Waiting for my first trick or treater gets me to thinking about some of the ideas floating around our society that I think are really, really scary. Here are my Top Five:
5. Why do you want to make your ideas public? Said just last night by a kind man who admitted he never had visited a blog (which is pretty easy for him to not do as he does not own a computer.) Now this individual is also quite educated and reasonable, but I could tell as I described blogging and tweeting to him that he could not comprehend why people would see any benefit in sharing ideas as broadly and as often as possible. Given the difficulty and complexity of the problems facing our species right now, I see no alternative but to be part of the Great Insight Stream, from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs. (said tongue in cheek.)
4. A great leader makes decisions quickly and never compromises. Oy!! Who came up with such a ridiculous notion? Maybe somewhere there is still an organization that can afford leadership by gut instinct and ideology (more on that later), but I’m not hearing too many success stories these days along those lines. Even an NFL quarterback needs to read the defense, work through his progressions, and make the right decision, which is often a compromise from his first choice.
3. I have the right to be invisible . OK, I admit you probably haven’t heard anyone say this directly, but if you listen carefully this is exactly the argument some people are making when they claim the right to privacy. If you think about it, most if not all of our actions have always been visible, but only to that limited number of people who could “see” what we were doing at any given time or place. If any of us did something criminal, the authorities would then go look for those witnesses who could testify to what they had seen. For the most part, today’s technologies don’t make activities more visible but they do reliably make a record of ALL visible activities; the digital record acts as the new witness. I myself am not sure where to draw the line here; some type of consensus will emerge. But I think we need to be clear that the right to privacy does not mean the right to be invisible.
2. If you’re a progressive, you believe in big government. Aaargh!! I consider myself a progressive because I believe humans have a lot of upside potential and as we collaborate and share more knowledge we will find better ways of doing just about everything. This does not mean, however, that I believe government has to do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, I fully expect Government to be one of the things we will find a better way of doing.
1. The US will become stronger if it returns to the past. It pains me that this even needs to be argued, but there you have it. Its funny how organizations in trouble and societies that become less confident revert to the same argument: we need to return to the principles of our glory days and just execute them better. Please, someone, show me one example where this strategy has actually worked. Deterioration in our competitive postures doesn’t occur because we’ve abandoned our principles; it happens mostly because the environment around us is changing. Ideologically-based attachment to old ideas is the greatest sin of politics.
The other day I read two interesting articles in the 14 October NY Review of Books. One was a review by H. Allen Orr of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness; the other was a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by Samuel Freeman. (Unfortunately both pieces are behind the pay wall but the links get you to the first few paragraphs of each.) The Price of Altruism explores the fascinating but tragic life of George Price who at one point set out to explain how creatures could exhibit altruism even when such behavior defied that predicted by the theory of evolution, specifically natural selection. As the reviewer notes, Darwin himself understood that altruistic behavior was not well-explained by the dynamic of natural selection. “How could natural selection promote or even allow behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?” George Price developed mathematical equations in the last century that essentially could be said to prove that natural selection WITHIN a group favors selfishness but that natural selection AMONG groups would favor altruistic behavior. “Groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals.”
So, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Tea Party. For that we have to turn to the book The Idea of Justice. (unlike the first book, I’ve actually been reading The Idea of Justice and am about halfway through.) In the book Amartya Sen explains how a just society and a fair society are not really the same thing. As he uses the word, a just society would be one that maximizes the overall potential of the people in that society, even though this maximization might result in certain individuals not being able to make the best use of their personal capabilities. (Think here of governments that impose progressive tax policies.) A society that was fair to individuals, i.e. allowed each individual unfettered ability to reap the gains of his or her capabilities, would, on the other hand, almost certainly not be just. (I’m paraphrasing Sen’s much more complicated argument.) It is also interesting to contemplate which of the two societies would be optimal based on some impartial standard, if such existed. Would the fair or just society come closer to approaching the ideal?
So this got me to thinking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party Movement’s emphasis on minimal government interference with individual lives and choices (except of course for homosexuals and women) is in essence an expression of pure Natural Selection as a Governance Philosophy. The philosophy of the Tea Party Movement supports a fair society above a just one. Which strikes me as somewhat odd, given that the majority of Tea Party supporters, judging by their candidates, oppose the unchallenged teaching of evolution. My guess is that the average member of the Tea Party movement would either assert that the “natural selection” society would be the best possible or just not be interested at all in the concept of a best society–just some nutty, socialist thinking that.
It’s an interesting question to ponder, or at least I find it interesting. What should we strive for? Our maximum individual fulfillment or the maximum betterment of our group, by which I mean humanity. One would hope the two are not often in conflict, but I know that is not the case. Isn’t this in fact the fundamental question in political life?
So why is it that it’s never discussed?
It’s been more than a month since I wrote a blog post. Reasons:
1. I’ve started doing some hours as a consultant, so most of my pleasant “thinking and writing mornings” have disappeared. I need to develop a new routine.
