Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now I’m Mad. For a While, Anyway

I shouldn’t be mad, I should be Wisely Calm. Serenely intelligent, with a gentle but knowing smile. Sadly, I’m very human, quite naïve, desperately romantic, and want this absurd system behind me, done with, over. Of course that’s going to take years, but I’m impatient. And sometimes, the old sense of being tiny in the face of a crushingly enormous juggernaut blind to the damage it does, it gets to me. It does. I want more power. There. I said it. And this is why.

Central banks have acted in a globally unified move to reduce central bank to commercial bank lending rates by 0.5%. Even more than on the rumour of the IMF boning up a cool 600bn euros for Italy, the markets are climaxing over this. There's coke and jism all over the shop. Adam's Invisible Hand is hard at work, pumping those boys good and proper. And it isn't even Friday yet! Here are some choice quotes from a Guardian article I just perused:
The Bank of England joined the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the ECB, the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank in taking the measures. Stock markets around the world surged after the central banks said they would cut the price of emergency dollar loans to cash-strapped banks by 0.5 percentage points, and extend the scheme until February 2013.

[snip]

"Clearly the world's central bankers have had enough of all the political mud-slinging and intransigence and they've decided to take the situation by the scruff of the neck."

How nice to have had enough of politicians who can’t seem to cure the worst debt crisis in history by forcing their underlings to pony up their futures, without rioting, for generations to come, as tribute to the system that serves only two functions; growth and enslavement. How meek and incompetent of them. How indecisive. How immature. Not that I’m a fan of politicians, but doesn’t that financial-expert view of things sum it up nicely.

It’s the money, stupid. No money; no planet. No credit; no planet. No debt; catastrophe, mayhem, disaster, raining fire, earthquakes, boiling seas, kraken devouring lambs and babies. You name it, we’ll do it.
The central bankers fear that if financial institutions rein in credit, it will hit ordinary consumers and businesses, and threaten a double-dip recession in the world economy.

"The purpose of these actions is to ease strains in financial markets and thereby mitigate the effects of such strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses and so help foster economic activity," they said in a joint statement.

Scary, huh? The very last thing we want is a double dip recession. Just think, wages might stagnate. People might lose their jobs. Standards of living might fall. Crime might rise. Any one of those would be, quite frankly, unacceptable. Nobody in their right minds would want all of them at once. So thank the central bankers that the markets are rising again. Because if there is one thing that is crystal clear by now, it’s that we all benefit, people and planet, when the markets are surging upwards.

Trot out the bonuses! Those ‘hard working’ folk in finance can buy their wives and Class Act Escorts another Porsche Cayenne or Audi Q1.

The Audi Bonus. “One in each colour, sir?”

But this is boring, isn’t it? This is like the twentieth time this month a ‘fresh injection of liquidity’ has revived the fetid rot this system clearly is. Squeezed some noxious activity out of it. I mean, apart from it being historic and everything, this is getting just a tad repetitive. Let’s try and spice it up a little, remind ourselves what we’re dealing with here:
"This may have been a signal that the money markets were a short shove away from complete collapse."
Complete collapse? Ooh! I think I can ... yep, there’s a butterfly in my stomach. Thanks, Jeremy Cook, for bringing a little excitement back into my old body. The Cinema of the Media sure knows how to knock us out, eh? Wham, bam, boom, up and down like jet fueled yoyo. It don’t get much better than this. And the only way to fly in this beast is passively. Lie back, let the Masters take care of business, and hope you don't belong to one of the billions about to get squished under the juggernaut's weight. Like a bug.


[ADDENDUM, 18:51 CET: This point should have made it into the article, but them's the breaks. Lowering interest rates worked like a charm so far, got banks lending again, right? It says in the text books that low interest rates = cheap money = lending and then Even More economic growth. It's in the text books, clear as day. With charts and everything. So let's do that again, because last time people didn't notice enough. There wasn't a sufficient Attention Quotient (AQ) operating at that moment in time (2008, 2009, and 2010 or so, roughly). It didn't really bite, you know? Didn't quite find purchase as we'd hoped. This time, now that the problem has been taken "by the scruff of the neck", those eye-wateringly low interest rates will have the effect the text books promise. Everybody knows that!]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Know?

Do not know. Turn that off now.
Run down these words a while
knowing nothing, especially not
where all this is going.

Sand gives underfoot;
balance shifts. Tip with it.
In a tree—if you still climb—
new balance again. Swim

through curved sea, be curved.
One by one never adds up.
Anger strums a wave into you,
then out, a wind to brave, or buck

into its being, its dizzy self
dazzling as reality. The circled food,
coming back to you and new you,
roots in the pocked depths

of Everywhere, like branch
or dune, wave or shout, bright face
or wake for a sleep. You
cannot know. I know I don’t.

Scatter sand to other forms.
Thrash water to settled pools.
Wind back the weather again
to clouds of trees that bow.

Breathe them in. There is no time
so particular
its every nano can be noted,
jotted down; it vanishes

just as you get there,
like the threads of your thoughts,
these words, their meaning
slipping out of every crack

your cupped hands leave. It is
as if this never happened.
But of course it did. At least
this much you know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nailed it Again! Econosophy Shouts, the IMF Listens

The IMF could bail out Italy with up to 600 billion euros ($794 billion), an Italian newspaper reported on Sunday, as Prime Minister Mario Monti came under pressure to speed up anti-crisis measures.
Source
Of course, that's not a cast-iron promise, but it's a good start.

The last thing humanity wants is for growth to stop. As I penned a few days ago, what we're all longing for is nonstop growth of economic activity into all aspects of our lives, without exception. Reading my heartfelt plea, the wise folk at the IMF stepped up to the plate, and promised to Do What They Can.

