Thursday, December 08, 2005

Communication/Distribution: My blogging experiment

My experiment with blogging has run for over a year now, and I’ve learned a few things:
  1. It’s hard to attract an audience
  2. Isolated blogs are not the way to go
I intend to continue writing on this blog, if for no other purpose than to record the assorted thoughts that I have on the nature of power relationships in our society. Of course, I also enjoy the little feedback that I get. As always, feel free to subscribe to my RSS feed if you want to be notified when I write something new here.

I started blogging with the hope that syndicated blogs could provide the foundation for a communication system in which each of us produces a small amount of content focused on specific topics that interest us, which is then distributed widely. Isolated blogs are not the way to do that. For the time being, I think that online communities offer the tool for creating the inclusive communication system that I seek.

I’ve participated in the FreedomDemocrats online community for a couple of months, where I started another blog. What I like is that the community moderators read all of the blog postings that are made, and promote good postings to the front page. This provides a sort of quality control system for readers who are interested in getting the most important information from the Freedom Democrats movement, but it still would allow readers to subscribe to my own RSS feed at if they are interested specifically in what I have to say. The Internet communication system that I would like to see includes both the ability for individual producer-consumer connections, as well as a role for middlemen who sifts through several content sources to find the best content addressing a specific topic and then redistributes it.

The FreedomDemocrats site is powered by Drupal, which can be a powerful tool for creating an online presence for various communities, especially when combined with the CivicSpace adaptations.

Another experiment in communication that I’ve participated in is the Mutualist Journal Club. A journal club includes several members, each of whom monitors a particular publication for articles of interest to the group, and then reports that article to the group. I started this in cooperation with Kevin Carson (Mutualist Blog) and we are currently recruiting members. I’m not aware of anything like this, so I’ll have to see how well it works.

A final community site to consider as a model for many-to-many communication is Wikipedia. Content is limited to that which fits into an encyclopedia, but the Wiki system has great potential to be expanded to other types of content, as can be seen at the “Proposals for New Projects” page.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

If you don't like the market, leave it!

These past few weeks have been a bit frustrating for me. Everyone has been angry at petroleum companies and I can't get a clear explanation of why. Friends, bloggers, newspaper columnists, and even Senators have been saying that petroleum companies must be manipulating the gasoline market, but the only evidence that they present is high gasoline prices and high profits in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I searched the web in the hope of finding a clear argument against the oil companies, but could find none. However, I did find one commentator who succinctly summarized the situation:
(T)he basic problem is that we live in a market economy in which only a small fraction of the population actually seems to understand markets or be comfortable with their adverse outcomes.
In other words, high gas prices and high oil company profits are exactly what we should expect from a market economy after a hurricane strikes a region with a lot of oil refineries. Why do so many people have a problem with this?

The answer seems to be that people are offended that the oil companies are benefiting at everyone else's expense. The thing that these critics seem to ignore is that this is how markets work every day; there is nothing special about the behavior of the oil companies. It's a hard fact of life that strangers tend not to care about strangers, and consequently most of our interactions with strangers are driven by selfishness. The lack of consideration is increased when the interactions are impersonal, as most market interactions are.

I'm going to state this clearly: nobody in the oil companies cares one bit for our welfare. Not the CEO, not the engineers, and not the marketers who set the prices. We would be fools if we expected them to care. Everyone knows that it is foolish to depend upon the kindness of strangers; it is equally foolish to depend upon the fairness of strangers, especially in a situation where "fairness" doesn't have a clear definition.

This illustrates a basic fact about markets which is both their strength and their weakness: markets are a way for people to cooperate when they have absolutely no concern for each other's welfare. This is good, because it allows us to find benefits in situations where no benefits would exist otherwise. However, this is also bad because if we allow ourselves to become dependent upon a market, then as soon as it is no longer in our partner's interest to provide us with what we need (whether it is goods or a job), then we suddenly have no way of getting our hands on the things that we need.

Many people seem to think that our dependence on markets is inevitable, and consequently they try to regulate them to make sure that they never fail us. They try to regulate the market by means of the government, but the government suffers from the exact same weaknesses as the market: the people who run the government don't give a damn about us. Our relationship with the government is just as impersonal as our relationships with corporations, and it is just as strongly influenced by selfishness. The corporations need our business, and the politicians need our votes, but there's only so much influence that we can exert with our votes.

If we want economic systems that are based around the idea that we actually care for the people who are dependent upon us, then we need to build our economic lives around those people: our friends, our family, our churches, and our neighbors. At first glance, this may seem impossible and completely foreign to the way that we live our lives. However, every day we make decisions that affect the extent that we are dependent upon markets, and many persons are consciously making the decision to minimize their dependence on markets.

Below are a number of links to resources that can help us to minimize our dependence upon uncaring and unpredictable markets. But first, I want to make one more point: each of us has the ability to decrease our dependence upon the market. This ability may seem to be minimal at the moment, but as more of us decide to consciously reduce our dependence on the market to provide us with essentials, our ability to do so will increase. We will gain from each other's experiences, and we will gain the ability to create institutions to replace market institutions. Many of us have immense wealth and we can choose to use this wealth to create a more secure and humane economy, or we can choose to squander this wealth on frivolous luxuries and status symbols.

Update: Perry Eidelbus has a good post that distills this issue to its essence--the justice of this situation depends upon the extent that we can choose to not buy gasoline.

The following links provide commentary, information, resources, and social networks that can help us to step outside of the markets. This list is by no means exhaustive, or even the best stuff out there, but is what I could pull together at the moment. I'll be addressing this topic in future posts and will provide more resources as I come across them.

  1. Could you live without money?
  2. Community Resource Management: Old Rules, and New Sustainable Ones
  3. The Populist Farmer
  4. Cohousing Association of the United States
  5. What is Counter-economics
  6. The "Living simply" Yahoo! group
  7. The New American Dream, the Shared Capitalism Institute, the Open Co-op.
  8. Off-grid blog. Exteme, but extremists are always good for experimenting with new ways of doing things.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

V&F: anti-war activists and soldiers' deaths

I've been thinking about the relationship between violence and freedom (V&F) for a while, and planned to eventually write about it, but the hub-bub over American casualties in Iraq prompts me to address the issue now. I saw this cartoon called "Grim Countdown" a couple weeks ago, and thought that it was totally inaccurate and unfair -- little more than some cheap demagogy by some right-wing fanatics.

I know a bunch of people who publicized this symbolic milestone, and not a single one of them gave me any reason to believe that they actually welcomed the death of American soldiers. Yes, they used this milestone as an opportunity to make a political point, which seems a bit crass--but that's how politics works; the pro-Bush crowd also takes advantage of symbolic events to make the case that their views are correct.

A person is in an difficult position when they claim that the government's policies are disastrous for us; to justify themselves, they need to bring attention to the consequent disasters, and risk giving the impression that they welcome these disasters. It's unfair and unwise to criticize them on those grounds.

