Sunday, December 14, 2014

Talk at the U/U Church Sunday, December 14, 2014: We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For

   By Diane Peel
First of all, I would like to thank some people.
My Mom, who told me to read the Bible one chapter a night, all the way through.
So I did. Twice. The begets were no fun.
Many anthropologists, whose  work taught me that there are lots of ways to be human.
The Rev. Bob Castle and all the folks of the NEK Peace and Justice Group who gave me something to aspire to.
The activists of  Occupy Wall Street, who suggested the final piece in the puzzle,
and all my dedicated, hardworking slightly nutty friends at The 99, who are angels in disguise.
   In graduate school at the University of Arizona I completed all-but-dissertation for a doctorate in anthropology with a specialization in archeology. Later  I returned to school for a nursing degree. Although I work as a nurse, I'm still an anthropologist too.
 A few years ago I did some research for a book to be  called "The Worship of Wealth".
I never wrote the book, but the research was enlightening.
   I wish I had hours to explain the idea I'm presenting today, but probably you're glad I don't. So I'm just going to present it without much background. So here we go.
   I have some very bad news for you. The hierarchical or “many levels of power” structure which we have been using for the last several thousand years to organize our increasingly large population is doomed to result in increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the enslavement of the many.
This will happen no matter what label you put on the system, whether democratic, monarchy, socialist or theocracy. It will happen no matter who you elect to public office. To imagine the endpoint of this evolution, and how awful it will be, look to many great pieces of dystopian literature written over the last century. In this world, those who do not serve the purposes of  elite will be expendable. This will include anyone who is ill or slow, anyone with different ideas, anyone who complains, anyone who for any reason can.t make the competitive cut. It could be you.
   The only outcome worse than this scenario is the one where people get fed up and try to violently throw off the yoke of the oppressors, resulting in societal breakdown and the rise to power of  whoever has the biggest guns. A lot of people suffer and die and the new elite look pretty much like the old ones.
   So those of  you looking for the savior who will turn the tide of society away from increasing inequality toward greater equality, whether elected or brought to power by some other means, might as well forget it. Within our current hierarchical structure, such efforts slow down the inevitable, but they don't stop it.
   Now that you're thoroughly depressed, I'll tell you the good news. We can fix this.
   An anthropologist went to study native people in South Africa, many years ago, when there still were relatively unaffected people in the world. He was talking to a group of people  and eager to get started on describing the group's social structure, he asked if there was a headman he could talk to. There was silence, and then laughter. Finally one man said, " Well, you can talk to anybody, for we are all headmen over ourselves."
   For most of human history, people managed quite well without hierarchical organization. Key aspects of these egalitarian systems were small group size, horizontal organization and the use of public pressure to enforce sharing. In horizontal organization, people may have different roles but hardly vary at all in status, and individuals and groups link horizontally in space based on ties of  kinship and mutual benefit, such as trading.  Decision-making can take some time, but works OK when group size is usually not more than 30 people.
In the "original affluent society" as one anthropologist called hunters and gathers, there's quite a bit of time to just sit around and talk. 
   Fast forward to settled villages of hundreds of people and an increasing need to cooperate on large-scale joint projects like irrigation systems or newly invented ones like organized warfare.  The development of intensive forms of  food production, required humans to work longer hours than ever before, a trend which just hasn't stopped.
So people did the easy thing. They started to delegate decision-making. So you end up with an emerging second tier of status. Generally those that are given this status are "big producers" whose ability to amass resources and share with others generates a favorable reciprocity balance between themselves and others.  Such "big men (or women)" not only make decisions but also forge ties with other "big men" that speed up the spread of ideas across great distances. Thus hierarchical structures were born. 
