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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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economics of life

From Every Perspective, Community

In trying to understand the state of the world today, I have come across three major theories: Peak Oil, Income Inequality and the Separatist Standard Narrative. All three of these stories assert that the world is in crisis and seem to be drawing on the same fundamental observations. They also seem to call for the same actions.

The Standard Narrative is the broadest and most encompassing explanation of the ailments of today’s world. Stories lie at the foundation of everything we believe. Facts, even, are only true within the context of a broader story. A story is kind of like an axiom for a mathematician. It isn’t something you question based on its truth value, you simply accept it as true based on its usefulness in interpreting the things you want to understand, and on your own personal feeling of comfort with it. The Standard Narrative is the guiding principle behind scientific discovery and economic exploitation and it goes something like this: Humans are the result of billions of years of evolution wherein soulless protein molecules that were able to replicate themselves grew in number. As molecules replicated, they grew more complicated and some replicated faster than others. Eventually cognition developed as a result of this evolutionary process and molecules which had joined together to become cells and organisms began to assert their will over their environment in an effort to reproduce even faster. Humans are the penultimate expression of this single purposed competition to reproduce and we are not only able to control our environment with extreme precision, but we are also able to develop schemes and meta-schemes which guarantee the survival of our offspring. To that end we constructed “society” and “civilization” so that we could reduce the exposure of ourselves and our progeny to the forces of nature while simultaneously employing the skills of others to our advantage. Love, human affection and morality are all psychological byproducts of our incredible and unparalleled cognitive capacity and are not so much perceptions of a higher truth as they are built in safety measures to ensure that we operate within society to both our own selfish best interest and the interest of our offspring. They make sure that we appear cooperative enough in order to ensure future contributions by other members of society. Our evolution from protein molecule to an organism capable of dividing atoms into their tiniest parts is proof of our superiority as a species. As a corollary we are not obligated to consider our impact on other members of our species, or our planet, except inasmuch as our impact might prevent the success of future generations of our own offspring. Indeed excessive concern for individuals other than ourselves would be detrimental to our own survival and is not recommended.

Modern social, business and political policies reflect a belief in the validity of the standard narrative. Capitalism is based on the idea of competition wherein weaker companies, those who cannot produce at low enough cost or whose profit margins are smaller than other companies, go out of business leaving stronger, fitter, more efficient companies behind. New companies join the market as a result of entrepreneurship, which is an analogue of the spontaneous mutations in evolution. Within the standard narrative, there is no call for government action to meddle in markets because at best it would be prolonging the operation of companies that overuse resources and provide a lower production to input ratio. In otherwords it would mean we are getting less stuff out of more resources. Unemployment is considered a necessary process of purging obsolete skills from the job market. The amassing of wealth and market power into smaller and smaller subsets of the population is also a necessary evil as it serves to encourage the constant struggle towards ever greater efficiency. In the standard narrative of markets, success and failure are all expressions of our individual fitness; similarly, pain and pleasure are are the personal indications of our survival or our failure to adapt but are in and of themselves not meaningful.

To the extent that people believe the standard narrative, they are also willing to accept the rules and policies that structure our society that are based on that narrative. However as markets fail in greater numbers to provide the prizes they promised in exchange for hard work, long hours and proper training, people are beginning to find difficulty in accepting the validity of that system. When college graduates routinely find their best prospects for work are as restaurant staff, when families see that their children, despite their best efforts at providing and preparing them for adulthood, are simply incapable of supporting themselves, and when the better and more prosperous world that the evolution of our markets is supposed to deliver us repeatedly fails to arrive, people begin to doubt. What the standard narrative fails to recognize is that people, in addition to their physical well being, also need a sense of identity and a sense of community. We are social creatures and are actually not equipped to make decisions well in the relative vaccuum of the atomic family unit. Many of our decision making processes are adaptive to social decision making in an environment that changes much more slowly than the one we live in today. What the standard narrative fails to recognize is that we are living beings wholly intertwined with our surroundings and that if you place all your energy and focus on one dimension of our existence, such as material consumption, you neglect the other critically important avenues of well being, without which we cannot thrive.

