, but I don't hate nuclear energy. I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something so powerful. Ever.

David Brin said...

Of course this is a matter of definitions.

What I have proposed is that "left vs right" is a sick and despicable ideological trap, inherited from the French Revolution and foisted on us by fanatics who want us all to join their oversimplifying madness.

The positions you describe are NOT leftist positions, they are LIBERAL ones. Liberalism is, classically, the most modernist of all political positions. It is deeply ambitious, filled with can-do ardor to improve both society and its human members.

And yes, that ambition can be dangerous and fraught with its own perils. Those who go back to my original "Modernism" postings will see criticism of the prideful, conceited modernist social planners of the sixties.

But criticism is inherently part of modernist culture. And CITOKATE (Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.)

No, you must reconsider. You are a modernist/liberal and so you focus on improvments/solutions that may be a bit left of center. You are a bit suspicious of capitalist elites, fine!

That doesn't make you a lefty. Leave them to their own brand of madness.

fpoole said...

Hahahah! Right on, will do that. ;)

Tony Fisk said...

The things that happen when you don't log in over the weekend!

I have a few cents worth covering the last few postings, and associated comments. To preserve context (and avoid the boredom of one long spiel*) I'm going to experiment: present the bulk of my comments in the original posting, and refer to them here so as to keep up with the 'fire front'.

@ Dave Baker:
They've developed a whole alternative epistemology for their most devoted followers...
ie framing. Refer to my comments here
Just don't think of an e...!

@David Brin: on diamonds in pyramids. Thanks for laying my little worry to rest! I have reinterpeted your argument to provide a more visual appeal.

*What's the blog equivalent of a filibuster?

Frank said...

@David Brin:
"No one ever spoke of eliminating poverty altogether"
"poverty is a bitter lake, surrounded by affluence. And it is possble to imagine draining a lake"

Are you suggesting the elimination of all poverty, or a constant redefinition of it (with the creation of "new poor" who have
higher living standards than the "old poor") or not getting rid of it at all ? Seems to me the threat of poverty has always been an effective motivator to perform and compete in a kapitalistic society. The diamond shaped society does maintain such a threat.

Michael Ruschena said...

I don't wish to seem difficult, but: What happens when when the bottom half of a diamond is eliminated? It looks kinda, well, pryamid-like. Is the appropriate response: a) declare the metaphor broken, b)say the diamond is now floating, or c) start all over again bootstrapping society into another level of affluence?

Jeff Huber said...

"America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline."

Irony is still dead.

Jeff

perianwyr said...

Michael:

That's exactly it. The pyramid is a more static structure. You might have a very comfortable pyramid in which everyone feels more or less OK (shades of Brave New World) but it most likely isn't going anywhere.

Anonymous said...

The American Revolution gave us a society shaped for a diamond-shaped society, but what permitted it to do so was the vast wealth of unsettles land and wide-open frontier, which permitted people to vote with their feet (and oxcarts). Note: I said necessary. Not sufficient, as the history of Latin America demonstrates.

A couple of the comments asked, "What about the next step up --- (barring rigidly enforced equality) the (relative) poor will always be among us?"

True, but starvation, homelessness, and bad teeth need not be.

Just my $0.02,

Pat Mathews
See you at Nasfic

Seth said...

fpoole said:I'm a leftist, but I don't hate nuclear energy. I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something so powerful. Ever.

I have to say that I do not understand this kind of thinking at all. It seems like an article of faith with a lot of people, that for profit companies are short sighted and evil and untrustworthy, but my experience has been exactly the opposite.

After all, they guy in charge of the company where I work, the owner and CEO, is a decent guy who wants to leave an intact company for his kids, and the mayor of the city I live in is just the latest in a corrupt gang of thugs who hand out contracts to their friends and engage in endless shell games to hide the massive debt that the city carries.

Now, when you start playing those kinds of games with a company, the company collapses almost immediately. And so, in general, people don't. For every front page Enron (which was playing exactly those kind of shell games) there are hundreds of energy companies that are just quietly making money.

When a company breaks the law, at least in theory, there is a government power there to punish them. If a company dumps stuff in the crick, they can be sued, and frequently are. When the federal government, the largest polluter in America, dumps stuff in the crick, they get to confiscate the crick and turn it into a munitions dump.

Now, a non-profit is a different thing, but is your local PBS station better run and more efficient than your local NBC station? Do they have superior security in place? Are they better accountants? I see no evidence that this is the case.

Finally, for profit companies brought you the diamond shaped society. They brought it to you in conjunction with many other elements, some of which they fought tooth and nail, but they definitely brought the industrial revolution that finally freed us of the legacy of the agricultural revolution.

Frank said...

Pat Mathews:
"True, but starvation, homelessness, and bad teeth need not be."

Okay, but then the question remains; what does need be? A society needs a part of its population to want to excel. This is certainly so in a diamond shaped society. The poor do not need to excel, the middle class does. And there are lots of middle class people in the centre of the diamond. I agree that there do not need to be a lot of really poor people, but shouldn't there be some to serve as an example?

Or maybe the idea of not having cable TV or airconditioning or multiple cars to ones disposal will be sufficient.

fpoole said...

@whiskey1: The thing of it is, if anyone starts a shell game with nuclear energy, we're on the edge of existence. The fact that for-profits exist first-and-foremost to protect their own interests leads me to think that this is simply to much to be left in their hands.

If you want to talk about governments, look at it this way: Reagan was massively popular, unbelievably powerful, and had every intention of deploying space weaponry. And he failed miserably. The same would not have happened as easily if a majority stockholder in a for-profit had wanted to make a move.

Anonymous said...

Or, as expressed by Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas: "This bill is based on the premise that we believe in private, free-market capitalism to develop the resources of this land in a cost-efficient manner."

You left out Stewart's next comment. That Barton had achieved an unprecedented word-to-lie ratio of 1-to-1.! ;-)

Seth said...

@fpoole

Look at it this way: Governments develope nuclear WEAPONS, which can destroy all life on earth.

Private companies develop nuclear power plants, which do not--even if EVERY nuclear power plant in the entire world went into a simultaneous meltdown that hit a water table and released radioactive steam into massively inhabited areas and it was all as bad as it possibly could be--have the potential to kill more people than already die from coal related pollution every year.

So, I would say that you are vastly incorrect in your assessment of the risks of nuclear power.

Second, when people start dying from problems related to industry dumping, the industry can be forced to clean up the situation and pay compensation, which gives them a motive to not dump in the first place. The government gets to say, gosh, sorry, and fail entirely to clean up or pay any compensation. And if they do clean up, it is a bonus for the congressman who handles the cleanup job because its a big fat piece of pork.

This gives the government a motive to go ahead and dump.

It is not in the interests of a for profit corporation to kill their customers, okay? Whereas governments kill their citizens all the time. Aren't you paying attention?

fpoole said...

Wow, no need to get so excited, mate! I see your point, and I concede. ;)

Big C said...

Frank said:
"Are you suggesting the elimination of all poverty, or a constant redefinition of it (with the creation of "new poor" who have
higher living standards than the "old poor") or not getting rid of it at all ? Seems to me the threat of poverty has always been an effective motivator to perform and compete in a kapitalistic society. The diamond shaped society does maintain such a threat."

and

"A society needs a part of its population to want to excel. This is certainly so in a diamond shaped society. The poor do not need to excel, the middle class does. And there are lots of middle class people in the centre of the diamond. I agree that there do not need to be a lot of really poor people, but shouldn't there be some to serve as an example?

----

I think you're conflating the diamond metaphor with the actual goal we should strive for. The diamond metaphor serves as an easy way to show how our social structure is different from the traditional social pyramids of past civilizations.