A trustworthy source at the IMF I'm not permitted to name, said:
These are troubled times, Toby. After reading your words we realised action had to be taken. We hastily met in a meeting room designed for these sorts of things, and put it out to our friends in the press that there was money to be loaned after all. It sure as hell looks that way. What with digibits being as cheap as dirt, and zeros cheaper still, we felt the least we could do was sink Italy further into debt. There's nothing like the cold hand of fear to get things moving, I've found.
Asian markets surged higher with relief, Europe has nosed upwards with the glimmering vigour of a rambunctious dolphin, and the US is expected to be giddily euphoric now that fair Europa is flush with cash once more. Even I, old man that I am, have a new spring in my stride and am waxing lyrical again. Oh, happy day.

I don't expect thanks, because I'm very humble. A quiet life is all I ask for. With a little luck and a wisp of magic we'll all get what exactly we want very soon. Christmas is coming!

(You heard it here first.)


UPDATE (15:45 CET): IMF "very angry" with Econosophy, trusted source tells Toby to watch his dirty little mouth, and not to call her anymore. This just in:
Stock markets boosted by rumours of bailout deal for Italy, though IMF denies reports of aid package proposal
Source
Nevertheless, the markets are aiming for the moon, riding the creosote fumes like the drunken old pros they truly are.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Perpetual Growth? Yes Please!

“Fomulare, formulare, von der Wiege bis zur Bahre!” (German saying, meaning, "Forms, forms, from the cradle to the grave!")

Finally, after world champion procrastination on my part, and a warning letter on their part, I filled in the form my German health insurance company had sent me, to record my change of status and Keep Them Informed. I didn’t enjoy a second of it, and the process had my wife and I shouting at each other angrily, with our children looking on. Later I posted it. Soon I will have the insurance company’s response. My wife’s and my reaction to this overall hideous experience of staying ‘insured’ was to plan leaving Germany at the earliest convenience. For now, I’ll just chalk that up to emotion. I mean, where would we go?

At around two o’clock this morning, it occurred to me that forms are the perceptive organs of companies, bureaucracies and other organizations. And there is probably a relationship along the lines of; the bigger the organization, the cruder and more insulting the form. Anyway, it occurred to me as I lay sleepless in the 2 a.m. gloom, that The Form is similar to money in that it is a crude and poor measure of value. I am Toby Russell. Only the tiniest fraction of my value can be recorded by ticking boxes on a form. But there I am, split up onto various pieces of paper and as various bits and bytes, scattered across the storage space of various companies and bureaucracies, in Form form, the information on me therein owned by them. It occurred to me, again, that ‘measuring’ people is best done intuitively, organically, dynamically, artistically, scientifically, patiently, flexibly, forgivingly, wisely, and that there can be no prescription for doing so. But we’re stuck with The Form and checking boxes; in fact, more and more of it as the economy grows, or tries to. Because whether in the government or private sector, creating forms, reading them, responding to them, is all Paid Work. And, the more Paid Work there is, the better the world is. The more money changing hands, the richer we are. We all want jobs. We all need money. Bring on those forms. Hand over that money.

The gloom is a fertile place for an imaginative man in a bad mood awake in the wee hours for the second night in a row. I found myself writing a heartfelt paean to my love, Economic Growth. Enjoy.


The year is the future, and Global Government has just decreed, in the interests of economic growth, to sell language to the highest bidders, then establish a public-private partnership by part-auctioning words to the people. Virgin Vocabulary won the lexis, Microten$e won all tenses, and GM Grammar got the rules and punctuation. Buying part-ownership of a word meant earning money for every usage of that word, with 1% of that money going to Virgin Vocabulary for administrative costs. Ownership of tense and grammar was deemed more sensible in wholly private form. The incredible complexity of monitoring language use across the planet was child’s play, due to biotech advances enabling scientists to ensure every human born was genetically equipped with bio-recording equipment, Genetic ID (GID) account, and a Frequency Interface Device for automating money transfers from GID account to GID account. No one needed to worry; the whole thing worked Like Magic.

Still, there were some small problems. Wealthy bidders bought up all the common words, like “the,” “and,” “that,” the pronouns, “thank,” “you,” “no,” “yes,” “please,” “bankrupt,” and the swear words too. The poor got the scraps, like “obviate,” “panegyric,” “extemporaneous,” “antidisestablishmentarianism,” and “abstruse.” Nevertheless, GDP figures showed huge gains in the opening months, so economists could afford to ignore the rising levels of debt among the poor, who were increasingly forced to use morse code, semaphore, sign language and doodles to communicate with one another. State education suffered terribly. However, the poor couldn’t always avoid speaking in the public-private language; private companies and government agencies alike would only listen in English.

“Necessity is the mother of invention!” smiled cloned president Obusha III, and commended the poor for their hard work and making the planet proud, but gently hinted too that socks ought to be pulled up, lest our most precious, commonly owned treasure, language, fall into disrepair. “I love freedom!” he beamed, before stepping back into the White House.

But, as is the nature of things, boom became bust as debt became unsustainable. The initial flush of growth tapered off to become Anaemic, and plans long in the making were finally rolled out before a grateful public. The people were informed that airplanes had been spraying the planet’s atmosphere for weeks, and that this harmless spray was made of a nanobot swarm whose programming it was to barcode every molecule of air in existence, as well as equip every person with a barcode-reader at the back of their mouth. The nanobots had since self-destructed, having fulfilled their mission.

“Mission accomplished!” declared Obusha III.

“We love technology, we love Obusha!” the people found themselves chanting (the only Free Words reserved for Free Use, in that combination and tense, exclamation mark optional).

The government, it transpired, had decreed and conducted a fair and impartial Initial Public Offering, fully automated, which had assigned an equal portion of the planet’s air to every citizen of earth. All were equal owners of air, and the poor set about training themselves to need less breaths per day, and spending more time underwater, somehow. They were up for the challenge, inspired to work hard and move up that ladder.

However, equality is not built to last. Polluted air was bought up by the rich on the Free Air Exchange, its price rose, and the poor living in over-populated, polluted areas found themselves owing more per breath than they earned. Days after the initial public offering, Artificial Air Inc was established, and began selling Synthetic Air Creators (SACs) to those who could afford them. SACs took the form of an ingenious device worn invisibly under one’s nostrils. The devices harnessed zero-point energy from the vacuum to literally rearrange free radicals and other atomic material not covered in the Public Air Act into pure, non-barcoded air. CO2 breathed out was barcoded by the device and owned by the device’s owner. Vegetation processing that CO2 into oxygen was engineered to keep the barcode, and hence ownership, unchanged. Of course, SACs sold like hot cakes. The poor found themselves sinking deeper into debt, and could only afford imitation SACs (if at all), which were unreliable, even to the point of poisoning many.