An alternative story to the Standard Narrative is one of interconnectedness wherein human well being is bolstered by the health of their environment both physical and social. In this alternative story, no decision on the market can be made without accounting for its impact on an array of factors that are not necessarily aggregatable into a single dimension. That means that money alone is an insufficient measure of value because it will not be able to account for a sense of belonging, of love, security or connectedness.

Peak oil and Income inequality are two stories about the state of the world that talk about our system directly. Peak oil says that the resources in our planet have peaked and that from here moving forward they will increase in cost and difficult to access. This is a result of the balance between the renewability of those resources, the technological capacity to extract and consume those resources, and the population of humans who depend on those resources. Over the last several hundred years we have been growing our population and our consumption of resources at an exponential rate. However, the resources themselves renew at slower than exponential. The result is that we will, or perhaps already have, inevitably hit the boundary of our ability to grow and the pace will stop very suddenly and probably painfully. Economic institutions like the financial system which depend on a steady growth rate of the economy will fail when this boundary is hit. The money supply, for example will faulter significantly as the growth of the money supply depends on the repayment of debt with interest. The reason people are willing to accept a loan with an interest payment is because they believe that they will be able to produce enough wealth in the future to pay back both. In other words, they believe they will be able to produce more in the future. This means that they believe they will have access to either more technology or more resources, or maybe just more money. When oil and other critical resources run out, which for our purposes simply means become available at a slower rate than the expansion of the economy, people will not receive the raises they anticipated when accepting the loans because companies will not be able to increase production enough to pay the wages. As a result, there will be a default on loans and the money supply will either contract naturally, or governments will step in to expand it artificially.

The difficulties that peaking natural resources bring to the world are more than just the need to rebalance our budgets to pay for increasing gas prices. First of all, we must stop and think about exactly what part of our budget does *not* depend on oil. Anything that is imported, anything made of plastic or packaged in plastic, anything that relies on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, many medications, and yes even our electricity all depend on oil. So in order to be prepared for the exponential rise in the price of oil that we will inevitably face (as the distance between our needs and the earth’s ability to produce grows exponentially smaller), we will have to make our consumption of all of these goods exponentially smaller. If this is not a disaster, I’m not sure what is. But moreover, we will have to become conscious of how our money system, the lubrication that makes the market go, depends on growing access to energy. If the actual volume of production in the economy suddenly screaches to a less-than-exponential-growth halt, the money supply will have to slow down, too. With so much of our economy dependent on the idea that more money will always be available in the future, we will have to rethink the way we do business entirely.

The changes that will come with peak oil are huge and unavoidable. They will be changes to the most fundamental aspects of our lives and our thinking because oil is at the basis of everything we have grown accustomed to today. On an indiidual level, each person will be called upon to shift their dependency off of oil and onto renewable resources. This is not a new idea by any means, but the severity of the need is much larger than any electric car commercial would have us believe. Renewability will also mean locality as transportation of goods and services itself depends on oil. We will also need to reduce our reliance on money as a means of making transactions. This is huge. Most of us today don’t know what it means to do business without money, but actually the alternative is not some technological alternative (like Bitcoin), but in fact an old fashioned method: we will have to rely on our communities and personal relationships. Without money to keep a record of who has put in what effort and who is entitled to what resources we will have to rely on our own memories. The colloquial term for this is favors. Money transactions will have to be supplemented with gifts and favors, both of which require personal relationships. Given how globalized our world has become in the last fifty years, it is not feasible to imagine that all of us will, within our lifetimes, be able to transition out of the cities and onto self sustaining communal plots. Some things like medical technology cannot be replaced with personal favors. However reducing our reliance on money, and in particular our reliance on money to purchase oil-based products, is a necessary adaptation to the economy post-peak.