The main point of the diamond is to demonstrate that a society can function (and in fact prosper) with a large middle class of happy, productive citizens that outnumbers the poor, rather than the prevailing wisdom that a functioning civilization requires the majority of its citizens to be dirt poor and miserable toiling away to support a smaller merchant class who in turn support elite rulers who dictate from on high how things are organized.

Since it is a metaphor, on the surface all the complexities of how we avoid the misery of the "social pyramid" are abstracted away. Of course, the metaphor breaks down when the number of poor approaches zero, but so what? It was only a metaphor. The real goal is to encourage those aspects of our society that grow the happy, productive middle class and shrink the working poor by enabling those poor to move upwards. Conversely, we must discourage those aspects of our society that seek to reinforce the rigid hierarchy of the social pyramid.

When we finally achieve the goal of having no "poor" class, the social structure may again look like a "pyramid," with its "base" made up of what we previously called the middle class. But now the metaphor is no longer apt. The details of the pyramid of the new poverty-free society are vastly different from the age-old pyramid David (rightly) rails against.

It's not the social hierarchy that's the problem, as hierarchies have always existed and will continue to exist. Both a diamond and a pyramid have social hierarchies. The problem is how the hiearchies are maintained and enforced. We can contrast the traditional social pyramid (OLD) and our hypothetical future povery-free pyramid (NEW):

OLD - Social mobility is almost non-existant. It is very rare for people from a lower to socio-economic class to move to a higher socio-economic class. The hierarchy is enforced top-down with artificial barriers to keep it that way.

NEW - Social mobility is common, accepted, and encouraged. Sure, most people are at the "bottom" (which, since poverty is eliminated, isn't all that bad) but a sufficient combination of talent, luck, determination and perseverance are enough to move anyone higher in the pyramid, regardless of heritage, gender, belief system, or sexual persuasion. There are no artificial barriers imposed top-down to limit social mobility.

OLD - Enforcement of accountability and elimination of secrecy are proportional to the number of people on your level in the pyramid. The elites use all their power to enforce their laws on the masses and ensure that the rulers know all the secrets of the people (to prevent revolutions before they start). The masses only know what the elites want them to know about their rulers, and any voices at the bottom of the pyramid who question authority are quickly silenced.

NEW - Enforcement of accountability and elimination of secrecy are inversely proportional to the number of people on your level of the pyramid. The leaders at the top, since they are given the most power and responsibility, are the most scrutinized by society. Some secrets for the elite are still permitted, but they must be justified and endorced by independent agencies, and must always have an expiration date. People at the bottom are held accountable as well and have few secrets, but since a person from the bottom's actions have only local effects, they are usually only scrutinized by people with whom they have existing relationships. People at the bottom are encouraged to question authority as the principle of CITOKATE is enshrined in the society's constitution.

I'd say David's the expert on the second example (I haven't read Transparent Society yet, sorry!), so he can correct anything I've gotton wrong.

From my point of view, the "new, improved, povery-free" pyramid combines the best of the liberal and conservative agendas. The liberal can be proud because no one is left without food, water, shelter, or clothing, and no one is pre-judged before they can demonstrate what they can contribute to society. The conservative can be proud because no one excels at the expense of anyone else, and each person must contribute if they want rewards beyond what they are provided as basic members of society. A true meritocracy.

To go back to your previous post, I would tend to disagree with your point about threat of poverty being an effective motivator. I'm not saying that it isn't, I'm just saying that the prospect that if you work hard, you'll get more luxuries and free time, and your kids will have a better life than you did is a much, much, more effective motivator.

You said "a society needs a part of its population to want to excel." I would argue that everyone wants to excel unless they are already at the top, or if they're at the bottom and they have been convinced that even if they do excel, their life won't get better.

You don't need the specter of poverty to keep people from not contributing, as long as you make it clear that everyone is appropriately rewarded for their contributions. I think this ties into what David has said in the past about positive-sum thinking versus zero- and negative-sum thinking. If we keep playing a positive-sum game, everyone can benefit. Some may benefit more than others, but no one actually loses. This is the ultimate goal of encouraging the diamond.

So I completely agree with the end of Frank's last post:
"Or maybe the idea of not having cable TV or airconditioning or multiple cars to ones disposal will be sufficient [to get people to want to excel]."

In my view, the argument is that through continuing to encourage the aspects of our society that got us to the diamond, we can eventually raise everyone above the poverty line, and that this is A Good Thing. Okay, if we actually reach this lofty goal, the diamond metaphor is no longer relevant. But again, so what? The metaphor serves our purpose, not the other way around.

David Brin said...

asketh Frank: " Are you suggesting the elimination of all poverty, or a constant redefinition of it (with the creation of "new poor" who have higher living standards than the "old poor") or not getting rid of it at all ? Seems to me the threat of poverty has always been an effective motivator to perform and compete in a kapitalistic society. The diamond shaped society does maintain such a threat."

Good question. I have no problem with adults facing some discomfort as a penalty of failure. The diamond is intended to minimize overall discomfort (or agony and deprivation) by

#1 making the bottom narrow,
#2 having the whole diamond keep rising (as you describe),
#3 ensuring that even the bottom is not too miserable,
#4 ensuring social mobility.

#4 is the crucial one. Americans who differ profoundly over petty political details generally agree that it is not moral for a child to automatically inherit a parent's position at the bottom, even if the parent earned such a position by dissolution or laziness.

Alas, it is seldom expressed this way, crystallizing the essential problem. (And should this not apply at the top, too?)

Michael, you can redefine the base of the diamond, as it rises, but there will always be people who slump down due to bad habits, bad decisions or bad luck. #3 above satisfies our moral need to care for the unfortunate... and people should also get second chances, but we are not obligated (as Jimmy Carter said) to make up for everybody's mistakes.

What you guys have exposed is that the pyramid is inherently conservative and static. It is kept from rising very much by the grinding poverty of its base and the inability of bright young people to leverage their creativity through personal advancement and genuine markets (as opposed to markets that are gimmicked to favor elites).

Elites who dominate a pyramid see wealth as zero-sum. Their top priority does not go to statecraft or helping society as a whole. It must go to maintaining their position atop the pyramid. Indeed, any destabilizing "progress" that benefits the base may undermine their ability to stave off competition from uppity young plebes. I call this kind of elite the Insatiables. They governed most civilizations in the past. We are currently governed by this variety of would be aristocrat.

Another way of putting this is that insatiables are obsessed with their "relative" social position, compared to everybody else. They would rather be at the pinnacle of a poor society than merely rich in a fluid-changing-dynamic one.

Not all aristocrats are insatiables. Many of today's richest people can perceive the diamond and they "get it." They want to maximize their wealth in real terms, and care much less about relative comparisons. Thus, if a dynamic society creates vastly more medicines and toys than a static one, they will prefer it. Even if this means other people will share all the same toys.

(Maybe a year or two later. Wealth does have some privileges, even in a diamond.)

sayeth Whiskey1: "I have to say that I do not understand this kind of thinking at all. It seems like an article of faith with a lot of people, that for profit companies are short sighted and evil and untrustworthy, but my experience has been exactly the opposite."

Of course that is what you perceive. Because you have a personality tuned to perceiving Suspicion of Authority (SOA) in a leftward direction. THAT'S FINE! The chief difference between a decent democrat and a decent republican and a decent libertarian is which potential elite Big Brothers you fear most.

The democrat aims SOA at conspiratorial aristocrats, faceless corporations and religious fanatics.

The republican aims SOA at snooty intellectual snobs and faceless government bureaucrats.

The libertarian takes one from column A and one from column B!

