by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ May 2, 2020
Making lots of noise and accomplishing nothing is now the American way. Sound with no product is the exact opposite of the American self-image. That image was, for most of the 20th century, speak softly and carry a big stick. That phrase, and the Big Stick diplomacy that resulted, were attributed to Theodore Roosevelt in 1900.
The long trajectory of the US and gunboat diplomacy courtesy of Teddy Roosevelt up to Obama is an exciting story for another time. From the perspective of the US world model collapsing in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we should have known. It wasn’t all Teddy Roosevelt’s fault, but it has been clear to many people that the US has long been on a well-beaten path to imperial disaster. Power indeed corrupts, but it also deludes.
It does make an obvious distinction between the leadership of the US in 1900 and 2020. While Teddy Roosevelt was certainly an imperialist set on military domination, Donald Trump and his endless litany of outrage and self-promotion have exhausted people all over the planet while accomplishing nothing. He has caused the deaths of tens of thousands already, not by action, but only negligence. Sadly, those deaths continue.
What Trump and his supporting cohort have done seems fully intended to cause and allow harm while enriching himself and his rotating gallery of incompetent stooges. Though mentally ill, he is an accomplished sideshow barker and a committed cult leader. His followers are anxious to sacrifice others for his and their glory and, maybe, even themselves. That many of them are the ones who will die first seems obscured for them by magical thinking common to cult leaders.
Our chimpanzee cousins occasionally exhibit the characteristics of Trump. While alpha males in Chimpanzee groups carry great responsibility, an outlier may discover a means of faking leadership to gain power. Cognitive science provides examples of this that are surprisingly helpful for understanding the Trump disaster.
One such example was a chimpanzee who discovered a garbage can lid that made loud noises when pounded on with a stick. These performances allowed the opportunistic chimpanzee to frighten and intimidate other chimpanzees with impunity. The opportunistic chimpanzee used this to become a general menace stealing and harassing all the others. But a chimpanzee’s life is not so complicated as ours, and he did not have others to assist his rampage. Soon he was driven out, and a true alpha took over as leader.
Anyone who has had experience in dealing with psychopathic individuals knows the pattern. The psychopathic individual suddenly appears, promising to provide everything you need. In regular times this approach would be ignored as the offers are often too good to be true. The danger comes when people feel threatened and at risk of losing what little they have. The quick offer of just what we think we want can be hard to resist. But it is just a more sophisticated form of pounding on a discovered garbage can lid to intimidate and distract while taking whatever they can.
The end comes when incompetence becomes a more apparent threat than the first warning that the psychopath used to gain power, and the illusion of noise and lies becomes obvious. We lose part of ourselves when this happens because we have no one to blame. We desperately wanted to believe the lies. The admission that nothing promised was real may be a fate worse than death, especially if the penalties fall primarily on other people that we want to punish. But, at least sixty percent of the US population sees the noisy delusions of Trump. Once we face reality, it becomes impossible to continue suspending our disbelief. The cult leader is an idiot who is only pounding on a garbage can lid!
We have well over a hundred years of history that has led us, and our planet, to the great disaster we face. The pandemic has triggered an economic collapse and, in the US and elsewhere, political chaos. Almost everyone is acutely aware that what was our long-held normal is gone forever. But the political turmoil maintains the delusion that it is the fault of one mentally ill person with a bevy of supporting opportunists.
While true, this is only a local failure in the US. A tragic and very embarrassing defeat but only another instance of the rise and fall of empires. But this time, we are not facing the fall of one empire; however powerful, it is uniquely and historically different. We cannot stand back and watch the US fall, even as painful and frightening as that is for those of us that are part of that nation as if this is only inside our imaginary national borders. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that there are no broader planetary issues that we must all face.
The pandemic has made this inescapably clear to everyone, whether they deny it or not. The big issue is the planetary climate disaster that will become beyond our ability to limit within ten years. But that is itself, a massively complex set of problems that were created by casually accepted human ideas over centuries or millennia.
This layering of problems is why everything seems hopeless, and the traditional solutions appear so inadequate. To understand this, we need to look at process logic. Process logic is the logic of programming solutions and, more importantly of debugging those processes when they begin to fail. Our primary economic and political systems are now failing all at once. But, because they are complex and nonlinear is some cases, they are not subject to a divide and conquer strategy. We cannot solve them one at a time.
Those planetary and interconnected economic and political systems replicate at the level of nations, states, provinces, and metropolitan regions. All of these feed into each other, more or less successfully, while producing outputs and receiving inputs from each lower-level process.
But this complex structure of processes all contains recursive loops. That simply means that at one stage of a process, something from another operation is needed and the process must stop until that thing arrives. The US food distribution network requires truck drivers at the right time to move produce from fields to packaging and distribution centers. If there are not enough truck drivers because too many are sick, there is a backlog, and food may rot as is now happening.
As an example, the simple problem is to hire new truck drivers where needed or force the sick ones to work without regard to their health. But that suggests that the problem is not the truck drivers but the overall process that has no ‘go-to’ alternative.
But this situation may trigger another recursion, once known in computer programming, as a ‘go-to’ command that adds and starts another process to move the delayed food by another method. If that other method is planned out and tested the food starts moving again and the process resumes. If there is no ‘go-to’ available or the ‘go-to’ also fails, the process stops.
A moment’s thought should make it evident that extensive complex processes covering large parts of the planet need thousands of these options to work. But if the sole goal is profit, decisions to save money and time by not worrying too much about alternative processes are easily justified. The growing food disaster in the US and planetwide will be bigger than the pandemic itself.
