Friday, January 30, 2009


Tchotchke (originally from a Slavic word for "toys" (Polish: cacka, Russian: цацки), adapted to Yiddish טשאַטשקע tshatshke, trinket), are small toys, knickknacks, baubles, trinkets or kitsch. The term has a connotation of worthlessness or disposability, as well as tackiness, and was long used in the Jewish-American community and in the regional speech of New York City. From Wikipedia

The classic tchotchke was a small bunch of shells, glued together, with "Atlantic City" painted on it. It was not only a knickknack that broke up the stark mantle of your imitation fireplace, but it was a status symbol showing that, at least once, you could afford to go from your slum flat in Brooklyn to the shoddy boarding house on the back streets of Atlantic City in New Jersey, rather than just take the "El" out to Coney Island with everyone else. Tchotchke are not only status symbols of a relatively cheap, shoddy kind, but are symbols of a low status, microscopically elevated from no status at all.

The reason that tchotchke represent an important concept in contemporary economics and environmentalism is that they are ubiquitous. A Rolls-Royce is clearly a transportation status-symbol, but anything from a "Chevvie" to a "Caddie" is a tchotchke. The Limo that President Obama is driven around in is an armoured car made to look like a Caddie Limo, but it is actually functional and takes its status from the role that Obama plays.

That means that much of what is created in the american economy is tchotchke. In the supermarket, the house brand may be functional, but the same product under any other name is clearly a tchotchke, shown by its higher price, but it may even be the same product, made in the same factory, sold for the higher price because of the label.

The best way to tell a tchotchke is to market it in an economy like that of 2009. Functional commodities will still be bought because they are necessary for some reason to someone, but tchotchke will not sell even at a sharply reduced price.

And that is what creates the difficulty for the government. Our impulse is to have the government do whatever is necessary to restore the economy to the condition it was in before the stock market crash, but that conflicts with other values. In particular, the production of tchotchkes, which is essentially producing waste for its own sake, is not only bad from an economic standpoint but an unnecessary strain on the environment. We should, in fact, strive to make the economy as tchotchke-free as possible.

So it is good from the environmental point of view to let the tchotchke-makers go out of business. (The makers of the high-end status symbols can simply be left alone: their market is among the tchotchke-makers and will vanish with them.)

Unfortunately we aren't used to recognizing pseudo-functional tchotchkes, so it will take some difficult times for the tchotchke-makers to go out of business and let the producers of functional goods have the market to themselves.

A program designed to help maintain the welfare of the working class while the economy repairs itself will be hard for any government to do, because all governments are run by establishment bureaucrats and welfare programs are designed to keep the working class at a lower status level. You would have to have bureaucrats at the policy-making level who have no concern for their own status, and they would be "outsiders" in our society and therefore not suitable candidates for senior bureaucratic positions.

But that may still happen by accident if the ordinary citizens are kept alive at subsistence levels long enough to get used to living without tchotchkes, or, at least, factory-made tchotchkes.

A tchotchke-free society would end up with an economic surplus that could be distributed from the bottom up. It could also be combined with a strongly progressive tax system that leveled off the incomes of those who accidentally ended up in functional industries.

In a generation or so this patchwork income policy could be replaced by a demand system, "take what you want but use what you take", and a value system that would equate waste with spitting on your grandmother's floor. That would completely disconnect status from income and finally eliminate even the symbolic use of tchotchkes as a significant economic phenomenon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Industrial Revolution (1500-present)

After the collapse of the Hellenistic Era, such aristocracy as remained, i.e., the warlords of the Dark Ages and their heirs, had to rely on individuals to bring them rare stuff to use as status symbols. They needed these status symbols to certify that they were of higher status than the commoners.

The traders used the new technology of sailing ships to get rich. But they and the bankers (traders in money) might get rich in terms of money and things, but they were still "common", i.e., they had a class ceiling that kept them out of the elite establishment of "old money", i.e., the heirs of the warlords. In some places laws were actually passed to prevent them from displaying rare commodities that were recognized status symbols.

Calvin solved this problem by inventing a new aristocracy, "the Elect".

These were people certified by God, over the heads of the existing elite, and the upward mobility of this group marked the beginning of a new process toward a classless society. The certification of the Elect was done by God in a visible way: the Elect prospered. In other words Calvinism was a religion of upward mobility for the lower middle class to the establishment by virtue of the accumulation and display of money or purchased commodities.

