Wrangling Intelligence

Like the nuclear era before it, today’s era of artificial intelligence (AI) has been welcomed throughout the world with wonder and equal parts of enthusiasm and trepidation. No doubt, it is a once-in-a-century game-changer. The questions I have are, will we succeed in applying the lessons from the development and deployment of nuclear fission, or someday be viewing the AI version of “Oppenheimer” at the 2090 Academy Awards? Will we summon the discipline to moderate AI to truly advance humankind, or will it be weaponized to destroy our civilization?

Today, both seem like distinct possibilities. Reality will likely be a mixed bag. Probably at best a mixed bag. There are, however, tools from the softer social sciences and philosophy that we can apply to tilt the scales in favor of advancing humankind instead of destroying it. We must put as much energy into the application of those tools today as we are into the mad rush with which technology companies are pursuing more robust and more capable versions of AI. Philosophy is often ridiculed for its lack of production, especially when compared to science and technology. Its job, however, is not to produce breakthroughs for the advancement of humanity; it is to keep those of science and technology from becoming madness. In the nuclear era, Einstein knew this as Oppenheimer eventually did, too. But not before it was too late.

Capitalism does a magnificent job of creating wealth in a direct and observable manner, but only an indirect and often uneven job of furthering the well-being of all humanity. For that, we need the more layered and nuanced application of wisdom that was seldom found in the ego-driven mania of Los Alamos during the nuclear age, or Silicon Valley, or Redmond, Washington of today’s burgeoning age of AI. We must be heedful of those among us who know that the truly wealthy are those who want what they already have; who have left their egos behind to sit in the seat of the soul where eternal wisdom resides. Those who focus on thriving rather than striving.

As a young executive/entrepreneur, I often argued that success was dependent on whether you prevailed in two of three factors—resources, intelligence, and intensity—as long as one of the two was intensity. I now understand that this troika needs tweaking. The reason is quite basic: we have transitioned from a perpetual state of scarcity to one of abundance in the United States and many other parts of the developed world.[i] Today, zero-sum win/lose thinking is largely obsolete due to abundance. As such, resources as a factor have declined in importance, or at least in the highly contested pursuit thereof. Intelligence remains important and is obviously developing rapidly with AI. It is the critical factor of intensity that needs to be reconsidered in the age of abundance.

Intensity in the old troika meant to consider the level of ambition, passion, and will power—the energy of commitment. It’s what Ukraine has as its principal edge in fighting Putin’s Russia. As mentioned above, it was the one domain you must dominate to succeed. There is a better, more wholistic, way to consider intensity in an age of abundance, and that is within the realm of intention. Intention in this rendering includes the energy of commitment as well as other considerations like purpose and meaning. It is the gateway in the troika for morality and wisdom. Intention becomes the rudder on the ship; the navigational guardrails to prevent invention and innovation from tipping into madness.

Intelligence, whether natural or artificial, organic or generative, must be moderated by intention to avoid peril. Intention that is founded in the fundamental values of humankind—our virtues. In much the same way as the theologian Paul Tillich argued about another troika: that social justice is power moderated by love; human progress is intelligence, moderated by intention, supported by resources. Intention is not, however, a traditional locus of assessment in Western culture. In the West, we are much more focused on outcomes as a measure of success than we are intention. In Eastern culture, it is the opposite: intention is more important than outcomes. Hence, we Westerners embrace the unfortunate maxim, “the ends justify the means.” We need to think long and hard about this orientation if we are to succeed in moderating AI.

In a functioning democracy, government usually provides the guardrails to protect society from the often-perilous effects of ambitious enterprise. Unfortunately, in America today, this leadership must come from elsewhere. Moral leadership that informs the tools of restraint might otherwise come from American religious institutions, who were instrumental in human and civil rights issues in the 1960s, but today have been hollowed out by leadership that is more inclined to internal power struggles and political aggrandizement that have left their moral voice mute.        Further, it does not appear, especially since observing the power struggle earlier this year at OpenAI, that the tech industry has any hope of self-moderation. There are glimmers of hope, however, in teams who focus on the application of AI rather than its creation, and who draw on just enough academic/philosophical influences to tame the beast for the benefit of humanity.

One example is Moses Ma of FutureLab Consulting. Ma is a contributor to “The Tao of Innovation” for Psychology Today and I first encountered him at the Conference on World Affairs this spring at the University of Colorado. He was the proverbial rudder on the ship of a number of panels considering AI in world/human affairs. He suggested in “How to Fix OpenAI” that we take instruction from Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom whose work focused on “the equitable management of the commons” to support new leadership regimes (as opposed to regulatory regimes) that dealt with “coordination challenges” including things like well-defined boundaries in applications, monitoring, procedures for conflict resolution, and local autonomy (among others). The goal is that “member groups become so cooperative that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right.”[ii] Decentralized non-hierarchical organizations always have challenges with cohesion that can drift into chaos and anarchy, but the notion of moral leadership fostered by organizations that compete to cooperate is worth consideration in this age of abundance.

We can learn from the past if we commit to do so. In our capitalist society, competition is fostered more than cooperation, which historically has produced big benefits. In the collision of our current state of abundance and AI, however, we have an opportunity to do things differently than we did in the nuclear era. Big Tech is unlikely to lead on this issue. The fact is they have little incentive to do so. It will be up to scholars and philosophers who have sensibilities that run to higher objectives and longer time horizons—like Moses Ma—to shine the light on different options to both preserve and advance our civilization.

 

[i] See William Steding, “The Tragedy of Abundance,” February 16, 2022 here: https://ameritecture.com/the-tragedy-of-abundance/ .

[ii] See Moses Ma, “How to Fix OpenAI,” January 14, 2024 here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-tao-of-innovation/202312/how-to-fix-openai

By |2024-05-12T13:11:24+00:00May 12th, 2024|Current, General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Get Out of Your Box

As the humorist Dave Barry recently described a woman’s reaction toward the coming presidential election, she had “the facial expression of a person who has just opened the door to a port-a-potty on the last day of a midsummer chili festival.” Notwithstanding the aversion most Americans have toward a hyper-divided America, and the abject apathy we feel toward the current two geriatric presidential candidates, many continue to forecast a coming civil war between red and blue as fantasized in the recent release of Alex Garland’s dystopian “Civil War.” The movie may be a hit, but the local cinema is likely the closest we will come to any civil war. The vast majority of Americans, whom our collective media ignores, remain hiding inside their boxes where their weariness creates little more than disgust, let alone the energy to pursue violence. Even MAGA zealots are showing signs of fatigue.

The old guard of our two-party system very much wants to keep us there—in our boxes. More specifically, in our three-dimensional boxes with two-dimensional binary choices. This or that. Him or him. Us versus them. Pick one without thinking too much. Settle for the least-worst choice. Set your brain aside. The brain that would like its human to scream, “Bullshit!”, but has been silenced by intensely partisan institutions that want to preserve themselves rather than solve problems, leaving the few remaining screamers hoarse. The Republican leader, Speaker Mike Johnson, seems to spend more time with his comb than his gavel. Meanwhile, Democrats are busy playing their favorite game they learned from the religious right: “Shame on you!”

Sick and tired? Me too.

Depression is at an all-time high in America across nearly all demographic groups—especially our teens who have had the development of their autonomy severely compromised. Consequences have been avoided to their profound detriment. First, by helicopter parenting and more recently by social media and online gaming. As a result, teens and young adults have not learned to properly manage risk in order to make the decisions that make possible the glorious uplifting autonomy they naturally crave. Their sense of self is a mirage. Worse, they know it. They look in the mirror and see a fraud. Depression and anxiety have become both inevitable and pervasive.

Meanwhile, many adults have also abdicated their agency and the responsibility that goes with it. It’s the same problem: without a sense of autonomy based in a healthy embrace of self-determination, we feel lost. Things happen to us instead of because of us. Many have made victimhood their pathetic ambition. Woe is me. Woe be us. It is a twisted way to try to feel good, but like autonomy, aspiration also dies with the abdication of responsibility.

We got here innocently enough. Hoodwinked by the orange one and then buried by the malaise of the pandemic, all of which coincided with our surrender to social media silos that narrowed our world to echo chambers of intellectual incest and, for some, psychological collapse. Between politicians and the media, we’ve been gaslighted so many times the vapors have fogged our sense of who we are, or once were, as Americans. It has left us feeling collectively unworthy, suffering from what I can only describe as societal loathing. Many Americans feel alone and abandoned. Moreover, they take no pride in calling themselves Americans anymore.