In some ways peak resources and the standard narrative go hand in hand. Those who are already beginning to feel the strain of our over populated overly oil dependent planet are not surprisingly also those who are beginning to doubt the narrative of separability and who have begun to seek other more sustainable alternative lifestyles. Without money or access to non-renewable resources we are really left with only one choice, which is the one to respect our place on the planet as only one of many life forces all intertwined and dependent on each other.

Finally, the third perspective on the state of our world today is one of resource distribution. The United States has terrible income inequality with the richest 400 citizens holding more wealth than some 250 million* of the rest of us. I made those numbers up, but they make my point and can be verified in the book After-shock by Robert Reich. The revolving door between politics and money creates a flow of change that consistently moves in one direction. Inequality is an unvaoidable feature of any society. However, there are degrees of inequality that are acceptable and perhaps even beneficial, and there is an extent beyond which inequality undermines the stability of a country. As wealth begins to amass in a smaller set of hands, those hands will naturally seek to protect and grow their own wealth. When their surplus is large enough they will feed that money into the political system in order to encourage the development of policies that will benefit them. In other words, when people have enough money they are able to buy rules that make it easier for them to get and hold more money.

As with the theory of peak resources, the primary economic problem with runaway income inequality is that it creates an imbalance between the monetary value of an individual or organization and the actual ability of that entity to produce enough stuff to live on. The richest members of society are first the bankers and second the CEOs of large multinational corporations. In the language of old, these are the business class. On a fundamental level, business people don’t actually produce anything. Their wealth comes from coordinating the production of others and then skimming a profit off the top. This is not a bad thing, but when the majority of the purchasing and decision making power in a country becomes concentrated in the hands of people who don’t actually produce anything, we have a recipe for inevitable social collapse. If we imagine that the current state of affairs be allowed to run interrupted to its logical conclusion, what we would see is ever increasing purchasing power in the hands of a small subset of the population that does not produce anything. The remainder of the population which does produce will be stripped of their ability to choose how to allocate their resources, meaning they will supply the physical maximum amount of labor possible while simultaneously consuming the cheapest products available. Cheapest, of course, is a function of price. So long as the economy is growing, prices can be lowered by exploiting resources that are not owned by anyone, and therefore need only be extracted at the cost of technology. When these resources run out, the producers will fail to produce and the wealthy will have all the resources and none of the abilities to produce anything with them. The result is chaos and massive human welfare decline.

Not surprisingly, the solution to rising income inequality can also be found in a shift towards local and community based systems. We can call for governments to reduce the policies that have caused this great imbalance, but we have no reason to believe they will listen to us now when they haven’t in the past. Instead, the solution is, like with Peak Oil, to reduce our dependency on money-based markets. Because wealth and income inequality is largely measured in dollars, by increasing our command of social capital, favors and gift-based obligations, we can increase our wealth and our purchasing power of critical necessities without needing governmental intervention or a rise in our wages.

While the problems facing our world today are insurmountable in the current framework of markets and politics, the solution is simple and available to all those who would seek it. Communities can be built without any additional physical resources, but merely a redistribution of our time and attention. Moreover, by solving the problem of our failing global economy with the substitution of personal relationships we also transfer value and meaning into the lives of a vast majority of humans who have been told for decades now that their failure to produce large sums of money through their labor is proof of their uselessness to the greater society. Farmers, carpenters, restaurant workers, care givers and any other human who makes their living by physically providing a service or producing a good that people can use are the people who will support and carry our world through the next years of transition. These are the people who have true power to affect change because they are the ones most connected to the world. At the same time the business people and bankers are those who are most invested in the system remaining the way it is. While they are highly adapted to operating in an economy which will grow perpetually, they are painfully and woefully divorced from the realities of where our livelihoods actually come from. When the world does finally begin its shift towards a contracting global economy, these people are going to have the most difficulty adjusting because they will find their entire skill sets are suddenly obsolete.