Once that group of people were upwardly mobile they tried to change the criterion to having "old money", i.e., spending money the way the former establishment did, but the next accumulators of "new money" eventually replaced the "old money" by weight of numbers.

After the traders and bankers came the colonial planters. The traders had bartered the aboriginals for the resources of newly discovered countries, but the planters took the aboriginal land and, using aboriginal captives as slaves, exploited the aboriginal resources by single-crop farming. This was essentially strip-mining of the nutrients in the soil.

In the tropics this was done by absentee owners who were simply interested in cash returns, but in north america the colonials fought a war (The American Revolution) to establish political control over land that the aboriginals had not depleted. The Colonial Planters became the elite establishment of this new political region.

In the northern part of the United States mechanics brought over machines that could be operated by unskilled people who weren't as strong as the european textile craftsmen. They used water power, and, later, steam, to power their machines and used women and children as operators. They became rich and, in the American Civil War, broke the power of the Plantation owners by freeing the slaves and thus increasing the cost of labor. These northern industrialists became the elite establishment after that Civil War.

Around the turn of the century this elite built castles at Newport and married their daughters to impoverished European aristocrats, and left the running of their factories to the clerks and mechanics. These clerks and mechanics started calling themselves managers and engineers and turned the stock certificates from certificates of ownership and control into gambling chips traded in markets that could be manipulated.

These corporate bureaucrats manipulated the financial system until it was unstable enough to be an instrument for shaking loose the "old money" capitalists, and they became the elite establishment. They ran the economy into a depression as one of the tricks for taking power away from the industrialists; but this created an opportunity for the government bureaucrats to grab the power represented by government regulation.

By 1950 the bureaucracy had reached a level of control where Fortune magazine could proclaim that the "Managerial Revolution" had been won and real control rested with the bureaucratic elite. But that elite had developed in the form of two parts: the government bureaucrats represented by the Democratic Party and the corporate bureaucrats represented by the Republican Party. These two factions vied for control during the 20th century.

The government bureaucrats established themselves in the two world wars and the Great Depression. They found that it was possible to manipulate political power by offering programs that provided benefits to the lower strata and became a nominally Farmer-Labor party. They used that to stay the establishment from the 1930s to the 1970s.

By the 1970s the corporations had taken over the farms and labor had been controlled by big unions so that the government bureaucrats had no real political base dependent directly on them. The Democrats had started a war in Vietnam and had created more political tension than the electorate could stand.

Nixon won the next election and aside from a brief post-Watergate romance with Jimmy Carter, the corporate bureaucrats remained in power until 2008.

Clinton was in office for part of that time, but he wasn't really a government bureaucrat. In particular he did nothing that would woo his following toward government bureaucrats. It took his successor, George W. Bush, to become so personally unpopular by his ineptitude that the Democrats not only won, but they elected an African-American to be president.

The corporate bureaucrats under Roland Reagan had wooed a substantial fraction of the lower middle class of the government party (the so-called "Reagan Democrats") by implicitly raising the threat of diluting the spoils of upward mobility by extending it to people of color. The Bushes didn't have to be explicitly racist, but they did nothing to encourage upward mobility of people of color, so that the classically racist areas changed from Democratic to Republican. But George W. lost the respect of everyone except extreme racists and the uppermost levels of the money-based elite.

The financial industry had become so decadent during this period that it collapsed under the threat of an intelligent president who was not of their party and assured the election of Barack Obama. What they are doing now, after that election, is trying to pick up any scrap of money they can squirrel away. They know that when the full truth comes out it will be very difficult to avoid a complete collapse, but they still have a touching faith in any money they can hide under the bed.

There is nothing subtle about their greed: nothing they get will be enough, anything that benefits anyone but them is "wasted".

This leaves Barack Obama in a difficult position.

If he manages to restore some semblance of the status quo, the financial industry will simply run itself into collapse again because it has no incentive to do anything differently, and their status as "the Elite" depends on displaying money, not on running organizations efficiently.

If he simply lets the financial system collapse, he will cause suffering among large numbers of people who do not have "golden parachutes"; and it was their votes that elected him.

If he makes radical changes, like nationalizing the banks and major industries, he will still have to operate them through the bureaucracies that brought them to ruin because there aren't enough intelligent and non-ideological people who can be quickly trained to manage the technology.