This is not a bad disagreement! It is inherently dynamic and applies CITOKATE in all directions. Are you honestly going to try to tell me that either direction does not merit plenty of SOA?

So you are sensitive to corrupt local officials and you perceive lots of good guy CEOs? Are you really saying that someone with opposite SOA suspicions cannot find a myriad counter examples, reflecting HER sensitivities?

In effect, we wind up guarding each other's backs. That is, when it works.

But today's bilious partisanship and dogmatism is nothing like what I've just described. Instead, we have people screaming "My suspicion of authority is 100& accurate and yours is stooopid!"

This is not modernist. It is not pragmatic or sensible or loyal to the Enlightenment. It is, in fact, stooopid. We can do better. And we start by saying "You are correct to worry about MY favorite elites. You hold them accountable while I go after yours."

Big C said...

It looks like David's comments completely and more eloquently subsumed by previous post. Ah, well. At least I see we're on the same page. David, I think your memes are taking hold in my subconscious ;)

Charles

Seth said...

Brin Asked:
"So you are sensitive to corrupt local officials and you perceive lots of good guy CEOs? Are you really saying that someone with opposite SOA suspicions cannot find a myriad counter examples, reflecting HER sensitivities?"

No. Obviously, some corporations do stupid or evil things.

However, I still do not understand the position that, as an article of faith, ALL for profit companies are inherently untrustworthy or incompetent.

If the position had been that current oversight of the Nuclear Power industry is insufficient, that would make sense to me.

And I agree that the system works best when the maximum number of different interests groups have the maximum amount of information about each other.

But that isn't the position that I'm arguing against. I'm arguing against dogmatic utterances like "I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something so powerful." That is just over the top, man.

David Brin said...

No, what you are doing is creating a strawman, by taking a ludicrous extreme view and assigning it to critics who aim SOA toward the right.

But will you please show me examples of prominent and or credible people who are actually stating the strawman position?

In fact, all for-profit companies should bear relentless scrutiny and burden of proof that they are NOT cheating, since cheating is the natural and default condition for those who find themselves capable of doing so.

Yes, the same applies to government. Except for the prime silliness of the right... which is to rail against corrupt government... while most of the corrupting is being perpetrated by the RIGHT! It is simply monstrous to scream at government when corporate aristos are the ones commanding every move, like pupeteers.


In fact, the rephrasing that you made, above, is reasonable.

Seth said...

Brin Asked:"But will you please show me examples of prominent and or credible people who are actually stating the strawman position?"

No. But that is not at issue. fpoole said "I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something so powerful. Ever." You failed entirely to call him on it, beyond saying it was fine to be "a bit suspicious of capitalist elites".

I responded by saying that that was an extreme position, one I had heard before and didn't understand or agree with. You called me on not understanding that position, claiming it was reasonable (apparently) although fpoole had seen my point that maybe he was a little over the top with that one.

Now you are claiming that position wasn't stated... after stating that "cheating is the natural and default position of those that find themselves in a position to do so" as a rationale for "relentless scrutiny and burden of proof" on corporations. Or, basically, taking the position that you are claiming doesn't exist.

Look, no one is arguing that there should be no oversight, but relentless and constant oversight is a little extreme.

And regardless of who the corrupt officials are, it is an actual fact, and not a partisan or left/right position, that a "faceless corporation" can only buy favors from a corrupt official of the government, is it not? It is.

Big C said...

David, dude, I think someone's slipped you a bit of that "righteous indignation" drug you've been warning us about. whiskey1 wasn't attacking a strawman. He was responding to fpoole's original position:

"I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something [nuclear power] so powerful. Ever."

Which I would agree is an extreme position, especially with that last word, "Ever." whiskey1 refuted this position.

He didn't take the opposite extreme, which I guess would be something like the opinion that we should let corporations run completely unregulated nuclear power plants with no oversight. whiskey1 readily agrees that this is an equally ludicrous position, as I would wager would everyone else here. But whiskey1 never suggested that was his position. He also never suggested that all liberals hold fpoole's particular opinion.

In support of his argument, whiskey1 asserted that corporations can do lots of good things, which is true. He didn't say they always do good things, or that they are perfect or magical problem solvers. Also, the fact that fpoole conceded his point indicates to me that the argument was convincing.

David, I think in your first response to whiskey1 you made a lot of good points about keeping all authorities accountable. However, if you're contending that whiskey1 is advocating only keeping an eye on government authority and letting corporations run rampant, I humbly suggest that it's you who are beating up a strawman. whiskey1's posts have been much more balanced than that.

Charles

Tony Fisk said...

quoth fpoole:
..I just don't think any for-profit company can ever be trusted with something so powerful. Ever.

quoth whiskey1:
... I do not understand this kind of thinking at all. It seems like an article of faith ... that for profit companies are short sighted and evil and untrustworthy, but my experience has been exactly the opposite.

I think it makes sense that you expect whatever group you direct your SOA at to prove their worth. That's not necessarily 'article of faith', just prudence.

The article of faith argument becomes more forceful when you don't recognise any proof of worth. Then your stance is exposed as dogmatic romanticism ('thou shalt be as't thou always wert').

I sympathise and share in fpoole's stance wrt nuclear power, and I do not think that for profit companies have a particular good track record when it comes to safety and maintenance issues.

But that 'ever' is a pretty broad tarbrush.

Continueth whiskey1:
After all, they guy in charge of the company where I work, the owner and CEO, is a decent guy who wants to leave an intact company for his kids,

Totally off the track, but you have't heard of a Brazilian company called Semco, have you? Enrico Semler sounds like a *very* unusual* CEO: definitely groks the diamond and would probably call it a frisbee!

*and not just because he is 'a decent guy who wants to leave an intact company for his kids'!

quoth David (in original post):
... we are behooved, obligated, to expend a large portion of our surplus on research to make all servant machines vastly more efficient
Worldchanging has been harping on this (surprise!), and have been mentioning, with increasing frequency, the trend to 'zero waste' production programs: a recognition that waste = inefficiency = lost productivity = pressed business button.

On tinkering and refining (clever machines and social diamonds):

I think it is worth mentioning that this is perceived and presented as a weakness by the enemies of enlightenment. Since they believe that all things should spring, fully formed, from the forehead of their creator, and then subsequently deteriorate, they feel justified in jeering: 'See, it don't work! You haven't got it right. We've got a counterexample (plus the occasional helping boot) that wrecks your whole precious construct!' (the latter referring to any example that the id people can dredge up)

Seth said...

tony fiske said:
"sympathise and share in fpoole's stance wrt nuclear power, and I do not think that for profit companies have a particular good track record when it comes to safety and maintenance issues."

But can we agree that if true, this is a solvable problem, right? For example, we might increase the number of inspections, or make disposal of nuclear waste a government function with an attendant fee on the power plant, or some such solution?

Point being, I'm just saying that corporations can be regulated, and for profits are run by normal people like you and me. We can all find a way to have nuclear power be safe and profitable.

David, I've read almost every piece of prose that you have published. I finished "Earth" about 2 days after it came out in paperback, and I have bought at least two copies of each of your novels.

In short, I'm a fan, and have been for many years. And I appreciate that you take the time to converse with your fans via this blog. Its very courageous.

The core ideas of your social philosophy, the diamond, the enlightenment, the falsity of the left/right split... all of these are sound enough.

And you do deliver kicks to the left. But somehow, you seem to believe that when someone else--me for example--delivers a quick shot at the left, this is somehow a sign that that person is an extreme right winger!

This is not fair. Try this on: You are not the only person in the world whose opinions are not definable in terms of a left/right split. Other people may have independently reached the conclusion that left-right politics is a massive stupid lie. Maybe those people might post on your blog occasionally. And maybe, as there is a fairly large left wing tilt to your blog, those people will feel compelled to point that out!

