Saturday, January 31, 2015

Living On The Right Half of the Plane

I'll begin this post with yet another metaphor.

The behavior of nearly all physical systems can be modeled by systems of differential equations. Solving these equations as a function of some independent system variable allows for prediction of how the physical system responds to variations in a particular system input. One problem with differential equations is that all but the simplest of them are quite hard to solve. Therefore a system modeler is always on the lookout for tricks and tools to simplify the solution of differential equations.

One such tool is the Laplace transform, by which linear differential equations can be turned into algebraic equations. These algebraic equations can be easily manipulated to determine those functions which are solutions of the original differential equations describing the physical system in question. These algebraic equations can, in fact, be combined into a transfer function which describes the behavior of the physical system. This transfer function is usually written as a factored polynomial expression with a polynomial numerator and a polynomial denominator, like this:

The numbers z1, z2, etc. are called the zeros of the transfer function, and the numbers p1, p2, etc. are called the poles of the transfer function. The poles and zeros are complex numbers of the form a+jb, where j equals the square root of -1. For any pole or zero, the number b can be equal to zero, in which the pole or zero is entirely real. If the number a equals zero, then the pole or zero has no real part, and the physical system is marginally stable. If the number a is positive, the system is unstable – that is, in response to a finite change in a system input, the system output grows without bound until the system destroys itself. When any of the poles of the system transfer function have a positive real part, we say that these poles are on the right half of the control plane, signifying that the system is unstable. One way to make an unstable system stable is to add a negative feedback loop which counteracts the tendency of the system output to grow without bound.

Many social systems behave in the same way as physical systems modeled by differential equations, in that there is some element of instability for which we must compensate by adding a feedback loop to prevent the system from destroying itself. From whence the instability? From the people who make up the social system – “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied; and a man's eyes are never satisfied.” (Proverbs 27:20) The cravings of each of us require checks and balances, lest by the unrestrained exercise of those cravings we destroy both ourselves and the social systems of which we are a part.

This realization has guided the formation of enduring social structures, including societies, communities and cultures that last over the long run. The members of such social units realize that the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the collective are linked, and that they must be balanced in a healthy way. Therefore, the members of such communities recognize that there must be necessary curbs on the pursuit of individual happiness. A good summary term to describe this connectedness is the Bantu word ubuntu, the meaning of which has been summarized as follows: “I am because we are.

Looking at social systems in this way enables us to see that the United States was an unstable social experiment from the very start. The American revolution, financed and led by wealthy and wealth-loving upper-class colonists, was an affirmation of “...inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness...” The underpinnings of this affirmation were, among other things, the writings of John Locke, who believed that the role of the government should be limited solely to protection of private “property”, defined as a person's “life, liberty and estate.” To put it another way, “...all are entitled to lead a free life in the pursuit of happiness, but how they get there is up to them. The pursuit is that of an individual, not of a larger force.” (Cogan, Clio's Psyche, June 2011).

Wealthy people – especially those with a Western mindset – can be quite selfish; thus the emphasis on an individual pursuit in the society created by the wealthy former colonists, a society which was dominated by what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “crass individualism” and narrow self-interest: “...[I see] an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.” (de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840).

That quote is from a portion of de Tocqueville's work where he describes how democracy might slide into despotism. I think there were some things which de Tocqueville might not have anticipated (such as how such a society might slide into narcissism); yet I submit that his quote describes the logical outgrowth of a society built on the individual pursuit of happiness without regard for how each person's pursuit might affect the larger collective. In the United States, therefore, the necessary feedback loop of being forced to consider the consequences of one's individual pursuits on the health and welfare of others was greatly weakened from the start.

This has led to a society which, after only a few generations, produced a number of holders of great concentrations of economic power, people whose actions therefore had a strongly disproportionate and frequently negative effect on the health of the entire community. On multiple occasions, the holders of such wealth and power successfully fought off the efforts of the community to rein in that power by appealing to “the free market ideal,” and the rights granted to men by “natural law,” the chief right being the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet the unrestrained actions of these people led to frequent system crashes and painful reboots where the ability of individuals to amass large concentrations of economic power was temporarily curtailed. The social system called the U.S.A. was able to recover after each crash because this country still had a large economically exploitable base of natural resources.

Now we are facing what may possibly be the mother of all crashes, and instead of rediscovering our connectedness to each other, many in the U.S. are addicted to right-wing demagogues who want to remove all community restraints on the exercise of individual “rights.” Some of these people are favorites of some members of the “peak oil/collapse” scene. I am thinking of those who agree that our government has become a corrupt oligarchy, those who decry the capture of the government by big business, and who put forward people like Pat Buchanan and Ron and Rand Paul as potential saviors. They even quote Ron Paul publicly wringing his hands over the power big business has at all levels of government. What these people are not sharp enough to realize is that the solution proposed by Buchanan and the Pauls and people like them is to remove all government restraint over the individual pursuit of whatever makes each of us happy.

Such a removal is sold as a means to guarantee that each of us has a crack at becoming a self-made Horatio Alger story millionaire or billionaire. Yet the truth is that the world's dwindling store of remaining wealth has been concentrated in so few hands that in the aftermath of the removal of all government restraint, the free-for-all competition for what's left will be a zero-sum game in which those who were already the fattest predators win and most of the rest of us get gobbled up.  Afterward, we will find ourselves being ruled solely by naked corporate power.  (Imagine, for instance, your children daily pledging allegiance to the flag of Microsoft.)  And then the system will crash, because its owners did not recognize the limits to growth, the consequences of ruining the environment, or the outcome of devouring their own fellow human beings.

So to return to my original metaphor, I feel like a hostage passenger on a bus careening down a mountain dirt road. Someone has drained all the damping fluid out of the shock absorbers, thus removing all the negative feedback which would keep the bus from bouncing off the road as it hits bumps and ruts at a rate which coincides diabolically with the resonant frequency of the bus-shock absorber-tire system. Some of us are about to get car-sick (or is it bus-sick?), some of us are saying our prayers, and too many of us are trying to help the bus to crash by dancing in the aisle. And the bus driver has his pedal to the metal, and whoever gets to drive the bus after 2016 isn't likely to be any better.

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