Besides that, fixing the United States economy won't change the world situation unless we recognize the need for the next step in social evolution. We will not have a stable global economy until we establish the fact that all people are equal. If we limit upward mobility to one group characterized by language, skin color, or any such symptom of ethnicity we will still have the kind of violent jihadism we have now. And yet the way we define upward mobility is by an increase in the ability to waste resources.

There is no way we can have the population of the globe waste resources at the level that citizens of Western Civilization do now because there isn't that much stuff; yet we cannot ask Westerners to stop their conspicuous consumption as long as that represents a loss of status in their worldview. In fact even nominally left-of-center "experts" like Krugman believe we have to increase the level of production and sales irrespective of what kind of junk is bought and consumed or what effect it has on the ecology.

If we reduce our consumption levels to necessities, at a level that would be roughly considered the "poverty" level, i.e., just barely enough to survive, it would be relatively easy to let everyone in the world be equal. Once we did that, and everyone survived, then it would be easy to increase the consumption level to the maximum that would be sustainable.
But no administration would dare to deliberately adopt such a policy in a country that was administered by elected officials.

The best way to achieve that sort of effect would simply be to let the system collapse and rebuild it starting with the principle of global equality. The chaos and anarchy that would constitute the interregnum between the present unequal society and a postindustrial egalitarian society, would simply have to be accepted as the cost of rationalizing society.

I sincerely doubt that even Obama has the chutzpah to do that deliberately, so it will have to be done by accident. Obama should make a best effort to restore the present system, and put a lot of effort into convincing everyone that we are all equal. Then, when Obama has had his two terms and the Republicans get back in, and the economic system collapses because everyone will try to grab as much as possible as quickly as possible, we can go through the necessary therapeutic chaos and anarchy and believe it "just happened" so nobody is to blame.

After we have gotten over our "one-upmanship" and our hunger for status advantage over our neighbors by surviving the global collapse of civilization we will be in a better position to build a Utopia.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Expect a Utopia?

A Utopia isn't a new idea--lots of people have imagined a world that they'd prefer to the one they are living in. Mostly these have been systems which benefit the particular subgroup that the author belonged to. That isn't the kind of thing I'm talking about. I was trained as a scientist and my Utopia isn't a system ruled by scientists, like some of H. G. Wells' Utopias.

What I did was try to figure out the dynamics of the past systems of infrastructure we lived with (mostly because of the degree of sophistication of our technology) until I got to an explanation of what we were doing now. Then I tried to make a reasonable estimate of where we were going. The requirements of a Utopia aren't that complicated.

In particular, there are three things that are necessary principles for a future global Utopian infrastructure.

First, equality. There is no reason why any person or sub-group of the population should have any privilege or deprivation that is not applicable to any other person or group based on the supposed characteristics of that person or group. Exceptions might be made for things like the use of dangerous materials by persons not aware of the risk. The necessities of life, such as a sufficient level of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare, should be available to all on demand. There is no reason why these necessities should be withheld from any person for any reason.

Second, ecological responsibility. No action should be taken that constitutes a wasteful use of resources, including conspicuous consumption for symbolic purposes. Any choice of necessary action should prefer the sustainable option. Any consumable produced should be the best of its kind so that it is not wasted by non-consumption.

Third, creativity, especially scientific creativity should be encouraged. Even with the strongest encouragement of ecological responsibility resources will be consumed. Scientific creativity is necessary to make a system that consumes resources sustainable.

There is one characteristic of our civilization that creates a contemporary crisis: the use of resource consumption as the certification of a elevated position in a stratified society. As long as our civilization facilitates the waste of resources as a status symbol we can't have a Utopian civilization because there aren't enough resources to allow everyone to expend resources at the same rate as the elite of Western Civilization expend today.

It is not clear how that can be resolved within the context of the mindset of 21st century Western Civilization. It could be resolved by a "decline and fall" leading to the extinction of Western Civilization. Such a "decllne and fall" is typical of the transition between civilizations. However, it also typically involves a transition period of chaos and anarchy, which seems an inefficient way to evolve.

Republicans Want Stimulation

Obama is having some difficulty getting the Republicans to go along with his version of the stimulus legislation. The scheme tried by the tail-end of the Bush administration was to give lots of money to the financial corporations which they used to put in their vaults so they could give it out in bonuses when nobody was looking. They figured that if they tried that during the Obama administration it wouldn't work, so now they want tax cuts for the corporate bureaucrats.