These days must end. There is no reason to put up with this nonsense any longer. A soon-to-be convicted felon and sociopath, or a well-meaning grandpa who can barely make it to his helicopter. These are the choices of the most powerful and wealthy nation in the world? Spare me. This nation is loaded with bright young people who know better and can do better. Enough already. Remaining in our boxes is not the answer. It is time to emerge. To kick the political provocateurs and dullards to the curb and take control of our future. We need to do it for ourselves and a free world that craves American leadership, but currently sees us as a frail and confused shell of our former selves.

I won’t beat you up with the remembrances of an old man, but the hard reality (and present opportunity) must be considered if we are to reset America. Yes, America was once a great nation and can be again. I remember when Americans wouldn’t even consider, let alone embrace, victimhood or failure. To be sure, we failed, but we learned from failure and tried again; without recrimination or abdication. We failed our way to success. We saw the future as a promising horizon of opportunity, not a venue for victimhood. We understood that the path to success was not paved with the stones of grievance. Furthermore, we took responsibility, individually and collectively. Consequences—for better and worse—were like oxygen. We needed them to live. Moreover, outcomes were the foundation of our self-worth. Taking responsibility for them, which has become something we urgently and often creatively try to avoid today, was critical to our well-being. It was (and is) at the core of self-determination, which has been an essential American value since Thomas Jefferson put quill to parchment.

So, what can you/we do?

To those of you with more gray hair, or none at all, your job is to mentor. To extend the hand of wisdom to lift younger leaders up. Those who need and want to succeed for the benefit of us all. To get out of their way and cheer them on. No, seventy is not the new fifty, it’s seventy. Shed yourself of your old ego and find satisfaction—self-worth—in helping others succeed. Focus on having the deep word, not the last word. Your country needs you now more than ever, but not in the manner it once did. Enable, mentor, inspire. Nudge, don’t shove, and I’ll say it again: get out of the way!

To those who have all their hair and energy to match it, you are not your social media feed. You are human and have responsibility for yourself, your family, your country and world. That may seem daunting, but it is also your great opportunity to find both your purpose and meaning. It is your path to greatness. Find your way with humility and grace. Embrace failure and learn from it. You can do it. Your ancestors did and so can you. Yes, things are different today; arguably easier. Put your phone down and look at the horizon. All of that world out there is yours. Go and get it!

This American reset will take time. We need to balance our ambition with patience. Be both relentless and deliberate. Above all else, we need to respect ourselves and each other. Shut up and listen. Consider the fact that every person you encounter knows something you don’t know and can do something better than you can do it. And, you have the same to offer. Working together brings all possibilities to the table to assure our mutual success. To make tomorrow better than today. To lead the world once again.

By |2024-05-05T12:49:38+00:00April 21st, 2024|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

Enlightenment II: Our Next-world Operating System

In the long history of the world—with and without humans—issues both simple and complex have been solved in due course by Nature. Prior to the current era of the scientific human, one looked only to Nature to find a solution since it had surely solved the exigent dilemma (however unfamiliar in the moment) many times before.[1] In our modern enthusiasm for identifying dependent and independent variables to make causal findings and promote Nature-defying alternatives, we humans attempted—often successfully—to subvert the laws of Nature. In the last couple of hundred years during which the scientification of everything has been underway, human welfare has flourished. Life spans have increased dramatically and the generation of wealth and welfare increased at increasing rates.

During this same period of time, the operating system that enabled humans to flourish together which had once been tribal, then monarchical and religious, was the nation-state. Since the Peace at Westphalia in 1648, when the nation-state system was born to solve trenchant conflicts by and between monarchs and religious leaders that killed around eight million people in what is now Europe, the concept of sovereignty applied to a geographically bordered area became predominant. And, notwithstanding the anarchical nature of the new nation-state system that provides no highest or central authority to oversee the system allowing conflicts to persist, this international system has prevailed for nearly four centuries. Every human on earth belongs to a nation-state that has geographic borders and sovereign governments that, at least ostensibly, exist to serve the interests of their members.

The time has come, however, to recognize that the international system is past its sell-by date. The very notion of sovereignty that served to foster the security and development of nations now appears to support more conflict and impediments to cooperation when we need it most. Current realities require new organizing principles and new systems to serve the interests of humans and, for that matter, all beings and Nature. The international system is not only unsustainable, it is nearing obsolescence. As more resources and efforts are inserted into the system today, total human welfare is now tipping towards decline. In the terms of an economist, incremental costs are exceeding incremental benefits suggesting a point of diminishing returns. Due to climate change, authoritarian regimes that insist on a zero-sum mindset, and capitalist regimes that while extremely efficient at creating wealth, but also equally proficient in its concentration, the growth that once lifted all boats is now putting the entire human flotilla at risk of sinking.

The good news is that technology now offers alternatives to reimagine a new operating system. The bad news is we cannot look to, or rely upon, today’s leaders of society—including political, business, and spiritual—to affect a transformation. Nevertheless, it is time to reinvent the world as we have now known it since 1648. I know it sounds impossible, but so seemed the Peace at Westphalia in 1648, which included some nine hundred warring factions. As the design wizard Buckminster Fuller argued, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In the contemporary era, many thought the world had its best chance to enjoy global peace and prosperity after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. Pax Americana and the promise of liberty and justice for all was expected to sweep the world beyond the Americas after the failure of communism and authoritarianism more generally. The American scholar Francis Fukuyama (now infamously) called it “the end of history.” In the decade that followed, the world did, indeed, become a relatively peaceful place notwithstanding the Yugoslav/Balkan Wars and the Rwandan Civil War. Then, technology also stepped in to offer a boost to prosperity with the shift from analog to digital technologies. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman predicted in his book The World is Flat (2005), the digital economy and globalization would lead to an even playing field between industrial powers and emerging economies. Surely, a new global egalitarianism would result.

However, the hierarchies endemic to the nation-state system proved more stubborn than the rapid technological advantages offered by the transition from MS-DOS to Windows to iOS. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the leaders of society, who stand at the top of the power/wealth hierarchy, are quite reluctant to diminish their relative position for the benefit of others. A borderless flat world never got much further than graduate level seminars in schools of international relations, or the salon in the Bethesda, Maryland mansion of Thomas Friedman. This was further complicated by the hubris of neoconservatives in the Bush/Cheney administration who enthusiastically and recklessly sought to remake the world in the image of America. Although the world does prefer Levi’s and Coca-Cola, it was not ready to give up its own cultures, traditions, and sovereignty. The result: the United States squandered its superpower status slowly imploding and devolving to the low point when President Trump puckered up to kiss the backside of the Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018. In that moment, the hegemony of the United States ended, and with it the opportunity for global peace and prosperity in the international system contemplated under the thesis of Pax Americana.

So, where do we go from here?

In light of the peril facing the world today, five new principles must be recognized and incorporated as fundamental tenets in any new operating system. Those principles include:

  1. Existential threats to humanity are no longer confined to national or regional effects; they are transnational. The pandemic was a huge wake-up call to this reality. Global contagions do not respect borders, let alone sovereignty. The nation-state system proved not only incapable of dealing with the pandemic, in many ways it exacerbated it. Further, to believe that it will be another hundred years before we see a pandemic again is simply foolish. The interconnected reality of our world today assures a recurrence of something similar to Covid-19, or worse. Then, of course, there is climate change. A more gradually unfolding disaster, but it too is transnational. We have also seen how ineffectual our ostensibly common-good international institutions—controlled by nation-states and more recently the fossil fuel industry—have been to affect a solution to climate change.
  2. We do not need more wealth in the world, what we need are better distribution systems to get the fruits of wealth in the hands of all humanity. Although my younger capitalist self would have recoiled in horror at that statement, I have come to understand that the principal driver to the existential threat of climate change is our addiction to growth to create new wealth. In other words, it is actually now the interest of wealthy capitalists and oligarchs everywhere (as it is for the rest of humanity) to immediately transition to focusing on the distribution of food, energy, goods and services in as broad as possible manner to drastically reduce our addiction to growth and the fossil fuels it requires.[2] It turns out that sharing the wealth and the power that goes with it—today and for the foreseeable future—is our best hope to save all of us regardless of stature. I have written before about the transition from scarcity to abundance that occurred in the 1990s and our failure to realize its effects to change our ways.[3] This reality begets this new principle. Empowerment must replace coercion as a primary modality of governance. Plus-sum thinking must replace the traditional zero-sum (for every winner there is a loser) model.
  3. As humans, we are not independent from Nature; we are simply a small but important part of Nature. One of the effects of the scientification of everything that began in earnest in the late 19th century during the ramp-up to industrialization is that it drove the separation of our sense of self from being inextricably linked to Nature to being a wholly independent agent.[4] We were, therefore, able to disconnect the consequences of our actions from the consideration of anything other than other humans. (And, in even that we failed.) Nature became, simply and tragically, a resource pool to exploit for the benefit of humans alone. Subsequently, we aligned all human incentives accordingly, from which we have arrived in our current state of climate peril. In time, one way or another, Nature always prevails. In her consideration of humanity, it seems clear she is preparing the earth to cleanse it of us. With a sense of humility, we must realize that she gets to play the long game and that the presence of Homo Sapiens is little more than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a split-second in universe time.
  4. We must re-think our concept of democracy from one-person, one-vote, to every person must act. As I mentioned above, existing leaders of society have no interest in seeing their power or wealth decline, even if only in relative terms. They will fight hard to maintain the status quo even while continuing to extol their undying and patently false commitment to our well-being. The nation-state system has been corrupted over its four centuries to protect their desires over our interests. Exhibit #1 is our own federal government that is completely out-of-step with the needs and desires of Americans everywhere. Does anyone really believe that politicians like Trump, Putin, and Xi, or business elites like Zuckerberg, Musk and Bezos, have any interest in anyone but themselves? Even Biden, who probably does genuinely care about Americans, faces tremendous obstacles in the Supreme Court, Congress, and the MAGA domestic terrorist organization more broadly, who have collectively hijacked our republic. In the future, to claim to be an American will require much more than voting once each year, or two, or four. We must each become active participants in solving both big and small problems to assure not just our prosperity, but our survival.
  5. We need to make technology our best friend while subduing its application for destructive effects. The promises Freidman envisioned for a “flat world” still exist and can be greatly enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI). However, as with all sources of power, they can be used for both good and ill. We have observed this phenomenon twice before with the development and deployment of nuclear power and also with social media. Hopefully, we have learned from both their great benefits and the equally devastating effects they can produce. Unfortunately, our biggest technology companies have every incentive to race to dominance and will do—in spite of their assurances to the contrary—whatever they have to do to establish the predominance of their particular AI offerings first. Safety be damned. Neither will industry associations nor our hapless federal government protect us from peril even while efforts will garner much media attention for political purposes (as they already have). As with much of the data security industry innovations that have occurred in the last two decades, I expect it will be dark-hacker actors in good-guy capes who will protect us best. Warnings aside, the connectivity of the Internet and the integration of AI holds extraordinary promise for enabling new power structures to replace the nation-state system.

These new principles must look to Nature for a solution. Structures to affect collective action for the production of public goods must be nimble, organic, durable, and fast. Moreover, they must not be susceptible to being corrupted by legacy hierarchies; they must stay as flat as possible. They must view the world as borderless and be amenable to being layered beneath and between each other aimed at specific objectives. The structure I found that best illustrates this comes from Nature in the form of neural networks. In effect, the development of objective-specific networks targeted at particular public goods where the participants who form the network include human actors and associations (public or private) to participate in and negotiate for desired outcomes. Collectively, they form a brain or operating system for our next world. In the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, a new model to force the obsolescence and ultimately displace the nation-state system.

Beyond Nature, there are a few real-world examples today that come close to the new power structures I am suggesting. Organizations/networks that are designed to circumvent traditional authority and affect connections for the development and distribution of resources to achieve a desired outcome. If we look to organized crime, cartels, terrorist and para-military organizations we will see what are, in effect, neural networks that are indeed nimble, organic, durable, and fast. All we must do is flip the objective from criminal, coercive, and destructive to empowering people for the common good. After all, as in the brain, neural networks can support both sanity and insanity. With proper connections and purposes, anything is possible.

Maybe John Lennon had it right in 1971 when the Beatles released “Imagine” even though those in power ignored him. In part, he sang:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one …

Today, maybe it’s finally time to heed Lennon’s plea. But to save ourselves we will need more than imagination. We need to seriously consider new principles and new power structures and pursue them with smart determination. We were able to transform our world in the 17th century to the nation-state system and to the value of reason in the Age of Enlightenment. We need the modern-day Voltaires, Rousseaus, Lockes, Kants, and Humes—the philosophers and poets—to guide us toward an Age of Enlightenment II.  It is time to make the world new again. We must assure that the edge of light we see on the horizon is that of a glimmer of hope, rather than the reflective rim of the edge of a cliff. We have a choice, but time’s a wasting.

 

[1] Occasionally, we do look to Nature to solve current problems. An inspiring example is how an office building in Houston adopted principles from the Bayou ecosystem in its design. See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-07-22/houston-endowment-headquarters-models-sustainable-design

[2] Just look at the air quality in China from 2019 to 2020 during the pandemic lookdown of industry there. https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/blog/effect-lockdown-restrictions-air-quality-china.

[3] See “The Tragedy of Abundance,” February 16, 2022, https://ameritecture.com/the-tragedy-of-abundance//

[4] See Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013).

By |2023-08-27T13:06:51+00:00July 30th, 2023|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

It’s About Stability, Stupid!

The allegory of the fish in the tank seems appropriate here. You see, the fish swimming in the tank of water has little to no effect on the nature of the water, but the water’s effect on the fish can be profound, even existential. Will it allow the fish to survive and prosper, or not? We are the fish, and the key to our future is more dependent on the water in which we swim than we may be willing to admit.

If history repeats, or at least rhymes, the water Americans will be swimming in for the next fifteen to twenty years is different than any since 1945 to 1961 and, the fact is, only the eldest among us have any recollection of that era. The vast majority of us have no clue what that water was like unless, of course, you are a student of history. And, no, you can’t learn this on TikTok.

We are entering the fourth post-crisis era in the history of America, which I illustrated more fully in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, called the “objectivism” phase. The last three periods of objectivism were the periods following the American Revolutionary War for Independence, the American Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II. Today, we are emerging from the crisis which began in 2002 (which I call the “Age of Deceit”) marked by the War on Terror, Great Recession, the Covid pandemic, and a whole lotta lies.

Periods of objectivism are times in American history when we value stability, predictability, reliability and, most of all, a return to what we perceive as normal. What is decidedly out-of-favor is anything that rocks the boat—anything that includes upheaval or radical change. Collectively, we’ve had enough of that. Fatigue has taken its toll.

If you are in the persuasion business, which one way or another includes all of us, the next several years will require a keen understanding of these values and resulting trends. From politicians, to fashion designers, to filmmakers, to investors, to homebuilders, to ministers, and even actuaries, the water we are swimming in will affect both strategic and tactical decisions.

As a group, the first thing to notice about these values are that they are quite conservative. Like 1945-61, during the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, boring displaced exciting (unless one considered television’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet an actual adventure). Notwithstanding the “Red Scare” manufactured by the Catholic firebrand Father Charles Coughlin, the young Reverend Billy Graham, and Senator Joe McCarthy, Americans spent most of their attention on getting back on their feet following America’s third crisis establishing new households, neighborhoods, churches and communities with little upheaval or excitement other than the birth of lots and lots of kids—the Boomer generation. Making babies and mowing lawns was excitement enough. In fact, other than the Midwest roots shared by Missouri’s Truman and Kansas’ Eisenhower, the characteristic both men shared most obviously was the fact they were, indeed, boring!

In consideration of the forthcoming presidential election, both major parties and all candidates should study Truman and Eisenhower. Perhaps instead of Make America Great Again (MAGA), it should be Make America Work Again (MAWA). “Shit don’ work!” has become an unfortunate mantra in America as our fourth period of crisis ends. Planes don’t fly when scheduled, trains fall off their tracks, housing, childcare, and healthcare are a nightmare for many, nutjobs are roaming our streets with assault rifles, and children are behaving like adults while adults are behaving like children. It’s enough to wear a person out.

Before my Republican readers get too confident about these new waters, it is important to understand that the conservative label here is in the traditional sense of the term, the root of which is to conserve. Not the bastardized whackadoodle version of conservatism the red-cappers promote. After all, Trump is definitely no Eisenhower. That said, I wonder how long traditional conservatives—like the boring Mitt Romney—will continue to sit back and watch their party implode at the hands of a narcissistic maniac? The water is now flowing in their favor. At some point, the shame is not on the orange one, it’s on them.