In all the fuss over the 2,000 military deaths in Iraq, I came across a single (American) person who welcomed the deaths of these soldiers, and I only noticed this person because another anti-war commentator had pointed him out in order to condemn him.

I'll have more comments on that later.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Political speech and Pittsburgh elections

"House Dems scuttled a bill that would have shored up protections for online journalists and bloggers. " Reactions include from "Thanks Jackasses" and "I, for one, welcome our soft-money-wielding Overlords". As I said before, I think that efforts to regulate political communications are misguided. I doubt that any prospective FEC regulations would interfere with the style of advocacy that I engage in, and I'll never be big enough to draw any attention anyway.

Still, this has prompted me to make my endorsements for this Tuesday's elections for Pittsburgh voters. After all, distributing political power is part of the point of this exercize (meaning, this blog), so, here it goes:

Mayor: What a crock. Bob O'Connor will win in a landslide, because this is a Democrat's city, and there's a good amount of stupid party loyalty to go around. The city is going to pieces, and Bob O'Connor is as much to blame for our problems as anyone. I'll probably cast a protest vote just for the heck of it.

Court of Common Pleas: Kathryn Hens-Greco. There are several positions up for election, but Hens-Greco is the only person who I know enough about to cast a vote for. I know a lot of people who know her, and have only heard good things about her. She's been endorsed by both of the local papers, some local activist groups, and the local bar association. From what I've heard, she stands out because she actually wants to serve on the Family Court, while most judges view the Family Court as a stepping stone to something bigger.

State Supreme Court: Several groups want voters to refuse to retain judges Newman and Nigro. I haven't seen enough evidence to vote against them, but they seem to have done enough to piss off a lot of folk (both conservative and progressive), so I just want to point this out.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Communication: Distribution (preview)

Previously, I wrote about the importance of improving our ability to communicate, and specifically, how we do so by improving our ability to produce media content.

The next way to shape the information landscape of our society is to distribute media -- to help information consumers to find the stuff that they want. I'll cover this topic in a future post, but for now I invite you to check out a webpage called "I want to - a page of utilities that help you do stuff you want to". This webpage has tons of links to software and services that can help you to get information to others. The major topics include:
  • Share stuff
  • Manage myself more effectively
  • Find things that I'd enjoy
  • Do things with websites
  • Create tutorials
  • Do a bunch of other stuff
  • Have a bit of a laugh
It's well-organized and comprehensive. Check it out.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Communications: production

A person's influence on society is heavily dependent on his ability to communicate with the general public. If we wish to improve our ability to communicate with the public, we can increase our effectiveness in producing media, distributing media, or consuming media. Below are a number of ideas and resources intended to help a regular person produce media--starting from the development of an idea until it is ready for public consumption.

Ideas and information can be packaged into several forms of media: speech, writing, music, drawings, and any number of combinations or derivative forms. As you may have guessed, my favorite medium is the written word, so I'll focus the most on that, but try to provide whatever information I can on those other media.


The Internet provides all types of resources to help individuals improve their writing. At the most basic level, one can get free word-processing software, such as Open Office. Also, before writing, it is good to consider tips that can help in writing, such as Fifty (50!) Tools which can help you in Writing.

Once the first draft has been written, an editor can do wonders for improving it. Not only do editors improve the particular piece of writing that they are evaluating, but they also improve an author's writing skills. The Internet should make it easier for authors to work with editors, but I'm not aware of any system that matches amateur authors with editors. At the very least, an author can recruit someone with a shared interest to edit his work, and they can easily exchange material by email. A writer can also evaluate his work using automated readability tests.

The Online Writing Lab at Purdue has a number of resources for writing, including tips for editing and proofreading. As a final note, I think that the most important thing for a writer to do is keep his goals in mind, and put his ego aside and do what is necessary to accomplish those goals.


Cartoons are a great way to communicate to a large audience, especially if the message is simple or emotional, or the audience is not very literate. Cartoons also tend to be more fun than written works, which can encourage readers to show the cartoons to their friends.

I'm not an artist, so I can't recommend tips for making cartoons. All I can do is point to an example of how cartoons are being used to promote economic reform.


Even better than cartoons (sometimes) are animated cartoons. I've never made an animated cartoon, but I've seen some cool stuff and it apparently isn't too difficult to produce animations in Flash. We've seen what has been done by JibJab(This land), NoMediaKings (Time management for Anarchists), and some egg lover.

Unfortunately, it seems that the official software that produces Flash animations costs a few hundred dollars, but free alternatives are available: OpenOffice can export its "slide-show" presentations in Flash formats; Open Source Flash maintains information about open-source Flash projects, which seems to focus upon Eclipse (tutorial); there's also the proprietary but free, PowerBullet.

I'm no musician, but I have edited some audio files using Audacity, and am pretty impressed with it. You can see a list of items that have been produced with Audacity. The rather new practise of podcasting has made it a lot easier to distribute audio to your audience.

Finally, once you've put together your content, you have to make it available to the public. The traditional way to do this is to publish flyers and newsletters. Publishing in these formats is easier than ever, but it is even easier to send out an email or set up a web-page.
Probably the easiest way to web publish is to use a blog. I've been happy with the free service provided by Blogger, and have found that their help files are rather comprehensive. Here are some tips on designing a weblog.

Once you've produced your media, you have to get it into the hands of the consumer. I'll address that in a future post. Stay tuned!
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Note: if this topic is interesting, you may be interested in my previous post on Thinking for Ourselves.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Forcing freedom on the Afghanis

More than three years after the American military intervened in Afghanistan's civil war, the Afghanis have voted on a president and a parliment. According to some, the ability to place your mark on a ballot is the definition of freedom.

Still, a person who speaks out on religious matters is at risk of being executed by the state (not to mention the other gangs out there). I'm not saying that the Afghanis aren't more free now than they were under the Taliban, and I'm not saying that we should not have intervened in Afghanistan -- after all, our primary purpose wasn't to liberate the Afghanis.

I just want to point out that we can't impose freedom on a foriegn country, despite the common opinion of Bush's supporters. This idea that foreign forces can transform domestic political culture at will is pure megalomania. Not only is this notion at odds with most of our experience, but it is logicaly self-contradictory: FREEDOM CANNOT BE FORCED. Our military interventions have rarely changed the domestic political culture, and when it has, it was in the context of a larger war (the Cold War) where the subjected country needed our patronage to protect them from foreign invasion.

Thanks to Dadahead for the pointer

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Corruption: the relationship between official power and personal power

The Xpatriated Texan provides some additional insights on the incentives behind corruption. He considers the position of individuals who are entrusted with extensive power in their official role, but are not given much personal power (in the form of a high salary). This can be especially important in the case of old-fashioned graft, but I think it is less important with respect to the more subtle forms of corruption that I emphasized in my earlier post on How Power Corrupts.

