Monday, January 24, 2011

Conserving Doomed Systems (or, why we're staying on the Titanic)

The classic analogy of the Titanic continues to offer up key insights into our national preference for self-destruction.

It seems few readers of my series on the fiscal shipwreck known as Social Security grasped my primary point, which was the need for immediate triage. The vast majority of commentary in the U.S. is focused not on the sinking ship, but on critiquing the triage--which is firmly rejected for one principled (or crass self-service packaged as principle) reason or another.

The essence of armchair quarterbacking is no actual experience on the football field. From 20,000 feet, so to speak, it's easy to look down on the field in the fourth quarter and reckon that a "double-tight end, single-back, wide receiver runs a post pattern" play might succeed against the opponent's linebacker configuration and the reasons the armchair quarterback might offer fit right into the easy banter from Eddie, Frank, Joe and all the experts in the booth.

From this perspective, the players are like the digital representations in America's beloved faux-sports and faux-combat videogames: you order up a complex play and they're supposed to execute it.

Meanwhile, down on the actual field in reality, your ribs hurt, you're tired, and you can't see much through your helmet. As the real QB, you're getting rushed, and you have two seconds to decide if that might be your wide receiver down field and either eat it or throw the ball about ten yards ahead of what might be your wide receiver.

Then wham! You're hit, and you're on your backside, hurt. You don't know if you just lost the game or not. Reality, after all, is contingent.

There is virtually nothing in this experience that relates to calling plays from 20,000 feet while listening to the banter of pundits, or playing some video representation of football.

(Yes, I played high school football, a lightweight second-string end who ended most plays on my butt, creamed by much bigger and stronger guys. I was also on the basketball squad, and did marginally better in that sport, but not by much.)

We as a nation are largely gamers, armchair QBs and pundits, praising the ideals of the sport we never played, completely detached from reality.

We're like the passengers on the Titanic, forty minutes after the iceberg ripped a long fatal gash below the waterline, refusing to consider the lifeboats because it's cold outside and the ship is still lighted and warm. Our "leadership" knows on some intellectual level the ship is doomed, but they are sleepwalking through a response: signal for help, alert the crew, and so on.

The Titanic's Great Pumps Finally Fail (April 15, 2009)

RMS Titantic: Lifeboats shifted from steerage to 1st Class, stock market cheers(September 26, 2008)

The very few officers who attempt to rouse the passengers meet tremendous resistance, both from fellow crewmembers and the passengers themselves. The other officers understand at some level that the ship is doomed, but their actions have no urgency; it's as if despite the knowledge that the sinking is irrevocable and cannot be halted, they still believe the ship won't sink.

There are still two hours left to do something useful to save as many lives as possible, but 40 minutes into the sinking, the ship's bow is barely down; the band is still playing, and the crew and passengers' faith in technology is supreme. The ship is, of course, "unsinkable," just as the fiscal implosion of the U.S. is "impossible."

At this critical point, the overwhelming percentage of passengers who have access to lifeboats choose death over discomfort.

The few Steerage (Third Class) passengers who make it topside are waved away from the First Class lifeboats by officers wielding pistols. The First Class lifeboats leave at one-third capacity--13 people in a boat equipped to hold 40, which could hold 50 in the calm water.

In the U.S., we all want to be in the First Class lounge, enjoying a nightcap and the music. A lively debate ensues; principles must be upheld. But which ones? The final two hours are spent in heated debate, and those who argue so persuasively for their principles are shocked when the icy water reaches them: life can't end like this, it's supposed to end with a compromise that leaves my cherished political principles intact.

Imagine a horrific accident scene, moments after impact. It could be a plane or train crash, or an 8.0 earthquake. Some people have already lost their lives, but many more are critically injured.

A physician and an ex-military medic happen to have survived intact, and they begin a hasty triage of sorting out those who might survive with some immediate emergency care--i.e. stop the bleeding--from those with internal injuries who may or may not be goners, those whose injuries may strike the victim as serious but which are not life-threatening, and those unfortunates who cannot be saved.