But it was all GDP growth, thus was good while it was good. Bust followed boom again; you can’t change nature! Necessity is the mother of invention, and the ingenuity of humanity knows no No More. Eyes became recording devices as morse code, semaphore, doodles and sign language became privatized. GDP grew, then tapered off. Smiles, hugs, laughter and winks all fell under the auctioneer’s gavel. GDP grew, then tapered off, this time in weeks as GDP measuring technologies were by now fine tuned down to the nanosecond. Market’s panicked. Mother’s milk was next, then the pleasure felt while enjoying a quiet moment. Biotech delivered the goods the very next day to prevent systemic collapse yet again, by privatizing thinking itself with yet more ingenious brainwave recorders.

At last everything we do, from gazing out of windows, to stroking our beards, petting our pets, feeding our fish, waving hello to a friend across the street, burping, farting, scratching our behinds and everything you can think of, Dear Paying Reader (see below), cost money, and everything that was, was embraced by GDP Almighty.

The End. (Literally.)



You owe me $5,343,694.45 for reading this, which I think is a bargain. (I owe more for writing it, so help a brother out, won’t you!?)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Health, Health Insurance, and Totalitarianism

[This post is a bit of a moan. Apologies in advance.]

It’s been 21 days since I left my job, on purpose, to become something else; a better Toby Russell, a better husband, a better father, and a better Earthling. Though I had wanted to leave work for many years, the decision was, I can assure you, very difficult to reach; I have a wife and two daughters and happen to be, for many reasons, our family’s sole bread-winner. Nevertheless, my wife and I arrived at that decision together (I did all the pushing, it must be said!), and I still believe it to have been both brave and wise. And noble too.

This latest leap into the unknown has not, however, been without its shocks, even in these first few weeks. The one I want to discuss in this post was served to us cold by Germany’s health system.

My wife and I, plus one three year old daughter, arrived in Berlin in July 2000. I had no job, no German, and no health insurance. None of this was a ‘system problem,’ since I had both savings and income from my recently deceased father’s dry cleaning chain. And, back in 2000, one was allowed to live in Germany without health insurance. That is, any visits we made to the doctor before I had found employment, we paid for in cash. This included my wife’s overnight stay in a hospital for an operation she needed after miscarrying shortly after our arrival in Berlin.

Three weeks ago, we learned precisely that loose, temporary ‘opting out’ we enjoyed eleven years ago is no longer legal. I am not allowed to step out of the system and receive medical care, even though I could afford it should such prove necessary, even for a few months while I train myself to become an English teacher. It is illegal not to have explicit health insurance. I have paid roughly 65,000 euros over ten years into the German health system, but my enforced ‘largesse’ has afforded me close to nothing, it seems; now that my income is zero for a while appears to be irrelevant. Even though I am now income-poor, still I must pay a hefty amount to cover our four-person family, close to 600 euros a month, from zero income, if things don’t go my way.

Here’s the deal. I plan to become self-employed (all things being equal), which is a social status distinct from employed, unemployed, student, housewife, and so on. The reason for this is to stay as far away from corporations as possible, and as close to gift and alternative currency communities as I can manage. But when you’re self-employed, the health insurance companies, as instructed by the government, assume you enjoy an income of around 3,700 euros a month, which equates to health insurance contributions of close to 600 euros per month. That, or they take your last year’s income and calculate from there. In my case, that happens to equate to about 600 euros a month, even though I’m changing from an income to no income.

Now, our family costs the health system nowhere near 600 a month, which, while employed I didn’t mind, since that excess pays for those who earn less than I did. Or so I thought. Now that I am earning much less than I did, so as to do something noble and brave, I am asked to pay as I did before. Pray tell, whither did that 65,000 go?

Of course, if it turns out that in the first year of my life as a self-employed person I only earn a total of nothing, they’ll pay back a portion of my contributions, but that doesn’t help me now. And that I could pay the monthly 600 for a while isn’t really the point; my family does not cost the health system anywhere near that much. Combined, we visit the doctor a total of something like ten times a year.

Here’s a brief rundown of our load on the system these last ten years. My wife gave birth to our second daughter in a hospital in Berlin, and her pregnancy included two or three yoga classes, one night in the hospital, and two post-natal visits by a midwife. Maybe that cost one to two thousand euros. I had a shoulder operation and physiotherapy, but paid for the three nights at the hospital, and about 20% of the therapy sessions before and after. I should point out that the operation was necessary in the first place because of medical incompetency (five week delay of the MRT and two false diagnoses of the originating problem). I did not sue, because I know no system is perfect, and hate all that acrimony, not to mention it would take years and get me nowhere at all.

Anyway, too much griping for one post I’m sure (and others have it far harder than I do), but what I’m getting at is the state’s inability to deal with us citizens as unique human beings. It is utterly irrelevant that I try to live honourably, that I try not to burden the state, that my shoulder operation came from a cycling accident (I cycle to be environmentally friendly and stay healthy), that I did not sue the health insurance company for the delayed MRT, nor the doctors who erroneously misdiagnosed my condition. The state simply cannot perceive any of this. The state is too big, my life details too tiny, too unusual. We each exist in the state’s clumsy eyes as something that must fit into one box or other. If we don’t, we are an annoyance, something to be sorted, categorised somehow, which means extra work, hassle, etc.

Furthermore, my health insurance company, “Barmer GEK”, is a corporation under public law, a strange Germanic institution I don’t fully understand. It is public, hence not categorised as private, but this seems to be more a nicety than anything else. However, it is not funded by taxes generally, but by members’ payments; an employer is obliged to pay half an employee’s contribution, but the wage slips only shows, in the taxation section, the half paid by the employee; mine used to show about 300 euros. A self-employed person pays 100%, hence I would be asked to pay 600 if I adopted that status. Barmer also has legal autonomy; it, not the state, runs it. Its public nature is therefore somewhat cloudy and impenetrable. I’ve been unable to work out its ownership structure and profit requirements.