I am personally frightened of the changes that I am now convinced are waiting on a very near and very certain horizon. However, after a year of searching and reading and thinking, I have concluded that the solution the the world’s problems, and indeed the world that is waiting for us just beyond that horizon, is a beautiful one that will enable each human to thrive more wholly and more authentically than we have been able to for centuries, if not milenia of our history. It is a thrilling time to be alive.

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Crazy Idea

So, why is “organic” no longer a trusted label in the food industry? Answer: because it’s part of the food industry!

Once “organic” became a term legally defined by the FDA, corporations that produce our food had an incentive to shirk on the spirit of the law to make maximal profits while still obeying the technical definition. Law is, after all, just a bunch of technicalities. Economically, organic allowed the food industry to discriminate between its customers that cared and had enough money to pay for healthy food from those who were just trying to fill their bellies or otherwise did not have the funds to pay for the higher priced organic products. Discrimination almost always results in a higher profit for the producer and a lower surplus of benefit for the consumer.

As of today there are twenty seven states with laws defining and recognizing the organizational structure known as the benefit corporation. Such corporations, in stark contrast to traditional corporate structure, are required to adhere to higher standards of transparency and social responsibility which they must report publicly on a periodic basis. The legal structure of these organizations was proposed in a large part due to work by B Laps, a non profit organization.

So, my question is, can we use our experience with the failure of the organic label to somehow bolster up the spirit of the B and benefit corporations? How will corporations attaining this legal status use the loopholes of the law to extract more profit from their consumers than they could if registered as traditional corporations? Or, just maybe, it’s not possible. In which case any organization registered under one of these titles might actually be trustworthy in that it might, just might, be actually attempting to improve the welfare of the people…

My Sexual Harassment Story

Sexual harassment is a shitty thing. It is not just because people get hurt by it, but because it is an abuse of the social structure performed so subtly that the victim of sexual harassment may never have even a single concrete moment that she can look back on and say, “this was clearly sexual harassment.” Moreover, without those concrete experiences, people who would be inconvenienced by the news of sexual harassment in their workplace, people like the managers responsible for preventing said harassment, are more inclined to doubt the conclusions of the victim than they are to take action against the predator. A fellow academic shared her story of sexual harassment, and it inspired me to share my own. Sexual harassment is often a collection of actions that together unequivocally harm a woman’s self image, career, and work place relationships. In order to make it easier for the victims of sexual harassment to overcome their harassers, I think those of us who are able are obliged to share our stories. I hope that by sharing my story here that other women might recognize what is happening and take actions sooner and with more resolve in order to protect themselves.

The situation started when a young assistant professor joined my university. I was married at the time and he approached my husband, thinking he was another member of the university, and inquired about the attractive woman organizing the happy hour. That woman was me. It was my third year in graduate school and I was on the committee for planning the economics department’s social events. My husband, being the sort of man who likes to brag about his accomplishments, explained that I was his wife. At the time I was looking for an advisor and the young assistant specialized in my field, so I took the opportunity to start a conversation. Looking back I’m sure it was their shared moment of objectifying me that paved the way for the difficulty ahead.

I began working with the professor several months later on a project he had started in graduate school. We were working to extend a simple two dimensional model of choice under uncertainty to a three dimensional case to gain insight on the existence of a counter example. I devoted many precious hours each week to this project in the hopes that it would lead to a co-authorship, or at least a reciprocal research relationship in which I could develop my own work. I enjoyed the work, but the professor remained guarded. He took my ideas and used them, but would not share his insights beyond what was necessary for the current task. There was no suggestion that a co authorship would occur.