There is no way to know; the instincts and judgments made on the fly are intrinsically imperfect and contingent. The poet/writer Robert Graves was left for dead in a field hospital in France in 1917, a bullet through his chest and lung suggesting to the overworked triage staff that his odds of survival were very low. Yet he lived a full day, mostly unconscious, and having made it that far, was given minimal care (five days of train travel with unchanged bandages, etc.).

Nobody knows how each case will turn out. All that can be done is to devote the horribly inadequate resources to those who are most visibly likely to benefit from the horribly inadequate emergency care that is available.

Here in the U.S., what is our response to this distressing and unfortunate situation? First, we pass legislation that compels the emergency crew to locate the pregnant women and put their care above all others.

Wouldn't the emergency crew do this as a matter of course? Never mind--we must legislate oversight and penalties to enforce this principle.

But what if a woman is not visibly pregnant? Then what? What if, sadly, she's a goner already, and in providing her care the emergency crew is forced to let another woman who might become pregnant in the future--if her bleeding is staunched right now--die?

Here in America, an injured person demands of the volunteer medic, "Help me or I'll report you to the authorities!" Another victim, clearly without life-threatening injuries, offers cash if his care is place above others. Yet another demands care because he is an "important official" in the NSA/DOD/CAOP/MUD/QUATLOO who "deserves" whatever care is available.

Others just moan, "help me, help me, help me," repeatedly, as if the incantation will work if it is repeated often enough.

A few survivors come to the aid of the doctor and medic, but their skills are minimal, and some start arguing with the two over how to effect the triage. One "helper" threatens to "stop this entire operation" unless his principles are upheld, while others demand an election to choose a "leader" who can then appoint "assistants."

Others want to stop the triage until rules of conduct can be established, and lines of authority set up.

Still others demand a consensus, and suggest a compromise is in order.

Meanwhile, the doctor and the medic are being hindered in their desperate attempt to do as much good as they can as time runs out for many of the injured. They cannot believe how many of the walking wounded don't "get it;" it's as if there is no emergency, as if all this is just an extension of normal life where power, privilege, wealth and political principles count, as if a welter of rules and penalties and compromises over authority matter to those who could yet be saved.

This is how we choose to conserve doomed systems--powerful constituencies resist any change to the status quo which reduces their share. We as a nation ignore the facts which prove the watertight hull has been sliced open for 250 feet, and the ship will sink regardless of our principles and rights. We focus all our energy on shredding and critiquing the triage which a few souls are attempting.

The doomed system is ignored, but any triage fixes are treated like a carcass tossed in piranha-infested waters--torn to shreds as "inadequate" or "against our principles."

I just showed, with easily verifiable facts, that the Social Security system is doomed. Medicare, as many pointed out, is even more doomed. Does it really matter which ship sinks first? My entire point was triage: we should collectively place those who worked at private-sector low-paying jobs who have no other pension or retirement at the top of the heap, and everyone else with other resources accepts the value of this triage.

In America, nobody accepts being anything less than one of the favored few in the First Class lounge. It's like our national psyche has been formed by watching too many old war movies, in which a handful of embattled American troops proceed to decimate an entire German/Japanese garrison.

We always win, and yes, we take losses, but they're always light and always selective: the token African-American dies valiantly, as does the trooper with a heavy accent, i.e. "Frenchy." (Immigrants are always highly valued cannon-fodder. Prove your loyalty, son, by taking on the suicide mission.)

Cheap oil and unlimited credit expansion created the illusion that we could all luxuriate in the First Class cabin, and ignore that 250-foot gash in the hull. We expect reality to map an old movie, in which the expendables (immigrants, steerage passengers, etc.) gladly take the bullet so good old solid American values continue to conquer all.

We have confused the players on the field with their digital avatars; we think we can order the "game" to our liking, and ensure that our precious principles are followed to the letter. Nobody gets hurt in the videogame version of "life," and nobody screws up or slips in the mud or jumps higher than expected and makes the catch: the rules must be followed, and life should unfold according to our expectations.