I went to Barmer for for face to face advice, trawled its enormously confusing web site for information, and the strong sense I get is that it wants as much money out of me as possible, not what’s best for Toby Russell. The very notion that 600 euros is a lot of money for someone on no income does not compute. I, a 45 year old ‘head’ of a family, just should not give up a paying job to do something ‘nobler.’ The woman I saw at Barmer could not relate to my story at all, and advised me to register as unemployed, because, I assume, that way tax payers would be footing my bills, but at least Barmer would be getting its money. (I will not register as unemployed.)

(Most likely the health system/financial category I must assume is that of ‘student,’ since that is what I am right now—students pay far lower contributions of around 150 euros a month (still very high in my opinion). However, whether the state is capable of recognising me as a student remains to be seen; I’m doing a remote learning course from a college based in England, though it’s affiliated with an American university.)

This is all very personal stuff, most unlike what I normally write for Econosophy. My reason for burdening you with all this runs as follows; to work towards something better than that which currently exists, we must at least irritate existing structures, and thereby isolate ourselves too. Doing so quickly makes very plain how cumbersome and inhumane The System is, how machine-like, how insensitive. In the (purported) interest of ‘efficiency’ and handling enormous numbers of human beings in as uniform a way as possible, we have murdered most of our humanity, destroyed our ability to deal with each other sensitively, case-by-case, with familiarity, community and care. This feeds through into our treatment of the environment of course. This includes too our broader concept of health, which, in a Money-God System such as ours, must make a profit (whatever that is). Which means disease and ill health are good for GDP, which is Good by default. Which means my tiny attempt to Do Good for family, humanity and environment alike are in fact problems, not cures, are greeted with suspicion and annoyance, not with open arms. And this while we all complain that things have to change.

What is hard during transition is finding a minimal platform within the system strong and free enough to be the financial/economic ground I can stand on, while launching myself and my family into a new way of being. The German system has a strong grip on its citizens. We are not allowed, for example, to take our children out of school and teach them at home. Alternative schools pursuing a healthier and wiser attitude to teaching children all cost lots of money, and state sanctioned ones are quickly losing their funding. Organic food costs far more than its poisoning counterpart. Hence, only the rich can afford not to damage the environment, to put their children through a sensible school system. Or, put another way, it costs more to do good than bad. Unhealthy. Unsane. There can be no true profit in such a system.

It may well be that a radical change of life-style is soon necessary for my family and me, including selling our flat and leaving Germany (to where??), but that has to wait for now. For now this awkward middle road is a necessary evil.

My conclusion is that doing good is ‘bad’ and painful when the good you choose to do fundamentally opposes the paradigm of the existing system. It is not that this system can do no good, but rather that all paradigms outlive their usefulness eventually. That’s when the trouble starts. Today, The System is global, tightly integrated, monstrously banal, insensitive and greedy. It is an immature, growth-addicted beast screaming for more, and can only rage at those voices calling for it to no longer be what it is. Any fundamental change is effectively death (systems are what they do), and even what I am doing with my attempt to earn less, do more for community, submit less tribute to The System, is infuriating anathema to it. And though what I am doing is peaceful in intent, it can only be perceived as ‘violent’ by the monster it threatens. In fact the more peacefully I oppose, the more threatening, violent and alien my actions appear. This truism scales up of course. So though I am small, and want to stay that way, though the net effect of what I have thus far ‘accomplished’ is infinitesimal, we are many. The more of us cohesively ‘opting out,’ pursuing new ways of building and being community, the more upheaval we will unleash. We must know this, and deeply. Knowing this we must, as the main part of our opting out, Build the New; food networks, transportation networks, currency networks, skill networks. Unless we have some roughly viable collection of systems and methodologies well practiced and (almost) running, all we are doing by opting out on masse is initiating chaos. An angry revolution is not going to cut it. Only the mad want that. Not being mad (I hope!) I’m thinking long term, but within the context of The System I am not permitted to escape, even my little beginning is an annoyance, and filled with daunting frustrations.

The Way is long and hard it seems.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Property

To be able to freely buy and sell something means that is has been dissociated from its original matrix of relationships, in other words, that it has become “alienable.”
Charles Eisenstein, "Sacred Economics", p70
We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to rip it from its context. That’s what slaves are: people stolen from the community that made them what they are. As strangers to their new communities, slaves no longer had mothers, fathers, kin of any sort. [p146]
The mere fact of their [slaves’] existence set a precedent. The value of a human life could, sometimes, be quantified; but if one was able to move from A = A (one life equals another) to A = B (one life = one hundred cloths), it was only because the equation was established at the point of a spear. [p144]
David Graeber, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

Property is a deeply flawed concept, because it divides the indivisible. Imagine you have some land with a fence around it. The fence says, “Within this perimeter everything belongs to me. Everything outside this perimeter does not.” What does this claim mean?

I think we can eke out its meaning by stripping Universe of everything except that which falls within the perimeter of the fence. So imagine a plot of farmland, with pigs, goats, sheep, crops, part of a stream, house, apple and pear trees, and sheds. Then imagine completely isolating that ‘property’ from everything that lies beyond the fence. Everything; the rest of the stream, weather, air, the rest of the planet, the sun, stars, gravity ... everything. What is that property then? Absolutely nothing. Fully isolated from Universe it can have no meaning whatsoever, yet this is precisely what we attempt to do with the concept of property; to isolate a ‘thing’ from everything it is not. To rip it from its context. To enclose it. To enslave it. To be in control of it. To own it.

