Monday, June 4, 2012

Hope for a brighter next decade, if not tomorrow.

A number of TED talks, along with thoughts I've been having about the economy, environment, society, and future of said have coalesced today into a somewhat amorphous haze of a philosophy/hope for the future. There is a certain sense of dread which is facing the world at the moment. Conservatives see Big Government killing the economy and stealing their rights, liberals see conservatives threatening to destroy the planet, sell the nation to Big Business and steal THEIR rights. Europe is facing social and economic upheaval, Syria is imploding, China and the US are getting more and more antagonistic, and everywhere we look there seems to be more and more indications that the world is just plain going to shit. I do not want to give into this general ennui. I seek hope, and when I seek hope I often find TED talks a good place to find it. Such has been the case, because even as they present challenges, they also present opportunities.
Here's the first talk, which addresses the notion of measuring a nation's "happiness" and what it costs. This dovetails nicely with evidence that in America the income-happiness relationship plateaus at 75k a year, an amount which while substantial, is by no means exorbitant. The mean household income in the US is about 60k, but the median is only 44k. This is due to income inequality, which is next up in this post. But this is inherent to the American system, where there are certain conditions such as cost of living, and comparisons with our neighbors, and the "culture" which we absorb through media, and our daily observations. At 75k it's speculated, money is no longer a day to day worry, we feel our wealth compares favorably to most people around us, and thus don't suffer so much from social angst about people who have more than us. I feel however this number could be dropped considerably through a few different means, one is typically liberal, and that's a much stronger social safety net which would remove the fear of losing basic necessities such as health care, housing, and sustenance. The other is through a cultural change that focuses less on money and material gains, and more on social and experiential gains. A very full and enjoyable 2 month trip around Europe can be had for less than $5000 dollars per person, one around the US can be even cheaper, maybe $2000, if we valued that more than having a new impala to drive on the trip I think we'd be happier. Getting a nation full of happy people means ensuring no one is suffering a lack of basic needs because of lack of money, and changing the way we view success, from merely being a calculation of money made to an evaluation of how life is lived.
The next talk is about income inequality, and how among countries capable of providing basic needs to it's residents the actual average income or Purchasing Power Parity doesn't predict a variety of social ills, but income inequality DOES.
     This raises serious questions of morality, and even more, practicality. If we want to reduce crime, improve health, and prevent mental illness and addictions we should focus on bringing more equality to our country. Providing basic services is a good start as is making a tax system that is TRULY progressive, removing tax havens and heavily exploited deductions, and taxing capital gains in a progressive manner.
     The single best way to help even society out though is to ensure that each child born in this country is given as close as possible to equal opportunity as any other, whether born to a single mother who works two jobs, a homeless family, or Donald Trump. This means education, early childhood health, and nutrition. I believe that we need much much better social services for parents at the bottom of the income scale, to help provide them with care so they can keep working and still ensure their child gets the early life care, treatment, and nutrition that has been PROVEN to improve that child's performance in school, and through life. Long before children enter the school system their brains are developing and learning habits, among middle and upper class families this period is filled with books, lots of interaction, and programs designed to help that child develop strong mental processes, good social skills, inquisitiveness, creativity, and other traits associated with success and happiness. There's much research out there which shows how important those early years are for human development, and among wealthier Americans that research is known and applied, among parents struggling to get by though, there's a huge lack of both knowledge and opportunity to apply that knowledge, so children start out disadvantaged. After that they are placed in schools which are absolutely horribly unequal, in rich areas, property taxes mean that students have access to good teachers with a good teacher-student ratio, good supplies, support, programs devoted to children who either struggle or excel various areas. ALL schools should be improved and better funded because information is the only inexhaustible resource, and cultivating the minds that will create the next generation of great ideas is the single best investment any society can make, but special attention must be paid to evening the playing field so that the child of an indigent has as much chance of graduating from Harvard as the child of a US Senator.
     This is both a moral and a practical issue because children represent the future, and children of talent who because of social situations find themselves unable to use that talent represent a massively wasted resource, and a terrible shame for the society that thwarted them.
    Finally there's a video about the birth of a new type of organization, facilitated by the web, which I believe has the opportunity to unite capitalism with is focus on market forces and collective intelligence driving innovation and progress, and communism with it's desire for collective control of the means of production, decentralized power and a popular movement focused on the betterment of mankind instead of the accumulation of wealth.

I find in the open-source philosophy the possibility of an escape from the American focus on money and goods, and a renewed interest in social action, in charity, and in passionate innovation for the purpose of innovation, rather than for the purpose of getting paid. I dream of a future where we don't spend each day worrying about how we will pay the bills, or whether we are destroying the planet, or whether we can keep up with the proverbial "Joneses" where we measure our worth by what we've made with our lives, not how much we've made in our lives, when people are judged by the content of their character, and the content of their workshop, the the size of their pay package, where it's not the size of your house, but the taste you've put into it, and the life you've filled it with that impresses the neighbors. Refocusing on conservation, on charity, on love, passion, and ingenuity, and away from conspicuous consumption and affluenza is the way of the future, at least if we want that path to resemble the garden of eden, not Cormac McCarthy's Road.
-Jeff Trechter

1 comment:

Bri Smith said...

You always amaze me. Why are you not writing for the NY Times?