To Be Outside of It All and Wish to Change the World

Enemy_of_the_StateI feel like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. You know: that movie with Will Smith where Hackman’s character is the old guy who knows how corrupt and all-powerful the system is and Smith’s character is the one who gets stuck in a web of intrigue far enough that he desperately needs Hackman’s help to survive.

The system in that case was the spy and counterspy world of the NSA and international electronic surveillance. It’s a system that exists beneath the radar of Everyman so far that virtually no citizen knows it exists. And yet it does exist, and the extent of its tentacles’ invisible involvement in the life of Everyman is unbelievably entangled. Smith discovers all of this and awakes to understand a part of reality he had been supporting with his own efforts — taxes paid, votes cast — but would probably not have done so if he had known what was going on. I feel this way a lot lately.

The_Matrix_PosterIt’s a bit like The Matrix too. We’re all “copper tops” powering something we’re intimately intertwined with, but we have no idea it’s there or that we’re making it possible. This invisible part of the world we live in is made possible by our contribution — and here I mean in way more ways than simple taxes and votes — and the resulting invisible superstructure of society not only exists and benefits from us, but actually acts to control us so that we never really perceive it. But even more importantly, these invisible puppeteers who live off the proceeds of the labors of the world act directly to maintain their power over us and our ignorance of their manipulations of us to keep it that way.

Imagine any of the really rich families, for example. The Koch brothers of energy, chemical, pulp and paper, the Waltons of Walmart fame, or the Rothchilds, the Rockefellers, the Romanovs, the di Medicis, or even the Hiltons. There are hundreds or even more than a thousand of these groups, families that are wealthy beyond belief, whose connection to the real world you and I occupy is tenuous at best. They exist as they do because the system of our world gives people with wealth like theirs enough power to never have to even see the world upon which even their elevated and distanced existence depends.

joe-sixpackConsider Joe Sixpack, the guy next to me on the train or the bus nearly every day of the week. He’s a great guy, with a family he loves, a big morgage and several credit card balances and car loans. He loves football and beer and barbecuing in the back garden on summer evenings, and his contributions to his church are significant fraction of his disposable income because he’s someone who works hard and wants to give back to society. He works for Boeing, having made his way up from sweeping factory floors to leading a manufacturing team making carbon fiber composite wing tips. He votes Republican because he believes in hard work and not allowing our government to tax and spend its way into becoming even more a bloated burden on business and work people, giving away American wealth to support lazy, stupid poor people who need to just get up from their couches and get a job and become like Joe.

girl-sunglassesAcross the aisle on the train is Ms. Lila Liberal. She eats organic fruit and nuts and yogurt on the train and reads Huffington Post articles on her iPhone. She carries a bag made from recycled materials she bought while on a working vacation in Haiti helping to rebuild low income housing destroyed during recent earthquakes there. She works as a legal assistant in a high rise building in Seattle, often exceeds her boss’s expectations, and is getting noticed for it. It seems her future is very bright. She’s an atheist, and lives with her partner who is a woman. She always votes Democrat, although she does so reluctantly, knowing her candidates are funded by corporate and other interests expecting to receive concessions in return. She believes the world could be a much better place if only the influence of the gigantic corporations in our government could be eliminated.

Never mind which of these people’s beliefs are the ones I agree with. Never mind which you agree with. Think about them in abstract for the moment. These two people would seem to be opposites in many ways. They are opposed in views, and effectively cancel each other out in terms of political power. They represent a continuous source of conflict for which there appears to be no resolution.

What of it? Why do these two people matter? It’s the work that enables their very existence, creating things in the world, lending the energy of their bodies and minds and creativity toward the forward progress of an economy that matters. They work, trading their time for money — the very same money that they need to live and pursue their interests, to raise their families or pets, or simply to keep their surroundings beautiful and comfortable, and to continue to work so they can earn money to continue the cycle. As they work, they put energy into the system that is our economy. In spending their earnings, they help to move everyone’s money along, again adding value in the sense that they are choosing products that are better than competitive products, taking them home, and using them — perhaps eventually needing repairs or replacement parts or a subscription to continue to be useful over time.

