Economics, Philosophy and Science

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spawned a great deal of branch protests. It has increased our awareness of economic, educational and governance issues. We have seen a series of aggressive police actions and amazing responses from victims. Historically, universities have been a sites of unrest. Berkeley had it’s riots in the 60’s, there’s the famous Kent State shooting picture and there are many other examples. What do much of these have in common? The state has used it’s authority and power to overly aggressively clamp down on protesters. However, violent protesters can’t be accepted, but non-violent protesters cannot be met with force. It’s part of our heritage to protest the government.

However, it’s important to understand what we’re protesting and why. It was clear from the beginning of the OWS movement that most of the people didn’t really understand what they were protesting. Very broad general things like Wall Street making too much money or the fact that no one has gone to jail. I think it’s important that for protesting to be effective the leaders and a majority of the protesters need to be well educated on what it is exactly they are protesting.

In this case the protesters needed to be educated on economics and philosophy/morality. Why economics, those guys are like the bad guys man? Well, sadly, to have an actual conversation with these people you need to speak their language. You don’t have to actually accept their assumptions as true or accurate, but you need to be well educated on the topics. Additionally, if you are well educated on economics, you’ll know there are different capitalist perspectives on economics that indicate that a more equal society is a safer and happier society. Using evolutionary economics, policies can be crafted to help protect economies from crashes. In addition, being educated in slightly beyond the basic supply demand curve, it will help prevent the wool from being pulled over our eyes. This will also allow more members of our society to enter public discourse and understand and speak intelligently about the topics that impact all of us. People will actually understand what socialism and communism actually mean.

In addition to a good economic ground work, we also need to understand some basic philosophy. People are accused of moral relativism, we need to know what it actually means (morality is flexible based on the situation) and how that impacts people’s actions. We also need to know when our leaders are behaving morally, immorally and what sort of freedoms we should be giving to people. Our country is founded on the philosophical ideas of the enlightenment. The US government was founded on rights, which all people should have regardless of sex, race or whatever. This includes speech and protest. If these are within our rights, then we need to protect them from people that believe it is their right to physically assault you when you exercise your rights. Morality and ethics can also drive our legislature to define laws based on humanist principles to ensure living wages and the right to live for all people. Or at least the need to create the social mobility claim to have in our society. Decreasing costs of education reduces the initial burden after school which allows people to take more risks, which may allow them to move from one social strata to the next. These should be done for moral reasons and because education and research has been shown both neoclassical economics and evolutionary economics to be a huge driver of sustained economic growth.

We also need a strong scientific foundation, which will provide a healthy dose of skepticism for government and data published by any group on either side. It gives the tools to decide if we should accept these data or open our tool box and figure out where the flaw in the data is. Science is the driver of current economic growth. It is what allows the next big break through at the platform level. We’ve had several platforms, coal, steel, rail, and we’re currently on the silicon platform/computing platform. To develop new platforms we need to continue to drive to the frontier of science.

Our founding fathers embodied these ideals. Jefferson was a philosopher that wrote his own version of the bible. He and Franklin were both accomplished scientists. All of them believed in the rights of the people that exist not because they are given to them by the government, but because they are natural rights all people have. It is important that we acknowledge these rights and make sure we are educated in these topics to ensure an actual debate over the problems we’re facing as a society. Without being educated in the importance of these topics we’ll begin to argue based on the best sound byte and not on the content of the message.

In closing, all people need to become literate in these topics to provide the best foundation for an argument. Without being able to speak the right language, you’ll sound like whining children that’s wondering like a child lost in the woods, or out of your element if you will. With these tools, anyone can talk coherently and powerfully against the very things our own government protests in other countries.

Review: Republic Lost. Or the hand book for OWS

I just finished Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig last night. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Lessig fan. I find his work extremely interesting and relevant to the changing world. It is a bit dry to be honest, all of his writings deal with how society, the market and laws interact.

In my opinion this book should be the handbook for anyone interested in the Occupy movement. I’ll explain why in a few steps. First, he mentions various different cases of inequity which are highly promenient in the US. He specifically addresses the 99% argument and does it a great deal of good. He fully explains what it means to be in the 99% in a way that has been missing in the dialogue. He actually says that the 1% isn’t the biggest problem it’s actually a much smaller percentage, but the 1% can cause a lot of damage as well.

In the book he systematically explains how and why money is a problem in the system. In many cases it’s not that there is quid pro quo corruption going on. More that it seems like there is corruption going on because of the money involved. As an outsider it’s hard to trust a system where the Teachers union (or wall street or exxon) can say I will give $1 million dollars to any candidate that supports tenure (or bail outs or deep water drilling). This is an implicit threat because if you don’t support these topics your opponent will, because it will give them campaign donations. As donations play a huge amount of time for a congressman (30-70%) anything that makes it easier to get money the congressmen will campaign to support.