The icy water should never reach us because, well, it's unthinkable that the ship can sink.

I have already written off my 40 years of Social Security contributions. I really don't care about the principles behind my "right" "to my fair share" and all the rest. I just think the person who worked 40-50 years in a low-paying job and who has no other resources should be first in line, and the rest of us should do without "our fair share" because we can.

Yes, I realise income disparity is natural, that wealth is largely the result of privilege, and that our system is exploitative, that any limits on Social Security would be unfair and deprive it of political support, and all the rest. All of that is like calling a "double-tight end, single-back, wide receiver runs a post pattern" play from 20,000 feet in the fourth quarter.

We have a choice: discomfort or collapse. The voices in favor of discomfort (i.e. sacrifice of something inessential to help others with less) are so few and the voices of critique and naysaying are so cacophanous and loud they drown out the few.

Look, if everyone who "earned" their $1,100 monthly Social Security benefit takes a 50% cut to "save the system," what does that mean? To me, it means the household drawing $6,000 a month in other pensions receives a 7.7% cut-- a trivial sum that won't damage the prospects of the household in the slightest. ($6,000 + $1,100 = $7,100 - $550 = $6,550, and $550 / $7,100 = .077)

Meanwhile, that $550 cut to the retired clerk or line worker with no other pension/ retirement income is 50% of their entire income--a catastrophic loss. Amidst the pirahnas feeding on "rights" and "what's my fair share" and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, are these two situations truly equal? Are we truly so pathetic that we prefer to let the entire system implode rather than face up to the triage challenge of doing our best to do the most good with what's left in the time we still have?

The voices in favor of triage are few, while the voices in favor of "principles" and "rights" are overwhelming.

I am dismayed by the ship full of bickering citizens, and turn to the handful of those in favor of triage for moral support. Take my 40 years of Social Security contributions, I don't need it. I will do OK without a dime, not because I am wealthy or privileged but because I think triage is the right choice.

Go ahead, give my seat on the Savior State lifeboat to somebody else-- I'll lash together some deck chairs. I have confidence in my ability to fashion a raft that increases the odds of survival. All I need is to be left alone to do my work. I'll even help like-minded souls if possible.

The carcasses (keep-it-simple triage) are no match for the swarming shoal of piranhas (naysaying, increasing complexity). Go ahead and pick apart the messy realities of triage; maybe the Martians will beam the arguing occupants of the Titanic up as the lights go out and the ship upends in a last dramatic roar of the boilers tearing loose just before the ship begins its final descent.

Or maybe not.

The truth is we are quite contented to stay on the Titanic, bickering amongst ourselves and issuing plays for others to execute on a messy field somewhere far away until the deck tilts past a critical point and our armchairs slide toward the icy embrace of extinction.

This is how we conserve systems that are doomed: we focus not on the fatal flaws of the present system, but on the many inadequacies of the triage process which might--might, no guarantees--improve the lot of those at the bottom of the financial/power heap and salvage a few things before the good ship Savior State/Global Empire founders.

I realise self-preservation is the prime biological imperative, along with exploiting any resource windfall we happen upon, but cooperation and compassion are survival strategies, too. If a mass of people all crowd onto a lifeboat to save themselves and as a result it sinks, killing everyone who fought their way on board, then how successful was their "self-preservation"?

Here are some reader comments of note on this topic.

Stephen K.

There are all sorts of motivations among those responsible. Leaving aside those who are just trying to get along from day to day and are by no means honchos,

1) There are careerists, who are adept at picking up signals about what actions and approaches are acceptable to those above them. They mostly only care about pleasing the boss and getting ahead of the competition. They specialize in knowing which side their bread is buttered on. Whether they understand the larger implications is beside the point, because they are not much concerned with those implications. Politicians, who want to go along to get along come to mind.