It is time to return to basic American values based in the fundamental tenet of self-determination and a renewed sense of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other. It is time to CONSERVE our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Although a Democrat, Biden is probably best positioned to capture this hill of values, as long as he sets aside the impulse to engage in rhetoric that is perceived as too left-leaning in the direction of progressive idealism and can keep his feet beneath him on the campaign trail. He is, after all, Truman-like boring and actually has enough of a record on several of the relevant issues to argue for building on that record in a second term. Issues like climate change can (and must) be repositioned as a ­conserve-ative issue. Who knows, maybe even make our federal government relevant again. To my liberal friends, fear not: progressive idealism’s time will return someday. (Note that Kennedy followed Eisenhower.) However, that time is not today.

Despite Biden’s perceived advantage, don’t count Trump out. He could pivot from MAGA to MAWA (assuming he can stay out of a prison jumpsuit) and these periods do have room for the appeal of conservative authoritarianism. That’s what the Red Scare folks in the 1950s were all about. Lurking boogeymen will still be promoted by fearmongers. But, also as in the 1950s, scare tactics may get tiresome too. Trump may go the way of Joe McCarthy. Yet, conservatism does include a preference for tighter controls and clear unambiguous guardrails. Some—perhaps many—will prefer authoritarianism to reestablish a sense of stability and calm that could include oppressive and regressive regimes. Like the Germans in their post-crisis era after World War I who took a shine to a young political brawler in Munich named Adolph. America today is not the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the natural attraction of authoritarianism among otherwise well-intentioned people should never be passively dismissed.

A related argument for a lean toward conservatism is well developed by the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen in his latest book, Regime Change: ­­­­­­Toward a Postliberal Future. Deneen’s argument is that we in the West would be better off replacing the current liberal elite with a new conservative elite to reestablish traditions and institutions to affect a more genuine populism like that he fondly recalls from his own childhood growing up in Windsor, Connecticut. In his view, progress and dynamism have indeed proven disruptive but, on net, also too destructive of social, economic, and political order. The outrage of many progressive reviewers indicate Deneen has certainly touched a nerve, and while I can find holes in his analysis, and expect that his predicted destination of conservative authoritarianism will never occur, history suggests his compass is pointing in the proper direction.

For anyone who has studied the history of human progress for more than a minute, one thing inevitably becomes crystal clear. Progress is not linear, nor is it predictable. It proceeds in fits and starts; two steps forward, one back. Surge then purge. It is random and chaotic, reflecting the array of human dispositions that characterize our civilization.  What the cycles of American history affirm is that during certain periods of time, progress for the sake of progress is not preferred. There are times when good-ol’ stability becomes fashionable. The foreseeable future is one of those times. For this moment in our history, folks will likely prefer stability to change, unless it’s a change back to normal.

To co-opt Bill Clinton campaign strategist, James Carville’s, admonition in 1992 that, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Today, our history suggests, it’s about stability, stupid! The next fifteen to twenty years won’t be exactly like 1945-61, but they may be more alike than different. Who knows, Netflix may even bring back Ozzie and Harriet. Or, not.

By |2023-07-02T13:11:42+00:00June 18th, 2023|Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

Excavating Happiness

The great promise of meditative mindfulness is that peace and tranquility already exist; that they are within you right now and in every prior and future now. At first, I met this claim with curious skepticism. If they are already here, why can’t I feel them? If I am so full of goodness and beauty, why do I often feel like crap? After hundreds of hours of contemplation, the answer appears to reside in a simple yet powerful truth: we are living in an artificial world under the illusion of connection in violation of natural truth resulting in chronic moral suffering. We know what is right, but we are living wrong. The good news is we are in complete control and, therefore, can change all of it. We can move from what the writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit calls moral injury to moral beauty.

First, we must recognize the problem. As many, like Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues, the data suggests things have never been better. Measurements of wealth and welfare nearly all support the argument that because of our rapidly expanding capabilities over the last few hundred years, the lives we lead are longer, healthier, and more productive than any lived by our ancestors. Common sense suggests we should, therefore, be happier. But, by many other measures we aren’t nearly as content as those in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries whose daily lives were much more difficult. In the Happiness Index that ranks countries around the world, none of the wealthiest countries ranks in the top ten. Number 1? Finland. The fundamental problem is that our pursuit of success—measured in traditional terms—has limited positive impact on our happiness and, in many respects, may even be detrimental.

As Solnit observes,

Look closely, and you can see that by measures other than goods and money, we are impoverished. Even the affluent live in a world where confidence in the future, and in the society and institutions around us, is fading—and where a sense of security, social connectedness, mental and physical health, and other measures of well-being are often dismal.

To address the problem, we must first realize that we have created this world. The incentives we have structured in our marketplace of success and the feel-good receptors we have allowed to define our egos are born from the same psychic infrastructure that favors exploitation over altruism, isolation over connection, and conflict over cooperation. Of course, inasmuch as we created this world, we can un-create it, too. In other words, as I often remind my children, the second rule of life applies: it is up to us. (The first rule is: shit happens.)

Exploitation rose naturally from the reality of scarcity. Survival meant realizing that there were only so many pieces of pie to go around. Under the condition of scarcity, us vs. them, and zero-sum game theory were prevalent and legitimate constructs. But things changed in the late 20th century. This is where we must heed Pinker’s argument of greater welfare. The fundamental shift that occurred was from scarcity to abundance. The culmination of the productivity of the industrial era and the transition from an analog world to a digital world meant that win-lose could become win-win.

This is when we should have shifted our thinking from exploitation to altruism, but we didn’t. We should have transitioned from coercive power to referential power where we accumulate power by the extent to which we serve the interests of others. If we had, we would all be better off and be able to meet the challenges of the day, like poverty, the pandemic, and climate change. Instead, we stayed the course allowing both power and wealth to intensify in their concentration within a small percentage of the population. The shame belongs not on the heads of the have-nots (as many politicians would assert), it belongs on the heads of the haves. And, please note: the exploitation I speak of is not confined (as some may quickly judge) to capitalism. There is just as much if not more exploitation in socialist and authoritarian regimes. If anything, capitalist democracies hurdled scarcity first making way for the benefits of abundance. Regardless, none of us were wise enough to fully understand the implications of this shift. In that moment, we missed an enormous opportunity to reshape our world.

We have also become hostage to our preference for isolation. America is a country that has always celebrated independence. After all, it is called the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July is known as Independence Day for good reason. Our most fundamental birthright is the right to self-determination. Unity has always been subverted by our preference for independence—for separation from each other—for isolation. In fact, it is only under dire circumstances that we ever come together, usually when attacked by a foreign actor, as in 9/11. Most recently, even a deadly pandemic that put everyone’s life at risk regardless of social, political, or economic standing, became a divisive event that produced profound disunity. We Americans much prefer, “you be you and I’ll be me” and, moreover, leave me the hell alone. This is the quintessential American.

Our penchant for independence and individualism served us well until it didn’t. A curious and unfortunate coincidence occurred at the time of our shift from scarcity to abundance. As I argued in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, in the late twentieth century, in particular after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “individualism, or the notion that Americans were possessed of free will and took responsibility for its expression thereof, was replaced by narcissism.” Our hyper-individualism turned us into churlish prigs. So full of triumphalism, we even stopped taking pictures of others and landscapes in favor of our own headshots to celebrate our self-perceived magnificence. Selfies became exhibit number one of our many narcissisms. This is where socialist democracies did indeed have an advantage over capitalist democracies (see quasi-socialist #1 Finland, above).

However, our isolationist tendencies expressed as hyper-individualism has proven most damaging in our separation from the natural world. As I have argued before, perceiving ourselves as separate from nature may prove to be the proximate cause of the collapse of Homo Sapiens. One of the by-products of the industrial age is that through the -ification and -ization of everything, humans have placed systems of subjugation between themselves and nature in a perverted master-slave relationship. Make no mistake, this relationship, if pursued to its ends will result in the end of humanity. It is, as many prophets, gurus, sages, and gods have claimed over the millennia, a noble truth that nature rewards harmony and punishes dissonance. If humans remain dissonant, we will (to use Charles Darwin’s phrase) be “selected against.”