Apparently, in New Jersey, a member of the legislature oversees the disbursement of billions of dollars, but has an income that is less than the median income of the state. Here in PA, the legislature gets a handsome compensation, so I didn't think that this was a problem for them. However, I've long thought that this disparity was important when it comes to the officials who actually implement the law--such as the cops. Here in Pittsburgh, I've gotten the impression that cops can be a bit resentful of the wealthier citizens of the community--especially the proto-professionals at Carnegie Mellon University. It seems obvious that a person's salary should be proportionate to that person's power.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Improving communication

Social influence (and power) depends upon the ability to recruit the aid of others for your projects. In turn, the ability to recruit others begins with the ability to communicate with them. In the USA, a person's ability to get a message to others is heavily dependent on how much money that person is willing to spend on getting that message out: meaning that we have to "pay to play" in the broader society. This condition has corrupted our politics, our economics, and our culture--making everything dependent on money.

Fortunately, us regular folk have recently made great advances in our ability to communicate with others, but we still need more tools and we need to make better use of the tools that already exist. In future posts to this blog, I will provide an overview of the tools that we can use to increase our ability to communicate, but first I want to provide a very brief analysis of social communication systems, and my (non-expert) view of how these systems have changed throughout history.

Producers, distributors, and consumers

There are three roles in a social communication system: producers, distributors, and consumers. Producers assemble various bits of information into a coherent and self-contained structure (speech, article, movie, advertisement, etc.), while consumers receive and interpret this information. Distributors connect producers with consumers.

According to my layman's understanding of history, the relative importance of these three roles has changed drastically over time, and we are currently experiencing another drastic change.

In the most primitive societies, the only communication technologies are speech and gestures. For all practical purposes, this creates a symmetrical system: if a person can interpret the message, then that person can also create the message. The only difference is that some individuals are be better speakers than others. Almost all communication are directly between the producer and consumer. The only distributors ("middlemen") are minstrels, chiefs, or sages, who either repeat works produced by others or tell one person to go speak with another person.

The development of writing changes things a little, but not much. Writing is still a symmetrical communication technology; if a person can read, that person can probably write. However, if only a small fraction of a society is literate, then those members can take the role of distributing communication. The literate class is able to record the speech of others, store it or transport it, and then transform the writing back into speech. This increases the influence of literate individuals. For example, consider clerics in medieval society.

Printing really changes things--no longer does the ability to interpret a message go along with the ability to create a message. Print publications (newspapers) become central institutions in society, and the expense of publication means that the producers need to collect considerable revenues from their activities. The shift from reader-supported publications to advertiser-supported publications means that the producers of media content become a rather small elite, while the rest of the people becoming passive consumers of information.

This concentration of power is amplified by radio and television. Not only does the production process increasingly expensive, but the nature of the broadcast technology limits the number of potential competitors. In the USA, the Federal government even took the unprecedented step of regulating what could be said "in the interest of the community," since the radio spectrum is a valuable public resource. By 1990, this was the boring, exclusive, and controlled communication system that dominated our society and inspired the angst-driven movie Pump Up the Volume (brief review of this movie at the end of this post).

Finally, we (the general public) discovered the Internet. Computer networking returned us to a more balanced state, wherein a person who has the ability to receive a message also has the ability to produce a similar message. The main limitation at the moment is the difficulty in setting up a web-server, but if you have enough money to go to the movies once a month, you have enough money to hire someone to provide a web server for you. Now that the technical limitations of many-to-many communication have essentially disappeared, we only need to set up the appropriate social structures. I'll address that in future posts.

Stay tuned (subscribe to my XML feed using your feed reader!)

Extra content:

You may be interested in the Wikipedia article on Communication; it's poorly written (at the moment), but contains a lot of information. It seems that Marshal McLuhan (this Wikipedia article is well-written) made a lot of contributions to the study of communications, so perhaps he'd be a good read also.

If you're looking for a movie, I recently saw the Christian Slater move Pump Up the Volume, about a high-school student in the early 90's who broadcasts a pirate radio program. It's a well-done movie, but an adult can only find so much value in a movie centered around teen-angst. Still, it's an interesting view of how our access to information (or lack thereof) affects our behavior.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

See Marginal Revolution: A Bush plan for avian flu

The NYTimes reports that Bush is considering imposing a military lockdown on the country should we have another flu outbreak. Just a few weeks ago, Bush was talking about using the military to control natural disaster areas, and now this. Wow.

Anyway, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has some good commentary on this. Basically, he proposes a decentralized, voluntary, and effective response to contagious disease outbreaks.

I suspect that Bush has proposed this centralized, heavy-handed response simply because it is what he is capable of ("if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail"). However, I'm starting to get the impression that he's just looking for any excuse to declare martial law.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Against campaign finance regulations

Once again, I've read news that illustrates the absurdity and danger of campaign finance regulations...

It seems that the Federal Election Commission has been negligent in regulating campaign activities that make use of the Internet, and has been ordered by a Federal court to devise regulations that apply the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to the Internet. Needless to say, political bloggers are up in arms against the chance that their activities (writings or advertisement) could be subject to regulation, illustrating the basic problems of campaign finance regulations.

The fundamental problem facing attempts to regulate campaign spending is that political speech and money are both ubiquitous and essential in modern American society; we can't stop them from influencing each other any more than we can stop water and air from coming into contact around the globe. Regulators are faced with an impossible balancing act of allowing free discussion of political issues while restricting how money can be used to amplify one's own voice. As a result, regulations are necessarily arbitrary--for example, you can buy a newspaper publisher and publish your views without restriction, but if you want to buy advertising space in that same newspaper, you are loaded with restrictions. Loopholes are also inevitable--not only are regulators limited by the need to avoid restrictions on "legitimate" speech, but limits on spending or contributions are undermined by the fact that money is anonymous and there are an infinite number of ways that money can get from one person to another person in exchange for a particular service.

These loopholes are perhaps the most tragic aspect of campaign finance regulations, since their existence means that there is always a need for another law, which will eternally occupy the attention of pro-democracy activists, distracting them from an agenda that could really increase democracy in our society.

Like many activities of government, campaign finance regulations are bound to fail because they are a knee-jerk reaction that treats the symptoms of a problem without addressing the underlying cause. In this case, the problem is not that politicians collect money from special interest groups, the problem is that elected officials are not fully accountable to the voters. Campaign finance regulations do not address that problem; but that problem can be addressed with reforms, such as Lani Guinier's power-sharing reforms, that increase competition in elections and decrease the risk associated with "losing" an election.

Another way to address the problem is to recognize that our campaign finance problems result from the fact that politics depends on communication, and our communication system is heavily commercial and plutocratic; a society with a plutocratic communication system will inevitably have a plutocratic political system, not a democratic one. Attempts to democratize our communication system will have a much more fundamental and lasting effect on political democratization than any regulatory agency could. Stay tuned, because my next article will evaluate what avenues we have to democratize our communication system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Limits of Voting

For many Americans, the legitimacy of the state derives from the fact that state officials are elected by popular vote. In this school of thought, elected officials represent "the will of the people" and use their power to benefit the people as a whole, without preference for any particular subset of the people.

