Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sense of Change

My sense of change in this society is as if we are moving into a direction of newness without knowing what it is meant to be. Could this be the first time in human history where we have had the foresight to see that our current modus operandi will lead to demise of the human race, or at least of our societies and cultures as we see them? In the past the fundamental shifts in our economy have been driven by shifting dynamics within society - be it a new emerging wealthy class who challenge the previously entrenched political-economic configuration (I know that Political-Economy is normally not hyphenated, but because I don't see them as two separate entities - I can not understand a political or economic conversation without the one relating to the other - so for this reason I can not see it conceptually as two separate words/concepts), or a new form of trading or government/state structure emerges that challenges the already existing system.

Today we are trying to shift society without creating a discontinuous event - we are not wanting a revolution we are wanting a conscious shift to occur. We are counting on us as a group of humans to be able to make this shift through choice (though encouraged by circumstances), through reason, through a sense of shared future. This I believe is a unique event in human history. The question then is not what happens during a discontinuous event, but what happens when we have rapid, consciously chosen change? How is this done? How do we do this again and again and again while focusing on, creating and emphasizing a better future for all (including the poor, animals and other living creatures).

I sometimes find myself praying for a revolution that will allow this change to occur. However, I know what revolutions look like and they aren't pretty and they give no guarantee of the ultimate result. This then calls for a creating of a shared vision of what that better future is. Can we change incrementally? Can we change suddenly?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shared Vision

In my line of work spotting trends, seeing marco or large pictures is critical. Often these things are missed by people working and digging away at day to day life. I see this going on all the time - efforts around "green building" or "sustainability" and more are examples of people trying to attempt to define these terms without exploring or identifying with the bigger trend. These are loose terms, terms that we may not necessarily all share a clear definition on. And, it is this lack of clarity that in my opinion highlights several issues. First, these terms are only labels, they don't represent a "movement" or a shift of any fundamental nature (I will come back to why I think this) and secondly, these terms fundamentally don't redefine anything in our society.

My first point is very much linked to my second point. The very fact that the definition of these terms or any number of terms used are unclear or open to manipulation highlights the way in which they are labels and not defining philosophical ideas that can then be used to shift or build a new society upon. Think of this in terms of ideas like liberty, or private property, or something of a similar nature. I think what these terms miss is a deeper question, a deeper philosophical issue is going on.

Perhaps it is my philosophical nature that drives me to this point. However, I think that something will always be open to manipulation if it is a label used to try and band-aid over something more fundamental. What is green about? What is sustainability about? What are these terms, and their increased use and prominence, trying to highlight?

My belief is, as I have said in earlier posts, that it is about a question of values. A shift of values is what it is about and the definition of these terms is nothing less then an attempt at defining the new values of society. Yet, are we clear on what these values are? Are we really having a deep societal, global, cultural conversation around this idea? When ideas of liberty emerged in England during the Industrial Revolution (say the argument of Locke amongst many others) the question was not so much about private property, but about the definition of a new value - that of individual liberty being primary. (note that I am aware of the political economic shifts that occurred that led to the argument for private property but I think it still required/forced a reconfiguration of values)

We are faced with these sorts of questions again. What are the fundamental values that we are trying to highlight that form the basis of "green" or "sustainable"? In my opinion any attempt to define these requires us to define our values as a society. And, I think this only happens when the current system of values is shown to fail (and I think evidence is mounting for this - much as it did during the breaking down of feudalism).

We need to think about this in a deep way, but in a way that is rigorous in its logic, rigorous in its integral approach, and rigorous in its attempt to be global. These values are the values of the future, they are attempting to emerge, but in my opinion no philosophical argument has helped clarify or codify them in the way that earlier ideas were (I dream and wish and sometimes pray for the ability to write such a text).

Or perhaps they are being defined but they will only be seen as defining arguments when we have hindsight (historical perspective).

In the mean time think about what you believe are the new values of the world that will help us define and entrench certain terms.

I value relationships and I value individuality. How do we build a new philosophy that does this for us?

East vs West (Relationships vs Individuality)

I was listening to an interesting talk on the radio today - I think it was on NPR and the show was Philosophy Talk. Anyway, they had on a cultural psychologist who was talking about the concept of self and how we construct this sense of self. She talked about her experience in Asia vs the US or West. After many years of teaching Asian students, I think mostly Japanese, one of her Asian students said that her concept of the "self" and how it comes to exist makes no sense. After many more discussions and explorations it was concluded that the construction of self is so different in these two cultural spaces.

