Saturday, October 04, 2008

Institutionalized Self Deception...

A lot has been happening with the Carbon Free universe, and sadly this blogger has been driving a lot and I won't offer a lot of excuses except a whole lot of self-rationalization is going on. I'll get back to that later. The other thing that is happening in the world is that it is imploding with incredible speed in so many ways. The Global Economy (caps intentional) is collapsing on itself from the inside as a whole lot of self rationalization is going on in many places. We've had a lot of self-rationalization the past eight years but we haven't had a lot of of self-honesty. In literature, a common device is the little voice, the angel and devils on your shoulder that absolutely knows what is going on, it is plain sight, slapping us silly, no pummeling our consciences with a 2 by 4 but our emotional armor was able to deflect it. That's the basic theme of this fantastic piece of meta-reporting by Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review asks why as journalists were they focused on all the overly-sophisticated mechanisms of collapse such as MBS, CDO, CDS, etc. But instead asking the simple question, why in pursuing the story that in understanding it, we did it

without pausing to consider the record of extravagant crookedness that underlies it.

The gist of the essay is asking how did our values change, and what assumptions underlie our notion is what is human nature. The past few years have simplified the human model to one entirely driven by self interest, where even acts of anonymous kindness are interpreted in terms of self interest (i.e. I am kind because it makes me better, which when you think about it reduces generosity to some form of masturbatory expression). The fact that we are not questioning it or even evaluating it places it in the realm of philosophy equal to asking a fish about water. It now permeates our internal models. I see this in the ludicrousness of the college admissions process where achievement is confused with learning and education is a destination and not a journey.

The central problem is we've become a third world country not materially, but emotionally. America was built on the idea that you can win by playing by the rules. It brought the best and brightest from around the world (it's what brought me here indirectly through my immigrant parents). If you have ever seen the movie "Rounders" you understand that at some point you want to win "Straight Up" To a country now where people assume the other guy is trying to screw you (even if they do not even know they are trying to screw you -- talk about meta). With that as an assumption, we started acting that way with a wink and a nod. Everyone is basically acting in their own self interest, we've return to a modern day version of hunting and gathering where everyone was responsible for everything in their lives. We've turned our back on what made modernity possible and that is the cultivation of our gifts instead of the cultivation of our survival. Let me explain, progress was made possible when people were allowed to specialize and build on their strengths instead of having to maintain their necessities. I as a carpenter could spend my time building cabinets (or in my case writer/programmer) and not worrying about farming since I could rely on a farmer to do that for me. I could also assume that the farmer is selling me food that is safe for me to eat. With that specialization in that everyone is acting out of humanity, were we able to facilitate exchange and commerce and the market. Because there was an element of trust. Now the irony is that the markets are perhaps the most secular institution that we have (even if the actors in the market may be religious) in that participation in it is an entire act of faith. We trust ourselves to anonymous others in order to function, in effect we trust ourselves to a million gods every day. We have faith that maintenance will be done on our planes before we fly, we have faith that someone is checking the water, we have faith that our food is safe. Lou Reed nailed it when he said "you need a busload of faith to get by" What is sad is that I have friends now who talk of starting gardens, because they don't know what is safe. Now farming is tough, and these are not farmer types. The conditions for civilization are slowly being eroded. We can no longer have any assumption of the ability to outsource any part of our lives. And lest you think that outsourcing is a bad word, every time we go to the supermarket, we are outsourcing.

Now that faith has been abused, we have melanine in our milk (they fucking messed with "White Rabbit" candy, you fuckers are poisoning kids, I grew up on that stuff), our bankers lied, our doctors are getting paid off by drug companies. But I do not think this is the act of bad actors per se, since I don't think people are thinking in those terms. They are thinking in terms of norms, that "everyone is doing it, and if I don't I'll be in trouble." This is the model of our lives even though there is evidence that people do not act exclusively that way. While reading the CJR article, I remember a moment of a ha that happened for me that the real estate bubble was happening.

This happened when a few friends of mine were heading to a concert and as we were driving to the venue the subject of real estate came up and one of the people in the group (I had just met her) was asking about her loan papers in which she had to sign off that she had no other loans obtained for the purpose of this property besides the primary. In effect she was certifying she was contributing 20% down and that she was not subject to purchasing Mortgage Insurance (MI) if she had placed 10% down she would have to have purchased MI. The catch was that she actually was putting only 10% down, she had obtained another loan, what is called a secondary. She was purchasing her home on what was commonly known as an 80-10-10. Now she had a pause and hence asking the question was that right, her realtor said to just sign it otherwise the loan would have to get redone and she would have to pay MI. At this point, another person in the group said that was what she did, and it was just the way things are in the crazy California housing market. In effect, fraud was now a commonly acceptable practice. The question that had to be begged was did the institutionalization of fraud create the crazy bidding wars or did the bidding wars create the institutionalization of fraud.

Now I use the word fraud because it is a strong one and it has nasty yucky connotations. But in effect that was what we being done. Now I don't think this woman thought she was committing fraud. She was buying a home, and if you were to look at her you would never place her as a fraudster. And this is the rub, she is one of the best and the brightest. She was tall and drop dead gorgeous, superbly educated in the way that you dream your resume would look, had an MBA, worked for a major corporate firm. And you know she had a conscience because she asked the question of people she trusted, and they confirmed that this was the way things were done. They acknowledged a culture of corruption, the kind of thing we associate with third world bribery cultures not the U.S. At an intellectual, moral level you can't get around that it's wrong. But at a practical level, like obscenity our markets are governed by community standards. People feared that if they didn't buy now they'd never be able to buy in. The fact that the money supply wasn't growing fast enough to make prices go to the levels they feared really tells me that MBA programs do a lousy job of teaching economics.

Now how does that translate to the environment? Right now we are in a green bubble and there is green washing is everywhere. People are linking products to being environmentally sound. Most personally offensive is the bottled water companies. I picked up my packet for the San Jose Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon and one of the bottled water sponsors is imploring us to recycle the bottles because it's good for the planet as opposed to how about not buying our product. But that is symptomatic of the self deception that is going on about our impact on the planet. Our common sense says this can't be green, but we use green to justify our actions. Back to the subject of bottled water, the creation of a new class of goods to buy in this case aluminum bottles due to the BPA scare. Will we find out that in 10 years that there are problems with those too? We need people to tell us what is known safe as well as what is unsafe.

There are many known things about how to live sustainably, however like the financial mess we are overcomplicating things. And that complication obscures our understanding and makes the self deception that is our nature easier to pursue. It's possible that the voices around us are wrong.


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