So why do we have it? Well, sir, it was an accident. And very involved. I didn’t mean it, it just sort of happened. Seriously. What with one thing and another it was only a matter of time before we sapiens started experimenting with seeds, building more permanent shelters, and enjoying the feeling, however self-deceptive, of ‘controlling’ nature in that way. Perhaps it made us feel secure and powerful, perhaps it was just exciting and interesting, like when the penny drops and you ‘get’ it. Anyway, such was the beginning of farming, and farming is the beginning of My-Realm=Domesticated, Not-My-Realm=Wild. And an early stage of science too; if I do this, what happens? Farming is at root one consequence of the famous Self-Other split, The Fall, Expulsion from Eden, exit from the Mother-Child Symbiosis; Now I Am And Know It, therefore You Are Not Me.

This Separation is not all bad (nothing is), but it did of course begin in ignorance of the consequences of its outcomes, just as we all remain in ignorance of the consequences of our actions, just as ignorance is an absolutely inescapable part of striving to know. But all this is only the background.

Property as we enjoy it today in the legal and therefore practical sense stems from Roman Law. And property in Roman Law stems from slavery; that is, what rights a slave owner has over a slave. Of course total, including disposal, or destruction. And it is disposal that distinguishes between full access (say as a renter of a property) and private ownership of it. If I legally own a thing, I can destroy it, if I only have access rights, I can’t. And yet there are qualifications; burning flags and such, as well as burning money. Are we legal owners, in the proprietary sense, of the notes and coins we have in our pockets, or of the national flags we purchase? Or are we mere part time users of them, temporary guardians? Is it legal for an ordinary citizen to burn notes or melt coins? Wikipedia:
In the United States, burning banknotes is prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 333: Mutilation of national bank obligations, which includes "any other thing" that renders a note "unfit to be reissued. In an amicus brief for Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, Solicitor General Seth Waxman writes that arresting an individual who removes the corner dollar values "may expose a counterfeiting operation". It is unclear if the statute has ever been applied in response to the complete destruction of a bill. Certainly people have publicly burned small amounts of money for political protests that were picked up by the media — Living Things at South by Southwest, Larry Kudlow on The Call — without apparent consequence.

And yet the state shreds cash when it is handed over directly in payment of taxes. So money as private property is probably quite a grey legal area, since money is a commons even if the state-market apparatus promotes it otherwise. Being fiat, it ‘belongs’ to the sovereign. And the fractional reserve system is a multiple-claim, multiple-use system; each central bank dollar endures multiple claims on it in the form of credit money. Credit money issued by commercial banks is nothing but a claim on central bank or high powered money, which only the sovereign can create and destroy. We only use the notes and coins that pass through our pockets and purses; we are not their proprietors. Can a sovereign be a legal private property owner? Even a King is several. A democratically elected government more so. Kings are The Land. Governments are The People. They ‘own’ severally, on behalf of. So it’s not clear what’s going on here, right at the root of all exchange, when it comes to property. The very medium we deploy to exchange ownership, we do not own. I see that as a profound contradiction. And that money is a medium; that is a contradiction too. How can we be owners of a medium, like language, or inches?

This is something of a tangent, but it plays into the central idea; property as a concept is illogical.

Let’s look at the human body. Is my body my private property? I argue that the question is absurd, since it implies there is ‘in me’ some Not-Body component which could conceivably be ‘owner’ of my body. Let’s call this Not-Body entity “Soul.” To ‘own’ ‘my’ body I, at the conceptual level, need to have a Soul, a component sufficiently Not-Body actively to do the owning of Body. We have to separate ourselves (strange word, isn't it) in two to talk of ownership of self. To bring this into sharper relief, we would not ask if a tree owns its body, or a mountain. What about cats and dogs, or cattle, pigs, sheep? What about chickens and ‘their’ eggs? It is only because we think, at a very deep level, that humans are somehow Soul and Body (not only Body, or only Soul—to my mind they are the same thing) that we can even come up with the nonsensical idea that a human has ‘ownership’ of his or her body. As for 'control' of the body, how total is it really, and where does it come from? Do you choose your skin colour and gender before you are born? Control your every thought? The aging process? The air you breathe, and its constitution?

In exactly the same way, arising from exactly the same error of thought, we think we can be proprietors of ‘things’ ‘out there.’ We do not have a body, we are body. Or, we do not have a soul, we are soul. (See how it sounds awkward to express reality closer to its ‘truth’? “I am body inextricably embedded in Universe.”) Furthermore, as David Graeber points out, body cannot be separated from its context without either killing it—if the separation is total (e.g., into a vacuum)—or deeply harming it, as in slavery. And aren’t such things always done at the point of a spear?

There is violence of some kind in the birth of property.

And then there’s scarcity. I asked why we have property, and have suggested an error in our understanding of reality gave inexorable rise to the concept, and I think this is a valid observation (it’s not mine; this analysis ‘belongs’ to the anarchist tradition). But there is a ‘practical’ reason for property too, and that is the perception of scarcity, which also arises from the Expulsion from Eden, the conceptual division of the world into Me and NotMe.

Because I am Separate, I must defend myself against those parts of the environment that are dangerous or deadly. Fair enough, and a living system does not need a Separate Self to be capable of self-defense. But as this gets tangled up with farming and self-awareness, the portion of reality I claim as ‘mine’—because I have developed it, worked it, made it into what it is—stays permanently insufficient, even with ‘surplus.’ This is complicated and requires long, winding arguments and discussions to bring into focus, but I hope a short version can do the idea some justice. I’ll begin with a couple of quotes.

What we now call scarcity can only emerge out of these exclusive rights of the proprietor.
“Property, Interest and Money”, Otto Steiger and Gunnar Heinsohn, p44. My translation.
The economic way of seeing the world automatically creates shortage. [ … ] Shortage does not precede the economic communication. Shortage occurs as a result of the binary division of the world into have/have not by the economic code; which, moreover, produces the possibility of economising on the scarce resources whether these be money or as translated into other problems of shortage such as a shortage of competency, shortage of food, shortage of oil, etc.
“Polyphonic Organizations”, Niels Aakerstroem Andersen, in “Autopoietic Organization Theory”, pp156-7, Tore Bakken and Tor Hernes (editors).