Playing with one of the functions we had discussed, trying to get a better feel for what it meant, I discovered that I had completely characterized it with a single axiom of choice. I shared this information with my professor and we agreed I would pursue this direction in my third year paper, a requirement for the PhD in my department. After formalizing our relationship, my professor began spending more time in my office and he began initiating interactions with me that had nothing to do with my work. After my duties on the social committee ended, he started making special trips to my office to ensure I would continue attending the happy hours. He insisted I stay with him for several drinks and a game of pool after the rest of the department left. He wanted me to play on his team in a game of flip cup at the annual party. I had few friends and a failing long distance marriage at the time, so I thought I would go along with the invitations, telling myself that I was using my femininity to gain an advantage. If my advisor was interested in me socially or sexually, then perhaps he would be more inclined to take a personal interest in my work as well. 

My marriage began to deteriorate as I began to progress on my own research project. It seems to me that my husband was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my growing marketability and he began sabotaging my research activities. A professor of economics himself, it was not difficult for him to initiate contact with my faculty under the guise of academic inquiry. My health deteriorated rapidly and between the sudden drop in weight and the horrendous acne, it was impossible for me to hide that something awful was going on outside of my work. To make matters worse, my husband had invited himself to my university as a one semester guest professor working with my advisor and the second chair on my graduation committee. I decided it was best to fill my advisor in on the situation in the hopes that he would be my ally and my support. However, if things had turned out the way I had hoped, I would not be writing this blog.

After telling my advisor that my husband and I had separated, his involvement in my life intensified. He hired me as a teacher’s assistant for his game theory class and when I came to deliver the graded homework assignments we would make excuses to keep me in his office. He wanted me to help him understand his gas bill. He was curious how I was holding up with the impending divorce. He wanted to explain to me about how Israeli chocolate was so much better than American chocolate. He wanted me to style edit his current paper for publication. I actually was known for my good grammar and style editing and charged $35/hr to faculty for my services. I spent three hours on this job and when I came to him he said, “wow, this is great work! You definitely deserve a chocolate!” A chocolate?! “Professor, I don’t work for chocolate. I work for $35 per hour payable in cash or with your research fund.” He never paid me for the work.

Things got noticeably worse after this. I told him that the divorce was so stressful that I was taking a semester off from research. I also began avoiding him in the hallways and guarding information about my personal life more actively. He responded by petitioning the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to have me TA his course again. My funding had expired so if he hadn’t done this I would have had no income. I shared the job responsibilities this time with another student, a married woman who was five months pregnant at the beginning of the semester. I received only a half fellowship and the three of us met to discuss the workload. I agreed to grade exactly half of the assignments for half the pay and everyone found this acceptable. I had never been late on an assignment in the past and had always done high quality work, but this semester my professor would not stop riding me. Three days after the midterm exam he wanted the grades done. I told him that I never finished grading sooner than one week after the assignment. I promised him I would finish the grading the next day. It wasn’t even lunch time and he tracked me down in the building to demand the work. I told him that he hadn’t given me a specific hour and he was being unreasonable. He responded by secretly shifting one of the assignments from my co-TA’s schedule onto my schedule and rewriting the final exam to be multiple choice. The end result was that I did two thirds of the work for only half the pay. When I found out that he had done this I finally knew that I was being punished. I flew into a rage, which I carefully contained inside my head, and resolved to take action. He had stolen money from me on two separate occasions and there was going to be hell to pay…

Or so I thought. My professor had actually submitted a dissatisfactory performance claim to my department chair. Before I could think I was being reprimanded for my neglect of duty. I explained what had happened and that Professor D. had taken advantage of me and my chair said that since I had finished the work already that I should just let it go. I was even more furious then than I had been before. I was being reprimanded because my advisor was using his position to assuage his damaged ego? And I, a poor graduate student living on less than $15,000/yr, who was being stolen from by my professor because I had rejected his sexual advances, was being advised to just walk away?

I went to the university ombudsman on the recommendation of one of my classmates. She was an older woman who accused me of being depressed. I certainly was depressed, but I say accused because she seemed to imply that I was allowing my depression to cloud my judgment. I told her I wanted something done about the situation and she said if I pushed the issue it would cost me my career in economics. The only thing to do, she said, was to file a sexual harassment complaint against the department but it was sure to fail because all I had to go on was my word versus the professor’s. Essentially, what I heard from her, was that unless he had raped me on camera that he had every right to use and abuse me in any way he felt fit and if it was inconvenient for the university to interfere then it wouldn’t. I felt alone and helpless and for six months I didn’t work.