  Behavioral  economists are showing, based on various experiments, that most humans are team players. A few are what anthropologists call "aggrandizers". These individuals have a pathological desire for wealth and power. They have little empathy for others. They try to manipulate the system to their own advantage. In small scale societies they are quickly put down by public opinion that enforces notions of sharing. In larger societies two things happen: Because hierarchical organizations have nodes of power through which resources and information flow, aggrandizers are attracted to positions in the hierarchy.
Once there, they make the rules and regulations at cement their power and ability to accumulate wealth. With more wealth, they accumulate more power.
And both because they elite control information and because the system is so large, it's hard for people to discover what these schemers are up to.
   So really there is no way to dislodge them without changing the structure. Until recently hierarchical structure was necessitated by the  restrictions of time and space, even in systems which attempt to disperse power. But the Digital Revolution has changed all that. We may be on the edge of the next great leap forward in human social organization.
   The outline of such a new decentralized structure includes the following:
   Decision making and action take place in small face to face groups  which are tied to place. In cities these are neighborhoods, in rural areas they are villages. Local groups define their own problems and solutions because "one size never fits all."
   Small groups are linked horizontally in a web of ever-broadening circles through digital communication. Communication can happen between any one human and any other human. There are no gatekeepers. Broad access to information  helps foil would-be aggrandizers. 
   Resources and information can flow horizontally throughout the web without ever being directed up through a power hierarchy. 
   Decentralizing the monetary system is a key feature, with institutions like banks becoming non-existent. Digital tally systems can facilitate exchange. Sharing of resources can be partly automated. Shared resources are under local control. Bureaucratic waste and systemic fraud could be largely eliminated.
   Businesses are run for the benefit of employees, as the concept of management vs workers disappears. 
   While this may sound like science-fiction, the seeds of such decentralized institutions already exist. I have a handout listing some of these and you can probably think of more.
  We have become so accustomed to outsourcing control over our lives that we hardly even realize we are doing it. The left believes better government will save us and the right believes a freer market will save us. Some people are waiting for God to jump right in and save us. In fact, none of these will save us. We have to save ourselves, by taking back control of our lives in our neighborhoods.  
   We are  the ones we have been waiting for.
    To do this we will have to overcome a bit of laziness we have fallen into, which is expecting someone else to look out for our neighbors, allowing us to live insulated lives in which their problems are not our problems. Send them to the welfare office, the principal's office  or the food shelf, or call the police and send them to prison. And here lies the second problem: We need to identify who are our neighbors,  and learn to work with them whether we personally like them or not or whether or not they share our world view. Even though you may initially regard this idea with distaste, human evolution has provided something to help you out.
When people cooperate on a  project with others, such as for instance building something or growing something,  the hormone oxytocin is released, causing humans to feel well-disposed towards those they are working with.  Try it and experience for yourself the pleasant rosy glow of shared goals.
    In the handout you will find some ideas for new decentralized institutions that are already in the works that could replace existing hierarchical institutions.
 But remember, we need to get busy right now. The rapid concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few aggrandizers, and the increasing poverty and hopelessness of  everybody else could soon lead to social upheaval.
Possibly the only thing worse than a hierarchical structure is no structure, in the midst of which the most brutal sorts of humans seize power.  There is no time to waste. So pick something you like, there's really something for everyone's inclination, and start thinking about how you could begin building it in your community. Enlist the help of others and it will grow.
Projects like encouraging community gardens, local power production or community money, community justice systems, or encouraging  citizen participation in municipal or town government, and the creation of neighborhood mutual aid groups are revolutionary acts that will  allow us to take back our lives and wrest power from the hands of  pathological wealth seekers.
    Another world  is possible, but it will depend on you. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