Unfortunately, we are still at a reasonably simple level with one set of processes. People understand this only as a need to hoard toilet paper and food. But all of our significant processes are closely linked internationally for manufactured components, product completion, delivery, and financing. All of these are recursive points that operate as choices or options driven exclusively by profit. And we tend not to go more than one level deep.
As noted above, the economics of capitalist systems demands minimum cost to allow maximum profits. We know this as a lean process. Efficiency is king because that makes long, complex supply chains viable to extract maximum work from the lowest-paid workers wherever they are. Redundancy is wasteful and reduces profits. While efficiency is excellent, it’s goals are always shorter profit. But this type of system builds long term risk.
There are further layers that are rarely questioned but assumed. We can say that local production and supply chains are more robust. Going to a local farm to buy eggs or pick potatoes is a good fall back. Only a small part of our population has that as an option. But what happens when the foundational assumptions under these processes begin to fail because of a changing environment?
A whole range of ‘go-to’ processes that have long worked may fail to work for new reasons. These failures may not appear until triggered by another more fundamental failure, such as a natural disaster, sequence of climate disasters, or a sequence of pandemics all of which are growing in frequency. But there is another complication as individual systems may not fit together perfectly. This produces errors and unanticipated consequences. The cheapest workers with poor healthcare may become sick faster and die quicker. These side effects are like noise in a system that doesn’t stop the process but makes that process more prone to failure.
We are seeing this with the pandemic now triggering apparent failures based on health issues shutting down supply chains. But political and economic chaos is happening in surprising ways and places that have no clear alternative routes. The old ‘go-to’ solutions no longer solve the problems.
Let’s look at the US that is in an extreme and advanced state of collapse. Federal coordination of the population’s wellbeing has failed. That was the emergency coordination system that allowed the US states to focus on relatively lower-level orders without having to build complex interstate alliances. The US federal system was that national alliance. But incompetence and refusal to understand the nature of either the problems or the systems has destroyed it. We now see states building ad hoc alliances to replace what was damaged.
Trump’s incompetence and compulsive confusion was an evident and significant factor in this failure. If that were the real cause of the current profound collapse, then replacing Trump with an administration able to work the controls of the federal system would restore stability and a return to regular operation. Do you believe that? Please let me know if you do.
The only open political process in the US is to select from the other party even though that party is almost identical in general assumptions. Also, granting that Trump, McConnel, and the others are aberrations, the foundational assumptions are neoliberal, and corruption is extensive. The extreme corruption with the incompetence of the US Republican Party is a quantitative but not a qualitative difference. But that is only the local (national) political level and not relevant for us here.
All potential replacements for Trump assume that the current economy is sound and the current political system is working. A clear majority of the population thinks otherwise. But in this crisis, there is confusion and unwillingness to accept scientific medical advice and reluctance to do what is needed to support the people in a natural disaster.
The consequences of this are an economic disaster for millions leading to massive economic depression planetwide. This secondary disaster includes hunger and even starvation in the US with abject poverty for an estimated 225 million people around the world this year and next. Some more successful nation-states have already implemented Universal Basic Income in various forms to prevent the disaster. To maintain living standards and continue to manage the SARS CoV-2 pandemic plus potential climate disasters requires this.
But weak and poorly managed nation-states do not have the resources or have criminal regimes who are not concerned at the death of tens of thousands of their people. The US has, reluctantly, provided approximately a week’s income to the population while providing trillions to corporations who have billions in cash. The failing US system is now having trouble trying to approve another week or two of ‘aid.’ The US failure is very much that of a weak, poorly managed, and impoverished nation. That indicates fundamental, structural failures.
The proposed and only possible solution for the US is an aging, career politician who was a direct architect of the underlying systems that are collapsing. His qualifications are that he is not mentally ill, does not have a long history of criminal activity, and is acceptable to the people with real, financial, power in the US. But these qualifications do not connect to the problems. They will reinforce those problems. Yet we are told this is our only hope.
This chaotic tangle of systems and disasters is all hugely complex and fractal even without a low order lid pounder pretending to be an alpha in the middle of this. What are the structural failures that led to this? How do we know what is needed to protect us from continuous pandemics and the underlying climate disaster that is a direct or indirect cause at multiple layers?
Let me suggest a possible foundational assumption that underlies this entire structure. The capitalist world holds private ownership as sacred. Could it be an overly simplistic concept of property that is failing? We know from fifty years of successful social management in parts of Europe that removing healthcare and education from the private profit system is much effective at assuring mass wellbeing. Hybrid social democratic and capitalist systems don’t solve all of the problems, but it eliminates some of the most egregious.
This history, that the US as an example, failed to accept, acknowledge, and adapt in reaction starting in 1980, clearly suggests that a much more sophisticated concept of ownership with different short and long term goals is needed. Even in the US, the vast majority of the population (80%) support national and local quarantine with social distancing, and 65% do not want to return to work without testing as essential for overcoming this pandemic. That is despite personal hardships and the massive shutdown of what was always assumed to be the sacred profit-driven economy.
This broad US poll indicates a fundamental change in social attitudes. Do we need to look more carefully at the assets of this planet in terms of our total wellbeing? We could get away with pure greed and winner takes all until we up against the limits of our planet’s resources and, more specifically, the consequences of our careless exploitation of our planet’s resources. Still, those consequences are now a much higher priority.
We have just shut down much of our planet’s economic system with surprising results in disasters and benefits. With careful administration of resources driven by general wellbeing while we figure this out, we know that this is possible. Why not something more fundamental about our assumptions and systems than is Joe Biden able to beat Trump because, soon, it may not matter if he can.
What we need is a very different set of social goals for our survival in the 21st century. The problems are complex and only compound themselves as we play with the symptoms and not the structural causes.