Its not like there are a lot of George Bush supporters hanging out here, is it?

Seth said...

tony said:Totally off the track, but you have't heard of a Brazilian company called Semco, have you?

No... sounds interesting though. Can you drop a link on us?

Nate said...

@Tony Frisk: I know what you mean about the not logging in thing, DSL was down for five days, through an amazing series of incompetence, so I came back and missed a bunch of threads.

However, on your comments about framing, I agree, sort of. Framing's important, but also overrated. It only works so well for the Radical Right because the "liberals" have been playing into it. For example, how often do you see "coastal elites" dissed and "Real America" equated with small towns? Or if somebody insults, say, Texas, they get jumped all over. But how often did President Bush (not to mention his many proxies) bash Massachusetts? (Yeah, the cradle of the Revolution, now it's home to anti-American whatevers. Right.) They got away with it because nobody would call them on it, or fight back. All the framing in the world doesn't do any good when nobody stands up for their ideas.

@whiskey1: The problem with many (by no means all, but many) for-profit companies is they DON'T look long terms. Especially among larger companies, the CEO is often not there for more than a few years, and is also often more interested in the short term gains for his stock (and bonuses) than anything else. Which is really more of a problem with people in general, because people often only look at the short term, or just at how things affect themselves.

And a problem with the environmental examples you mentioned (which I don't have cites for on-hand, and honestly am too lazy to look up at 1am) is that there's times when the EPA's fines for dumping are less than the cost of cleaning up or eliminating the waste. Which makes the EPA utterly ineffective in those cases. EPA fines should ideally be the cost of cleaning up, PLUS a hefty amount on top as the actual fine. If it's cheaper to do it right, then companies would do it that way.

The concerns I have over nuclear power have to do more with what to do with the waste (which, in many ways, is less than the waste from coal, though) and the exhibits of things such as my DSL line where private companies in charge of local infrastructure, with no competition, tend to shortchange things like upgrades, maintainence, and (not really relevant) customer service. Also, Enron etc, but those would go without saying.

David Brin said...

Quick note;

Whiskey, I apologize. I did not realize that you were referring to a very specific remark stated earlier by another respondent. This may be a problem of skimming... which you will all have to live with, since I could not do this any other way. On the other hand, you were lax in making clearly THAT you were addressing a specific remark.

I think it's very clear that you are one of "us" as a modernist who is capable of seeing all sides. My chide was intended (tho not received) as a constructive jab at what I do see as a normal american habit, to strawman those who may simply be aiming SOA at your side's elites.

Please stay... you are appreciated... but grow that skin reeel thick and shrug a lot. We are busy and cranky modernists here. And skimming happens. Apply Citokate. But chill

In any event, Charles is the latest to get the Superb Posting Award. The one just before my long #1-4 list above. Dang, he don't need to read The Transparent Society except for amusement. Gets it.

Seth said...

David Said:
"We are busy and cranky modernists here."

Self included. NBNF.

But in the spirit of CITOKATE, I still have to hammer at least one point:

You said:"cheating is the natural and default condition for those who find themselves capable of doing so."

Are you saying that cheating is the natural and default condition for David Brin? Is relentless oversight the only thing that keeps you from shoplifting? Or am I taking you out of context?

@nate

Oh, absolutely. There is always room for improvement, to put the case mildly! I think that probably most companies, especially smaller companies, believe that they are better off playing it safe and following the rules. But even if I'm right, a small number of companies breaking the rules can do tremendous damage, and should be held fully accountable if they do.

Nuclear waste is... to put it mildly, again, a bit of a problem. But as you point out, its a problem that is very concentrated. So it can probably be dealt with. How to do that is another question entirely.

Tony Fisk said...

@whiskey1:
But can we agree that if true, this is a solvable problem, right?

We can. But it (accountability) is a problem that needs to be solved before trust follows (from me, at least)

You can find some info about Enrico Semler at wikipedia here

He has also written two books 'Maverick' and 'The Seven Day Weekend' about his management style, and his experiences in developing them.

Basically, he has introduced a culture of open democracy to Semco, some of the innovations being quite radical (eg: imagine opening the company accounts to *all* employees, and making sure they can read balance sheets. Why? Because they can better understand what they can do to keep the company going. Plus, they can offer suggestions on how to improve it)

Proof of the pudding: Semco survived the 90's economic meltdown in Brazil (dubbed the 'decade without an economy').

Like I said, he groks the diamond.

@Nate:
I know what you mean about the not logging in thing, DSL was down for five days...
My excuse is that I have a life beyond the blogosphere (strange, but true ;-)

Framing's important, but also overrated. It only works so well for the Radical Right because the "liberals" have been playing into it.

Which is precisely why I've started to talk about it. Framing is a tool of persuasion. An effective tool that more than one group can play games with. It's about time that happened.

In truth, I feel 'framing' to have an faint air of dishonesty about it. That may be because, with a scientific background, I am more inclined to 'appeal to reason'. However, in a more political environment, I think this approach will leave you much as it did Matilda's aunt:

'..who, from an early youth,
had held a strict regard for truth,
endeavoured to believe Matilda.
The effort very nearly killed her!'

- (after Hilaire Belloc)

Plus, as Lakoff says in the subtitle of his book: 'Know your values and frame the debate.' (my emphasis)

David Brin said...

I believe I am an honest man. But as a scientist I was trained to say "I might be wrong, let's test it...." and to at least pretend to be cheerful about it.

But CITOKATE is not about trusting yourself to be honest. It is about trusting others to keep you honest. If we live to see maturity, society will flow with criticism-correction that is mild and even-tempered and highly tolerant of minor peccadillos that are all too human... because we all need tolerance.

That is the only hope for a DECENT transparent society.

Meanwhile, though, we must simply assume that elites cannot be trusted. Let them prove us wrong. They will then earn our respect, to go along with their elite position and money.

Seth said...

David said:"we must simply assume that elites cannot be trusted"

Who are these "elites", though? Is Steve Jobs a member of the elite "class" or is he just a guy who made a lot of money? What about you? What's the cutoff, or the rule for entry?

What form does "relentless scrutiny" take, and who should be under it? You say that all for profits companies should face this relentless scrutiny, but does that include the cuban restaurant down the street? Wouldn't it get prohibitively expensive to scrutinize that many mom & pop shops relentlessly, especially with todays technology?

My suspicions are raised by any the of words like "all" or "every" or even "elite". There are areas where I know how to judge who the elites are. An "elite" baseball player plays MLB or in the Japanese Majors. But in general, I don't think that things are that cut and dried.

Rob said...

Who are these "elites", though? Is Steve Jobs a member of the elite "class" or is he just a guy who made a lot of money? What about you? What's the cutoff, or the rule for entry?

Steve Jobs is obviously a member of the elite class. When he makes decisions, it affects the entire consumer electronics industry (to varying degrees of course). I don't think you can come up with any member of the "elite class" who DIDN'T make or inherit a lot of money.

What's the cutoff? I don't know...what's the definition of poverty? Where's the line between being "poor" and "middle class"? Trying to draw absolute lines like that is basically impossible; yet because we are trying to apply mathematics and statistics to describe these states, we are forced to draw the line somewhere. Inevitably the description will break down at the margins.

Steve Jobs wasn't always a member of the elite. When he and Steve Wozniak started out, they were just kids in a garage playing around with technology. They were in the right place at the right time, and Steve Jobs was perceptive enough to take advantage of it. Same with Bill Gates, and Henry Ford and John Rockefeller and Julius Caesar and almost all the elite people I can think of throughout history.