In the USA, we generally use a plurality election system; this means that each voter selects one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Given this election system, the main criticism of the above-mentioned "will of the people" school of thought is that elected officials only represent the majority (actually, the plurality) that voted for them. A less obvious but even more serious criticism is that even in situations where there is a near consensus among the voters, elected officials can still choose to go against the "will of the people", and will not be held accountable at the polls. This produces a systematic tendency for politicians to favor particular interest groups (including themselves) at the expense of the people in general--this is what I will argue below, followed by some suggestions of how we can improve the situation.

In a plurality election system, there is a strong incentive for voters to coordinate their voting and focus on candidates who have the ability to receive about half of the total votes, thereby avoiding the problem of spoiler" candidacies or "vote-splitting". The end result is that two large political parties dominate the elections, and the primary choice facing a voter is which party to support (in general, or for a particular election).

As a consequence of the two-party system, political issues fall into one of three classes:
Class I (accountable): Elections impose accountability for issues where there is a near consensus among the voters and many of the voters feel strongly about the issue. For example, in American politics, open racism will sink a candidacy. The vast majority of Americans would disagree with that candidate, and a large number of Americans would consider that issue so important that they would vote against that candidate regardless of his position on other issues.

Class II (dividers): Elections are largely decided on issues where there is no consensus, but many voters feel strongly about them. These are the issues that make up our day-to-day political discourse: abortion, the Iraq war, gun control, and so on. Since there is no consensus on these issues, it is meaningless to say that the politicians are accountable or unaccountable on these issues; however, these issues have the important role of defining the political parties and making other, less important issues irrelevant to the decision of how to vote.

As a consensus is established or destroyed, an issue can move between these first two categories. Activist judicial decisions often move issues from the first class to the second class.

Class III (unaccountable): Politicians are not accountable on the "small" issues, which are not going to change the behavior of individual voters, and consequently a politician can make decisions that are in opposition to the near-consensus of the people. This produces a risk of corruption, which may be increased by the fact that the voters are generally more concerned with big, impersonal societal issues and less concerned with the specific economic issues that can provide huge rewards to special interests. For example, very few voters will raise a fuss over the frivolous expenditure of $100 million by the Federal government, if the only other alternative is vote for a candidate whom that voter disagrees with on the "big issues" (abortion, Iraq, etc.).

Corruption in the "small issues" is further encouraged by the logic that if one party can get away with a little bit, then the other party can get away with a little more--each political party becomes a little more corrupt than the other. Eventually, this becomes a "big issue" to the citizens, but the differences between the major parties is not big enough for this to form the basis of the voting decision. Hence, we die of a thousand little cuts. This gives new meaning to word "politics", which can be broken down into its component parts: poly (many), ticks (small blood-sucking insects).
Is there any way out of this? Perhaps there are enough "swing voters" who don't identify with either party regarding the "big issues", and consequently are free to base their votes on the "small issues" and enforce accountability on the politicians. Unfortunately, most swing voters do not invest the energy necessary to inform themselves about these issues, thereby placing the burden of spreading information on the candidates themselves. Consequently, the number of voters who can be swayed by a fancy, ubiquitous advertising campaign is greater than the number of voters who can be swayed by a little fiscal restraint. This encourages politicians to collect money from big-time donors and repeatedly decide the "small issues" in favor of those campaign financiers to keep their favor, rather than doing what is in the best interest of the general population. We now see an opportunity for corruption that complements the motive for corruption (fear of competing power) that I pointed out previously in How power corrupts.

Perhaps a more likely solution to this problem is the possibility that our society will build a consensus on many of the divisive issues, which will open up some space for us to vote against this type of corruption. There is some hope in the Porkbusters movement, which may represent an attempt to put the "culture war" behind us and focus a problem that unites us.

Campaign finance regulation is often proposed as a solution for the type of corruption that I am concerned with here, but such regulations are a BAD IDEA (more on that in a future post). We need to focus on eliminating the motive and opportunity for corruption rather than bothering with the form that the corruption takes. One promising approach is to move away from the plurality voting system and adopt a system that allows more political competition and consequently introduces more accountability on politicians. While Arrow's theorem demonstrates that no voting system is perfect, activists such as those at Fairvote (the Center for Voting and Democracy) have a lot of good ideas for how to improve the American voting system.

That may limit the opportunity for corruption, but we can also limit the motivation for corruption by reducing the need for candidates to run multi-million dollar campaigns. We can do this by informing ourselves about the positions of the candidates, which can be aided by Project Vote-Smart. We can also develop a decentralized communication system that allows every person to make a significant contribution to a candidate's publicity campaign (more on that in a future post), thereby freeing the candidates from their reliance on big money.

Extra tidbits: Lani Guinier has done a lot to promote the idea of power sharing in government, particularly with her book Tyranny of the Majority. I suspect that power-sharing reforms will inherently increase the accountability of the government. Another way to increase accountability is to split up power among separately elected offices. In the USA we could essentially make the head of each Federal Executive Department (cabinet secretaries) directly elected by the people rather than having them appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Of course, this would be a major reform, requiring a rearrangement of the departments and a Constitutional amendment. Fortunately, the experience of state governments could serve as a guide for this reform, as many of them have the Treasurer and Attorney General elected independently of the Governor.

For an example of this phenomenon, see What's the Matter with Kansas?. From what I've heard, the thesis of this book is that in spite of the fact that the Democratic economic agenda would benefit many voters in this state, those voters support the Republicans because they consider social issues to be more important.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Libertarian ideology: give it a break!

Several years ago I went through a phase of ideological libertarianism; I was adamant that liberty was the only foundation of justice, and that my favored strain of libertarianism (geo-libertarianism) was the only real embodiment of the libertarian principle. I spent a lot of time trying to convince others of these two points, and now that I have exited that phase of my life, I want to give a warning to others who are going down the path towards ideological libertarianism: DON'T GO THERE!

Actually, this warning goes out to anyone who is at risk of becoming an ideologue. I focus on libertarianism because it is the only ideology that focuses on the distribution of power in a society, and because of all the political movements in the USA, the libertarian movement seems to be the only one that is strongly based on ideology and hasn't splintered into a million warring factions (like the socialists).

Ideology does have it's place, but not in real life. Ideology is an academic exercise that allows individuals to express their deepest concerns and develop problem solving techniques. It provides us with criteria that we use to judge real-world proposals, and an awareness of how various values (for example, liberty and security) may complement or conflict with each other.

Ideology does not provide "the answer". When a person attaches himself to a particular ideology, he becomes blind to aspects of life that are not covered by that ideology. When ideology is invoked in discussions of real and immediate problems, it hinders communication. Ultimately, the application of ideology outside of the academic realm inhibits effective action and the realization of the ideological goals.

The preponderance of ideologues in the libertarian movement aggravates and alienates the vast majority non-libertarians and gives rise to the complaints chronicled by opposing ideologues such as Mike Huben. The worst tendency among libertarian ideologues is to reject a proposal because it isn't "libertarian", and then drop the issue. These ideologues never take a minute to address the problem that inspired the anti-libertarian proposal, and as a result, they appear to be one-dimensional and disconnected from reality.