There have been studies that question if these gifts actively change legislative voting behavior, but many quotes from former congressmen explaining that there is a sense of obligation to the donor. This isn’t a tit for tat type exchange, Lessig argues it’s more of a gift economy. Like what buy a round of beers for your friends, you don’t want money for it, you want them to buy you the next round. The fact that you bought instills (in most people) a sense of obligation to buy the next round. This analogue is perfect in fact, as Lessig argues that congress is dependent on these funds like an alcoholic. This is an illicit dependency as he shows that Congress should be “dependent on the People alone.”

Lessig builds an extremely will supported case that donations impact the legislative process by impacting what congressional leaders allow debate on. Even if it doesn’t impact votes, it impacts what is considered important by the congress. This is one of the ways that congress seems out of touch with regular people. I believe Lessig builds a strong enough case to demonstrate that something must be done. He actually has a few suggestions on how to deal with the problem.

The first is the old fashioned way of trying to build support through congress to enact real campaign reform. Lessig doesn’t believe this is realistic and gives it about a 0% chance of success. His next idea is to get about 300 well known people to run as super candidate to force the issues. Have these people run in multiple different districts (it’s legal) and garner enough attention to force the politicians to say they will vote for reform. Do this in enough state and in the right states and it might work. He calls this a kind of political terrorism. He gives it a 5% chance of working once you get started.

His next idea is to have one of those types candidates run for the of president making the promise to hold congress hostage until the reforms are made, BUT resign as soon as the reforms are completed. He argues that this is required for people to honestly believe that the changes would happen and for congress to actually enact the changes. There would be no negotiations other than making sure all the normal people get paid and services don’t impact most business. He also gives this one a 5% chance of working.

The final suggestion is to push for a constitutional convention. This would require 38/50 states to OK the convention. He, at length, describes all the potential problems and legal issues with the convention, which matter once the ball gets rolling. In addition to this he suggests creating about 300 shadow conventions where regular people are given the opportunity to make constitutional amendments. These could then be the basis for what is sent to congress.

In total, if you are part of the OWS movement you need to read this book. It will help give more firepower for your arguments against the 1% and it will give some guidance on what the first priority should be. I agree with Lessig that until we get money out of the system no other reforms are possible. We will not have a function government until the People are the only thing the government relies on for choices of legislature.

Occupy Wall Street

Since September 17th people have been having a live in protest on Wall Street in New York City. The protests are attempting to bring attention to the inequities between Wall Street, CEOs and the rest of the US and world. There has been a media blackout since it started until recently. The Daily Show has covered it twice (Here and Here). There were two reasons for this. First the media didn’t know how to deal with the protests. They act differently, the people protesting aren’t grandmothers yelling about the government, instead it’s a bunch of hippie like people that are protesting corporations. Another problem was that there was no cohesive voice coming out from the movement. However yesterday there was an actual list of “demands” released. Basically these demands explain the need for changes at all levels of government and how corporations behave towards both workers and the environment.

The protests are in their third week now. They have been growing every week. Initially, there were only a few hundred protesters now it’s been reported that up to 20,000 people have started to protest in NYC. The occupy movement has spread from only being in NYC to Boston, LA, DC, and several other cities as well. While the Daily Show is right that these protests are very similar to the Tea Party protests the problems they hope to address the end goals and the means are very different. Both groups also had a lot of uninformed people, for example you had the old lady saying keep the government out of my healthcare when she had medicare (government healthcare), and here you have people just saying they want Wall Street to take less money. These protests have gone beyond just the hippies, unions in NYC have also joined the protesters as well as more “responsible” people from other walks of life.

I think these protests could eventually make a difference. I don’t think it will happen in time for the next presidential election. The changes that they are demanding are structural changes that require socio-economic changes. They require complete changes in our ethics and our goals in lives. These are not changes that happen over night. There are some changes that we can do that will have immediate impacts though, and these aren’t popular among policy makers. We need to get money out of politics, we need to limit how politicians can make money off the laws they pass and we need to use public funds for elections (as well as have elections on the weekend or a holiday). Removing the money by creating public funds will eliminate the leverage that lobbyists can use on politicians. Preventing politicians from making money off the laws through stock purchases will prevent tit-for-tat behavior with lobbyists as well. Making it easy as possible to vote will increase the immediate participation in the government.

The reaction to OWS in NYC has been horrifying. The cops have been brutal towards the protesters and really show that the indignation our leaders displayed during violent responses to protest are just words. If US politicians cared about freedom and democracy they would support the protesters. Protesting is part of being American. It’s part of our constitution because it drives conversation and it drives democracy. Protesting is a form of participation. If we aren’t able to participate we don’t have a democracy. Arresting 700 people for going to the protest isn’t acceptable. Pepper spraying women that were corralled is not acceptable, it’s not how a democracy deals with protests. The right way to deal with these protests is to invite them into the conversation and really take a look at what they have to say. We aren’t doing that in the US. The 99% don’t have the same voice as the 1%. As can be seen from Fox News, that 1% is trying to divide the 99%.