I don't have a problem with elites, as long as they remember where they came from and give back to the society that enriched them. My problem occurs when those elites try to cut themselves off from the rest of society, setting up "old-boy's networks" and making eliteness an exclusive club for themselves.

Wouldn't it get prohibitively expensive to scrutinize that many mom & pop shops relentlessly, especially with todays technology?

You're joking, right? Or do you truly believe that the PATRIOT act and PATRIOT II are just theoretical exercises that cannot possibly be enforced, because after all today's technology just can't support that level of intrusive monitoring?

I don't think it's prohibitively expensive or technologically impossible (and it's getting less so every day). What it may be is inadvisable. Mom & Pop don't generally run multinational megacorps and keep all their profits off the books so they don't have to pay taxes and give back to society. Mom & Pop don't cheat, or if they do it's so minor compared to the huge cheating of the Big Boys as to be nugatory. And Mom & Pop do care about the future and their communities, because they and their children have to live there. Big CEOs have no such inherent incentives.

I agree with Dr. Brin, and I will sum up with this quote from Reagan:

"Trust, but verify."

Seth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seth said...

Rob, are you arguing that:

A) PAT1 & PAT2 are not difficult to enforce, unweildy, and expensive?

B) Julius Caesar was the same sort of figure as Henry Ford or Steve Jobs?

Frank said...

I think Rob hits the nail on the head when he defines elitism as a striving for power and exclusivity. It's power that allows certain people to break the law and get away with it. Being rich makes it easier to bribe people or to hire intimidating minions. Exclusivity is of course necessary to maintain a relative difference in power.

I don't think Steve Jobs and julius Caesar are comparable, even though they do represent the elite of their times. The truth is that it´s a lot harder to be a thug these days, mainly because of the Enlightenment.

Big C said...

whiskey1:
"Who are these "elites", though? Is Steve Jobs a member of the elite "class" or is he just a guy who made a lot of money? What about you? What's the cutoff, or the rule for entry?

"What form does "relentless scrutiny" take, and who should be under it? You say that all for profits companies should face this relentless scrutiny, but does that include the cuban restaurant down the street? Wouldn't it get prohibitively expensive to scrutinize that many mom & pop shops relentlessly, especially with todays technology?"

I would guess that an "elite" is someone with enough power, resources, and influence to positively or negatively affect a significantly large portion of society. This is necessarily fuzzy, because an "elite" could range from someone powerful enough to induce local, regional, national, or global effects.

Steve Jobs might qualify as an elite in the computer industry because the decisions he makes for Apple could have a ripple effect. Consider Apple's recent decision to replace PowerPC processors with Intel processors in their Macintosh computers. I don't know if Steve Jobs was the one who actually made that decision, but if we for the sake of argument say that he did, he demonstrates that he has a certain amount of power over those who are fond of Macintoshes. Whether or not the decision is good or bad, the fact that Jobs is in the position to make it makes him an "elite."

To your question about scrutiny, I covered that a little bit in my post upthread. The context was my description of a future society with a "social pyramid" that had mechanisms based on modernist principles rather than enforcing a rigid hierarchy. I'll paste the relevant bit:

"Enforcement of accountability and elimination of secrecy are inversely proportional to the number of people on your level of the pyramid. The leaders at the top, since they are given the most power and responsibility, are the most scrutinized by society. Some secrets for the elite are still permitted, but they must be justified and endorced by independent agencies, and must always have an expiration date. People at the bottom are held accountable as well and have few secrets, but since a person from the bottom's actions have only local effects, they are usually only scrutinized by people with whom they have existing relationships. People at the bottom are encouraged to question authority as the principle of CITOKATE is enshrined in the society's constitution."

To elaborate, I think a certain level of openness should be required of all members of society. But scrutiny will come from whether or not people think your actions will affect them.

Since politicians run the government, and I as a member of society must abide by the laws of the government, I naturally want to make sure they aren't passing any loony laws that will strip me of my rights. Thus, I and many other people at the "bottom" will want as much scrutiny as possible for the politicians.

Since megacorporations control the means to produce a lot of the products and technology I enjoy, and I don't plan to give up my comfortable lifestyle as a member of a technological civilization and move to a cave and "shiver in the dark" as David puts it, I naturally want to make sure the corporations aren't making products that will harm me or my family, or that their business practices cause more harm to society than the benefits I get from their products. Thus, I and many other people at the "bottom" will want as much scrutiny as possible for the big business types.

To go back to your mom & pop store example, I wouldn't expect some centralized authority to scrutinize every local mom & pop store. I would expect the people who shop there to make use of their access to information sources to ensure that their mom & pop store doesn't sell dangerous products, isn't doing any illegal business practices, isn't a front for drug dealers, etc. Some plucky reporter for the local newspaper might decide to investigate the local store based on complaints from customers.

Who is an "elite" is a matter of perspective, and I think it's the responsibility of those most affected by the "elite" to make sure they play fair and don't cheat. Consequently this means people at the "top" will be much more scrutinized because they have the potential to affect everyone with their decisions.

After all, we know they're human like us, and the temptation to cheat is strong in most people. That temptation grows with the knowledge that you won't get caught, or have the power and influence to avoid consequences if you are caught.

Charles

Frank said...

@Big C:

I agree. The presence of an elite does not automatically imply the presence of elitism.

Seth said...

he demonstrates that he has a certain amount of power over those who are fond of Macintoshes

Wait a minute... I'm a huge fan of the mac, but Steve's power over product development does not translate into power over me. Steve sells macs. If I like them, I buy them. Its a relationship between equals.

David sells novels. If I like them, I buy them. Again, relationship between equals.

Where is the elite in that?

Rob said...

Rob, are you arguing that:

A) PAT1 & PAT2 are not difficult to enforce, unweildy, and expensive?


No, whiskey1, I am arguing that they are not "prohibitively expensive," which was your formulation. They are, unfortunately, all too feasible to implement. (As an aside to Dr. Brin, I don't know that I'm all that big a fan of the idea of a transparent society. I'll have to read your story first to know what you're saying it means, but I don't know that I'm willing to trade my privacy for anything. There seems to be too much opportunity for the powerful to misuse their knowledge.)

B) Julius Caesar was the same sort of figure as Henry Ford or Steve Jobs?

Certainly. Julius Caesar rose from the petty nobility (perhaps analogous to our lower middle class) to being emperor of Rome. Henry Ford rose from being the sixth son of a farmer to premiere auto magnate of the early 20th century. Steve Jobs I already discussed. They all are readily identifiable as being members of the elite of their times, and they all got there on (to varying degrees) their own merits. Do think my analogy inept? Educate me.

But don't get caught up on individual people. The larger point we are discussing is whether we can blindly trust members of the elite to keep the welfare of their "lessers" in mind. No doubt Caesar did many remarkably cruel and repugnant things to the people he conquered; Ford may or may not have been anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Germany; and Jobs treated his employees very harshly when it suited him and showed no compunction about taking advantage of a competitor (Xerox PARC). But Caesar also spread civilization to the lands he conquered (I'm open to arguments about that as well), Ford brought mobility to the masses, and Jobs (and Wozniak!) brought the power of computers out of the big universities and made it accessible to all. These elites (note that I don't call them "elitists") did some very positive things with their power and enriched our lives. Contrast that with the Ken Lay type of elite who's all about feathering their own nest to the exclusion of others. If we are going to structure our society such that we encourage and promote people to join the elite, I think it's a good idea that we keep tabs on what they are doing with the power we've given them and have some means of taking it away if they misuse it.