Not only at the pragmatic level of crops ruined by intruders, pests or weather anomalies must surplus be a scarce thing we economize the distribution of, but, more subtly and more importantly, our product is scarce because we are now ‘at war’ with a nature we are trying to manipulate to our ends, to force into our service. Nature is no longer a partner, or a seamless extension of what we are; it is Not-Self, mercurial, deceptive, capricious. This fundamental perception-shift—most likely engendered accidentally by idle experimentation—gives rise to the perception of scarcity. Scarcity means we no longer have faith in nature’s bounty, no longer passively accept death and disease, now we want to live forever, cheat death, are fearful, untrusting. We begin to escape, to Ascend, to rise to the stars, to become gods over Earth, are even made in God’s image, born to be Masters of All. To fulfil our destiny we must control unwanted and wanted variables, generate less of the former and more of the latter; we must control everything so that Bad Things don’t happen to us. To control everything we have to own Not-Self, subjugate it to our wills, make it obey us, force it to deliver only the Good Stuff, then fight off the Bad Stuff and all other Enemies, and Ascend. (And what is the state but a monopoly on force protecting private property? What is market but a mechanism for exchanging the private property the state sanctions? One system, ascending, growing, destroying.)

But nothing makes sense in isolation. There is no separate place to ascend to. There is no such thing as Only Good. Diversity is the stuff of life, ‘control’ of it is death, or anathema; diversity controlled is not diversity at all, rather its Frankenstein. Don’t we see this lifeless monster today in the pallid, monotonous, characterless blitz of glamour, glitter and bling that is supposed to be what we want? But we don’t want an anodyne, prescribed-from-on-high cornucopia of shiny consumer goods, totally clean and safe, ‘risk free,’ all disease eradicated, an endless selection of junk to choose in malls which are as close to Hell as any other banal ‘evil’ I can think of. We want an authentic, risky, enriching, meaningful life, and we are waking up to this in our millions.

Back to property:

In that it is obviously about the illusion of control it is illogical.

In that it is about fear and self-protection at the cost of others (zero sum) it is dangerous, seen over the long term; this fear of uncertainty, perversely, generates belief in infinite growth.

In that property has at its conceptual heart “disposal,” it is destructive at its root, and requires ongoing violence to be sustained.

And that the system of exchange underpinning property’s very meaning and existence deploys an ‘unownable’ medium (money), property is a non-thing, a fantasy, a cultural blind spot. Money, the root of property, is a nothing, a mere measuring unit doubling as a claim on unpurchased wealth. And wealth only makes sense in a broader context.

Nevertheless I do not preach the abolition of property. Maybe we naked apes can mature beyond it, learn together how to distribute the fruits of our peculiar genius in a less destructive way; I certainly hope for this outcome. But we have to earn such a new wisdom. Forced abolition on an indignant wave of rage cannot work for long; only an evolution of consciousness can generate the right cultural conditions for transcending that which is dying. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to understand as well as we can the system breaking down all around us. For only an informed pubic can select the wiser options. Since the system is the problem, it is outside its remit and paradigm that those wiser options are to be found and created. Look there where the mainstream is not shining its glittering lights, and we'll find each other well enough.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Money is a Jealous God

We have made a god of money.

Money is a symbol of the agreement (we somehow) reached, that a number attached to some sign ($, £, €) accurately denotes the value of a thing. It is a ‘natural’ idea to us now, something we accept unquestioningly, but imagine explaining to a !Kung bushman that his loin cloth is ‘worth’ $50 on the ‘open market.’ What is a dollar? How much is one worth? What does it mean to measure the value of a thing with a simple number attached symbol? Can you even explain it to yourself? What is the dollar value of your right hand, to you? To the market? To me?

We have made of god of money, and we are not allowed to question that god.

In Hindu religious art, the eyes of the gods are whited out. We mortals cannot look at them and live. Money is like that. It is like the smell of your nose, there always, intimately familiar, and yet totally indescribable. After we have penetrated money’s mists and seen the vacuum that lies beyond them, we are changed. The old person ‘dies,’ the new one sees the world in a very different light.

What is the value of a loin cloth? What is $50? What information in “loin cloth” cannot be contained by the information “$50”? How about the following guess at the value of a loin cloth:

O snug second scrotum,
o status of my manhood,
o evidence of:
my skill with a blade,
to track all day then kill clean,
to skin and cure, to share the meat,
to make from what I have what I need!
How could I ever want another’s!?

That’s 47 words. Have I just valued the loin cloth at W47? Stupid question. What if I had put it to music? Or painted an image of my loin cloth on a cave wall? Words, music and images work together. They cooperate, expand on, go beyond. There is grammar, context, rhythm, style, rhyme, tone, colour, culture, etc. But $50 is always and only $50.

Why is it that the consensus required to create money—this ‘somehow’ agreement reached as if by magic, that $1 is always and only $1—is so powerful? To my mind it is precisely by magic we have concocted equivalence from its absence elsewhere in nature. If you can, try to name two things that grow or emerge from Universe, even two apples or grains of sand, that are exactly identical. Even two protons proceed through a different trajectory, have different ‘destinies.’ No two Decembers are identical, no two experienced seconds, or smiles, holidays, Mondays ... nothing. Everything is unique and in a constant state of flux. Only measuring-units such as inches, miles, meters and money posses this quality of perfect equivalence.

Why then have we made a jealous god of money, but not of inches or ounces?

The more of us capable of answering that question, in depth, the better chance humanity has at making it through the coming challenges.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Crisis of Imagination

At the supermarket buying a loaf of bread and a jar of yoghurt, I saw a German newspaper (Die Zeit) sporting the headline, “What is the alternative to capitalism?” Underneath, dominating the front page, was an appropriate graphic of a big fish eating a smaller fish eating a smaller fish, maybe five fish long. It’s a graphical gesture we all understand. Sadly, the article does not appear to be available online, so, not having bought a copy of the paper, I cannot comment on its content.