Libertarian ideologues will also reject libertarian reforms because they are not one's own ideal, which is pure idiocy. This ignores the fact that society advances by the improvement of traditions, not by instant implementation of someone prophet's (half-baked) thoughts. It also ignores the reality of politics, where we need to convince others to accept our proposals and it is easier to sell a particular reform than it is to sell an entire ideology.

Humans need to embrace multiple ideologies, recognizing that the real world includes great uncertainty and humans have a number of concerns which may complement or conflict with each other. We also need to think more like engineers, treating the world as raw material that can be shaped, bit-by-bit, into one's ideal.

Extra: Gus Van Horn has a good post on how activists can become obsessed with implementing a particular policy and forget what it means to engage in politics. He describes the gradual nature of political change, addressing the need to change public opinon before changing state policy.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The disturbing case of Jose Padilla

The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has overturned a lower court ruling and determined that Jose Padilla can be imprisoned without charge or trial, indefinitely, at the will of the President.

Further information can be found at:

A few years ago, I purchased a shirt with an American flag on it, and the words "liberty and justice for all." About a week later, Padilla was imprisoned without charge, and since then I have been unable to bring myself to put that shirt on.

This decision rests upon the fact that "Padilla associated with the military arm of the enemy, and with its aid, guidance, and direction entered this country bent on committing hostile acts on American soil." What I don't understand is who determined that this is true. Does Padilla admit this? If so, I have no problem with his detention. Were these facts determined by a jury of his peers? That would be legit also. Unfortunately, it sounds as though these facts were determined solely by the President. It's possible that these facts were reviewed by judges (who rely on the President for their promotions), which would be better than just accepting the word of the President, but still would be a violation of the right of the people (represented by a jury) to review government actions that deprive any citizen of his liberty, as encoded in the fifth and sixth amendments of the US constitution.

Civil libertarians warn that this decision means that the President can detain anyone indefinitely on a whim. I'd like to know why this isn't true. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How Power corrupts

The stability of power relationships (including government) depends on the perception that the power-holders are serving the interests of the people who contribute to their power. This truth was on the minds of the framers of the American constitution, who conducted a public-relations campaign to convince the public that the Federal government would be largely immune to corruption. The basic issue is most famously presented by James Madison in The Federalist No. 51
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The United States have been relatively successful in convincing the public that it is legitimate (i.e., government interests are identical to the interests of the citizenry), though its legitimacy is often questioned by political radicals and individuals who identify with racial and ethnic groups that have suffered blatant oppression by the government. Still, overt corruption is relatively rare in the USA.

This post contains an overview of my ideas about corruption, focusing on four types: graft, self-aggrandizement, aristocratic notions, and fear of competing power. This last type of corruption is the most interesting and seems to have the most impact in the USA, so I'll elaborate on it in a future post.

Graft: This is the simplest and most blatant form of corruption. It is driven by greed, and wealthy countries have managed to suppress it. Many laws have been passed to make it difficult for public officials to take graft (transparency, campaign fundraising, whistleblower, etc.); however, there are still many opportunities for unscrupulous enrichment, particularly in the enforcement of victimless crimes, such as drug prohibition.

Self-aggrandizement: Some individuals seem to constantly need to be told how great and worthy they are, leading to extreme status-seeking. Even after they have risen above their peers, they still seek greater status, by dwelling on their historical legacy. President Clinton seemed to be this type of person, and I was rather disgusted with how some in the media patronized his obsession with his own legacy, acting as though this were healthy behavior. At first glance, it seems that there is no conflict between a power-holder seeking to leave a legacy and his seeking to serve the interests of his people. However, to leave a legacy, one must make large and lasting changes to the world, and the world doesn't always need such changes. To make it worse, the power-holder must also be able to take credit for these changes, which is in direct contrast to the Taoist maxim that "When the best rulers achieve their purpose, Their subjects claim the achievement as their own."

Aristocratic notions: Some individuals may feel that their family and social peers are "meant" to rule, due to some inherent genetic or cultural superiority over the rest of society. This was openly advocated by the monarchs and aristocrats of the old world, but could also be present in the elite old-money political families of our own country: Bush, Gore, Kennedy, Rockefeller, and others. In some ways, aristocrats have the same interests as their subjects, just as shepherds have an interest in the health of their flock; however, these interests diverge if the commoners ever insist on the right to rule themselves and the aristocrats use their power to reinforce their own position.

Fear of competing power: This is the most insidious form of corruption since it can drive a well-intentioned person to perform acts that are clearly wrong. It is the only type of corruption that is driven by power itself, rather than serious pre-existing character flaws. This is the political equivalent of "selling your soul", where a person gains immediate advantage by making a small sacrifice, but has unknowingly started down a path that forces ever greater sacrifices. The underlying mechanism is that each candidate believes that he is much better than his opponent for ideological reasons, and will compromise his integrity slightly if it will increase his chance of winning--even with this slight compromise, he is still better than his ideological opponent. The opponent makes the same decision, and consequently the difference between the two is the same as before, but both of them are more corrupt, and the cycle repeats itself.

This type of corruption is illustrated in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as it drives the Minister of Magic to attack Dumbledore and Potter. It was also on display in the 2003 campaign for mayor in Berkeley, in which Tom Bates (who won) destroyed hundreds of copies of a student newspaper because it had endorsed his opponent. This also is apparent in how politicians implicitly collect campaign contributions in exchange for favorable treatment of the contributors once elected.

This topic is central to many of the ideas presented in this blog, and I intend to return to it in future posts.

Addendum: Michael Kinsley at Slate reviews the current round of corruption in Washington (Corrupt Intentions), looking at both "fear of competing power" and pure graft, illustrating how widespread both forms of corruption are in Washington these days.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Having read the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I am happy to say that the writing is even better than the previous book and Rowling continues to examine how the characters relate to power, developing some of the themes I pointed out in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Two passages really caught my attention. One was a simple explanation by Dumbledore regarding the weakness of tyranny:
Voldemoret himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!
I was amused with how well this matched the sentiment expressed in a little Borg-esque slogan that I made up a while ago: Intimidation is futile, you will be resisted.

Another interesting passage was Harry's interview with the new Minister of Magic (the magical equivalent of the Prime Minister). As in the last novel, politicians are depicted as arrogant and untrustworthy, convinced that their own power is the most important thing in the world. Harry is repulsed by the minister's (mild) corruption, which opens up a profound facet of the novel--Harry's refusal to cede his integrity to the government.

During the interview, the Minister invites Harry to work at the Ministry, hoping to benefit from Harry's reputation and ability, but Harry rejects this offer, asking "won't that seem as though I approve of what the Ministry's up to?" When the Minister suggests that Harry has a duty to aid the government, Harry accuses the Minister of failing in his duties by abusing his powers for political gain. Finally, the Minister asks Harry "(You are) Dumbledore's man through and through, aren't you, Potter?", which Harry affirms.