In Asia you, your sense of self and a construction of an identity, is built around your relationships and obligations to others in the world. In other words your self is in many senses positively enhanced by your relationships and gives it a sort of relativeness or relatedness. In this way everything can be seen as related and interconnected. While in the West we create a sense of self through being individual by finding ways to make yourself unique compared to others. Your sense of self is supposedly independent of others or your relationships or your history.

Without a doubt there is something incredibly liberating about the Western sense of self. It has allowed us on many levels to move beyond tribalism and other stuck social obligations. Yet, the power of relationships and the importance of recognizing the network of humanity is becoming increasingly critical.

We are moving into an age where we have to find a way to incorporate individuality with relationships. We have to define a new way of constructing values, of empowering relationships and giving individual freedom. This is in many ways this requires a revolution in philosophical thought. We can not merge the East and West into one grand globalized economy if our sense of self is constructed completely differently. Why you might ask? Well, if a sense of self it intimately tied to our way of identifying and informing systems of value, then the way we think of economies (systems of value creation/protection/recognition) will be in constant contradiction.

This is why I think the future is neither individual nor relationship it is "individship" or something like that. My point is that this merging of great philosophies of self - a product of our incredibly globalized world is going to require profound shifts. What is critical about this meeting of cultures, as opposed to earlier interactions is that in many ways it is done through non-hierachical relationships (the internet, universities, products). For the first time we have to come to an agreement, not a domination of one over the other.

Look out for new ideas of self to emerge!

Money and the conversations

I hope this is not another rant. But, it feels like one!

I am constantly confused by conversations that come from very wise people around money. The differences between a "currency", a "unit of account" and a "measure of value" are critical. Most people focus on the conversation of "currency". So, they talk about banks printing currency, or communities issuing currency etc. Who issues the currency is of critical importance, that I am certain of. However, a currency only has value because the unit of account is considered a reliable measure of value. So, if everyone is printing currency using the same unit of account - this may be a dollar or a pound, it may be an Ithaca Dollar or a Time Dollar or whatever you want to name your currency - they are going to need to establish a reliable measure of value via a unit of account. Some communities may come up with their own unit of account but almost always they link it or establish it in a relationship with an established unit of account. So Ithaca may have its own unit called an Ithaca, but they will almost invariably give it an exchange value, often fixed, with the established US dollar unit. So maybe 10 Ithaca's are worth 1 US dollar.

This is critical. The establishment of a unit of account requires the creation of trust as to its ability to reliably measure value. Part of this trust is established through the fact that it can be trusted that it won't be overissued and therefore cause an inflationary devaluation of that currency. This was the problem that went on in the USA during the height of free-banking. People were issuing currencies in units but their reliance, or ability to consistently measure value, were greatly limited and unreliable. So, the assumption that a community can issue a currency may be true but it still reliant on the value of its relationship to the chosen unit of account and its ability to reliably measure the value of an exchange.

My concern is this level of money, something that Keynes talked about, is often not spoken about by many of todays alternative money theorists.

The big question, is how do you establish a new measure of value, represented by a unit of account, that is then actualized in a currency (be it paper, gold, silver or digital bytes). You need to establish new measures of value, and these require concrete relationships of trust.

It can not be overlooked that any attempt at creating a multitude of currencies will invariably lead to a devaluation or threat to the reliability of that unit if they are over issued in aggregate. You can not maintain a fixed relationship between units of account - this has been very clearly illustrated through massive amounts of economic research. The crash of the Gold Standard and fixed currency regimes (the conversation around the Chinese Yuan is an contemporary example). This is true if a central bank continues to print (issue) money or if a hundred communities issue their own currencies. The value of something as it approaches infinity in terms of being able to measure an exchange will head to zero.

The challenge then is not about who issues new currencies (though this is important) it is about creating new measures of value that are reliable and are not directly related to an already existing unit of account. Part of the reason I believe that we have historically put all currencies into a relationship with each other is the homogenization of value measures. As countries align and attempt to measure the same sorts of exchanges in the same sorts of ways the can align the value of their currencies. However, if you are measuring things with your currency that no other economy sees as important it is next to impossible to establish a relationship between the two. The point is that exchanges are being measured and therefore what is measured and what is considered important to measure can and will shift over time.

It is not about creating new currencies it is about creating new units of account that measure exchanges and their values in new and unique ways. And, this is a far harder question to tackle because it is not about a technical solution, it is about a social solution. It is about a revolution in systems of value.