These people, like most of us, are hamsters on a wheel, running forever to get what they need to continue to run. Ah, you’ll say, it’s what they do with their lives along the way that matters. Sure. It certainly is. But that’s not the point of my little rant here, so I’ll continue on to that point having said enough on the subject of hamster wheels for now.

What matters is that they keep running. Adding value to the economy, building its energy level up and up and up. This powers the continuation of what all have built over the centuries: human civilization as we know it. This is a good thing. We’re all improving our standard of living, building wealth, getting safer, more comfortable, healthier, etc.

364px-Ain't_We_Got_Fun_1bBut along the way there is a group that is buoyed upward by this process as an invisible side effect of the world’s self-enriching climb upward. The rising tide may raise all ships, but some of the ships are rising faster than most, and they’re so high already we can’t even see them. We never could. These are the richest of the rich, whose existence depends entirely upon the efforts of Joe and Lila and billions in the world just like them. These wealthy, privileged people depend on the continued balancing act of the political process that keeps everyone arguing while true control of the world is actually in the hands of those who provide the funding to power the election controversies and the mannequins who run for office in the first place. They pay a little to get control, but that control provides them with an astoundingly huge return on that investment.

As long as Joe and Lila continue to oppose each other while working to put food on their tables, build their homes into comfortable places, keep themselves entertained, and doing all the things we have come to believe we are free to do in life, the Rothchilds, the Waltons, the Kochs, and all the others can keep printing money and pulling the strings.

Or not. They have so much money they can hire someone to handle all of the sordid details of running the world. They have more important things to do — there is an island in the Hawaiian island chain that’s available if they buy their way past laws and make it theirs before someone else does.

6 thoughts on “To Be Outside of It All and Wish to Change the World

  1. It’s certainly true that the mega-rich can create problems, especially in the current way of things. Though wouldn’t it be better if the system itself was limited in such a way that it couldn’t be taken advantage of (or at least it was vastly more difficult)? Said another way, might it be the case that the government has too much power / too few restrictions / insufficient or inappropriate checks and balances? The founding fathers tried to limit the power of government in various ways and for that I am very grateful indeed. But one wonders if the situation of the modern world might warrant even more restrictions on government. It’s not just that I’m opposed to the strange ethanol subsidies we have (for example), I’m opposed to the government having the power to give subsidies. Might you be able to achieve the ends you want via various limitations on government power? Couldn’t the mega-rich be made politically impotent this way? Cheers!

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    • I wonder if you’ll elaborate on your “in such a way that it couldn’t be taken advantage of”? I’m interested in seeing the architecture you have in mind.

      I see your direction, though. You want a government that is so disempowered that nobody could use it as a tool to control things. In other words, the government you’re talking cannot control things itself, so it is powerless to confer such to anyone who perverts it to evil directions.

      I fear a government that must live in this particular world, competing, as it surely does, with the other governments in the world, must not be so powerless as that. Unless you have in mind some way to provide the ability to compete with other governments as a side effect of a non-governmental process in your architecture? Do tell.

      A long time ago I studied self-organization systems in the context of emergent behavior. Such a system, which our capitalistic society certainly is, could be actually designed as well as emergent so that it emerged in the anticipated way — or at least in some desirable one.

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      • Although there are probably many things I would change in the government if I were king for a day, regarding this topic in particular I think the change(s) required could be derived come from simple beginnings. It’s well understood that there is a kind of wall of separation between church and state. Imagine creating a wall of separation between economy and state. And a wall of separation between personal morality and state. Observe that a government’s proper function is at root the creation and enforcement of law, and the protection of the country. Should the government have the power to enforce a personal morality regarding matters that only impact consenting adults of sound mind? I argue no. And yet the number of laws designed to protect you from yourself is not small. Laws should protect people from one another, not one of sound mind from themselves. Observe also that the government takes money from you by force, and arbitrarily favors some businesses by giving them your money (subsidies), or special tax treatment, or tariffs (protecting a business from actual competition by forcing its competitors to have higher prices). I’m suggesting the government should not have such powers. So what would I suggest? Just one or two short constitutional amendments that voided a great many laws with the intention of reducing the power of the machinery of government. No subsidies. No tariffs. No special taxation for some businesses. No “favors” of any kind. And no ability to create laws that force issues of private morality on everyone.

