Economics of Happiness vs. Corporate Globalization

I just watched the condensed version of the award winning film, “The Economics of Happiness.” It is available on the Local Futures website. It confirms just about all the research findings on climate change, globalization, poverty, pollution, violence, and a host of other issues I have followed for the past decade while writing my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation.

The book is in the last stages of editing before submission for publication. So, given the complexities of the publishing industry it is not likely to be released until the end of the year — assuming everything goes well. Meanwhile, I will be renovating this website and include some excerpts from the book in a new section of pages.

Part of the research I’ve been engaged in while writing the book involves trying to understand the idea of progress as it has evolved in the industrial age and how that relates to actual human happiness. As it turns out, genuine happines — as compared with the momentary exhiliration that might result from buying some new product — is found most consistently among people who live in just a few places in the world. Those places,  called “Blue Zones,” those few places in the world where the special circumstances just seem to produce contentment, and where most of the world’s centenarians live. They have completely avoided globalization…so far.

In contrast, most of us live in cities and suburbs where we are increasingly isolated from real face-to-face relationships that are not mediated by complex institutional requirements imposed upon our time and our minds. Our relations are increasingly mediated by complex economic and institutional requirements that leave little room for direct human relationships with other persons — as themselves.

Our emotional, personal, interpersonal, and thereby cultural lives become entangled with a process of “intermediation” by layers of social complexity. This is embodied by corporate state taken as a whole, the essence of what Chris Hedges calls “The Empire of Illusion.” The globalized economic-growth leviathon is the “technosphere” that Dmitry Orlov argues we must shrink to improve the declining odds for human survival.

Sheldon Wolin refers to the larger political-economic structure of the corporate state in which we live as the “inverted totalitarianism” of Democracy, Incorporated. An essential element of complex civilizations is the “intermediation” of endless layers of social complexity between people who would otherwise simply exchange one valued good or service for another — or just socialize face to face.

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, attributes the collapse of complex societies throughout history to such complexities. John Michael Greer predicts a Dark Age America resulting from the convergence of climate change, economic crises and cultural collapse, the beginnings of which we already experience. He predicts a process of “disintermediation” of economic activity over the coming several hundred years, accompanied by major population decline, leading to a new feudal period.

I think ecological, climate, and societal collapse will unfold much faster than Greer expects, unless drastic climate action and radical societal re-organization can be initiated very soon. Many others, of course, comfortably assume that economic growth and technological innovation can get us out of any fix. They are dead wrong.

Michael.E.Mann

Michael E. Mann

Jon Foley, in a conversation with Michael Mann on the occasion of Mann’s receipt of the seventh annual Stephen Schneider Award, said that in contrast to such blind optimism, “Hope is where you role up your sleeves and get to work.” That is the kind of Hopeful Realism I like to hear.

 

Choices and Freedom, Decisions and Destiny

Choices multiply with time, or maybe not. Potential decisions proliferate as knowledge grows, but we may not necessarily make them as obligations set in. With good health, the Jubilado [retiree, en español], if modestly financed with a decent pension, has many choices, not all costly. Unfortunately, many Jubilados either never had a pension or it was stolen by the corporation that was supposed to manage it in trust for its workers.

Never trust a corporation. It has no soul, and no, it is not a person. Some say that disproportionate numbers of corporate executives and politicians are psychopaths or sociopaths, two terms for the same affliction. The sociopath’s amoral drive to power can often lead to economic or political success. Either way, sociopaths have no empathy, though they learn to fake it. That is why they are not averse to doing whatever they can get away with to attain that next level of power.

Theft is in the eye of the victim if not of the corrupt official. As with the bribery from which politicians benefit, we rarely observe the punishment of corporate criminality. With the decline of labor’s power versus that of capital, pensions have become rare; many of the few remaining fall victim to management plunder. The politicians have “borrowed” most of the Social Security Trust Fund, then argued it is going broke. They claim that we can’t afford such “entitlement” programs, even though Social Security is funded by workers ourselves, through the payroll tax.

With a modest retirement income, this Mad Jubilado sees many choices. Too many ‘retirees’ sit stupefied and disengaged from the world while staring at the flat-panel screen of a degraded culture. Their time is now their own if they know it, an unusual if somewhat theoretical circumstance. We are, after all, trained in school not to think but to remember ‘facts’ that are unimportant to us, and to do what we are told. Choice becomes an echo of obedience. That way we are more likely to become unthinking obedient workers, tolerating a dull routine, rather than citizens engaged in critical thinking about the world around us, ready to decide.

Engaging in the world is not a spectator sport. Look around. There is so much to see and so much to do. There are endless ways to satisfy your curiosity, if your career left you with any. That is part of what makes the thinking Jubilado Mad.

Engaging with the world can range from terrifying to transcendent, sometimes both simultaneously. The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” seems fully realized today. We do live in the most interesting times imaginable. If you think about it, how could our times be more interesting? Well, maybe soon…

The more I research climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, and the political-economic dysfunction behind them, the more interesting – and terrifying – they become. It is about the survival of the world as we know it. Politicians do so little about it because of the simple power of short-term corporate interests corrupting public policy. They call corporate bribery “campaign contributions.” Politicians easily suffer paralysis when confronted by an overwhelming challenge, especially if the price is right. Besides, the challenge of figuring out what to do about such a monumental planetary problem is nothing short of daunting.

I used to tell my students to “follow your bliss.” Huh? [The phrase depicts a bit of wisdom borrowed from Joseph Campbell] It was all too common for students to come for academic advising with some notion in their head about choosing a major that was simply wrong for them. I didn’t even have to know much about them to tell that they had grabbed an idea from somewhere that superficially sounded good. But that good thing they thought they perceived at the moment of their choice, was momentarily “hot” and jobs in that field had good starting pay. So what?