What's Wrong with Education Finance in Vermont

Inequitable tax burden - the property tax as basis for education financing, removes control from voters, does not spread the burden to a wider population, and results in unfair burden on elderly or poor home-owners.  Confusing formulas for reimbursing poor individuals puts a greater tax burden on working middle class.  

State and Federal requirements - who said the state or federal government has any business in local school requirements or regulations?  Despite court cases designed to homogenize educational goals across culture, communities, states or economic groups, differences persist. And who said local tax payers are required to support a large state bureaucracy?

Tax-payers and voters have no control. Too much of the local school budgets are already mandated by state and federal regulations, leaving no choice for local school districts to eliminate costly, unnecessary, unrelated to education, inequitable programs, or programs that have no proven impact on educational outcomes.  Unfunded mandates put a burden on local districts.  Inclusion of funding for pre-school, college, prison education programs, school lunch, and other non-educational cost included in school programs, add to the tax burden.  Local school districts should only have to pay for education, not the large array of non-educational support services or programs targeted to variously defined needs of small numbers of individuals. 

Confusing formulas - if an informed voter cannot understand the way education taxes are devised, then the system is too complicated.  If voters do not know what they are approving, the system should be scrapped and started over again with simplified, understandable budgets and taxing formulas.  

Unrealistic expectations - pouring money into education assumes money will solve social problems, or increase performance for all students.  No amount of money can guarantee all students will qualify for college.

Automatic salary increases for longevity - a more sensible salary incentive proposal such as increases for significant student services or proven improvement in educational outcomes should be substituted in teacher contracts, rather than automatic annual increases due solely to longevity.

-----Mary Brenner, Westfield, Vermont

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Part II: About the R Word, and Institution Substitution

  In the first part of this piece I proposed the idea that social process is operating in a feedback loop to create increasing numbers of socially, physically and economically disadvantaged people whose inherent human potential is being stifled. I suggested that the solution to this problem does not lie in getting different or better (depending how you define that) people in leadership roles, but rather in restructuring the system so the process is less prone to falling under the control of a small number of pathological wealth accumulators.

  This is a fairly easy idea to understand. I work at a hospital where the goal is to increase patient wellness and avoid harm. We could do this by trying to employ only perfect healthcare workers who never make a mistake. But of course this would be silly. So we do it by structuring the system  and implementing processes that make it harder for people to make mistakes. (or at least that's what we're supposed to be doing). The same is true of society in general. If the goodness of society depends on the goodness of a few in control, then we're screwed. There just aren't enough saints to go around. Yet remarkably people keep coming back  to this idea---let's just get us in control (whoever us is) and we'll make the system run right. When has this ever worked?

   The people who designed the system we have in the U.S. made observations about the system they left behind in Europe. They tried to prevent abuses they witnessed there by setting up a system with more balanced distribution of power. It worked to do that for a couple of hundred years, but it had a fatal flaw, one which they had no way of doing anything about because they had no technology to conquer distance. So like all structures in large populations, it was hierarchical. And the process was to send resources and information up and down through the hierarchy. Such a system is vulnerable to control by wealth accumulators who position themselves in the hierarchy. Gradually they have been doing this, using their wealth to circumvent checks on their power, and turning the ocean liner of society slowly back in the other direction. And the process of increasing wealth and power for a few and nothing for most, sails on.

   The outcome of this process is inevitably disasterous.  At some point the number of angry, disaffected people with nothing left to lose reaches critical mass and everything blows up. There is a) protracted bloodshed, massive suffering, oppression and loss of life for everyone. or b) the most ruthless people with the biggest weapons subdue everyone else, who end up living in a state of tyranny worse than the first. What will not happen is that a wise and capable bunch of new rulers will  meet in the town square and make equitable laws for the happiness of all.

   This is one kind of Revolution and it is inevitable, if current processes continue. We can speed it up by withdrawing from participation in a system that is no longer relevant, giving free rein to the wealth accumulators. Or we can slow it down by continuing the valiant battle against them one issue at a time: that wage, this corporation, that pipeline, this campaign against that disease or terrible law, that fight for fair treatment, a senator here, a congress person there, get out the vote for the leader who will save us. These fights take tremendous energy and should not be belittled, but they fundamentally do not change things. The gears of the machine grind on.

   Many have suggested that the solution lies in restructuring to make the system more horizontal, decentralized and local. This can be accomplished because we now have the technology to do it. The Digital Revolution makes this second kind of Revolution possible. But the problem is that this kind of Revolution cannot be crafted in the midst of upheaval. And it will take a long time to evolve.

   Though I sometimes say I'm not going to vote, because it's just a choice between bad and worse, I will vote, and I will support those fighting on each front to slow the tightening death grip of the wealth accumulators. I will do this because we need to buy time. But if this is all we do we are doomed. We need to do something else, and we need to do it with urgency, as if the  Revolution will happen tomorrow.

   If this idea appeals to you, then there is a place for you as a creator of the society of the future. But you will have to pledge to do some work, and maybe spend some cash on something that appears to bear no immediate fruit. You will have to spend some brain space thinking about complicated system ideas  and you will have to share these ideas with others. You will need to identify your neighbors and your neighborhood, because these will be your collaborators and you will have to work with them even if you don't particularly like them. You may have to stop by a trash can and dump your prejudices in it.

   The seeds of the social institutions of the future are already in place. You may already be nurturing one of them. And there is truly something for everyone's interest, from growing food to business to defending the people's rights. There are jobs for right wing people and jobs for left wing people and jobs for people who don't even like to think about politics. There are jobs for anarchists and jobs for socialists and jobs for religious people. But the key thing is to get working. Because the Revolution is inevitable and if we have no institutions in place to take over for the ones that come tumbling down, it will be an unmitigated disaster.