What finally got me out of my situation was, of all things, an annual progress report to the graduate group. We had to fill these out every year to prove that we were making acceptable progress towards completing our dissertations. I felt that no one in my department would listen to me, that no one in the university cared that I was being abused, that nothing mattered at all. At this lowest point I had nothing to lose, so in my progress report I was honest. I explained how ending my marriage had produced a marked change in my relationship with my advisor. I explained how my committee and my department head refused to interfere on my behalf. I explained how the social situation had made it impossible for me to seek advice on my research or make progress and that for a full year I had written no chapters and had no expectation of being able to finish my degree. Apparently this was the right thing to do because less than three days later I was invited — not summoned, but invited — to come in a speak with the DGS again.

My department head must have gotten in trouble from my report because everything turned around that day. I showed up on November 11, 2011 at 11:00 in the morning. At exactly 11:11 and 11 seconds I made a wish that I would overcome these obstacles and be successful in my career and at 11:12 my department head was listening intently to my story. There were moments when he attempted to steer me away from outright accusing Professor D of harassment, but I was determined. By the end of our meeting I had stated my claim that my advisor had contributed to my current inability to function by using his position to attempt to force sexual favors from me. I had stated my claim that the other faculty turned a blind eye and that this had sealed my fate. The department head did not offer to take any action against Professor D, but this time he did not attempt to deny my claim either. We agreed that I would switch faculty and he would make sure that Professor D did not interact with me until I graduated. He also promised me no further interference from the university in my degree.

In the end I feel like I won the fight. I also feel like I have battle scars that may never heal. The difficulty with the sexual harassment was not any one single aspect. My husband had encouraged it both when he spoke with my advisor and when he spoke to me, insisting that my professor’s personal interest in me was not only not inappropriate, but even beneficial to my career. When it became obvious to me that the personal attention was not good for me, I was already deep in the process of what would become a three year divorce battle and I lacked the emotional strength to end two poisonous relationships at the same time, particularly when one of them was so intensely related to my success as an economist. And then there was the difficulty in seeing the harassment for what it was. No single interaction by itself would be cause for alarm, but taken together I can see the pattern of a man trying to manipulate a woman, stealing her time and her attention, without openly acknowledging that that is what he was doing. And finally, there is the shame of admitting that I was taken advantage of, that I even thought that I was the player at one point, not the one being played. Even when I was able to admit to myself what was going on, I had no allies. Even the women were uncomfortable acknowledging my experience and preferred to just sweep it all under the rug.

At this point I doubt anything more will come of the situation. I do worry, on occasion, that Professor D will not credit me for the work I contributed to his research. I need that credit as a young professor myself, but I doubt that even if he were to withhold it that there would be any repercussion. Sometimes I dream of the day we meet again, sometime off in the future where I am well established and respected in my field. I imagine him stunted and meddling, an older, fatter, balder version of himself. We will meet eyes and he will know that in the end I was the stronger one. Then, he will turn and hobble off into his dark ivy covered cave to perpetuate his delusion of greatness.

I share my story here for any women who might be now in the place I was years ago. To you who are wondering if his criticism, or even his praise, is really because of work you did or if it’s because he wants something from you; to you who feel as if you are the only one who sees it; to you who doubt that your own intuition is trustworthy; to you who have no allies, I give you my story. I hope when you read it you will find some insight into your own situation and some strength to fight for your own dignity. Also to you who share a workplace with women. I hope that my story gives you some insight into our plight. I hope that in reading my story you are able to recognize when your own coworkers are suffering a similar situation. I hope that maybe when you see the damage that sexual harassment causes that when it is your turn to choose if you will sweep it under the rug or not that you will choose to validate her experience instead.

 

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