2) There are true believers, those whom Lenin first called “useful idiots”, who sincerely believe and push the party line for intellectual reasons. These are the ones who “believe their own bullshit”.

3) There are those who are mainly in it for the money, and can easily be bought and sold.

4) There are a smaller number who are found at the higher levels who are actively advancing an agenda, who are well aware of all the facts that you regularly mention, and who employ 1, 2, and 3 to further their agendas. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Joe H.

Please take a good look at the graph shown here Kahneman & Tversky's Prospect Theory

This is a very famous chart and I will try to flesh it out, tell you why it is important, and point out a few implications.

The first thing to notice is there is a kink in the line around the origin. The pain one feels surrounding a loss is three times more acute than the joy one feels regarding an equivalent gain. That is, the pain we feel at the loss of one dollar is as intense as the joy we might feel at the gain (windfall) of three dollars.

The second thing to notice is that the curves bend over. The joy we feel over a gain of $1000 is not ten times as great as the gain of $100. Similarly, the pain of a $1000 loss is not twice as great as the loss of $500.

Not shown in the graph is the fact that in regions close to zero, we mentally round off to zero. I call this the 'pocket change' effect. The loss of twenty five cents should be a big deal if the lines were continuous. But, in fact, the line stops at 'pocket change' and restarts at 'pocket change'. I could screw 310,000,000 people out of pocket change, become a very rich man, and 309,999,999 people would yawn.

How does this translate to life as you know it?

People defend what they consider their birthright, their share of the swag, with far greater vigor than those who would gain if the shakedown stopped. I think it is an evolutionary thing. Something must exist before you can lose it. If it existed, then it is real. A gain is hypothetical until it is in your pocket or your stew-pot. It is hard to break into a sweat over a concept that is hypothetical.

A pithier way of describing the curvature of the loss side of the curve is to say "It is no mercy to amputate a leg an inch at a time." The rational adjustment that you despair will happen is the inch-at-a-time amputation to the folks who will be giving up benefits. It is less costly in the psychological economy to take one huge hit than to take a number of modest hits, that in aggregate are less than the huge hit.

In time, gains or losses become absorbed and we re-zero. We play more aggressively when we are betting with "the casino's money". We play it much safer when we are at risk of losing 'our' money. But how much time must pass before we think of those chips as our money rather than the casino's money?

One year is what the guys at the coffee table agreed upon. After 365.25 days have passed, it moved from 'windfall' to 'nest egg'. It became "mine".

This graph will probably not change your life, but it might give you another lens that might help observations snap into focus....or provide a rule set that make observed behaviors become predictable or even rational.

Ernesto M.

My mother is 70 years old and works at WalMart part time to support herself. She has made many bad financial decisions in her life which was her own fault, but I would consider providing more support for her a VASTLY better use of my money than supporting the innumerable DEADBEATS through the welfare state.

My father lives in Bolivia and currently, he has four girls from Malawi that live with him. They are all related and he became acquainted with their family while working there as an engineer. Three of them just graduated from high school last December and I flew down to Bolivia to attend the ceremony.

If something happens to my father before they become self-sufficient, there will be no one to help them but me. Even later when my father is gone, its possible that they might need my help because they have no support network there nad none in the future that I consider reliable. Sure, they might marry but it might be to some jerk who will abandon them later.

Well, I do not have to do anything for them but I intend to do so. Why? Because I CHOOSE to since I care for them, A LOT. Wasting my money on taxes reduces my capacity to do so and I - once again - consider this a VASTLY better use of my money than spending it on the welfare state to support these innumerable DEADBEATS.

According to conventional dogma and those who believe in the absurdities of nationalism, I have a greater obligation to my "extended family" of fellow citizens simply because I live in the same political jurisdiction and carry the same passport as other Americans. My "extended family" has the "right" to politically compel me to pay whatever arbitrary claims they decide to make upon my resources (that is, MY LIFE) because of "democracy" disguised as BOGUS KINSHIP.