And just let me remind you, corporations are not people; they are Frankenstein monsters we have created to accumulate and (hopefully) efficiently employ economies of scale in producing commodities. Their power can be used for good or ill; and if we let them make decisions based solely on cold economics they will be heartless and cruel. We must exercise rigid control on them (or those who lead them) to ensure they are a benefit and not a menace to society. We've got a bad habit of letting that control slip and relying on the benevolence of the elites who run them to keep them in check.

Rob said...

Wait a minute... I'm a huge fan of the mac, but Steve's power over product development does not translate into power over me. Steve sells macs. If I like them, I buy them. Its a relationship between equals.

Oh really? In 1980, if you wanted a top-of-the-line personal computer you had one choice: the Apple II. It was the undisputed king of the business PC market (though Commodore was nibbling around the edges, and Tandy was still around though fading fast). IBM broke that monopoly in 1981, but I think Jobs' power was readily apparent. In 1984 the Mac came out, and once again Jobs' power was evident: from that time on, if you didn't have a GUI you weren't a player, and everyone compared themselves to the Mac. He's stumbled some, sure (Apple III, Lisa); but it's almost indisputable that he's an industry leader.

And he does influence your choices. How many competitors are there to the iPod? Is it true or not that iTunes was the first and (to my knowledge) is the only profitable music download service? Did Jobs not have some influence in inventing a whole new distribution model for media, Podcasting? No, he doesn't hold a gun to your head, and I personally don't own an iPod and have no plans to buy one. But that doesn't mean he has no power at all over me. I like to listen to music. If the music industry wakes up one day and decides that Podcasting is the exclusive way they will distribute their product, I can either buy an iPod or not listen to music. That's power. If some company decides they'd like to create a digital media player, they have to consider how they'll match up against the iPod before going ahead with production. That's power. If I'm a movie studio exec and I see that iPods are a growing means of distributing movies, I have to consider whether I need to make changes in how I make my movies so they'll mesh with the iPod world; and those changes will probably affect even those movies I don't ever intend to put on one. That's power.

Yes, I'm speculating wildly. I'm trying to get you to see that decisions made by elites can have effects well beyond what you might observe directly. If you want a more brute-force example, let's look at Bill Gates and Microsoft. He backed IBM in 1981, made sure his software was on all their systems, and has gone to great pains to keep it incompatible with anyone else's software. As a result, when IBM PCs conquered the business PC market they handed him a virtual monopoly on the desktop that remains to this day. When any product challenges that dominance or threatens to interoperate with his software, he lobbies, litigates and legislates to prevent it from happening. Bill Gates exercises direct power over your and my choices when it comes to software; the best PC games (heck, all PC games) come out on Windows and Windows only, because that's where the money is for the developers.

Elites have tremendous power over us. We must ensure that their power is used for our benefit or at least neutrally.

Seth said...

Rob Said:Do think my analogy inept?

In the extreme, yes.

Henry Ford, or Steve Jobs, engaged in voluntary economic transactions.

Julius Ceasar had his armies butcher thousands of Roman citizens to become emporer.

There is no comparison between these figures.

Seth said...

Oh really?

Yes, really. Steve Jobs has enormous influence as an industry leader, yes.

He has no power over me. Deciding what products I can buy from him, or influencing the marketplace, is not equal to power over me. I can opt out, use open source products, or develop my own open source products.

If he were to try and stop me from doing that, this would be a use of power.

Rob said...

Julius Ceasar had his armies butcher thousands of Roman citizens to become emporer.

I'm not disputing that. You're focusing on the individuals and missing the larger point. Would it help to contrast Caesar with Genghis Khan or Attila then? Men whose only goal was the accumulation of power and wealth for themselves, and contributed nothing I'm aware of to the development of humanity?

He has no power over me. Deciding what products I can buy from him, or influencing the marketplace, is not equal to power over me. I can opt out, use open source products, or develop my own open source products.

If he were to try and stop me from doing that, this would be a use of power.


First-to-File Patents

Criminal Sanctions for IP Infringement

I'm sure you can find numerous articles on WIPO and the DMCA on your own.

Don't be so sure you can escape into Open Source. If your hardware refuses to run non-DRMed software, and it's illegal to develop it yourself, you're out of luck. And while it's great that you individually have the options of Open Source or opting out, you need to keep in mind that maybe the majority of people don't have those options. We're not talking here about things that only affect you or me, but things that affect everyone. You need to take a larger view.

Seth said...

Rob Said:"And while it's great that you individually have the options of Open Source or opting out, you need to keep in mind that maybe the majority of people don't have those options."

No I don't. They have that option as much as I do. Everyone does. It isn't magic. You are positing a future in which the police power of the state is used to keep me from developing my own software, which I would agree is an exercise of power. But that has nothing to do with the current situation or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates (as rotten as he may be).

These people are my equals, not my superiors.

Big C said...

whiskey1 said:
"Wait a minute... I'm a huge fan of the mac, but Steve's power over product development does not translate into power over me. Steve sells macs. If I like them, I buy them. Its a relationship between equals."

and

"He has no power over me. Deciding what products I can buy from him, or influencing the marketplace, is not equal to power over me. I can opt out, use open source products, or develop my own open source products."

Okay, maybe "power" isn't the right word. Steve Jobs can't compel you to do anything. However, the relationship is definitely unequal. Job's decisions affect the choices of a large number of people because he can control some of what products are on the market. Your decision to buy or not buy a product affects no one but yourself. He's "elite" in the sense that his decisions are felt by and will to some extent affect the actions a significant number of people.

Charles

Seth said...

Charles Says:"Steve Jobs can't compel you to do anything. However, the relationship is definitely unequal."

Well, that is true. Jobs depends on me liking his products. I don't depend on him liking my work at all. So in that sense, I agree that I have some small power over Steve. But really, it takes so many of me to affect his business that that isn't all that important.

Lets take Podcasting: In order to drive traffic to his iTunes store, Jobs has enabled an entire new kind of media over which he has no content control, from which he derives no royalties, which plays on competing mp3 players and can be downloaded by competing software. Basically, in order to market iPods and the iTunes store to me, he has made it possible for me to broadcast my thoughts to the entire planet for the cost of bandwidth... that I'm buying from someone else!

And somehow, this gives him power over me? It makes me marginally more willing to listen to his opinions and buy his products, but that's about it. Hardly equivalent to a Julius Ceasar or a George III, is it?

Rob would say that I am getting focused on specifics and missing the general point, but my point is just that: There is a completely different dynamic at work here than there was during the time of Julius Caesar. And before we talk about "elites" and their power, we need to be able to find at least one example of a member of the elite, why they are a member, and what gives them power.

Big C said...

whiskey1 says:
"There is a completely different dynamic at work here than there was during the time of Julius Caesar. And before we talk about "elites" and their power, we need to be able to find at least one example of a member of the elite, why they are a member, and what gives them power."

I think I'm a little lost at this point in the discussion. It was never my point that the "elites" (I'm really starting to hate that word!) of today have the same power over the masses as the elites of bygone eras, or that they interact with us in the same ways. I agree that the dynamics are completely different. But the dynamics aren't so different now that individuals and groups who hold power over larger groups no longer exist. These are who I would call the "elite."

The new modern dynamic is now that there is a reciprocal relationship between the "elite" and the "masses." The "elite" only stay elite with the consent of the masses. Politicians make the laws that the people must obey, but the people can kick them out if they make laws they don't like. A corporation will only be profitable as long as it provides something useful for its customers. The customers can "vote with their wallet."

This reciprocal relationship is great, and is a giant step towards ensuring accountability. Is this the point you were driving at? That elites aren't really all that elite because they're now beholden to the masses?

If that is your point, then I agree. However, we still need accountability and scrutiny. Why? Once an individual or small group gets into the "elite" position, the desire to stay there is strong enough to encourage cheating. Creating and maintaining monopolies. Using wedge issues and propaganda to get reelected. Etc.

