The State Of The Union Is Not Good — But It Could Be

Those of you who know me will know that I love sifting through the worst garbage to find treasures — diamonds in the rough.  Last night’s State of the Union address was less garbage than most are and certainly better than expected, and there were some true gems carefully concealed within the rhetoric.  The genius lay in the format of posing questions rather than proposing solutions; every complex problem is half-solved by asking the right question.

So, without further ado, let us take a look at the questions we were asked:

How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in the new economy?

Wrong question:  Since when is “fairness” a virtue anywhere other than in a will or a Kindergarten playground?  The real world is almost never fair, and as a consequence it’s usually foolish to attempt to impose fairness on reality.

The precise words are important when framing these questions, just as asking the questions is vital in making things happen, in solving problems (most people try to do that the wrong way around).

But it’s the question we have, so let’s go with it.  I’ll pull the word “fair” out and discard it as meaningless in this framework and take each other term individually.

Let’s start with “The New Economy”:  One of the fundamental truths about the economy is that it’s always “the new economy”.

The island of Manhattan is in a constant state of flux; it’s quite small for the concentration of money, people, and power that it embodies.  The limited land area combined with social pressure forces continual demolition and construction.  In the same way, given a pool where labor and other resources exist under constraint, there will be continual destruction and recreation of jobs and opportunities.

Given that background level of chaos, any economy will create a perpetual level of displacement in the workforce.  It’s counterintuitive, but the more vibrant the economy, the more society advances, the more turmoil there will be.  It’s like eddies in a fast-moving stream — and in more ways than one; just as in a stream, chaos will occur at points of restriction.

There are two major tasks that must be performed by government in order to minimize this chaos:
(1) We need to remove as many of these points of restriction as is practicable.  This includes racism in a societal sense, but also as many nonessential forms of external interference as we can — but some external forms are indeed essential, else the market will overwhelm labor.  Labor, after all, is not a created resource in the same fashion that other materials are, and it’s subject to different laws than the standard ones of basic supply and demand.  So restrictions must continue to be imposed in order to protect the market from labor and labor from the market, but these must be carefully created and designed so as to limit and direct the subsequent impact.
(2) We need to keep society advancing at a decent rate at all times.  This will prevent stagnation; it will also serve to keep these virtual eddies from becoming permanent fixtures as the force of oncoming progress wears away at the causes.

But that’s wholesale, not individual.  In order to maximize individual opportunity and security, it is incumbent on us to promote certain aspects of society, to guide it in wise directions.  Intelligence and wisdom in individuals should be celebrated, not mocked and belittled.  The use of reason to solve problems should be encouraged; the use of violence discouraged.  And flexibility in the individual to perform required tasks needs to become a high ideal, promoted both by society and within each occupation, the practice of which trains us all to perform both that task and the next that we’ll face.

We don’t need more workers; we don’t need even as many as we have.  We do need poets and artists, and genius from all fields should be nurtured and celebrated — and exploited.

In a short time, we will see a development where creativity and intellectual effort can be harvested wholesale by means of the Internet.  This must be encouraged, monitored, and kept under some level of control — but above all, it must be permitted to be created.

In order to allow this to happen, some of the societal and economic pressure on the individual to produce ought to be relieved — not much, but some.  Genius grants are a beginning; we need more, and we need direction and efficiency without imposing external control.

But that’s fast becoming a different topic, and I’d like to stay on-point.  Stay tuned for more about that concept, though — it’s a fascinating one, and in it I believe we’ll find the ideal model for our future.

How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, as we solve our biggest challenges?

Well, this is one way, and it’s a good one.  But that’s only an example, not a philosophy.

Technology is a tool.  The classic example is from the movie (and book) “Shane”:
“A gun is a tool, Marion. No better and no worse than any other tool – an axe, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”

We don’t need better technology, or tighter control on it.  We need better people, is what we need.  So — how do we make better people?

(I have some ideas.  Stay tuned.)