A couple of weeks ago, on a mainstream German channel (ARD), Franz Hoermann was allowed his five minutes of fame (his star appears to be rising though, so perhaps more than five minutes are coming his way). In his rapid-fire, academic style, he described the fiat, fractional reserve system. There appeared to be no shock in the audience. The minister for the economy, Philipp Roesler, sat to Hoermann’s left. Next to Roesler sat the finance minister and one of the architects of the Euro, Theo Waigel. Opposite Hoermann sat some markets expert, Dirk Mueller. Of the quartet, only Waigel seemed content to propagate the idea that the money system is fine as it is, is somehow immortal, and needs no substantial adjustments. That a thinker of Hoermann’s oddity should be given any airtime at all on such a mainstream talk show is quite surprising, that the other panelists, and the host too, should (more or less) sympathize with his position (Waigel excepted) more surprising still.

Apparently the BBC (principally Radio 4 and Newsnight) are also broadcasting what I think of as the voice of reason, that is, the type prepared to highlight collapse. Not doom and gloom necessarily, but a deep systemic problem which must be addressed. The Guardian online yesterday morning had a headline in its business section proclaiming the European situation was spiraling out of control, that France and Germany were contemplating a restructuring of the Eurozone. Strange days, as they say, are most certainly afoot. And yet despite this media flurry, a combination of rigged markets, desperate belief, a few heads of state tumbling down the career ladder, some reshuffling, and the situation suddenly seems less desperate. For a while. Nevertheless the taste of profound change in the air can’t be ignored any more. Defenses are crumbling, and I suspect growing numbers of the so-called elite are losing heart. Fewer and fewer of us care about this system as we once did, fewer desire ever growing consumption, ever higher salaries, an ever more frenetic rat race. What’s the point? To be cliched about it, surely there’s more to life than this!

So, is capitalism doomed? Well of course it is, just as is the sun. Only sooner. But it’s the wrong question (sort of).

I’ve covered this topic before, probably too often, so am going to be brief here. What I want to say is that what is being called into question, although labelled “capitalism” by everyone and their aunt, is in fact the price system, and includes the variants of socialism, communism, and fascism humanity has toyed with thus far, though these systems do have important differences.

A price is a piece of information generated by market activity (supply and demand) that tells us—allegedly in an uninfluenced, non-political, ‘value free’ way—what each good and service is worth. Price is therefore Value. Price information as generated by the market is—in ‘free’ market ideology—always true and accurate, as long as the State does not interfere with Price Discovery. Any interference muddies the water, poisons the accuracy of the information, and things no longer work optimally. It’s an elegant and powerful idea. Something organic and ‘natural’ takes place, constantly, no one dominates, and clear, helpful information emerges from the melee, information that guides important matters like how many Ferraris to manufacture, how many potatoes to grow, how many twenty carat diamond rings to produce, and so on. And via the labour market, who gets what amount of purchasing power is similarly discovered, in a ‘value free’ way. If only it were that simple!

As readers of this blog will know, I don’t subscribe to this theory (as it stands), since there can be no such thing as a ‘free’ market. Hence the price system cannot work as advertised. Hence ‘capitalism’ cannot work as advertised. The differences between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ are important, but also somewhat cosmetic. In communism we have the monopoly of State fixing prices. In capitalism we have the monopoly (or oligopoly) or the Corporation fixing prices. Either way we do not have clean and true information contained in prices. Externalities are but one other aspect of this general problem. That we even try to nail value down using a linear scale like Dollar is another.

There are many problems, but perhaps the central one is that the confected dichotomy between Market and State serves no purpose other than to bamboozle and confuse. It is a Punch and Judy show, just as the Left-Right Drama is. One telling sign of this is the infrequency with which lobbying (the modern name for bribery) is discussed as Market interference in State. If Market only works best when ‘free’ from State ‘interference,’ why do we not hear any mainstream discussion of how a ‘free’ State works best when free from Market ‘interference?’

Of course the answer is that the price system is corruptible, corrupted, and benefits approximately 10% of the population at the cost of the remaining 90%. It is an elitist system by design. And that applies to both Market and State. Elitism, entrenched class divisions, wealth, health and education gaps, are systemic properties of the price system while the money system is set up as we have it.

Underneath all of this writhe, like uroboric world serpents, the core assumptions of Competition, Selfishness and Greed, as projected onto nature via misunderstandings of Darwinian theory (Spencer’s “red in tooth and claw”). Of course a millennia old dynamic of elitist control of an exploited non-elite, as established by the state long ago (a HUGE topic), predominantly engenders the kind of competition, selfishness and greed history has delivered thus far. We cooked ourselves in that soup and now see its flavours everywhere we look, even in our imagination. That there is far more to nature than this simplistic Triumvirate of Evil is becoming plainer and plainer, but changing the system forged in those elitist fires, the system which found form and life in historical processes set in motion by farming and ‘taming’ fire, and as these accomplishments gave birth to scarcity and property (twinned phenomena in my humble opinion) which in turn shape our view of All That is; changing a system that old, that much a part of what we all are, is no easy task.

Back to the price system. As we can see, its roots go deep indeed. We ‘need’ it, because we have ‘discovered’ scarcity via farming and property. Because there is not enough to go around, what better way to ‘decide’ who gets what, while keeping the constant threat of a Hobbesian Warre of Each Against All at bay, what better than some ‘anonymous,’ impartial, and incorruptible system? Capitalism. Free Market. The Price System. A force of nature for harnessing our brutish forces of nature.

Cool, only atop the foundational assumption of scarcity no market can stay free. Big fish eat little fish (competition, greed, selfishness), in the twinned realms of Market and State alike, and before you know it, the biggest are writing the rules to suit themselves and their own. ‘Twas ever thus, and ever thus shall be. Until we update the Triumvirate of Evil and embrace abundance, cooperation and faith.

Back to the money system. It is the motor of state apparatus, is its core dynamic embodied in financial infrastructure. Forged in those Competition, Selfishness and Greed fires, the money system stimulates and assumes these three forces equally resolutely. It also requires, by design, perpetual economic growth. Ever-growing economic activity. An ever-expanding money realm into the non-economic realm. An ever-accelerating rat race. What was once done for free, what is ‘idly’ doing nothing—like forests and schools of fish—must be converted into either goods or services. If it’s not working, if it’s not earning money and delivering price information, what possible value can it have? How can we measure a thing, assess it, extract it, profit from it, unless it is sucked into economic life? Look at air, that useless, ubiquitous stuff. It has a price of zero! Let’s earn money from it, put it to work somehow, make it earn its right to exist! But what happens when there’s no nature left to convert into goods and services ??? Let’s not contemplate that.