Is that how to choose one’s life work? I told them that they should find out what really interests them, because by the time they graduated some other field would be the “hot” one and they would spend an entire career doing something they really did not like. Some got it; others did not. But I’ll bet the ones who did get it will have lots of choices in retirement.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.

Can Hope Overcome Reality?

I just read Chris Hedges’ report in Truthdig of his recent telephone conversation with Ralph Nader. I regularly read numerous sources of information on the politics of Trumpery and the failure of the Democratic Party to respond effectively to the crises facing the nation as Dem’s obsess over the latest Trumpist Travesty, as if wavering minority opposition and easy sarcasm were enough. So, I was surprised that Ralph Nader’s and Chris Hedges’ words hit me so hard.

I have read most of Chris Hedges’ books, so I am used to his dire descriptions of the present state of the American Empire and its domestic disasters. They are accurate and scary. I have also followed for decades Ralph Nader’s incisive expositions on the catastrophic corruption of the U.S. corporate state, and his amazing feats forcing reforms. But somehow this conversation hit far more deeply than the general realities of the “Deep State,” and the appropriation of that term by the “alt right,” such as I wrote about in a recent post here.

White nationalist propagandists such as Steve Bannon, tout the goal of taking down the “administrative state,” by which he seems to mean everything in the federal government not directly controllable by the wannabe dictator in the White House. That includes any federal program or agency that attempts to serve a public purpose rather than the interests of the American Oligarchy. But I digress.

In his conversation with Chris Hedges, Nader expressed a deep pessimism about the political prospects of the nation and the cultural decline of its people. This, after decades of stalwart defense of the public interest in myriad ways, ever dauntless. What is it that so troubles Nader, the unflappable public intellectual-activist? Hope fades for Nader and Hedges’ desire to take down the corporate state in the nation’s defense against the exploitative interests of the oligarchy under which it now operates.

The contrast is instructive. The Bannon-Trump forces would dismantle large elements of the U.S. federal government in order to eliminate operations that protect society from the devastation of neoliberal corporate economic system of extraction, production, consumption and waste. Disaster capitalism indeed! They promote utopian dreams of libertarian individualism as their cover for kleptocratic plunder of the commonwealth.

Nader and Hedges would dismantle something quite different. Their target is the totalitarian political apparatus that manages the nation-state under the thin veneer of a pseudo-democracy in the interests of corporate market liberalism and the kleptocratic oligarchy  from which we desperately need to protect society. That, of course, is the far more difficult task.

It is far easier to rile up the growing segments of the population that politics has abandoned while pretending to assist those already downtrodden for generations. The declining white middle and working classes have built up resentment ever since their slide began three decades ago. Trump is exercising the classic tactics of all demagogues throughout history. And conditions were and continue to be ripe for their success.

Hedges quotes Nader’s telephone rant reflecting his despair for American democracy. The litany of converging crises is to long to repeat here. Read it there. We must face the reality he describes and find ways to overcome it. As Hedges reported, “Resistance, Nader said, must be local. First we need to organize to take back our own communities…” Neighborhood by neighborhood is where the power of the people resides. That is where our hope for the nation and our survival will be found.

 

The Deeper Deep State

The “Deep State” is deeper than you think. I first ran across the concept when I read an essay by former senior analyst for congress, Mike Lofgren on Bill Moyers’ website, posted in 2014. Lofgren was apparently the first to use the term. He spent many years working for Congress, the last sixteen as a senior analyst on the House and Senate Budget committees. He knows the federal government from the inside. The essay and interview with Bill Moyers evolved into a book, titled The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, published in 2016. That was all before the extreme right Trumpists appropriated the term to attack all but the most authoritarian elements in the federal government.

Deep.State.book.jacketLofgren’s use of the term “deep state” referred to the complex web of coordinated entrenched interests both inside the US government and outside, especially on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, that profit heavily from congressional “defense” and other major budget decisions. Despite their appropriation of the term, the Trumpists support many aspects of the “deep state” as Lofgren describes it. Lofgren argues convincingly that the U.S. has become an oligarchy in fact if not in name.

The idea of a deep state, as Lofgren deployed it, is very similar to the phenomenon of “inverted totalitarianism” that Sheldon Wolin describes in his heavily documented study, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Wolin, a highly respected political scientist, argues that American democracy has morphed into a strange hybrid consisting of a shell of democratic formality surrounding a core of bureaucratic totalitarianism. He distinguishes between the traditional notion of totalitarianism, which involves overt authoritarianism by a dictator, and the emergent bureaucratic form that involves a complex merging of corporate economic interests and the entrenched powers of the state. Others may call this complex the “corporate state.”

Lofgren experienced the corporate state from the inside; Wolin examined it from the outside. Both conclude that the result is a fundamental loss of democracy. Now, the appropriation of the term, “the deep state,” by the extreme white nationalists and neo-fascists aligned with the Trump administration, is a political propaganda tactic used to attack any element of government that serves the public interest instead of the interests of the oligarchic elites that Trumpists serve.

The Trumpist use of “the deep state” is an element of the demagoguery that attempts to turn the public against any element of the government or the media that does not serve their interests. Any accurate reporting of Trumpist dissembling or destructive executive orders he deems “Fake News.” Notice that Trump’s appointments to his cabinet and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education, are all politically opposed to the very mandates of those departments and agencies. These neo-fascists are not so much interested in destroying the deep state as in taking it over.

The overwhelming majority of appointments to key posts Trump has drawn from Wall Street, the Military, and far-right politicians. He has attempted to turn the intelligence agencies into political operations. The deep state has become an even deeper penetration of oligarchic interests into the center of federal government operations. The deep state is now much deeper and more corrupt than before. Corruption is the essence of destroying democracy.