But what are our biggest challenges going to be?  In order to face them and confront them, we need to define them, and to do so far enough in advance that we can make preparations.  And then, since people are the resource through which we do overcome challenges:  Can we — should we — dare we form people in advance for the challenges which we must face?  Is it proper for us to mold humanity, in both the aggregate and the individual?  That is a difficult question from ethical, moral, and legal standpoints, but it must be addressed — for, be assured:  If we do not mold humanity, someone else will.

How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

We don’t.

Safety comes from control, which requires power — not merely having power, but being skilled in its use and application.  In our system, power needs to be exercised in mild excess at least once every four years or so, to demonstrate that the present Commander is willing to use it — in due and proper proportion, of course.

This present Commander has opted to exercise restraint in preference to power.  His public campaign pledge to remove us from Iraq is what got him elected, but it must be remembered that it was also an essential component in the creation of ISIL.  His willingness to use force retail, in targeted killings via drone strikes, has had an opposing effect, but it illustrated his character in a way that made the Russian action in the Ukraine almost inevitable.  (These are complex relationships; I’ve explored them in other articles.)

Safety also comes from love and respect.  We do not at present have a society which generates global love and respect; far from it.  We are universally detested and reviled, and in many cases rightly so.  Our goodwill ambassadors are our corporations, which are by definition soulless and conscienceless business entities.  Long-term, we really need to change this.

Finally, though:  Safety is over-valued.  We need an external threat in order to keep us from polarizing as a people, to keep us from naming other Americans as the enemy.  If we didn’t have an external enemy, we’d need to create one; fortunately (or not), we’ve never had trouble with either.

I said “finally”, but the initial question begs another:  Does America actually have the right to lead the world?  Should we?  Are we good enough as people and as a nation to take on that role?  At the moment, I don’t believe we are.

How can we make our politics reflect the best in us, and not the worst?

Simple answer:  We can’t, but we need to.

Complex answer:  What we need is to not merely provide, but promote an arena for public discussion of issues, and then we need people to participate in a meaningful way.  To do this, we should encourage intelligence and discussion rather than belittle them.

We’ve got Congress, a hallowed forum where the best and brightest of us should be coming together to discuss and debate.  It has become a national laughing-stock.  We’re more likely to see meaningful debate on SpongeBob; certainly we expect more of SpongeBob than we do of Congress.

We have the Internet, exemplified in online gaming, Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia, and to a lesser extent in the BlogSphere (WordPress and the like).  Twitter does not provide thought; it provokes interest and awareness at best.  These are good things, but without a forum they are useless, even counterproductive.  Facebook is, more often than not, a forum for meaningless memes and well-sounding falsehoods disguised as entertainment.

Public opinion and public thought could be — not molded, but harvested — using a model similar to Wikipedia.  (In point of fact, it is; that’s what Wikipedia does.)

The national media is changing to reflect this; most Americans get their news from the Internet these days.  (Unfortunately, most of those get their news from Facebook and Twitter, but it’s still a step in the right direction.)  For-profit media, however, is always biased by either ingrained ethic or a desire to promote readership (or viewership).  Either bias leads to untruth, and presently (as well as historically), it tends to advance the extreme rather than the sensible.

We cannot restrict the media, but we could take action to reduce this tendency.

We as readers should discourage partisan reporting.  They pay attention to us; if enough of us communicate to media corporations that we always change the channel when (for example) Anderson Cooper or Rush Limbaugh comes on, they will take action.

Our government could discourage it by subsidizing nonpartisanship.  Unfortunately, public broadcasting is notoriously partisan, but it doesn’t have to be — and that’s just one example.

The Bottom Line

These are good questions.

I think they could use a bit of work, mind; they’re not quite the right questions, and they certainly aren’t all the questions we need to ask — but they’re fine for starting points.  One thing we need to do is keep revisiting the questions themselves and changing them to reflect our present perception of the problems we face, those we’re trying to solve and those we’re avoiding.

Another thing we need to do is keep answering them.  You can do this yourself; the White House has given us direct access through their website.

Take a look yourself, and don’t be bashful about giving your own opinions there.  One of the things we need to do is to harvest genius wholesale, and every creative idea, no matter how small, contains a spark of genius.

Go to it!  Solve our problems!  And then — come back here and post your answers for us to discuss.  I for one enjoy nothing more.

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