The professionals (and Clintonites) in the Obama administration want to leave more money under the control of government bureaucrats, e.g., as tax cuts for the lower middle class and subsidies for government supervised projects. Obama reminded the Republicans when they met that the voting power has shifted back to the democrats because the Republicans didn't reward the "Reagan Democrats" for switching their votes to the Republican Party.

As the New York Times said, on 01/26/09:

Not long ago, at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, Richard S. Fuld Jr. of Lehman Brothers held forth on the state of the global economy before mesmerized journalists and cowering subordinates while other Wall Street stars mingled after-hours with the likes of Claudia Schiffer, the German supermodel.
This year, politicians, not corporate titans, are poised to be the big draw, echoing the broader power shift away from the free market as one government after another tries to prop up its sinking economy.

It seems reasonable for the two parts of the bureaucratic establishment to alternate the lead in their dance, but they can only continue the status quo if the white lower middle class and the people of color are prevented from being upwardly mobile. Obama will make this possible for a little while by the sheer "shock and awe" caused by his skin color; but unless the non-establishment has some sense of an improving situation, one in which their children have a shot at being part of the establishment regardless of ethnicity, they are going to feel that Obama isn't radical enough.

Obama has the potential for being quite radical. Remember the Inaugural Address:

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Note that he said "...all are equal...". Not just white people, not even just Americans, but all. So far his plans are just related to the american economy, but he is pragmatic as well as idealistic; and he is giving us notice that equal knows no barriers.

So don't worry if Obama bargains a bit to get more people on board. The purpose of the game is to get all on board, a globe full of equal people. And he's warned us.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Politics Under Conformity

One phenomenon that is interesting is the changing of behavior in mutually conformist systems or, more commonly, the resistance to such change.

The effect of mutual conformity in a group is to produce an averaging effect in which everybody is attracted toward the centroid. If there is someone with a noticeably different style of behavior, they are pulled toward the centroid by the aggregated force of the number of conformists. While the centroid will also be attracted toward the outsider, the force will be small and the inertia high.

If the outsider is an ideologue, he or she will be fixed in that position in P-space no matter how strong the conformist force. This will mean that there is a small resultant force on the centroid that acts to move the centroid toward the ideologue. Even a small force, if maintained, will eventually result in the centroid being synchronized with the ideological position. Examples of this happening include military training and other examples of brainwashing. Mao Tse Tung sent pairs of ideologues as cadre to conformist villages. Castro used television speeches to become the ideologue in everyone's family.

If the ideological cadre does not have the authority to keep the conformist group open the group has the defense of shunning. If the ideologue is labeled as "not one of us" he or she does not contribute to the net mutual conformity and there is no effect on the group. This trick has been used effectively by the Amish.

In developed industrial societies special groups may maintain a mutually conformist style, but it will usually act like the Amish, with a unique religion and, very often, a special uniform. That may well have more of the characteristics of an ideological cult rather than a mutually conformist group.

The Guru-Chela Relationship

An example that can be analyzed by using the P-space representation is the case of a guru and chela, or teacher and student. If the chela incorporates the ideal that he or she is attempting to teach, the basic drive toward conformity will cause the chela to move toward the guru's position in P-space.

If the guru is not perfect, so that he or she can describe the ideal but does not incorporate it, the attraction between the guru and chela is split away from the tendency of the chela to incorporate the ideal. Furthurmore, there is a force on the guru that would cause him or her to move towards the chela's position (e.g., become childish). 

If, often for reason of economics, the guru tries to work with several gurus at the same time; the net effect on the group of chelas will be reduced because they are mutually conformist which provides an inertial effect. In addition, the effect on the guru is multiflied by the number of chelas.

The guru can protect him or herself from becoming childish by using a stratification ideology (e.g., that the chelas are part of an inferior species) but this barrier works both ways and the force moving the chelas toward the ideal is reduced significantly.

To the extent that the guru doesn't understand this phenomenon the teaching will be ineffective and the guru won't understand how to improve.

Observing Behavior

There are two tricks for making sure that an observation is "scientific": there has to be a consensus among a group of observers that the observation falls into the same category; and each observation has to be of a pair of behavioral events, a stimulus by the environment and a response by the subject. The figure represents the process. In this case we make the peer review specific by having the observation made by a peergroup of observers.