My response to anyone who thinks that I have a greater obligation to anyone who lives within the US borders than to those whom I CHOOSE to associate with is that this idea is absurd and preposterous. And when I am able to do so, I have every intention of defaulting on my "fair share" of the (bogus) "social contract" by leaving the country if it is in my interest to do so.

Eric A.

I have a story in the happy thereafter, which is low-energy, localizing, etc. world, where the end of the Savior State isn't the end of everything. Heck, when my parents grew up in 1950, no one had ever conceived of it and felt they were just fine. They were talking about all the guys who would live in cabins or trailers and not go to town--even here in farm country--"Norwegian bachelor farmers" as Keillor would say--and it didn't do much harm. We were talking about it to remind ourselves about how voluntary charity worked then.

Insanity is being much increased via drug use, economic pressure, and shattered lives. The Savior State refuses to put clearly, knowingly disturbed people into the existing and paid-for system, even when they break into the same house 4 times and try to kick the residents and their 4-year old children out, believing he owns the house, not them. They say they can do nothing. Puh-lease.

They can give me 30 days for jaywalking and frame people up regularly. Don't tell me they "can't" get a recognizable schitzophrenic out of a person's house at 2 a.m. In a town of 2,000 with a police department of a dozen.

There have been unlimited break-ins here in farm country recently, using cell phones to drop a carfull down a whole road, do a snatch-n-grab on the unlocked and unsecured, and text for a pick-up. That well ran dry, so now they're doing real B&Es. In the country, a really great way to run face-first into a shotgun.

But tell me, what else would stop it but tragedy? Being a low-life is all about time-preference. The thought that you might go to jail after 50 middle steps, including a long trial, isn't a deterrent. Besides, the police literally can't stop things from happening--they can only clean up the mess and punish people later, when it's too late. Only the thought of someone scaring them to death right then, in the very instant of the robbery, will communicate to them.

So the thing to focus on is to write stories and ideas about how things could work well afterwards, or even right now. It's well and good to point out there is record-low food supplies worldwide but quite another to show someone how to grow something themselves. Luckily, we have an excellent model--you only need think about going back through time.

No one felt put out by the medicine and charity they wer getting in the 1950's, because people were doing all they could. It just wasn't run by government at the point of a gun. As far as oil goes, the idea of living 2 miles from work and the grocery rather than 10, 20, 60 miles, would statistically make the US an oil exporter overnight. That would largely cure the deficit.

The cost? To live in small towns with homecoming games, to live in big cities with shops and lighted bijious. Gosh, the hardship of 1955, who could bear it? If things get worse, then we turn to the hardship of 1899, with electric lights, pumps, and telephones.

With our state of technology, doesn't that seem incredibly cool what we could do with that? That's the kind of re-thinking, re-imagining of the American Dream I'm talking about. And knowing our problems, it's probably time to focus more on it. Of course listing the problems gets more readers, but as far as solving the problems, not so much. But if the people don't want to think and read about solutions, can they really be helped? Maybe they deserve the condition they're in. Maybe it's voluntary, their active choice after all.

Thank you, readers, for these commentaries and the food for thought.

A lagniappe quote (excerpted) from one of the few who "get it": John Michael Greer of the The Archdruid Report:

I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to my readers: choose something improbable that you think might just offer a possible response to any of the aspects of the crisis of industrial society, and get to work on it. If that involves piecing together a Farnsworth fusor in the basement, good; if it involves learning planting by the Moon, good; if it involves – well, whatever it involves, if it appeals to you, get on with it. Don’t leave it to someone else; do it yourself, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

Passion can’t be legislated, and the sort of passion that led, for example, Gregor Mendel to spend years crossing pea plants to tease out the secrets of heredity is what we need right now. At worst, you’ll be able to draw a line under an unhelpful approach so that resources can go elsewhere; at best you may just provide the world with some small but valuable piece of the puzzle of survival. If we’re to reach the future’s further shores with any of the more useful legacies of the last three centuries intact, that willingness to take personal responsibility for making things happen is one of the things we need most right now.

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