Monday, October 13, 2014

Get Angry

I too feel how heinous and inequitable it is that our Wall Street millionaires, the bankers, the 1%; the corporate managers etc. act criminally and are never prosecuted for their crimes while at the same time the poor and desperate are disproportionately prosecuted and persecuted and jailed for trivial offenses.  Yes we all know this.  Most people just shrug their shoulders.  We live in denial.  The real problem is that 
                       We don’t get angry enough!

Mary Brenner

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Plea for a Slow Revolution: Why Both Getting Rid of (current) Leaders and Working with Leaders to Effect Change will Never Work: Part I


by Diane Peel

   Oppression. Sickness. Death. Hatred. Loss of quality of life. Crime. When things get this bad people notice. And they start complaining. And blaming. And targeting the issue that affects them most. But none of these things is the problem. These are all symptoms of one problem, social systemic dysfunction.

  A social system both shapes  and is shaped by the behavior of  the human who make it up. Like a recursive computer program, the output of the behavior of one generation becomes the input for the next. Unless  the program is set up to correct it, extremes will be magnified over time until conditions become incompatible with life for some or all of the participants. This may be good or bad, depending on your point of view. If you believe that the survivors are inherently more meritorious than the losers, your reaction will be "Good riddance". But if you understand that whether you survive or lose is mostly the result of how you happened to enter the system and were processed by it, you will be much more humble. You will understand that  the losers may have come into the system with valuable human potential which was muted, blocked destroyed, or worse seriously damaged by it, producing human actors who are a danger to others. 

   But don't we have willpower? Can't we make a conscious decision to do the right thing? Of course! The only problem is that your ability to have will power is itself a product of who you are--your genetic make up, your life experiences, your role models  and your environment! To understand this, everyone should think about something it's really hard for them to do or NOT do and how well they have managed to overcome it. Are you thinking about it? I'm sure you are making excuses for yourself.  So are we all. 

   For those of us who are adults, the best we can hope for is to mitigate  damage and help each other cope. But now being conceived are humans who have been minimally impacted (but impacted none the less, even before  birth). Here is where we can really make change. Like plants in a garden, we can create a system that gives  them the best possible chance of living up to their inherent human potential. Here are potential good neighbors, artists, poets and writers of songs, makers of wonderful things, thoughtful souls, solvers of problems, caregivers , who will be muted, blocked or destroyed by conditions over which they have no control. As if you systematically chose to neglect the dahlias or carrots in your garden, depriving them of  important nutrients, sunlight and water, so they grew up stunted, unproductive, or just plain died. Or if you chose one puppy in the litter to beat, lock in a closet and not feed and then blamed him for being smaller and weaker than the rest.

   People of all kinds can be deprived of conditions that give them a chance to reach their potential. Even the wealthy can grow up damaged and inflicting harm on others, but mostly harmful conditions fall on those those who are poor.


   Consider how a new human having the misfortune to be born into poor circumstances yet inherently possessing some potential good qualities both mental and physical, can end up damaged. The baby's mother (nobody asked the child who she'd like to be born to) is poor and divorced, working two part-time jobs but not quite making ends meet. She doesn't have a car and therefore buys much of her food at the mini-mart or gets it from the food shelf. There is a natural food store in town, but everything is more expensive, and besides she herself was raised in a poor family and has become accustomed to a certain way of eating that comforts her after long hours at near minimum wage. She is overweight and diabetic (but doesn't know it because she doesn't see a doctor except in the emergency room, just doesn't think of  it unless it's an emergency) and the baby she carries is getting a constant big dose of sugar via mom's blood stream. She also smokes, She started when she was young. (Her mom also smoked, so  it seemed like the adult thing to do.) Now she is hooked.She's under constant stress from her job, fights with her baby's father and inter-family strife between her and her sister who considers her a "slut" and has been posting derogatory things about her on Facebook. She is behind on all her bills because let's face it, even with two jobs and help, the numbers just don't balance. And cigarettes are expensive. In utero, baby is being set up for obesity at birth and is subjected to the toxic effects of cigarettes and cancer causing chemicals in the food her mom eats. The effects of her mom's constant state of stress, which is pouring the steroid cortisol into her bloodstream, are only just beginning to  be studied by researchers.