The result is a matrix whose elements are the relative probability of getting a particular response when the subject is given a particular stimulus. Determining this matrix is facilitated by representing the stimulus and response by a vector whose elements are the behavioral events we know how to observe.

When we talk about the behavior of interacting individuals it is useful to take the matrix elements in a specific linear order and treat that as a vector. Then the behavior of the subject is  represented by a point in a vector space. In that space conformism is represented by a group of points that are attracted to one another and an ideological group is attracted to a fixed point in the vector space.

The more typical situation in contemporary developed countries is idiosyncracy, where it is realized that no simple ideology matches all experiences, so a "workaround" ideology is patched up from fragmented myths and superstitions. This creates a lot of anxieties because one's life doesn't have a simply understood "meaning". That is called an "Age of Anxiety".

An autonomous person (like a Zen Master or a Gnostic Pneumatic) doesn't define his or her behavior by a simple ideology or patched-up fragments of ideology because he or she has transcended the Oedipus Complex that requires ideology.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Technical notes

These remarks are based on a mathematical theory, in fact a theory whose mathematics is analogous to the quantum theory in Physics. Not all the ideas that I have worked out in this theory are directly applicable to politics, but they do provide examples of why things happen the way they do, so I'll include them from time to time.

Are we going to Utopia?

In a sense it may not look like it is Utopia we are going to and, of course, we may lose our way for a while. But the kind of society we have now isn't stable. No society that has the kind of contrast between rich and poor that exists on earth today can remain stable indefinitely. 

We know that we are equal in the eyes of God, so society can't be based on inequality and expect to be stable. It is one thing if we are progressing toward equality in practical terms, where everyone can expect to have the same kind and quality of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, or, if they don't, that their children or grandchildren will. But if the people who don't have their fair share don't see some kind of progress to equality the system that keeps them behind will collapse.

What the Islamic Jihad has done, if nothing else, is provide an education in guerilla warfare. If the american underclass comes to understand that they are being deliberately kept from the perquisites of equality; and come to understand that they have nothing to gain by being lawful, the Jihadists of the middle east will look like children.

Imagine two million people on the Washington Mall, but with guns.

So Barack Hussein Obama can't simply fix things to go back to the status quo of the spring of 2008. He has to either get us to a stable society that refects our global equality, or, at the very least, get us clearly moving in that direction. Simply recreating an economy in which the middle class gets over their head buying imitations of the status symbols of the elite, while the walls surrounding our Golden Ghetto block out the sight of a global population in abject poverty, will not be enough. 

So while he has to get things comparatively stable again, because it is too hard to be creative in the midst of chaos, the status quo of the turn of the century isn't going to serve as more than a temporary expedient.

And that's why what he does now, whether the economic stimulus is half-a-trillion or two trillion, doesn't matter that much. We have to "change" in a significant way so that or economy does not depend on the middle class buying chachkas. If we don't create an infrastructure which is based on the fact that we are all equal, if it depends, as the current economy does, on social stratification, is won't last long. 

How we are going to do that without a class-based Civil War , I don't know. We could, for instance, have a severely progressive income tax; so that we all have, for all intents and purposes, the same income. But would a legislature of the very rich support such a tax system? And could a legislature of the poor exist without their candidates being buried in the propaganda of the rich?

It is a hopeful sign that "class" in American is not simply based on money. The election of Barack Hussein Obama has made ethnicity irrelevant in that regard. And, as we have seen this last fall wealth measured in money can simply evaporate in a moment.

But a society based on money can't tolerate that kind of fluctuation, so going back to the kind of society we had in 2008 will guarantee the "Decline and Fall of Western Civilization".

So whatever Barack Hussein Obama is going to do over the near future: the kinds of change we will see in order to get us running again is nothing compared to the changes that will be necessary to give our children a stable civilization to live in.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What's Utopia?

There is a novel here that is set in the kind of place I consider Utopian. If you are curious about what I think we should evolve into, read it.

Why "Utopia"?

This is a blog that's new with the beginning of the Barack Hussein Obama presidency.

I'm finished writing books with "Barack Hussein Obama and the Evolution of Utopia" which can be reached at:

This blog will contain little bits and pieces that didn't get into that book, and thoughts that occurred to me afterward.

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