In this exchange, Harry asserts that his allegiance is to individuals and ideals, not institutions, but this does not mean that he has chosen monarchy over representative government. Harry's allegiance to Dumbledore derives from Harry's recognition that Dumbledore is a more perfect embodiment of Harry's own values. If Dumbledore demonstrated corruption, Harry would probably turn his back on him just as he turned his back on the Ministry. Harry's relationship with Dumbledore is such that if Dumbledore died, Harry would either have to chose another leader or rely on his own judgment, but he would allow others to make their own judgments as long as they didn't impose themselves on him.

The voluntary nature of Dumbledore's authority is more fully illustrated when Dumbledore takes Harry on a dangerous mission. Dumbledore has Harry promise to follow his orders only for the duration of this particular mission, and he makes sure that Harry is willing to follow a few particular orders. These orders are of the nature "you will abandon me if I tell you to", but nothing like "you will kill whomever I tell you to."

Harry's insistence on maintaining his independence from the government, along with his general lack of respect for authority mark him as a rather anarchistic character. One other character also strikes me as a bit of an anarchist--Severus Snape. At the end of this book, Potter and Snape clearly have some issues to resolve and I look forward to reading about the further development of their relationship in the finale.

Note: I discovered that the Libertarian Party had published a review of The Order of the Phoenix by Eryk Boston which covers some same themes as my own reviews, but with a more political tilt.

Update: A list of similar reviews at CLASSical Liberalism.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Books: Six-degrees: the science of the connected age

A good book came my way recently, providing a layman's explanation of the emerging field of network theory as it is applied to sociology. Six Degrees: the science of a connected age, written by Duncan J. Watts is not only a good introduction to a revolutionary style of analysis that is being applied to every field of science, but it also can help social activists to think about where they want our society to go and how to get there.

The basic idea is that social networks influence human behavior, which in turn influences the structure of these networks. The analysis of social networks begins by simplifying the network into "nodes" and "edges." Nodes represent individuals in the network (a person, business, city, etc.), while edges represent a connection between two nodes. An assortment of simple rules can be used to create the network, and then questions can be asked about the characteristics of the resulting network; for example, "what is the shortest path between two randomly chosen nodes?"

One interesting section addresses the "preferential growth model" of networks. In constructing this model, new connections are preferentially added to the nodes that already have many connections. In other words, "the rich get richer." This means that small differences in the early condition of the various nodes--whether due to inherent traits of the node or pure chance--can result in huge differences in outcome. This produces a "scale-free network", which shares some important similarities with real-world phenomenon including the size distribution of cities, the size distribution of business firms, and the distribution of wealth within any society. (for more info, see the Gini coefficient and Zipf's law)

There is also an interesting section addressing the structure of corporations. Many of us assume that a vertically integrated hierarchy is inherently more efficient than other structures simply because we have never seen any other structure used. Network theory suggests that there are several advantages to decentralized corporate structures, and Watts uses the Toyota-Aisin crisis as a case study of how decentralized structures can be more robust than centralized structures. He even goes on to show how this robust structure can arise naturally from the day-to-day activities of workers who are allowed to coordinate their activities without involving management.

This observation, that social structures are naturally modular and self-organizing, strikes at the heart of political prejudice that I really hate--that as a society grows in size and complexity, the government must become involved in more aspects of the society. I have seen this prejudice asserted without support more than once, including in a political science textbook. This strongly conflicts with my belief that no one is more fit to look out for a person's interests and evaluate his behavior than that person and his close associates (i.e., friends and family). I believe that network theory can provide us with the tools and intuitions to evaluate how our social relations should be structured. It can also help us to live in a society where there is no all-seeing, benevolent master watching over us and directing us.

Finally, this paradigm can provide social activists with a key for how to influence social decision making.
"Whether compensating for lack of information, succumbing to peer pressure, harnessing the benefits of a shared technology, or attempting to coordinate our common interests, we humans continuously, naturally, inevitably, and often unconsciously pay attention to each other when making all manner of decisions, from the trivial to the life changing."
Watts introduces a bit of psychology regarding how individuals make decisions, and then examines how the structure of social networks interacts with human psychology to produce our behaviors. These models emphasize the importance of having someone who will state unusual opinions, even in the face of popular opposition, and how this is the beginning of saving humanity from "the madness of crowds". It also provides some ideas for how social networks can be leveraged to increase the influence of one's own ideas.

Overall, this is a very informative and well-written book. I like that Watts takes the time to make a distinction that is often overlooked in our society: "there is a difference between holding someone accountable for their actions and believing the explanation for those actions is entirely self-contained." There is also some great writing in this book, such as "Listening to Chuck (Sabel) think is like drinking wine from a fire-hose."

By the way, the ideas of this book are closely related to the ideas that prompted me to begin this blog.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Books: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I recently finished reading the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and not only am glad for the entertainment, I'm also impressed with the growing sophistication of these stories. The stories provide a rather detailed illustration of the many ways that one can deal with power--both with having power and having power used against one's self.

The stories begin when Harry is 11 years old, and each book chronicles his development as he advances through another year at the Hogwarts school of magic. Not only do the main characters become older with each book, but it seems that the target audience also ages, as Harry is faced with more complicated choices and comes to appreciate the complexity of the individuals around him. The stories start in a rather simple world of kids in school--friendships, competition, classes, and mean teachers--set in the context of a simplistic cosmic battle between good and evil.

By the fifth book, the battle between good and evil has expanded to cover a vast middle ground, where many characters aren't quite evil, but they definitely aren't good either, and some characters can even make the transition from being clearly evil to being clearly good. Meanwhile, this battle has intruded on the day-to-day life inside of Hogwarts school of magic so that Harry and his friends have to decide how to deal with those persons who fall into this middle category of "not quite friend nor enemy".

Ultimately, these are children's books, so an adult will not find anything profound in them. However, to the millions of readers who are just entering adolescence, these books have the potential of bringing their attention to particular aspects of our world which many adults seem all to willing to ignore. These themes will be examined below:

In this book, three institutions vie for power, representing good, evil, and politics:
  • The primary antagonist in these stories is the power-hungry Lord Voldemort (the Dark Lord). Years ago, he began a quest to conquer the wizarding world, enslave or eradicate non-wizards, and gain immortality. His rise to power was stopped by Harry's family, and the first four books address his attempts to regain his personal (magical) powers. In the fifth book, he sets about to rebuild his army and we see the nature of his organization: it is a hierarchy of fear with Voldemort at the top, which cannot persist without Voldemort himself.
  • This stands in sharp contrast to the structure of the Hogwart's school of magic, which is built on mutual respect and shared ideals and continues to operate even in the absence of its powerful leader, Professor Dumbledore.
  • Voldemort's army is also contrasted to the Ministry of Magic, which is the government of the wizarding world and consists of politicians and bureaucrats, acting like politicians and bureaucrats. The Ministry exhibits the flaws and weaknesses that exist in the society at large. While they are basically reasonable folk, they are easily corrupted by their power. They display the daily arrogance and prejudice that is largely absent from Hogwarts under Dumbledore's enlightened administration. They also have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, essentially convincing themselves that the world revolves around them.
One of the main conflicts in this book centers on the "Defense Against the Dark Arts" class. As its name suggests, the purpose of this class is to train the students in self-defense, with an emphasis on the types of magic (weapons) used by evil wizards. Once the Ministry of Magic comes to view Harry and Professor Dumbledore as political enemies, it moves to halt these classes in an attempt to eliminate any potential resistance coming from Dumbledore and his allies. Knowing that Voldemort's servants are trying to kill Harry and infiltrate the Ministry of Magic, Harry organizes his own self-defense classes, leading to further conflict with the Ministry of Magic. In the end, this training pays off when Harry and his classmates have to fight Voldemort's spies.