Another teaching of meditative mindfulness is the toxicity of conflict. Virtually all spiritual teachers, regardless of tradition or heritage agree that things like desire and attendant conflict are the root of all suffering. Humanity has been burdened by conflict since inception. This, too, is partially a product of scarcity, yet the greatest civilizations would have never become great without the implementation of cooperation. From the hunter-gatherers to the industrial age, specialization and the division of labor has proven far superior to going it alone. Of this, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx agree. Among other things, this practice resides at the core of the strength of capitalism which, notwithstanding its propensity to concentrate power and wealth, is undoubtedly the most efficient system to organize and deploy capital and labor for the production of wealth. Capitalism excels at production. Where it falls short is distribution, which threatens other important principles including the basic norms of democracies.

Again, somewhat ironically, our shift from scarcity to abundance was accompanied not just by the ascendence of narcissism, but also by the rise of hubris. We doubled down on conflict and competition right when we should have shifted to higher modes of cooperation. And, not just by and between nations, but by and between races, political parties, religious traditions, and even gender. Our preference for exploitation, isolation, and conflict is tearing us apart both internally and externally; it is why we often feel like crap. Moral suffering has become an endemic condition in America and much of the world even while we live in the first era of abundance in the history of humankind. How stupid is that?

To move from the condition of suffering to happiness—from Solnit’s contemplation of moral injury to moral beauty—is, therefore, within our grasp. Win-win and plus-sum game theory must become prominent modalities. Coercion must give way to altruism. We must choose harmony over dissonance between ourselves and with nature. Only then can we achieve both internal and external consonance. Only then will we switch to right from wrong. Only then can the peace and tranquility that has been buried beneath our egos be excavated to assure both our happiness and our survival.

The first rule of life still applies: shit happens. But the second rule also holds: the rest of everything else is up to us.

Our Imagination Blindspot

Americans enjoy a robust and durable heritage of ambitious optimism; of believing in ourselves as leaders in invention, innovation, and moral virtue. From John Winthrop’s declaration to his pilgrims in the early seventeenth century at the Massachusetts Bay Colony that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” to Barack Obama’s campaign mantra, “Yes, we can!”, Americans believe they have both the responsibility and the capacity to change the world. We are the chosen people in the chosen land. A designation supported by the many iterations of American Christian sects that rose to prominence throughout the nineteenth century. In 1835, the Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, in his sermon A Plea for the West was unabashed in his view of American magnificence when he said,

There is not a nation upon this earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world.

His forecast proved mostly true. By the late nineteenth century, after America survived its own Civil War, it was well positioned to emerge as a power on the world stage; helped mightily, I might add, by an enormous influx of immigrants who brought both strength and diversity to a melting pot of humanity.

However, the phrase that probably best captures this notion of American exceptionalism, which was a new imagining of American identity at the time was put forward in 1845 by the writer John O’Sullivan. He gave us the identifier “manifest destiny” to describe and to justify the annexation of Texas and subsequently America’s claim to Oregon over similar claims by the British as “our manifest destiny to overspread the whole of the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In his statement, he suggests a divinely bestowed entitlement to proliferate and thereby spread our blessed specialness. This is when American exceptionalism first turned away from its exemplar character as setting the example for others to follow (as in Winthrop’s “the eyes of all are upon us”) to the missionary version of American exceptionalism that reached its pinnacle during the administration of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in the image of the United States.

For the most part, this ambitious optimism and high self-regard has served America well. At the foundation of this fundamental American character lies our penchant for unbridled imagination. There are mountains of evidence to argue America is the most inventive and innovative culture in the last several hundred years. We are upside addicts. Our glass remains stubbornly half-full. After all, would humans be flying without us? Travelling through space? Able to effectively vaccinate millions against horrible pandemics? Put ten thousand-plus songs in your pocket? Successfully classify rap as music? Where would we be without Levi’s jeans? Our culture—now heritage—is to turn the impossible into the possible. It is no accident that our greatest rival, China, that has more than three times our population of human beings can do little more than steal our inventions and innovations rather than tapping into their obviously repressed imaginations. Freedom of the mind has its benefits.

Our great imaginary vision has, however, a huge blindspot. We routinely and systematically underestimate downside risk. Our rose-colored glasses make us vulnerable to evil, cruelty, and catastrophic outcomes. We only see white swans while black ones haunt us. In the last two decades this has cost us dearly. We only saw upside in the digitization of everything. Higher productivity; curing the once incurable; an expansion of wealth that would certainly eradicate poverty once and for all. And, while elements of each of these promises did indeed come to pass, we were also left with bigger—not smaller—gaps in equality and justice. A healthcare system more inaccessible and tragically inefficient than ever in the contemporary era. Thousands of deaths of despair as depression has become an entrenched epidemic. Social media that shames, blames, and disparages us rather than its stated intention to connect us and inspire us. Our psyche has flipped in two decades from victors to victims.

Today, unprecedented, unbelievable, and unimaginable have become dominant adjectives in our discourse. Believing the office of the presidency would modify Trump’s character and behaviors is one obvious example of our failure of imagination. His actions to affect a coup after the election in 2020 amplified these failures further. We knew—scientifically—that Covid-19 would be the disaster it became. But we ignored the science. Surely, Putin wouldn’t be stupid enough to invade Ukraine and take on the entire western alliance of democracies! And, most recently, there is no way China’s Xi can broker rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but he did. (Among other things, is now the time to ignore Israel’s Netanyahu currying favor with Putin?)

And now, on our doorstep, is the exponential acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) that, like the digitization of everything, promises to revolutionize our world for the better. Maybe it will. It most certainly will improve some things. We arguably controlled the digitization of everything that is, today at best, a mixed bag of blessings and curses. We will have much less control over AI. We must immediately begin the necessary thought experiments and imaginings of downside risk to protect ourselves from our ambitious optimism. It served us very well in our first two hundred twenty-five years of history. We don’t need to throw it away, but we had better turn the lens around to imagine what else lurks beyond the borders of our divinely bestowed specialness.

The English poet, John Keats, wrote, “I am certain of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” As we consider the future of AI, we would be well served to heed all the truths of imagination for better, or worse. The future of not just America, but of humanity itself may well be at stake.

Getting Through

The last three years have been a gut-wrenching test of our personal and collective character as a people and nation. Although we failed in many tests of our character, we are still here. The hard truth is only we, acting on inspiration with determination, can make the next three years better than the last. As the maxim suggests: “the only way out is through.” It is time to get through. How we do that begins with visualizing then actualizing change based in what I call moments, or glimpses, or glimmers of inspiration.

We still have an opportunity to set a new course; to learn from our failures and to both restore and revitalize the values that undergird our character. 2023 can be the year we turn the corner—together—to recommit to the truth, to each other, to our planet, and to assert a new spirit of creativity and innovation that defines a new American identity. One that restores the American Dream and reestablishes America as an exemplar of human dignity and grace across the world. What I call the enlightened version of American exceptionalism.

Over the holidays, I spent a great deal of time in fairly intense contemplation and reflection. Cancer will do that to you. Thankfully, my cancer is just below stage 4 at stage 3C. Operable, albeit complicated, and my chance of survival is quite good. The balance of the consequences are just a matter of the mind and body cooperating in creative adaptation, and doing the work to fully rehabilitate. Fortunately, I have had many experiences with difficult physical rehabilitations, so I know I can do that—and win. And, I have the shoulders of friends and family to stand on.

In the face of these uncertainties, I found sanity and solace in imagining moments/glimpses/glimmers of comfort when my world was full of darkness and peril. There have been days when this practice is the only way I made it to the next day. My hope is that we might collectively engage in a similar practice to right the ship of America with our own individual and collective practice of what amounts to visualizing then actualizing the few things we need to do to save our future. We need to learn how to hug hope.

Over the past year, I have (fortuitously as it turns out) developed the skill of dropping into a meditative state where simple breathing settles me into a state of awareness free of my meddling mind. That’s when summoning moments of comfort set my troubled psyche at ease. Moments of comfort like inhaling the aroma of a fresh, French press, dark roast coffee as the sun breaks the horizon. The wafting vanilla-almond scented candle next to a crackling fire of pinion and cedar as nightfall envelops my home. A shimmering rainbow connecting the valley with the mountains in the ritual of a soft summer rain. A perfect piece of music that inspires a joyful sense of awe and inspiration. The brush strokes of an artist that stop you cold leaving you floating between reality and imagination. The prattle of chatter up and down the bar—both inane and profoundly poetic—while sipping a Guinness in Ireland. A poem that leaves room for you to make it your own. And, of course, reading, thinking, writing, reflecting, re-writing, then writing some more; and, finally, sharing as I do here.