I confess I can't provide a better definition of "elite" than what I provided in an earlier post. I'm still not sure if I'm following your argument. Let me know if I'm making (or not making) sense.

Charles

Patriot-X said...

Elsewhere, efficiency was promoted as crucial (among the servant technology) for Enlightened moderism (or "Enmod").

I am a proponent of efficiency. This has driven me to embrace for-profit/capitalist free market economy (although not without checks and balances ... "Trust, but verify" indeed).

The US government spends X-to-the-Xth to put a given astronaut into space. Rutan's gang spends decimal-X to do roughly the same thing.

When the private sector goes to war, the warriors are not committed and limit their risks too much for the violence to be effective. The objective (defense, if moral, aggression if immoral) is not achieved because the money motive cannot trump the self-preservation gene.

So, capitalism makes for lousy war. And government makes for lousy research/business. I would be interested to learn the proportion of research spending of private sector and government. Not being a mathematician or statistician, I don't even know where to begin to find this answer. My suspiscion is that the sector with the higher motivation (profit/greed) has spent the most money on research.

When a consumer gets an esitmate on having their lawn mowed, if one contractor requires $50 and the other only $15, efficiency would support hiring the $15 worker. If government requires more than double the postage to deliver first class mail that Fed-PS or U-Ex would charge if allowed to deliver mail ... privatization ideas are born. The ROI on the tax dollars of individuals is less than 20%! Where is efficiency in such a leaking conduit?

It is inefficient to expect government bureaucracy to supply goods, services or research at costs even par with private sector productivity. Government is not about business.

Geoff LeBoueff (name may be incorrect from memory) wrote "The Greatest Management Principle in the World" (aka the GMP). This principle states that, what gets rewarded gets done. Dept. A and Dept. B are both given $100 coffee budgets for a month. A spends $110. B spends $90. Typical American bureaucrats (in both private and public sectors) decide A drinks more coffee and raises the budget, and B must drink less, so the increase for A comes from B. Result: all departments learn that going over budget increases the budget.

Government derives no benefit from profit. If the government "makes too much money," the involuntary investors want some of the surplus back. Business, on the other hand, thrives on profits, and invests some part of "excess earnings" to find ways to improve profits, including newer goods and services.

How many cures for disease have come from government research? How much from private institutions and companies?

In order for Enmod to prevail and prosper, efficiency must be applied to the assigments of which sector of the economy is expected to perform specific elements of the Enmod movement. We don't ask Amtrak to deliver the mail (to the end user), or the USPS to haul passengers.

When I looked at the illustrative diamond, I did not see the 1's as the elite, the 2's as the middle-class and the 3's as the impoverished. Not in the light of Enmod. I saw the 1's as the visonaries (researchers, theoreticians and artists, business entrepreneurs) and the government, the 2's as the managers and engineers and technicians and professionals, and the 3's as the laborers and servers. I do not see a requirement that the 3's live below the poverty line. The precident is there, but no "law of nature" requiring it. In the Roddentopian dream of Enmod, the 3's fulfill vital roles supporting the 2's and the 1's, but may do so at adequate compensation, and with great and genuine respect. (I am not interested in maintaining my own landscaping, thanks. Glad someone else desires to do it, and am willing to pay them, and to boast of their prowess.)

(My sociopolitical foundation for desiring, if not truly expecting Enmod springs from my youth. When my age was still in single digits I asked for and was assigned my first science fiction novel that was not a school book or from the children's section of the public library. My Dad was the librarian of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Club in the sixties, and one of the other members suggested "Red Planet" by Robert Heinlein. Mr. Heinlein has remained my all-time favorite science fiction author, and he strongly informed my sociopolitical dispositions. To my mind he was very much a proponent of Enlightened moderism. I am not a scientist, or a mathematician, and claim no expertise ... only a long stretch of observation and enough brain cells to, hopefully, comprehend the larger picture.)

Thanks for any clarifications anyone can supply to my proposition that expecting the wrong sector to handle certain aspects of the common life is inefficient and runs counter to the goals of Enmod.

Seth said...

@patriot-x

Way too deep for 1AM in the middle of a wiki install. Basically agree.

@Charles

Basically, I'm trying to get away from words like "elite" except where applied to "elite $variable" where $variable is actor, programmer, landscape designer, capitalist, etc, and refers to earned respect and accomplishment in a field.

Because the word implies a level of privelege that doesn't really exist in America... almost. There is a tiny proportion of society like the Bushes and the Heinzes and the Kennedys, that has a certain amount of privelege through personal connections and political influence. So lets caveat that there are a few remaining aristocrats that need to be brought down. But just "rich" isn't a qualifying entry point to that group. I don't want to confuse the successful with the aristos, basically.

Scrutiny... depends on of what. I think some areas need regulation and are real areas of concern, like waste disposal. And other areas, like corporate income tax... not so much. The penalties can be set high enough to discourage cheating without increasing the number of audits, and a few $million here or there is much less important than a bay full of PCBs.

Nate said...

@patriot-x

"The US government spends X-to-the-Xth to put a given astronaut into space. Rutan's gang spends decimal-X to do roughly the same thing."

Not really "roughly" the same thing at all. There are orders of magnitudes of difference between the Shuttle and Spaceship One. Not just in crew capacity, or cargo capacity, but in altitude. Spaceship One just barely touched suborbital space. It was an amazing achievement, but it would be many many times more expensive to get it to actual orbit. More can be found here. (Key quote: "Well, to take Rutan's budget and scale it up to fly a ship that will reach the shuttle's altitude and carry the same amount of cargo, he'd have to spend about $1.3 TRILLION. The shuttle program's entire budget? A relatively paltry $145 billion.") (Which is not at all to say we shouldn't be trying to replace the Shuttles, they're first generation, practically prototypes, and use mostly 70s technology.)

"And government makes for lousy research/business. I would be interested to learn the proportion of research spending of private sector and government."

Not true. Private companies are good at APPLIED research, where they can take something, patent it, and profit. But they are not very good about spending on basic research. Most private research is based off basic research done on public funds, either through universities or directly for the government.

"If government requires more than double the postage to deliver first class mail that Fed-PS or U-Ex would charge if allowed to deliver mail ... privatization ideas are born."

I doubt Fedex and/or UPS would be able to charge 37c for first class mail delivery to every home in the country, daily. Oh, I'm sure they could compete in cities, and maybe even dense suburban areas, but there would be nowhere near enough money to be made to deliver to rural areas. At least as reliably and cheaply as the US mail does. And when there's not enough of a profit motive to get private business to do something, that's something that government can do well.

"How many cures for disease have come from government research? How much from private institutions and companies?"

I don't know for certain, but here's the first examples that came to mind.

Polio - Jonas Salk, while employed at the (publicly funded) University of Pittsburgh

Penicillin - Alexander Fleming, while employed at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School

(Wikipedia has more on vaccines here)

I'd be willing to bet what often happens is government/university/other publicly funded researcher discoveres something with possibilities, then private companies work from that publicly available research and refine it to something marketable. But since it's late, I'm going to leave this for now.

There are things that are done well by private enterprise. There are things that aren't done well by private enterprise. And the same with government. Markets are not perfect, they can fail, especially when the benefits for something don't come neatly back to whoever spends on it (or the costs fall on people besides the ones who benefit). In general, I would say that profit-seeking private enterprise is not a good match for most basic infrastructure.

Patriot-X said...

@ Nate

Thanks.

Both of us are guessing and supposing at our numbers on public v private research dollars (neither of us cited any sources).

