Monday, July 25, 2011

Remodelling America

I'm in the middle of a home remodel. Well, more of a never-ending series of home improvement projects, some larger than others. Frankly, I am beginning to suspect there is no end to this process, that it is a never-ending endeavor that is part of the price (perk?) of home ownership.

Some of my projects involve re-doing, or simply undoing, prior projects that were ill-conceived. (Sometimes paint that looks great in the can does not work so well on the wall.)

Repainting (for a third time) a certain wall in my home had me thinking about the ability to re-do, or to undo, aspects of my home remodelling that seem to have gone awry. This, as usual, led to me reflecting on how this might analogize to larger societal issues.

In a prior blog, I have lamented the lack of advanced planning and conscious, goal-oriented development that has impaired the evolution of America. I have suggested that consumer-oriented capitalism, which allows market forces to dictate the course of our nation, is not to be trusted and is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. In this blog, I express my view that this can be addressed and redressed by the choice of concious remodelling.

As one example, I think Americans (and most Westernized nations) have allowed personal transportation to evolve in a way that has resulted in a system that is very ineffecient, expensive and bad for the environment. Now, we cannot simply throw all cars in a junk yard and replace them with emissions-free public transportation systems. However, we CAN have a contest asking scientists (or the public at large) to propose what they believe would be the best, most efficient transportation system for a society such as ours if they were to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. I mean, I think with the wealth of technology at our disposal, there might be transportation solutions that we have not thought of. Does public transportation have to be limited to subways, trains and buses? Is there some way to develop a public transportation network that could meet the needs of individuals for personal transportation to visit family, go on an outing, haul furniture, or go on a date?

The point is that I do not personally have in mind any specific vision for a system of personal and public transportation system that would surpass what has evolved naturally as a product of market forces in modern societies such as ours. However, I am optimistic that if hundreds or thousands of the brightest and most educated minds are addressing this issue, that they could (and probably would) conceive transporation options and solutions I would never have thought of.

Though I discuss transportation, this same approach could be taken with other aspects of society from housing to social welfare. I would like to see a contest, similar in spirit to the Nobel Prizes, which perhaps once a decade awards a $10 million prize for the best and most thorough proposal for re-visioning some aspect of society.

The end goal is to inject idealistic and solution-oriented thinking into addressing societal problems, with the notion that we may generate solutions and proposals so sound that people are compelled to demand we implement a course of societal change that moves towards those solutions and proposals.

Yeah, I know we have think tanks and universities that have people focused on solving various problems. But do you know what problems they are addressing? Do you know what limitations are placed upon them? Do you know how many people are working on any given problem at any give time? Do you know to what extent governmental bureaucracy or business interests or personal ideosyncracies are limiting or impairing those efforts? We are facing a potential armageddon in the form of a society whose development races forward like a runaway freight train with no engineer aboards, and I do not think we can sit on our hands and trust that our leaders are ensuring everything is being handled appropriately. I personally have seen no evidence we can trust the powers-that-be for creative societal solutions, particularly when the best solutions might be inimicable to the economic interests of those presently in power. Thus, I think appealing to the masses in a public manner is the best, and perhaps only, approach to take.

Now if I only had $10 million...

Ken Myers

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

America's Life Plan

I have read (okay, perused) many self-help books. You know, the books on how to get your life in gear, achieve your dreams, etc.. I actually think these books can be very useful, but for me they provide only a short-term sense of efficacy. For a few weeks after I read (or peruse) such a book, my mind is awash with plans to re-do my life. Then time passes, life gets busy, I fall back on my habits, and not much has changed. Anyway, for some one more receptive or committed to change, I expect these sorts of books could be very useful at helping provide guidance and tools.

So, basically, I think these books have great advice, but the audience must be willing. One common piece of advice from these books is to have well-defined goals -- both short and long term. The better you can visualize where you want your life to go, the easier it is to get there (and the easier it is to remain focused on getting there, rather than getting distracted by all sorts of other destinations or opportunities).

I have read suggestions for five year plans, ten year plans, retirement plans. You are free to adjust these plans if you reach the conclusion your goals have changed and the old plans no longer fit. You then create new plans and work towards THOSE new goals / destinations. In this manner, your life is always about working towards certain well-defined goals rather than drifting, surviving, following the path of least resistance, or running toward the latest short-term goal-de-jur.

As you might be able to tell, I think very highly of this plan-oriented way of living (even if I have not been the best at implementing it in my own life). Recently, reading about America's national debt and reading about politicians fighting, the recession and all that stuff, I have begun to ponder the notion of a life plan for America. The more I think about it, the more it makes very little sense to me that we as a nation have no concrete vision of what we want our country to look like in 50 years, or 100 years, or 500 years.

For example, in 50 years, what should our population be? Double? Triple? What percentage of our population should be working in health care? Manufacturing? Farming? What types of goods should we be exporting? Importing? What should our obesity rate be?

There are a few specific issues where we make long-term plans, such as for carbon emissions. But that's about it. As a nation, we are adrift, following the path of least resistance, or allowing market forces to determine our societal course.

This is a flaw I see with capitalism. We do not conciously decide, as intelligent beings, how we should allocate our societal resources to move towards a pre-determined vision of the future. Instead, we abdicate any collective, conscious choice for the future and leave it to market forces to determine where we go.

People who defend capitalism generally point out how much more efficient it is than communism. To me this is like saying, "If we don't steer the car, we find it goes faster and gets better gas mileage." Or, to put it another way, we don't know where we're going, but were making good time.

To any rational person who gives it some thought, it is clear this approach is penny wise and pound foolish. It is far better, in my estimation, to go twice as slow toward a POSITIVE vision for the future, rather than to go twice as fast in whatever direction the winds may be blowing.

There are those who might argue that market forces are not inhuman, but represent a collective vote by humans through their spending habits. It is people who dictate the market with their buying and selling, after all. The problem I see with this -- and this is my gut feeling, not the product of a comprehensive study -- is that people in the act of consumerism are generally much more short-sighted than, say, if they are asked to sit down and ponder where they want the future of America to go.

Take the analogy of human evolution. Every act of procreation is a human vote concerning what the future of our species should look like, should act like. We are an evolving species, and the course of evolution depends upon who has babies with whom. But do people about to procreate think in these terms? Rarely, in my experience.

Another analogy might be recycling habits. You could watch 1,000 people throw away a soda can, see how many of them make sure it goes into a recycling bin, and take that as equivalent to a collective human vote on how we as a society should prioritize recycling. However, when a single person is faced with a single can, that person may very well make a choice not to bother with recycling even though that same person, if asked about how society should address recycling, would strongly favor ramping up societal efforts in this regard.

The point is, to the extent market forces are characterized as allowing people to conciously vote upon and direct the course of humanity with their consumer choices, the results are very much skewed towards our basest nature and our selfish and lazy instincts. Look around at how America has evolved over the past 100 years and tell me this is not true. As a society, we have been moving fast -- faster than all of our competitors -- but where the hell are we going?

Which brings me back to my thought that we need a much clearer, more comprehensive plan for our future. For how we as a society will utilize our adult population when that population is double what it is now. For what our ratio of lower to middle to upper class should be. There are lots of things we can plan for, and then try to realize those plans. This need not involve a shift from capitalism to socialism, but merely some conscious thought about the way we are living, the way we want to live in the future, and the obstacles that we will need to overcome to get from point A to point B.

Where should such a plan come from? Anywhere. As much as I distrust politicians, I would certainly have more faith and trust in a politician who proposed such a plan, who at least gave lip service to taking the long view of societal progress, and who was willing to give some long-term, concrete goals for our nation.

Ken Myers