As it is with all of us, our personal lives mirror the disposition of the places in which we live. Place has an enormous impact on our lives; more than we are willing to admit. Our personal agency certainly matters as a powerful agent of change, but the context of community allows and disallows many of our preferences. That said, there are a just a few things that all Americans could focus on that transcend the peculiarities of place. Across America today, there are three imperatives as we collectively face the future: a recommitment to truth and the rule of law, the reunification of ourselves by and between each other and nature, and the courage to foster, embrace, and support the application of creative intelligence to address our greatest challenges. In my view, these are the three most pressing objectives that, if realized, will affect many primary, secondary, and tertiary issues. They will deliver us to a future we can be proud to leave to our children and grandchildren.

One need look no further than Donald Trump if you want to find evidence of what one person can do for better, or in his case, for ill. He nearly single-handedly destroyed our commitment to the truth and the rule of law, as well as standards defined by norms. The soon-to-be sworn-in congressman George Santos of New York is the exclamation point of this Trump effect. He is Trump’s bizarre avatar of deceit. A life and identity completely crafted from falsehood. What a mess that man is. A Shakespearean tragedy not even William could have conjured.

But let’s be clear and honest with ourselves as we move forward: every one of us shares culpability in the abdication of our commitment to truth and the rules and norms that make our society a civilized society. Even in our silence we are culpable. We let this happen. It is up to all of us to fix it. No more looking the other way or engaging in performative outrage on social media. None of that excuses us. None of that works. No matter how uncomfortable or even cruel the truth may be, we must face it with courage and resolve. And, yes, consequences for Trump and others are important to levy. Not to affect their future behaviors; I highly doubt people like Trump are capable of rehabilitation. Rather, to restore the rule of law to its rightful perch on the throne of integrity. Visualize truth as our path to restoring the soul of America.

Next, we need to set aside our petty grievances and acknowledge our common challenges and objectives. Separately, we are all trying to do the same thing: make our lives work in the context of our particular fears and ambitions. Collectively, we will all find our success more easily and more quickly if we honor our differences while embracing that which we share. Yes, we look different, speak with different accents, pray to different gods, and find love in different ways. But we are all Americans. In fact, that is what America is and always has been. That is what really makes America great—what made America the greatest nation-state in the modern world. We must close the gap between us. It is dangerous and un-American to engage further in the fear mongering and divisiveness that has become so popular on both ends of our political spectrum. In the last few years, we have become our own worst enemies. How stupid we were. This must stop, immediately. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one—must, once again, become an actualized vision.

In a new spirit of unity, we must also reimagine ourselves as the animals that we are. To be sure, human, and indeed predominant in this world. But also, highly interdependent by and between all the other species of plants and animals with whom we share the planet. The ecosystem we inhabit is collapsing, and it is because of us. Spare me your fantasies of alternative explanations to the reality of climate change. If you promote these, you are—plainly and frankly—dangerously full of shit. We may be the last victims, but if we remain on our current path of seeing ourselves as separate from and protected from the eventualities of the consumption of fossil fuels, we are no longer homo sapiens, we are homo stupidus. We deserve to perish. My hope is that if we learn to regard ourselves as a part of nature, rather than separate from it, we have a chance—admittedly today a dwindling chance—but nonetheless a chance to save ourselves. Once again, from ourselves. This visualization is simple: we are one with nature.

Beyond truth and unity, we must also reinvigorate the ethos of the America that made it the greatest nation-state in the modern era. We must embrace the geniuses, artists, and crazy entrepreneurs that turned daring enterprise into unimaginable innovation. The impossible is always possible. Often, it just requires looking at issues through a different lens. At others, it requires the imagination to combine seemingly disparate elements into something altogether new. As entrepreneurs know, in every threat lies an opportunity. Between threats and opportunities are also an array of possibilities. Yes, we have faced and continue to face daunting challenges. But we must meet them with a steady commitment to opportunism. And do so with a dash of arrogant optimism. Visualize ingenuity.

Truth, unity, and ingenuity. Cultivate them through moments, glimpses, and glimmers of reinforcing visualization. There is another maxim that applies here quite perfectly: you will travel in the direction your eyes are looking. Vision is a powerful navigation system. Once we set our eyes on a new future, our minds, hearts, and bodies will follow. Before we know it, we will be in a much better place.

One more thought before I return to my moments of comfort. The holidays are always a time of expressing gratitude. This is a good thing. A very good thing. I suggest, however, that we flip this script. In addition to expressing how grateful we are, might we also consider why we deserve gratitude. Have we earned gratitude from others? What have we done to earn it? Should our friends and family be grateful for us? Should the communities in which we live be grateful we are there? How about wildlife, the land, air and waters? If you are looking for a resolution for the new year, maybe this one is relevant: to earn the gratitude of others.

Happy New Year.

By |2023-12-01T15:42:00+00:00January 1st, 2023|General, Recent, Spiritual, The New Realities|0 Comments

Defeating Extremism with Localism

Watching political campaigns solicit support for the upcoming midterms seems like more of a middle school food fight than adults intent on convincing an electorate they are best suited to serve their interests. Today’s campaigns appear more focused on throwing as much mac ‘n cheese at each other as possible before the vice principal arrives than implementing policies to address critical issues facing Americans. Such is the state of our political discourse, which has been floating in the toilet bowl for some time now, while we seem unable to reach for the flush handle, let alone a plumber’s helper. But there is a way out.

Two extremes, it is hypothesized, act to balance and, in effect, cancel each other out. If only that were so. America’s national political reality suggests a different outcome: extremists smother truth in its crib killing any prospect of progress while leaving the majority in the middle in a paralyzed stupor gasping for hope. The search for eyeballs and ratings by the media—both traditional and social—assure us that outrage gets all the attention. Our media has evolved from a source of information to one of entertainment and, now, hackneyed provocation. From intelligence to delusion. Calm, common sense, compromise and consensus—fundamental democratic modalities—are too boring to garner coverage. A candidate for national office who has values, integrity, and competence in leadership has little chance of winning.

As the midterm elections approach, candidates on the right decry the many threats of the radical woke left who are taking your America away! Meanwhile, candidates on the left warn of the extremist right whose secret desires include setting new fires in the public square to burn deviant progressives (like you!) at the stake. Both have learned the lesson of Trump well: stoke fear and anger to procure and maintain power. Trumpism has metastasized across both political parties. Serving the interests of the people has become a quaint passé notion of a bygone era.

The result? The greatest empire in the history of the world—the United States of America—has entered a period of precipitous decline. Both its hard and soft powers—of coercion and persuasion—have lost their relative prowess; mostly from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of political dysfunction, that was, however, expected to occur. America’s unipolar moment (as international relation’s scholars refer to hegemonic power) are called moments for a reason: they never last. Frankly, the international system, which exists in a state of perpetual anarchy, is much more stable when held up by multiple competing interests than with one superpower, however benevolent a particular superpower may seem. A balance of power—widely distributed—is generally believed to be more effective in supporting the welfare of all.

But what about the rise of authoritarianism across the world? What about Russia, China, Iran, Hungary, et al? Many pundits and scholars are pulling the fire alarm on this development. But this isn’t new. We have seen this movie before. We know how it ends. These regimes, who violate the fundamental purpose of government—to serve the interests of the people—always fail in the long run. Usually due to a concentration of power that serves the few instead of the many. Putin, Xi, Khamenei, Orbán, etc. will enjoy extraordinary power and control for an historical moment or two, but like superpowers, their moment will end too. In the end, power emanates from people, not guns and money—regardless of the colors on the flag flying overhead.

What unnerves Americans is that (since Trump) our democratic republic sounds more authoritarian every day. We fear our democracy will fail. I share the concern, but find comfort in the long history of the world and in the underlying character of apolitical folks—like you—who really determine the direction of America every day in neighborhoods and towns across the country. Common people still have the capacity to find common ground to solve problems in their common interest. Remember, power emanates from the people, not from politicians— regardless of the form of government. Oppressive authoritarianism never prevails when faced with the courage of the masses.