   Sure enough, baby weighs ten pounds at birth. Though her doctor cautions her about her baby's diet and mom understands what the doctor is telling her, she can't seem to figure out how to implement this in her stressed out life. Besides, the baby is a beautiful cherub, everybody in her family thinks she's fine and her high school friend just had a 10 pound baby too. Mom gets subsidized childcare, one of her jobs is second shift, she doesn't get home until midnight and she has to work many weekends. She can't find a reliable care provider for this shift, so she decides to drop it in hopes of getting more hours at her day job. No luck with that! Her employer never employs anybody full time and on top of that put her on an irregular schedule that doesn't find out a week in advance. So she can't even get another job because she never knows when she will be free. The money situation gets even worse, she gets behind in the rent and after several months she is evicted. She finds a cheaper apartment, but discovers to her horror (when her little girl is found putting one in her mouth) that the place is infested with roaches. After repeated complaints, the landlord sprays, and cautions her to put away all food, stay out for the place for several hours and clean thoroughly after. She tries to comply but eradicating all the poison would be impossible. This scenario is repeated three times during baby's young life. 

  Fast forward to kindergarten. Baby is now considerably overweight and has trouble keeping up with  other kids in activities. She is sometimes picked on for her weight by other kids. In addition, she is restless, doesn't pay attention, throws things and knocks over other kids' t stuff. Her teacher suspects she has ADD or is hyperactive, or both. She is referred to a psychologist, then a doctor for evaluation and mom is subjected to a lot of pressure to start her on Ritalin, which she does. Her behavior improves, though she continues to gain weight and becomes shy and withdrawn. In elementary school she begins to exhibit some peculiar behaviors, pulling out her hair and scratching herself. The doctor recommends a trial of an antidepressant.

   Now in high school, baby is on three meds and often skips school. She fights with her mom and is suspected of using prescription drugs given her by a "boyfriend" who she once thought loved her but who now has become verbally and sometimes physically abusive. She is doing poorly in school, despite a talent for writing and art that one of her teachers is trying to encourage. She believes she is worthless and drops out of school. At 18, hoping to keep her boyfriend's affection, she gets pregnant. She applies for assistance, and now has a caseworker but due to her weight, lack of education and poor work history from missed work days due to depression, she is unhirable in a town where there a virtually no jobs anyway and even the high school valedictorian will have to leave town to find a job.

   One summer night she got into a shouting match with another woman she suspected of seeing her boyfriend and the police were called. She was charged with disorderly conduct, and, when the officer placed his hand on her shoulder, she jerked away and used an expletive, at which point she was also charged with resisting arrest. She had a public  defender but the case dragged on for months with many court appearances and a lot of paperwork she didn't understand.  She was eventually found guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

   This composite story is so easy to write because it is so common, repeated over millions of times, with variations.  These are  lives destroyed.  Kept alive through a well-meaning social welfare system which nevertheless treats them like dependents and keeps them tied up in a perpetual bureaucratic run-around, they have no hope for improvement, only survival and maybe finding a way to forget.

   The town's rep in the state legislature says he thinks people like her should get a job and take responsibility for their poor choices.


  Not the cause: "Poor people are lazy". This is not 1950. You can't make a living working on the family farm or in a factory with an eighth grade education. Millions of Americans are not being sent to college on a robust GI Bill.  "We need to contribute more to food shelves". Food shelves are for crises, not chronic conditions. We can't run a society on charity. Charity is demeaning and paternalistic and destroys people's sense of self worth, as well as being cumbersome and time consuming for the recipients. Anyway, with increasing number of poor, it won't work for ever. "People take drugs to have fun and get high and shouldn't blame for their irresponsibility." The pharmaceutical industry has been pushing taking drugs for everything for decades and making billions off it. Doctors push pills at every turn. Young people often have lives with emotional turmoil. Some end of killing themselves and some end up taking a pill and self-medicating, because that's what they've  learned. Opiates are extraordinarily addictive. It doesn't take much to get hooked.

  Having dealt with these, what is behind this system that is so devastating for peoples' lives? Here are a few. (Absent is health insurance, the lack of which propels people into poverty. But altering the system to stop the processes that create ill health would make providing health care for all at  a reasonable cost very doable and make health insurance through private corporations unnecessary, a thought which undoubtedly strikes terror in the hearts of both insurance and pharmaceutical companies.)