Scaling Rutan's work up leads to "TRILLIONS" ... paid for by the private sector through investors and tourists, etc., rather than the tax dollars supposed to go to elevating the third rank of 'diamond dawgs.' But the UP-sclae comparison is invalid because I specified the costs of roughly the same effort ... putting one person at or near orbit. NASA is incapable of doing what SpaceShipOne did for anywhere near the same numbers. They are so risk-averse as to be ridiculous (and often ridiculed, indeed). If the ocean-bound explorers had to have multiple redundancies and gold-plated components, no reed boats or wooden ships would ever have expanded ancient globalization.

Infrastructure numbers have been crunched a lot. My reference to Fed-UPS [sic] is based on vague recollection of a massive study in the 80's where the delivery companies, in a bid to compete with the Postal Service, proved they could deliver first class, NEXT DAY, for less than the USPS postage of that time.

Amtrak is another shining example of where private enterprise excels past federal meddling. Amtrak is constantly bailed out by its owner, Uncle Sam, while decreasing quality and scope of services. Before federalization, people could take a train almost anywhere, but Amtrak's service is drastically reduced and obscenely priced. (I have very minor motion-sickness issues, and train travel is the most comfortable for me, yet I can neither afford to take a train, even when I can find a route that goes where I want to go.)

I sojourned for 15 months as a professional, cross-country driver. The private turnpikes and toll roads were, themselves, better maintained and engineered than the Interstates, and the service areas of the toll-supported roads were orders of magnitude better equipped and maintained than public roadside outhouses and vending machines.

Government does not supply many of the infrastructures we crave the most ... television, telephony and the Internet. If web access was federalized, how much would it cost, and what would our bandwidth be?

I find that I have come to the Brin-blog late. Dr. Brin is, quite rightly, uninterested in becoming a full-time (or even part-time) blogomeister. His publishing goals are a reasonable priority over goading (and traffic-routing) a dreamy-schemy batch of forward-thinking theorists, many of us of the arm-chair variety. In order for Dr. Brin to get clear of this, the commentary really must decrease, if not cease altogether. I suspect the comments feature will need to be unplugged completely for the author to find any relief.

Perhaps Dr. Brin can point to a forum where these topics are welcome and moderated by someone without the time demands of a scientist/author? I thought I had found such a place elsewhere, but the conversation there deteriorated to chit-chat. (My own blog is on hiatus as I enter university at a late relative date and pursue the degree I should have obtained decades ago. My request for direction to another forum is genuine, not a veiled effort to siphon traffic. Thanks.)

Nate said...

@patriot-x

"I specified the costs of roughly the same effort ... putting one person at or near orbit. NASA is incapable of doing what SpaceShipOne did for anywhere near the same numbers. They are so risk-averse as to be ridiculous (and often ridiculed, indeed)."

Apples and oranges. NASA's not in the business of launching one person into near orbit. The only time they did that was with Mercury, and that was years ago, and something that no one had done before. They were making it up as they went along and doing most of the basic research that Burt Rurtan was able to take advantage of. And of COURSE NASA's risk-averse. There's people's lives at stake. And every failure of NASA becomes an excuse for the forces in Congress that'd be happy to axe their budget to nothing. How many ancient ocean explorers didn't come back?

"Amtrak is another shining example of where private enterprise excels past federal meddling. Amtrak is constantly bailed out by its owner, Uncle Sam, while decreasing quality and scope of services. Before federalization, people could take a train almost anywhere, but Amtrak's service is drastically reduced and obscenely priced."

I think you're mixing up cause and effect here, and excluding some very important outside factors. The biggest one is be the rise of the automobile and the Interstate Highway System (something private enterprise almost certainly couldn't create). From the Wikipedia article on Amtrak:

"As early as the 1930s, automobile travel had begun to cut into the rail passenger market, somewhat reducing economies of scale, but it was the development of the Interstate Highway System and of commercial aviation in the 1950s and 1960s that dealt the most damaging blows to rail transportation, both passenger and freight. There was little point in operating passenger trains to advertise freight service when those who made decisions about freight shipping traveled by car and by air, and when the railroads' chief competitors for that market were interstate trucking companies. Soon, the only things keeping most passenger trains running were legal obligations. Meanwhile, companies who were interested in using railroads for profitable freight traffic were looking for ways to get out of those legal obligations, and it looked as passenger rail service would soon become extinct in the United States."

Then it talks about how Nixon created Amtrak, expecting it to disappear within two years, and goes into more detail on the goals and problems of Amtrak. Some of which I can vouch for, since my dad worked for Amtrak for many years, so I got to hear some of it directly.

"Government does not supply many of the infrastructures we crave the most ... television, telephony and the Internet. If web access was federalized, how much would it cost, and what would our bandwidth be?"

It's funny you should mention broadband, considering bills banning municipal wifi in cities have been passed or considered in The Pennsylvania, Texas, many other states, and even Congress. So I guess we may not get a chance to find out. Thanks to intense lobbying by large private companies.

But as for telephones, the internet, and television, I have to disagree anyway. We take universal telephone service for granted, but the lines wouldn't have been laid if the government hadn't gotten involved with rural electrification and phone lines. The Internet was built by mostly by the DoD and public universities. Once it was built and there was demand and ways to make money for it, THEN the communications companies started expanding it. Television uses public airwaves that the government auctions off and/or gives away. There used to be requirements that the companies would serve the public, since they were using public airwaves, but those are long gone.

The trend I see is that private companies can do things well, if there's money to be made, and once the basic (unprofitable) R&D has been done. And they won't provide services that aren't profitable. Sometimes unprofitable services are still worth having for the other benefits they provide. And if government doesn't provide them, who will?

David Brin said...

I've moved on to more recent stuff and only peeked in here.

But comment: Youy guys are wrangling over what I call the left-hand vs right hand quandary... just about the ONLY truly useful metaphor to arise our of the French left-right abomination.

Say you have two hands. Call one "consensus or politically determined application of community resources to problem solving. Call the other hand "problem solving tools that motivate solutions out of human competitiveness through market forces."

You may by temperament prefer one hand over the other. But only a fool listens to Ayn Rand tell you to AMPUTATE your entire left arm. Or Karl Marx telling you the right arm should wither away.

Madness.

Pragmatists should be interested that we now have sufficient data to start studying and determining WHICH KINDS of tasks each hand is good at!

Any of you could start such a list, and it is far more complex than you'll expect.

See my EON paper for one aspect. gotta go.

John David Galt said...

Even bringing up the subject of the inequality of wealth is asking the wrong question, several different ways.

First, all such analyses that I've seen (outside the ones by libertarians that debunk the subject) completely neglect the question of mobility. That is, if nearly everyone in the bottom fifth today is going to be better off tomorrow (because the bottom fifth consists almost entirely of young people just starting their careers, with only a few people there for other reasons), then any action to funnel money to that bottom fifth is largely a waste.

Second, if there were no such thing as being down and out, then no one would be motivated to work any longer. You will have turned the world into Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage".

Third, economics has long since shown that government policies aimed at reducing inequality either don't work at all, or work by harming those at the top and not by helping those at the bottom. If you want proof, start with the works of Hayek and Friedman.

And finally, when you come right down to it, it's not our problem! Each person's success is his own responsibility.

Also, your comment about the definition of "liberal" is dead wrong. Liberal is the adjective of liberty. It wasn't until the Marxists hijacked that word that it became necessary to coin "libertarian".

firefall said...

Your challenge - 'I defy anyone to go back more than two hundred years and find anyone urging practical programs and social measures to eliminate poverty entirely from society' - has at least a half-answer, Voltaire, who spent much of his life advocating the rule of law and the elimination of corruption. He may not have claimed it as a poverty-elimination program, but it's certainly how it has acted.