Thursday, December 20, 2007

Piece of Me

If you were a drug addict doing a commercial for a new chewing gum, it might look like this. Even though she says it's extra-licious, the director apparently gave up hope of having any actual choreography in the video. Yeah, I know, leave Britney alone.

There's a reason why Dan Neil won the Pulitzer Prize

LA Times automotive columnist, Dan Neil, won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2004. Which seems weird, until you actually read one of his columns -- like this review today of the 2008 Volvo XC70 which begins:
A couple of weeks ago, when the temperatures dipped into the 40s -- or as we call it here in Southern California, the extremes of human endurance -- I went shopping in West L.A. It was like base camp at Annapurna. High-heeled hotties had turned in their sex spurs for pairs of Merrell hiking boots. Guys were walking around in zero-degree quilted Marmot jackets. I'm sorry -- I just don't think crampons and bottled oxygen are necessary to make the traverse to the valet stand.

God knows, high-end technical gear is fun. Suunto watches, Adidas glacier glasses. I love it when people use Black Diamond trekking poles and Platypus hydration packs to assault the untamed reaches of Griffith Park. You sure don't want Jon Krakauer writing a book about you....
I pronounce it the RFK Action Front quote of the week!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hot Power Couples

Win Butler and Regine Chassagne: married and play together in Arcade Fire. How hot must it be to go out and rock a crowd of 20,000 people together? (Facebook users will have to click through to see images.)

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis: She's a journalist and author. He's a documentary filmmaker. And sometimes they collaborate on each other's projects. Totally freakin hot.

Utopias, Dystopias, and Human Nature

For a while now I've been interested in the question of why utopias become dystopias. I now have a few thoughts that I'd like to share on the matter.

The "Founding Fathers" of the U.S. seemed to take a dim view of human nature. Dealing with a monarchy showed them that power corrupts and they saw government as an oppressive force. So they set up a whole series of checks and balances to try to restrain the devilish side of our human nature. Even with these checks and balances the American system is rife with corruption and the corrosive influence of money but it's still a better system than most.

By contrast, both corporatist and marxist movements take a favorable view of human nature. Republicans basically believe that people who run corporations are decent people and that there is no need to regulate them because these good guys will naturally want to do the right thing. And it turns out disastrous -- the Savings and Loan Crisis, Enron, Bopal, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, toxins in our water and air, the planet on the verge of ecological collapse. Left unregulated otherwise decent people organized together in corporations become corrupt and rob, steal, poison, and kill. It's the craziest thing.

By the same token, Marxist movements take a basically favorable view of human nature. They believe (and of course this is an oversimplification) that if we abolish private property and all come together and identify our collective needs that the economy and society will sort itself out, from each according to his ability, to each according to his/her need. But a quick glance at the legacies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot shows how a small handful of people can become corrupted by this process and exploit those who have a favorable view of human nature. (The Lives of Others is also a great look at the dystopia of communist East Germany.)

The same disaster also happens over and over with spiritual movements. Jim Jones, Adi Da, and Jim Bakker -- may have all started out with the best of intentions (or not). But when someone says they have a unique relationship with God and lots of other people start to believe them -- I imagine it becomes corrupting pretty quickly. And the leaders who may have earnestly sought a deeper connection to God, quickly become mired in very human failings of excess wealth, sexual abuse, and/or drugs and alcohol abuse.

So why don't marxist and spiritual movement adopt the dim view of human nature and impose the checks and balances and regulations that rein in our dark side? I think perhaps it's because checks and balances are slow and inherently conservative forces. If you think the world needs a great transformation (and it probably does) and you think it needs to happen quickly (also probably true) then you're not likely to want to impose any limits on that process. But the corruption of power is so absolute, I'm not sure how any movement can NOT take steps to regulate the dark side of its leadership (and membership).

But then there's Google. Google seems to take a fairly positive view of human nature (although they also seem to be aware of its dark side through their motto, Don't be evil.) The fact that they give their employees 20 percent time shows that they understand that each of us has an extraordinary potential to create things of wondrous beauty and utility. Through 20 percent time projects, Google anticipates and fulfills human needs in an almost symbiotic relationship with their users. But the truth is Google is only 10 years old so it could still go evil on us -- it'll remain to be seen whether power and a market capitalization of $215 billion will ultimately corrupt or whether they have systems in place to limit and manage the dark side.

The example of the Founding Fathers seems to show the need to impose checks and balances to limit the evil side of human nature. But the Google example shows that there is also a tremendous potential for figuring out how to nurture and support the angels of our better nature as well.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A little early Cat Stevens, a little Sheryl Crow, but also a force of nature all her own...

Lizzie West myspace page (I think "Dusty Turnaround" will make you smile).

Lizzie West website. (Be sure to check out the Dharma Dog -- "God is winking".)

Monday, December 10, 2007

What if Google ran the whole country?

I want to explore an idea for a minute. I may not get it exactly correct but it's all jazz anyway right?

We live is a very strange era. On the one hand we live in an era of relentless technological innovation. About every 18 months, Intel, following Moore's Law, comes out with a new chip that makes all of their previous products obsolete. People have come to accept a world where we are all in a continuous cycle of learning new tools, new techniques, and new processes. So let's call this hand, insanely modern. But it's pretty cool too, because Google and others are anticipating our needs and quickly filling them.