        I suspect an alternative that is even more narrowly focused could produce great change as well. Just control the purse a little better. You could imagine moving most special forms of taxation and expressing that taxation as a tax on individual people (which in fact it is anyway, but I’m just saying be honest about it: don’t hide taxation in a thousand places; social security, medicare, corporate taxes, income tax, sales taxes, property taxes, vehicle registration tax, gas tax, inflation — all these and more transformed into a single tax on individuals). If people were confronted with the reality of how heavily taxed they were, perhaps they would be more motivated to seek government reform. Or as an alternative to even that change you could imagine just requiring the government to keep a balanced budget (except in times of war) so their spending is constrained to what the people are willing to fund.

        So those are some of the ideas: 1) one or more short constitutional amendments to reduce government power in the economy and guarantee greater personal liberty, or 2) make taxation brutally transparent and hope this motivates the masses to get more involved in operation of government or 3) just require the government to operate within a budget and so limit their power to only that which the people are willing to fund.

        The government is a machine of unimaginable power. We should concern ourselves primarily with making the machine less dangerous. It shouldn’t matter who controls the levers of the machinery of government: the machine shouldn’t be capable of causing so much harm. Fix the machine and the lever-pullers will be largely irrelevant.

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      • I favor #1. I think we have proved that resource limiting leads to attempts to find resources. But strict limits on powers via the Constitution would be a way to truly contest the wrong things people have done with the powers that have leaked through the Framers’ original limits. I like this idea but it wouldn’t have popular support. Too many people depend on the largess of the public trough.

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  2. Once upon a time I’m sure people had a similar attitude toward British rule over what is now the US of A. And then again for slavery. And perhaps again for women’s suffrage. We outlawed alcohol at one point, and then repealed that law. Many people my age were skeptical we’d even see a president with black skin in our lifetime, or a wildly popular rapper with white skin. 🙂 And this upcoming cycle finally has a female running for POTUS as a serious candidate. I doubted there would be any change in drug policy in my lifetime, and yet recently a couple states legalized a schedule 1 drug for recreational use. When I was born the only mobile communication device people had heard of was from watching Star Trek. Today nomadic tribes of cattle herders in Africa have mobile phones (yes, really). Great change is possible. Have hope! And more than that, call and/or write your representatives and badger them into doing your bidding. 🙂 And/or consider supporting something like Wolf PAC (http://www.wolf-pac.com/) that aims to get money out of politics via constitutional amendment as a first step. If nothing else, take interest in one or more children and try to help them understand how they can make the world better by following a path of wisdom and virtue, free from senseless in-group vs. out-group hatred, free from superstition, and free from partisan nonsense. Or encourage them to establish a new colony on Mars that takes advantage of what we’ve learned from the successes and failures of the US system of government. Or move to Montana and live off the grid. 🙂 Cheers!

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  3. I’m not so sure we can change this country. It’s got a lot of inertia. I might say the same for my children. While they’re very free thinking people and quite intelligent, they’re much more conservative than they think they are and have been deliberately inculcated to the status quo.

    As I was.

    There’s hope. I’m an existence proof that people can change. You may be as well – I don’t know your history.

    Maybe the Mars thing will work. I have been thinking of writing a series of stories that explore the concepts of various alternative strategies for government in isolated societies. Like, for example, in moon or Mars or orbital colonies.

    The trouble with society is that it’s too comfortable for most people to really HAVE to change it. We don’t change because we’re inconvenienced. We change because we’re outraged or starving or dying. Nothing like that level of rage or distress exists today. We’re just exactly as comfortable as a society – and no more – to avoid this level of change being seen as necessary by Joe and Jane Sixpack.

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