The Dark Lord regularly uses deception to achieve his ends, and in every book Harry learns that he should not have trusted someone who he thought was credible. However, in the fifth book, Harry finds that even regular folk and respected institutions are not always credible. When the idealistic Hermione tells a reporter that the newspaper's job is to spread accurate information, the reporter scoffs and replies that the newspaper's "job is to sell itself". Even worse, the newspaper is subject to political influences and launches a smear campaign to discredit Harry because he is reporting facts that are inconvenient for the Minister of Magic.

In their single-minded and unjustified persecution of Harry and Professor Dumbledore, the Ministry of Magic repeatedly encroaches on the liberty of Hogwarts students and staff, giving more and more power to the "High Inquisitor" who uses her authority in an arbitrary manner. Through this process, we see why government officials must submit to limits on their power and oversight of their actions. We also see how citizens respond to this encroachment with non-compliance and outright disobedience.

Effective activism:
A subplot of these stories is the plight of a race of slaves, the "house elves", and Hermione's quest to eliminate the institution of slavery from the wizarding society. Hermione attempts to take advantage of a quirk in this system of slavery in order emancipate the slaves one-by-one. While her plan makes sense and seems like it should work, she puts a ton of effort into it without ever verifying that it is producing the desired results. This is a common situation of real-world activists, especially those of us who try to make contributions "in our spare time", which doesn't leave much time to verify the effectiveness of our actions or to coordinate with those who would do the verification.

Causality, Responsibility, and Blame:
Finally, when the characters of the book are looking back on the events leading up to the death of Harry's godfather, Sirius, the author illustrates complex nature of causality, responsibility, and blame. After Harry blames himself for mistakes he made, Professor Dumbledore blames himself for creating the conditions that encouraged Harry to make his unwise decisions, and recounts how rash decisions by Sirius also contributed to his death. As each of the characters could have acted differently to avoid Sirius' death, they all share responsibility for his death. Of course, this responsibility is completely different from the responsibility borne by those who actually killed Sirius, which isn't even discussed since everyone knows that those wizards are the enemy.

I expect the Harry Potter stories to have a considerable impact on American, English, and the global culture due to the extensive content (seven books and seven movies) and the incredible sales, measured in the tens of millions for each volume. On their own, they may teach their readers a lot about the nature of power, but with the guidance of the older generations, many more lessons may be drawn from these books.

Note: It has been a few weeks since I finished reading the book, and I no longer have possession of it, so I apologize for any inaccuracies that have entered my description of the book.

Related review of the book:

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Sticks and stones, and the American flag

A bunch of jerks in the U.S. House of Representatives just took the first step in amending the US Constitution to prohibit the "physical desecration of the flag of the United States". These jerks include the Rep from my own district (Doyle) and a friend of my family for whom I stuffed envelopes when he first ran for County Council almost 20 years ago. Both are Democrats, and both are from civilized parts of the country (or so I thought), with practical folk who appreciate our history and the Bill of Rights, not a bunch of emotionalist idiots.

The fact that these idiots are willing to throw a person in jail for manipulation of a symbol tells me that they have their priorities completely out of line. They seem to have forgotten the lesson we learned as kids when we behaved like them: "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me."

The "argument" for the prohibition of flag desecration is basically "it hurts my feelings so I want to beat-up those punks." HEY! Wake up and grow up! Hurt feelings are not a justification for violence. Suck it up and get on with your lives you little pansies.


Resource: Timeline of Flag-desecration legislation

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Update: Supreme Court upholds Federal ban on medical marijuana

Update to: Congress Almighty

So, the supreme court upheld the Federal ban on medical marijuana (Gonzales vs. Raich, pdf): it seems that there is no way for a state to allow its citizens to use any drug without the permission of Congress.

Unfortunately, this is about much more than drugs. As Justice Thomas wrote:
If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything‚—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.
If the majority is to be taken seriously, the federal Government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States.
Wow. I'm not sure what limits the majority thinks still remain on the enumerated power of the Federal government. I wonder if we should ever face another period of anti-socialist hysteria, whether the Federal government could outlaw co-ops and communes: after all, by sharing resources they alter the demand for products sold across state borders.

This court-battle has given me an opportunity to reflect on some aspects of our society. First, there's our ability to make fun of our disappointments--see Yes Virginia, I do believe in the Commerce Clause, posted at Marginal Revolution by Alex Tabarrok. Second, there is the way that we treat these subjects in our literature--includingchildren'ss books like Harry Potter. The constant expansion of Federal power in the name of the drug war reminds me of the expansion of the High Inquisitor's powers in Harry Potter and the Order of thePhoenixx. Finally, I got some insights into the mentality that supports the expansion of centralized governmental power.

While reading up on this decision, I came across an editorial from the Indianapolis Star, with the title A Prescription for Uniform Drug Policy. They supported the Supreme Court decision, but I couldn't find a good explanation for why. The closest explanation I found was that unless Congress has absolute power to regulate drugs...
...there could be a patchwork quilt of state laws dealing not only with illegal drugs but also with medicines, not to mention controls on the manufacture, distribution and use of such drugs.
And the point is, what? What is the problem with allowing localities to regulate medicines according to their own understanding and values? My only guess is that they are concerned that this "patchwork" of laws would make it difficult to do business in different localities, and if something is good for big business then it is good, period, regardless of what regular folk want. After all, regular folk are nothing more than a cog to be fit into the machine that is modern industry, and cogs have to be identical or else they don't fit into the machine nicely. Maybe the Indy Star editors don't have this "cog-maker" mentality, but they seem to. Anyway, this attitude is common among the economic/political/media elite, and is just as dangerous as the mentality of the willing slave.

Finally, there are a few bills before Congress that may help re-establish the proper balance of power between local and central government, but I fear that the worst damage cannot be undone without a Constitutional amendment.

The main bill before Congress is called The States Right to Medical Marijuana Act (HR 2087). For information on this bill, see:

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Proposed law mandates snitching

A bill recently proposed by Representative Sensebrenner (R-WI) would require us to snitch on our friends/family/neighbors if they committed a drug-related crime "near the presence of a person under the age of 18". More info can be found at Freedom's Gate. Failure to comply triggers a mandatory minimum sentence.