On the other hand, our religious, economic, political, and energy systems are based on the notion that we reached the peak of history a long long time ago. Our moral and ethical compass is frozen in time 2500 to 1500 years ago (depending on your preferred religious system). Our political system is stuck 200 years ago (and the Bushies are trying to take our political systems back to a time before that -- building a bridge to the 16th century or so). Our economic system is positively Neanderthal (based on trade between unequal partners often carried out at the point of a gun/spear). And the world gets most of its energy these days from burning decayed prehistoric plants. WTF!?

We already know what the world would look like if we abandoned modernity is favor of a complete return to the old ways. It'd look like the Taliban -- complete with male dominance through violence in every sphere and public stonings for minor transgressions.

But what would the world look like if we completely abandoned all of the old ways in favor of the new? I'm not sure it would be all that bad. As I showed in a previous post, modern secular society tends to make better moral and ethical decisions than ancient wisdom traditions (because secular democracies are better set up to aggregate and sort the wisdom of the crowd than religious institutions). In terms of our political systems, what if Google ran the country? what would it look like? Every government employee would get 20 percent time to innovate and find ways to save money and improve services. They could also spend their 20 percent time finding ways to alleviate suffering in the world. (In many ways, Google has figured out how to harness the wisdom of the crowd and politics hasn't.) What checks and balances would need to be in place to make sure it didn't go evil?

What if every 2 years we not only had a new Congress but a new constitution and a new form of government that was faster and more responsive to the needs of the people? What if we expected that just like we expect to double our computing power and cut our computer costs in half every two years? What if we had a political system with evolution built into it (and no, the right to amend the Constitution is not a system with evolution built into it) rather than one that requires periodic (violent) revolution? What if we just called, "You've got to be kidding me" on burning dead plants to create energy? And what if our economic systems were not based on exploitative trade at the point of a gun and 14 year old girls in Cambodia sewing our shirts? What if trade agreements included a global minimum wage and a global standard for health, education, and the environment? It's not even really that complicated when you think about it -- it's just a question of dragging our politics and our economics out of the dark ages.

I just feel like all the technological innovation on the internet and in the high tech world shows us that change is possible-- it's fairly easy really. It's just a question of getting our religious, economic, political, and energy systems to catch up to where folks are already at.

Quote of the Week

"Norman O. Brown observed that the great world needs more Eros and less strife, and the intellectual world needs it just as much." -- Ernest Becker

The Story of Stuff

Gosh this is good. The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. I especially like her point at the end -- none of this is inevitable -- we can change the human-made systems that are making us miserable. (h/t to Rich for Digging it.)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Is "free market" economics even based on economics?

The NY Times is out with a stunning article today on how the government of Malawi defied the experts and came up with an anti-poverty program that works. It's stunning because the solution was so simple -- the government of Malawi simply subsidized fertilizer so that farmers would have higher yields for their crops. In 2005, almost 5 million of Malawi's 13 million people needed emergency food aid. This year, Malawi is a net food EXPORTER selling corn to the World Food Program and the United Nations.

The truth is that every major industrialized nation subsidizes their farmers (and those farmers in turn go out and buy seed and fertilizer with the money). But for decades U.S. and British development "experts" advising African nations AGAINST subsidizing agriculture.
"In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely."
The U.S. (University-of-Chicago-Milton-Friedman-inspired) "logic" was that government intervention would interfere with free market solutions to the problem. The reality was that this theory caused millions of actual human beings to starve to death.

Malawi's paid $74 million to subsidize fertilizer this year but it returned an estimated $120 million to $140 million in crops produced -- that's a pretty good return on investment. Simple freakin economics -- but a strategy the World Bank and IMF opposed for years.

So here's my question: was University of Chicago free market economics ever actually based on economics? Yeah, I know there were probably equations involved showing how it'll all work out and calculus was probably used and fancy graphs were produced. But WHEN IT NEVER ACTUALLY WORKS OUT THAT WAY IN THE REAL WORLD what are we to make of it? Are we just supposed to shrug our shoulders and say, "stuff happens" or is something more sinister going on here? Because when you look at it, white male 1st world insistence on pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps and hatred of dependency -- looks a lot more like personal preference (or religious doctrine or eugenics or racism) and a lot less like economics. The 1st world has been telling poor brown people in the 3rd world that they are lazy for centuries. Slave owners tried to justify slavery as being good for the slave because it would instill a Protestant work ethic in ("otherwise lazy") people. Same thing with colonialism. Now with neocolonialism we are seeing the same goddamn argument -- isn't it about time we all called BS on this tool for exploitation?

Let me put it a different way: When Nazis put signs over the gates of concentration camps that read, "Work Shall Set You Free" nobody actually saw the concentration camps as job training programs to instill discipline. Non-insane people recognized it as a sickening symptom of a pathological culture. So when the World Bank tells (actually, forces) starving nations NOT to subsidize agriculture -- even when it's been shown to work -- do we see that as simply economists who know best, or do we see it as pathological, cruel, and even criminal? If the World Bank recommends policies that cause millions of people to starve isn't that in fact, a crime against humanity? One day will we have war crimes trials where we put World Bank, IMF, and WTO officials on trial for the crime of genocide?

So for ignoring the experts and feeding his people, we name Malawi's President, Bingu wa Mutharika, the RFK Action Front Person of the Week!


In the comments, Beth wisely notes that this is really a riff on themes brought up by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine which I wrote about (here) and (here). If you have a chance, do check out the book.