The key, then, is summoning the courage of the masses. Like the Ukrainians, the women of Iran, the mothers of Russian soldiers, and now the workers in China. In America, the key to mobilizing our masses is shifting our focus away from the noise of the national stage and our federal government to building stronghold communities; focusing on local. In short, quit obsessing about the loud shiny distraction that is our federal government. The national scene is a mess; fixing America from the top down is impossible. To put it in more plain terms: our national leaders will not respond to intelligence, let alone goodwill. Our federal government has been destroyed by those who care much more about power than service. The only way to turn around America is from the bottom up: one neighborhood, community, town, city, and state at a time.

If one has an honest conversation with oneself, it becomes quickly evident that a president, senator, or representative has much less impact on our lives than county commissioners, city councils, or school boards. Local is where life is lived. Furthermore, those who peddle lies in an attempt at procuring power are more easily exposed and more deftly isolated at the local level. Locally, the light of truth is hard to hide. Moreover, it is relatively easy to find common ground since the consequences of any particular issue generally affect everyone regardless of political tribe. Whether you are wearing a MAGA hat or a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, you stand in the same line at the Post Office, grocery store, DMV, carpool, or Starbucks. Our cars all hit the same potholes. It is important to reflect on the reality that all of us, in our own way, are just trying to make our lives work.

While local is much less susceptible to the manipulations of nefarious actors, it also allows certain essential problem-solving skills to be realized, celebrated, and passed down from one leader to the next. Among the most critical skills of any local governing organization are the skills of problem definition and performance tracking. Defining the problem accurately (so resources and strategies are capably deployed), and submitting to quantitatively designed accountability, allow problems to be solved and, more importantly, governing capacities to be developed and maintained across leaders and across time. In addition (and this is as important as anything else), at the local level, power is only gained referentially from the people whose lives have been enhanced by the actions of leaders. This is known as the principle of enlightened altruism: if I make your life better, you will grant me the power to serve. Enlightened altruism is difficult to manifest on a national or international level, but much easier locally.

I know, our country is loud and obnoxious these days. It is both disturbing and disheartening. As an Oval Office-centric trained observer of domestic and foreign policy, it is difficult for me to refocus my attention on local. However, it has become a strategic imperative to saving America.

Unfortunately, in America today, the spotlight shines brightest on the most beastly and craven creatures of disrepute. My message is simple: turn them off and turn on your interest in your own communities. Starving bad actors of attention starves them of their power. Our democracy was not established, nor will it be saved, in the halls of Congress. As in 1776, its origins and prospects for longevity reside in the villages of the people, and in their hearts the fire of freedom. That is not to say we won’t face similar miscreants at the local level, or find the same sloganized vitriol we see at the national level spewed on our main streets, but they and it are much easier to kick to the curb on streets we control. Localism can defeat extremism.

Once we turn our attention to our communities, we can simply sit back and treat the national circus for what it is: a bunch of elephants, donkeys, and clowns.

By |2022-11-20T14:51:10+00:00October 27th, 2022|General, Recent, The New Realities|0 Comments

Dissonance, Disequilibria & Power

“What the hell is going on with (fill in the blank)?” is a question I have heard (and myself asked) often in the last few years. There may be a shortage of computer chips, childcare, housing, rental cars, and building materials, but there is no shortage of things that just don’t make sense. When our expectations are met by realities that are wildly discordant, anxiety flourishes and leaders scramble. It is very hard to fix something that can’t be explained. Dissonance becomes a source of cultural malaise. Disequilibria, which economists argue is nearly always a short-term phenomenon, causes wild swings in pricing as markets attempt to settle on an intersection of supply and demand. Collectively, these disturbances to normalcy create gaps and pathways to be exploited by mercenary actors who create all kinds of mischief as they extract wealth and power from instability. The vast majority of us stand by and become innocent victims; too often, collateral damage.

The malaise reported by most Americans today, which contradicts relatively positive economic data on employment, wages, and asset values, is evidence of anxiety that emanates from what we cannot yet tabulate, but know in our hearts: the world we thought we knew is over. Today’s world is one where power politics trumps economics, demographics, science, social norms, the rule of law, and even morality. Where reason is torqued beyond recognition in favor of coercion to subjugate—to bring to heel—adversaries who, in many cases, were previously treated as worthy citizens of a united realm of freedom and protected by established norms and laws.

In the last few years, the Trump worldview has metastasized where power is both a means and an end, and it has spread to both ends of the political spectrum: right and left. Trump’s attempted January 6th coup, followed by Putin’s World War II-ish styled invasion of Ukraine, and Alito’s triumphantly patriarchal draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade are of the same modality: coercive power deployed to destroy norms, laws, lives, and liberties. We might expect such bald-faced hostility from Trump and Putin, but a Supreme Court justice? Alito’s opinion is more like a political rant than considered judicial position. It’s as if he is a candidate trying to fire up a political base. In it you will find anger, arrogance, and even belligerence clearly unbecoming of a justice on the Supreme Court. Power politics ignores all of the guardrails of civil society and it has now permeated every institutional corner of our political system—including the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court—that traditionally existed to keep nefarious actors at bay.

Getting past this pervasive retrogression to power politics that is underway in America and the world, and which aims to set the clock of humanity back more than half-a-century, will require, among other things, an unflinching determination to assert the will of truth. Marching with clever slogans on signs will not prevail over those drinking shots of power like bro-boys at a bachelor party. Their power-inebriated state will only fuel their belligerence toward those they wish to subjugate. As each of Trump, Putin, and Alito have recently done, they will claim victimhood to provide themselves with a veil (however sheer) of protective moral authority. Yes, claiming “witch hunt,” “Nazi aggression,” and “cancel culture” is a slight-of-hand designed simply to grab a slice of moral legitimacy. Those who live in carefully constructed and maintained information bubbles crafted by these types of actors will stupidly, but fervently, go along. The rest of us need to wake up, organize, and elect those who will recover our institutions of normalcy from the grasp of bad actors.

I know, I hear you, I am tired of this shit too. I am tired of being lied to. I am tired of watching people get away with it. I am tired of watching the progress of generations squandered. I am tired of watching people who are in a position to affect such a recovery of our institutions preening under the lights of cable TV—more concerned with their exposure to potential donors than saving America. I am tired of feeling ashamed every time I think of how I might explain how my generation let this happen in make-believe conversations with my dead ancestors and real time conversations with my kids. My psyche and my conscience spend too much of the day and night beating each other up. On too many days, humanity just wears me out.

For the foreseeable future, calm may have to replace joy as the definition of happiness as it was during my grandparent’s day. Eyes often reveal the disposition of generations. My maternal grandmother, Lunetta Belle Stinehart Goodfellow, had soft brown eyes that seldom were raised high enough to be level with the horizon. Downcast, yet determined; perched above lips that were perpetually pursed, my grandmother’s eyes expressed what was important to her: getting through the challenges of the day with a stern sense of resolve wrapped in the puritanical disposition of a committed Methodist who knew (or at least hoped) the afterlife might bring joy after enduring Word War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Her self-image was never about herself—it was communal. It was never “this is me,” it was only ever “this is us,” where “us” was family and community.

My father, John Reynolds Steding, a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation” whose eyes were also brown, seldom cast his below the horizon. His disposition was less about getting through than going beyond, which may be why he was an aeronautical engineer and was instrumental in the U.S. space program. Still, his self-image remained embedded in the concept of “us” but was larger. “Us” was indeed family and community, but it was also very much about country. The invention of nuclear weapons raised everyone’s eyes above the horizon. “Incoming” was not a train arriving at the station, it was a nuclear warhead inbound from the Soviet Union. Life was allowed to expand beyond the limits of his parents’ generation, propelled by America’s emergence as a superpower, but it was bounded by the prospect of human annihilation.

My eyes are blue (go figure). My generation—the Boomers—were the first generation to dismiss “this is us” in exchange for “look at what I did.” Not we, I. Boomers blame Millennials for this shift from the collective to the individual, but no, it was us. We were hyper-individualists who waged our battles as entrepreneurs and solo practitioners while often disregarding the wisdom of safety nets. We were loosed upon the world as free-agents who found both guidelines and guardrails as nuisances to be largely ignored. Forget the horizon, our eyes danced up and down, side to side, like a junkie juiced on amphetamines. No one wanted to have an opportunity elude their field of vision. Given our rather manic dispositions we, ironically but necessarily, became wizards of risk management. As pendulums swing, it did when we became parents. Us Boomers—who considered independence as a condition that should be sprinkled with steroids—then turned about and raised the most dependent generations (Millennials and Zs) of all time.