2. I’m getting ready for a vacation to southern Africa. I have two more nights of good sleep left before it’s wheels up, and stay tuned to this space for pictures and reports of what we hope will be excellent adventures. My interest in the world has many antecedents, but one in particular was the show Discovery that ABC aired in the 60s and 70s as part of its weekend children’s programming. Perhaps some of you remember it as well? Hearing the jazzy score after four decades is Proustian in its effect.
3. I haven’t had anything to say that I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Is this scary? I can’t quite decide myself, but generally I quite like the discipline of having to convey ideas in short, digestible snippets, although admittedly the “telegraph” language and spelling used in twitter just seems to confuse/annoy some people.
I keep a list of topics, ideas I might want to blog about, but none of them seemed worthy of an entire posting.
- On Diversity. One of the ways I can tell that Latinos haven’t really made it into corporate America yet is how easy it is to use my surname, straight and unadulterated, as a userid on business-oriented websites. On the Harvard Business Review website, I was able to walk right in as “camedina”. At the CIA I was just plain “medina”. No medina25, no convoluted acronyms. Medina is a pretty common Spanish surname; according to About.com it ranks 30th in frequency of use in Spanish-speaking countries. (In the US the 30th most common surname is King.) The About.com list of 100 most common US surnames makes for good perusing. The two most common Spanish surnames in the US are Garcia and Martinez, which come in at 18 and 19, with Rodriguez just outside of the top 20.
- More on Diversity. There have been some comments on my post from a few weeks ago on the essential Latino heritage of the US. I’ve really no interest in argument, because I’ve learned over the years that debate never really seems to change most people’s views. I’ve been struck recently, however, by the dynamic impact that new waves of immigrants are having on US society. For example, the south Asian, specifically Indian, contribution to the US economy cannot be overestimated. I’ve read estimates that upwards of 25% of Silicon Valley startups are Indian-run firms. Personally, I think the most prosperous future economic scenario for the US is decidedly multicultural.
- On the Difference between Government and Private Industry. As I dip a toe or two into work outside of government, my first impression is that the two are more similar than not. Both probably have about the same proportion of good/dumb ideas and competent/incompetent staff. The key advantage for private industry, however, appears to be that it can kill bad ideas/projects a lot more easily than the federal government seems to be able to.
- Lesson 22 from a CIA manager: Be clear about what kind of management problem you’re facing. Sure, there are many sticky situations the artful manager can unstick, but be careful to diagnose problems correctly. There is a whole set of problems that managers can never solve. They can only be solved by the passage of time (and generations). Many of these can only be managed like some kind of chronic illness. The Arab-Israeli dispute comes to mind, for example. Really difficult people are also likely to “outclass” you. Remember, you will only spend at best a few years with this individual who suffers from really difficult emotional issues or pathologies. My motto was: If your parents weren’t able to correct your behavior, there’s very little chance I ever will.
One of the things I like best about my public identity is that advertisers and spammers are in disagreement as to my gender, my age, whether or not I know how to speak English, and, most interesting, my political affiliation. I get bombarded with emails from every possible political angle. Today I received one from a very conservative group who is worried that schools will soon start forcing boys to wear dresses and that an army of 80k troops is lurking to put down civil unrest. Normally I would pay little attention to such an email, in the same way I wouldn’t pay attention to one from the opposite end of the spectrum. But the tag line on the email grabbed my attention:
The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.
Well, I agree with that I thought. Everything I know about history and human nature tells me that governments which purport to take care of a long list of needs for individuals somehow mess up the essential motivational structure of the human being. And accounts from many totalitarian states agree that the dignity of the human and her independence suffer horrifically under these regimes. Among the eeriest things I ever watch are the documentaries about the so-called life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.
But I do have one caveat about the phrase. And I present it in the form of a question: What is the difference between government and community? Because if you replaced the word government in that phrase with the word community it stops making sense.
The bigger the community, the smaller the citizen.
That doesn’t sound right. Being a member of a thriving community enriches the life of an individual. That’s why urban areas worldwide are the essential centers of innovation and economic activity. That’s why individuals find mega-churches enriching, both socially and spiritually. And that’s why, in all but the rarest of cases, hermits seem like very diminished persons indeed.
My memory of civics class tells me government is, at its best, an expression of the community. This tendency to see government as some type of monstrous entity independent of the individuals it serves is very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like very much the survey of political attitudes on Nolanchart.com that’s been bouncing around Facebook the last couple of weeks. Government is presented as some kind of monolithic THING that acts independently of the wishes of any citizens. The agenda of the government is somehow seen as completely independent of the agenda of the citizens. This is an unhealthy view. In a democracy, the agenda of any elected government will of course not be to the liking of some citizens (perhaps even 50% minus 1) but regardless of which side we’re on, we cannot view the expression of another reasonable view as illegitimate.
One last point rant. This depiction of government as an independent, weight-throwing monolith also carries with it the view of bureaucrats as evil, aspiring tyrants. Here’s my problem with that. For the life of me, I don’t understand how we bureaucrats can be both lazy and stupid AND evil and dominating, but I’ll leave that to cleverer people to explain.