Except, the mainstream has begun to contemplate just that. We are the mainstream, even we Fringe Nutjobs. The more eloquent we become at presenting our case, the quicker and more effectively the message can spread to others. Then our imaginations can begin the work of envisioning a new system, and put ideas into practice.

Fellow travelers, through this period of upheaval, crisis and opportunity, the time of the Fringe Nutjob has come. People will be asking, in growing numbers, what the alternatives are. Sadly, the “no one knows” answer can be annoying. I suggest pointing out that the system we have is based on profound misunderstandings of the workings of reality, and, as a consequence, has become addicted to perpetual growth. We have designed a system which, were it a car, could only accelerate. Forever. Pressing on the breaks causes it to crash. Designing things differently requires, urgently, a new money system, which will further and necessarily require a redesign of pretty much everything else. All of it can only begin when we are ready to initiate the task. When we badly want something new. Right now recognition of the urgency is paramount. The ideas are there. We need safe-as-possible mechanisms and methodologies for testing them.

It has begun in earnest. Now we have to kick our imaginations into gear, have a lot of faith, and believe in ourselves.

(After reading this please check out this talk, given towards the end of October at Occupy Wall Street, on money, value and information flow. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Karl, for the link.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Has Money Become Obsolete?

This is a Le Monde article translated by Al Evans, which I found at Charles Eisenstein's blog. Enjoy.

By Anselm Jappe

The media and official sources are preparing us: in the next few months, maybe even the next few weeks, a new worldwide financial crisis will begin, and it will be worse than in 2008. Catastrophes and disasters are being openly discussed. But what will happen after? What will our lives be like if banks and public finances fail on a vast scale? Presently, all European and North American financial systems are in danger of going down together, with no possible savior.

But at what point will the stock-market crash stop being a news story for the media, and become an event we will notice out on the street? The answer: When money can no longer fulfill its usual function, either because it becomes scarce (deflation), or because it circulates in enormous, but devalued quantities (inflation). In either case, the circulation of goods and services slows, perhaps to a complete standstill. Their possessors will no longer find anyone who can pay them in “valid” money which permits them, in turn, to buy other goods and services. So they’ll keep what they have.

The stores will be full, but without customers; the factories will be in perfect operating condition, but with nobody working there; the teachers will no longer go to the schools, because they haven’t been paid in months. Then we will be made aware of a truth which is so obvious we didn’t notice it: there is no crisis in production itself. Productivity in all sectors is continuously increasing. The amount of arable soil available can feed the entire world population. The shops and factories can produce even more than is necessary, desirable, or even sustainable. The miseries of the world are not due, as they were in the Middle Ages, to natural catastrophes, but to a kind of “enchantment” that separates men and their products.

What is not working any more is the “interface” between men and what they produce, namely, money. The crisis confronts us with the fundamental paradox of capitalist society: The production of goods and services is not an end in itself, but only a means. The only true end is to multiply money, to invest one euro and get two back.

However, those who hold capitalist finance in contempt assure us that finance, credit, and the markets are only foreign growths on a healthy economic body. Once the bubble bursts, there will be turbulence and bankruptcies, but in the end it will only be a “healthy” storm and we will begin again with a stronger, more real economy. Really? Today, we get almost everything by paying for it. If the supermarket, the electric company, the gas station, and the hospital accept only cash money, and if there isn’t much of it any more, we will soon be in distress. If there are enough of us, we can still take the supermarket by assault, or connect ourselves directly to the electrical network.

But when the supermarket is no longer resupplied, and the electric plant stops running because it can’t pay its workers and suppliers, what then? Barter systems could be organized, new kinds of solidarity, direct exchanges. It would even be a good opportunity to renew social connections. But who can believe that we could accomplish this in a very brief time on a large scale, in the midst of chaos and looting? “We will go to the country,” say some, “to appropriate the raw materials directly.” Too bad the European Community has been paying peasants, for years, to cur down their trees, pull up their vines, and slaughter their livestock…. After the collapse of the countries of Eastern Europe, millions of people survived thanks to relatives who lived in the country and to kitchen gardens. Will we be able to say the same in France or Germany?

It is not certain that we will arrive at these extremes. But even a partial collapse of the financial system will have consequences due to the fact that we have given ourselves, hands and feet bound, to money, giving it the exclusive task of assuring the function of society. Money has existed since the dawn of history, we are told — but in pre-capitalist societies, it played only a marginal role. It is only the the last few decades that we have arrived at the point where almost every part of life involves money and where money has filtered even into the smallest hidden corners of individual and collective existence.

But money is only real when it represents some work that has actually been done and the value that this work has created. All other money is only a fiction, based only on the mutual agreement of the players, and confidence in this agreement could evaporate. We are witnessing a phenomenon not foreseen by economic science — not a crisis of a single kind of money and the economy it represents, to the advantage of another, stronger economy. The euro, the dollar, and the yen are all involved in a crisis. The few countries still rated AAA by the rating agencies cannot, by themselves, save the world economy. None of the proposed economic recipes is working, anywhere. The market functions as poorly as the state, austerity as poorly as stimulus, Keynesianism as poorly as monetarism.

Thus we are witnessing a devaluation of money as such, the loss of its role, its obsolescence. But not by the conscious decision of a humanity finally tired of what even Sophocles called the most ill-omened invention of mankind. It is rather by a process uncontrolled, chaotic, and extremely dangerous. It is like taking the wheelchair from someone after he has long been denied the natural use of his legs. Money is our fetish, a god we created ourselves, on which we believe ourselves dependent and whose anger we are ready to sacrifice anything to appease.

Nobody can honestly say he knows how to organize the lives of tens of millions of people when money loses its function. It would be good to at least admit the problem exists. Perhaps we should prepare ourselves for the age after money as for the age after oil.