My daughter (a Z) received a double-dose of blue eyes (with huge eyelashes to match) that are frankly, stunning. Millennials and Zs took the Boomer notion of “look at what I did” and amped it up, loudly but simply, to just “look at me!” The eyes of her generation too often stare into that small camera lens fixed on the back of a smartphone that represent the window to a future determined by algorithms. Which is, sadly and most certainly, unsustainable. (See: social media.) But in her eyes, I also see question marks within the reflected candescent halo ring of the Zoom lighting; curiosity mixed with a generation-skipping resolve that Lunetta Belle would easily recognize. Millennials and Zs may feel a sense of whiplash under today’s crisis-level challenges, but their gaze is not fixed, nor are their minds sclerotic. They understand the dynamics of fluidity and, with a nimble sense of determination, believe they can send the world turning in a better direction. In the face of current events, we need them to come into their own, and fast. The rest of us need to get out of their way.

Today, abundance is backsliding to a return to scarcity. Capital markets view the world as much less valuable—trillions less—than it was just four months ago. Bad luck has become an expectation rather than the occasional nuisance. Risk has a new locus that is never far away from imposing its consequences. Truth is under attack in every corner of the world. We must acknowledge the reality of power politics: it has launched a scourge of inhumanity that is submerging the world in a bile of hate. From abusing flight attendants to dropping bombs on children’s hospitals, we must stand together to fight inhumanity rising from dissonance, disequilibria, and chaos that empowers tyrants and zealots. We must summon what energy we have left to support the next generations of leaders—the Millennials and Zs—to save their own futures.

We will likely have to give up the big highs to avoid the depths of existential lows. We must settle for calm as the new joy. Above all else, we have to get back to the “this is us” disposition of older generations. Or, we can don red MAGA caps and learn to goose-step march in May Day parades on the Washington Mall. We do have a choice. For now.

By |2022-05-22T17:11:06+00:00May 10th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments

Unbelievable! WTF?! Insane!

How many times in the last few years have you asked, “Can it get any crazier than this?” It has become the refrain of the times.

The study of how we know what we know—epistemology—has always fascinated me. In these crazy days, epistemologists must be scratching their heads with a pick axe trying to alleviate the itch of bewilderment. In my doctoral research, I journeyed through the world of epistemology to examine the influence of the religious beliefs of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on foreign policy that resulted in my monograph, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy. I was faced with reckoning the squishy world of faith-based beliefs on presidential decision making. The model I developed to assess these impacts is called cognetic profiling. It considers and weighs what we know as a matter of empiricism and experience with what we believe as a matter of faith gained through socialization and indoctrination on our decision making. It allows us to explain, and (with due humility) predict, the behaviors of world leaders. (Putin’s recent decisions were entirely predictable based on his cognetic profile.)

One of the greatest ironies of today is that with all the amazing advances in information technology we have seen in the last two-plus decades, our capacity to make better more rational decisions appears to have plummeted. Rational models in epistemology have, no doubt, been found wholly deficient in explaining why on earth we are making such bizarre decisions. What is missing in my model of cognetic profiling is a research pathway that includes stupidity, which seems to be ascendant in America today. When faced with incontrovertible facts, many Americans decided to embrace what Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, infamously titled, “alternative facts”; heretofore known as falsehoods, or lies. Even with our lives on the line during the pandemic, nearly half of Americans chose to ignore empiricism forcing policymakers to offer a combination of incentives and disincentives to coax us to get the jab. Our fantasy world, founded in magical thinking, has apparently become more precious to us than reality.

The twentieth century in America was an era of what I have called “the scientification of everything.” As we applied scientific method to all aspects of our lives, we attempted to assert the rational will of humans in all of our decision making. Mastery of anything and everything was simply considered a matter of data processing. If it could be quantified and fit in an equation, it was considered relevant. There was little room left, in any of our decision models, for narrative, impulse, or faith-based beliefs. And, there was no room for “alternative facts.” In this new century, we have decided to rebel against reality—against facts—and elevate things like meme-based whims over empiricism. The “scientification of everything” certainly had its faults, but today we live in a world that would make Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter blush with envy. Crazy? Yes, it is.

So, why is this happening and what can we do about it?

The first thing I will point to, in a constellation of culprits, is that we are overwhelmed with information sources that arrive at the speed of a click or, more recently, are pushed in our face whether we like it or not, as in “banner notifications.” The promise of information technology has morphed into the nightmare of disinformation technology. We are faced with what the psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has identified as the “paradox of choice.” Like the three-hundred or so choices of cereal in the grocery aisle, we would much prefer ten. Abundance breeds anxiety, which has dramatically increased our error rate when making decisions.

The second culprit is the media—both traditional and online/social. In the twentieth century, media was, for the most part, a reliable source of information. The processes and ethics that journalists subscribed to assured the reader/listener/viewer that what they were consuming was likely true. Deceit bore consequences; today it bears benefits. The problem that arose is that as new sources proliferated—as quantity increased—reliability/quality decreased. Instead of a moderate flow of reliable information that was easy to consider and digest, we got a firehose level of (largely) bullshit that hit us in the face 24/7, producing a disorientation that would make Kanye West appear sane. In the same manner as Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address of the “military industrial complex,” perhaps Obama should have warned us of the disinformation complex. Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, codified the strategy of our 45th president when he proclaimed, “The real enemy is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” The result? Regardless of how many times we scrub and wash, the stain fades but the stench remains as the flow of crap continues at firehose rates.

In response to being overwhelmed by a flow of disinformation, our coping response has been to seek simplification through association with groups, organizations, and political tribes, which naturally provide us with a set of filters in the form of prescriptions and proscriptions—what to believe and think or not to believe and think. In the history of humankind this function was the exclusive domain of religion. Today, every group of any orientation or function seeks to affect our decisions. In other words, we have abdicated both the consideration of information and its use in decision making to those we wish (for whatever reason) to associate with. Every group or organization has its own norms and rules that we are, either implicitly or explicitly, required to follow. Call it the hidden cost of membership. This is the most insidious of all the factors in the constellation of culprits that have degraded our decision making. It is through our choices of associations that we have become lazy and, frankly, stupid. In effect, we have taken a vast complex world made possible from our success and allowed its walls, ceiling, and floor to collapse in on us in order to affect simplicity.

Among other things, this explains the proliferation and acceptance of conspiracy theories in spite of empirical evidence that easily disproves many conspiracist’s claims. At the heart of conspiracies is simplicity, which is why they have become so popular. It is easier to accept a claim from a Facebook group that Ivermectin paste—something used to de-worm horses—might prevent or cure Covid-19, rather than wade through epidemiologist’s reports and seek the advice of medical professionals, let alone endure the public health gauntlet to be vaccinated. And, Ivermectin now comes in mint flavor! (Kidding. I think.) It may seem ironic that opposites—the far right and the far left—were those most resistant to Covid vaccines, but they are also those who are the most ardent subscribers to group-think. Their identities—their personal brand—are closely tied to their associations. They claim to be independent free-thinkers since they live at the margins of the socio-political spectrum, and yet, in reality, they are some of the most zealous close-minded people among us.

As the risk essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan and Antifragile) once told me, as the world grows more complex, events compound such that outliers (black swans) become more prevalent. For those of you who are statistics junkies, the effect of this is to flatten the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution; more like a cymbal than a bell. This condition implies higher risk and is naturally disorienting. It requires much greater and more sophisticated capacities for decision making. Reliability of information is paramount. Unfortunately, the disinformation complex has come around to bite us in the ass.

The solution resides in adopting three new practices: slow down, discard and disassociate, and recommit ourselves to a sense of personal responsibility to be accountable for our own unique and discrete decisions. Just because technology moves information faster does not mean we need to make decisions faster. Deliberation is a choice. Just because everyone else belongs to a group and accepts edicts without inquiry, does not mean you have to. Be unique; be independent. Finally, don’t let others tell you what to think or do. The consequences are your own, the decision should be too. Our destiny—individually and collectively—depends on our willingness and capacity to regain control of our lives. No more delegating or abdicating. The biggest culprit in the constellation of the disinformation complex is us.

It is your mind, use it (again). Zombies may be entertaining in movies, but it is no way to live.

By |2022-04-05T14:47:11+00:00March 29th, 2022|General, The New Realities|0 Comments
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