This reminds me of another recent story from The Mutualist Blog, describing some state-school policies encouraging students to snitch on each other. Kevin Carson described how this hinders the development of trusting, caring communities.

This is appalling. The folk who come up with these ideas need to be severely reprimanded. Readers of the Harry Potter books know how to deal with sneaks.

I guess I have to add Rep. Sensebrenner to my list of would-be tyrants.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

What makes the world go 'round?

This is a fun one...

I've got a Boy Scout campfire song stuck in my head: It's cheese that makes the world go 'round. The song links together a chain of actors, where each makes the next "go 'round". So cheese makes the mice go 'round, which make the cats go 'round, and so on until we finish with the observation that "it's love that makes the world go 'round."

So what really makes the world go 'round? Tell me anything you think of--relating to economics, politics, society, etc. Here's a shot at what the campaign-finance reform crowd might say:
It's money that makes the ads go 'round
It's ads that make the votes go 'round
It's votes that make Congress go 'round
And then they can follow with a chorus like:
roll over for special interests, roll over for the rich
So, do you have any ideas? This stuff is modular, so we don't even need complete chains--we can link ideas together later. So what makes things "go 'round"?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Time Management for Anarchists: The Movie

Here's a fun little movie that makes some good points:Time Management for Anarchists: The Movie.

We are taught to rely on "the system" to structure our lives. If we're gonna be independent, we need to learn how to be effective on your own. I've already started to collect some resources on self-management.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Willing slaves

One of the more problematic personalities in the world is that of the willing slave. This is the person who accepts his dominance by others as inevitable, or even beneficial. This type of person is just as problematic as the oppressor himself, because the oppressor would be nothing without willing slaves. The willing slave provides the oppressor with the motivation and the resources to enslave others.

With this in mind, I read an interesting piece at Lenin's Tomb, called Capitalism and Unfreedom. The point of this article, as I see it, is to examine how a person could come to see his enslavement as part of the natural order of things. In this example, the author looks at how our (state-run) schools treat the process of economic specialization. High-school economics teachers often treat specialization in an ahistorical manner, where everyone simply decided to specialize because it was the most productive thing to do. This analysis only holds water if we assume that work necessarily has no value in itself, and we only work to create the end product (i.e. there's no chance that we could actually enjoy work).

In reality, people can draw more or less enjoyment from their work and we generally enjoy diverse activities over mind-numbing repetition. Also, in reality, the hyper-specialization of today's society did not result from individual attempts to be just a little more productive; it resulted from situations where millions of farmers lost their land (by force, fraud, or poor luck) and were forced by threat of starvation to take industrial jobs for whatever wages were available. They became a cog in their boss' machines, and as competition between cogs drove wages down, the bosses were able to assign them to ever more specialized and thoughtless tasks.

And now, let's hear from "lenin":
The illusion of a free and equal contract between employee and employer is one that exerts considerable hold.... The thought that the situation might be rigged in advance, by virtue of the capitalists control of the means of production, is so obvious that it eludes many people who otherwise place themselves on the Left.

In part, this is because people are prepared from an early age to expect and accept this state of affairs. In high school Business Studies class, I was shown along with my class mates a video sponsored by some bank which purported to demonstrate how the division of labour came about. It all took place, it seemed, in a relatively benign and peaceful fashion, with no intruding political questions or economic phases. From the cavemen to cashcards, it was really all about work being broken down into separate tasks which would be undertaken by those most able to do them. Then, finding contact with nearby villages, they would trade things that they were good at making for the things that the other villages were good at making. David Ricardo chortled from beyond the grave. The only interesting thing about this propaganda video is that it raised not a single eyebrow - as how could it? One is led to expect to work for a capitalist without seeing anything necessarily unjust about it, and one has nothing to compare it to. The worker is taught to sell herself (all those job interview training schemes) without perceiving herself as a commodity.
I'm glad that some folk are still willing to resist slavery.

Live Free or Die

Friday, March 25, 2005

Stories of slavery--and resistance

I am currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The book is a fascinating look into Iranian society, describing this woman's experiences during the time of the Shah, the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, until she finally left Iran and moved to the US. She was a professor of English literature in an Iranian university, and directly experienced the totalitarian assault on women's rights and intellectual freedom.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (by Frederick Douglass) is another eye-opener. This was written in the 1850's, and it vividly describes the master-slave relationship, along with the relationships among the slaves and how the broader society participated in their enslavement.

Please tell me of any other books that describe the lives of the enslaved.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Internet Revolution has Little to do with Technology | Acts of Volition

I found a little insight from the "Acts of Volition" blog, where Steven points out that the Internet may be changing the way that we view society and may have radical repercussions far beyond the Internet itself:The Internet Revolution has Little to do with Technology A good discussion follows the post.

I've had similar thoughts about "the Internet" fundamentally changing how I view society. The Internet became popular when I was a teenager and I am constantly fascinated by how our modern communication technologies are changing the experience of being a kid. I think my childhood would have been a lot different with multiplayer online computer games and cell phones.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Power gets personal

I was browsing the popular sites, and came across, The 48 Laws of Power, which describes various tactics that can be used by power-mongers.

Some are just self-empowerment ("Disdain things that you cannot have"), but most are scary and disgusting ("Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim"). The first "law" ("Never Outshine the Master") reveals the catch: you will start at the bottom of the hierarchy. These "laws of power" never mention that you will probably not rise to the top of the hierarchy and may even be destroyed by competitors on the way. Freedom and independence are much more reliable ways of making a living.

This page could be renamed to "How to be a miserable person, like Mr. Burns."

To a freeman, this website simply represents an illustration of how power-mongers behave as well as a warning about the costs of power. Perhaps that was the intention of the authors. It has inspired me to gather a collection of web-pages that will help us to live a life of dignity -- neither master nor slave.

  1. The Three Pillars of Freedom: general approaches to protecting yourself from power-mongers. This analysis is probably too individualistic and wary, but still very useful.

  2. Dealing with manipulative people: This is another examination of the tactics used by power-mongers, but emphasizes the perspective of us reasonable people. This is written by an anti-cult activist and may be too wary. In general, anti-cult activists are a good place to learn how to identify manipulation (but avoid the Cult Awareness Network!)

  3. Know what we want from life and don't be distracted by those things that don't matter. I favor Epicurean, Stoic, and Buddhist philosophy.

  4. How to win friends and influence people: I've never read this book, but it seems to present a respectful approach to winning social influence. Does anyone know about this book?

Related topics:

Thinking aids

Friday, January 07, 2005

Note on Wikipedia

In my last post, I pointed to Wikipedia as a potential example for citizen-centered media. If you are unfamiliar with Wikipedia, it isn't immediately clear what it is good for. I compiled a brief overview on my personal Wiki, where it will be updated as more information becomes available.

To summarize, Wikipedia is good for topics where there is no controversy, no expert, or you just need an introduction to a topic and are looking for references to more reliable articles. The Wikipedia administrators are working on ways to make it more reliable, and I look forward to future improvements.

For what it's worth, the Guardian recently published another article about Wikipedia.