1. Toxins: While all of us are exposed to toxins from many many sources and undoubtedly individually or in combination these form the environmental component for cancers, the poor are disproportionately affected and these effects may occur very early in life. Public interest groups have done a good job of publicizing the negative effects of these chemicals. People with more money champion and purchase food and other products lower in toxins. Poor people would too if they could afford it. Potential loss in physical and mental functioning  from this is only just beginning to be studied. Ultimate cause of this problem: Corporations like Monsanto that develop and sell toxins without regard for long-term effects. Motive? Profit.

2. High Sugar, low nutrient, genetically modified food: Same here. Those with money are transitioning to better diets and have the means to get to the food and afford it. Not so poor people. Companies like MacDonald's and Walmart are making tons of money off of advertising to poor people. They style themselves the "poor person's friend". Who else has stuff cheap enough? (And meanwhile their low wages guarantee a steady supply of poor people). They have us coming and going. Ultimate cause of this problem: Corporations promote addicting high-sugar foods and prey on the poor---- for profit.

3. Pills, pills, pills. The pharmaceutical industry pushes drugs for everything, including things that aren't even illnesses and for treating children's problems for which they haven't been approved, and falsifies research results to mask negative effects. They were behind the over-prescription of opiates, minimizing the potential for addiction. Motive: Billions in profit.

4. Culture: It's hard for someone who wants to make positive changes to do so when everyone around her lives the same lifestyle. It may even seem disloyal to try to do so. Social service agencies do nothing to help this problem. Services they offer are fragmented rather than holistic, workers usually don't live in the neighborhoods of the people they serve and don't interact with them in a non-official capacity, a few are judgmental and all are understaffed and over-worked. Rare individuals make themselves available for support or offer positive role models, because, frankly dealing with people who are not only poor but also have a myriad of other problems can be quite stressful.  Most do a heroic job of keeping the worst from befalling their clients (like death) but the system is not set up to actually help anyone out of poverty. This would require a small army of neighborhood paid staff and volunteers to provide positive support and role models for children and young mothers and fathers, where significant changes could be made. Cause of this problem: A compassionate nation does not want to see hordes of beggars and people dying in the gutter, but ... a  nation strapped for cash, because a lot of it is going for corporate subsidies and trillion dollar wars, isn't able to pay for actual help for poor people.  Elected officials are are beholden to wealthy interests who lobby for laws to make more money for wealthy people. Motive: Profit.

5. Work that doesn't pay enough to live on: Hardly anything more needs to be said about this. When unions successfully won higher wages for workers, corporations feared less profit for executives and shareholders. So they took their factories to places filled with even more desperate poor people and no unions. If they can't do this (say, jobs that have to be done here) they will hire robots. In addition, they flout labor laws aimed at helping workers by employing people less than full time and on irregular, last minute schedules. Motive: Maximize profit.

6. The legal System: There's a lot of money to be made from crime. Not doing crime---  creating  more criminals. Everything from fees and fines, to prisons for profit, to benefiting from free prison labor. Incorporating people back in society generates no revenue for private businesses. The punitive legal system ties up the lives of the poor who are its main victims, with endless court appearances, fines for fines they can't pay in the first place, harassment, and jail time for victimless offenses. Cause: Prejudice against the poor leads some people to think that punishment will solve the problem. This is capitalized upon (literally) by people wanting to make money off the system.

7: Lack of transportation: This is a problem in rural areas. Cars are not only expensive but the poor can't afford gas, or insurance. Also, car companies have made cars laden with computer controlled gadgets impossible for average people to repair,  and well-meaning but incompletely thought out government regulations make driving a car in disrepair illegal. Cause: Fossil fuels, insurance and the automobile industry are hugely profitable with substantial lobbies, providing little impetus for change. Why? Profit.

   Pressures on the poor involve ill health, tremendous stress, insecurity, lack of control, insufficient support and no hope that hard work will ever result in improvement. Frustration results from a consumer culture that offers things for sale they can't afford to buy. Anger, desperation and addiction lead to crime. The system is a feed back loop guaranteed to produce a dangerous downward spiral for ever increasing numbers of people.

   The cause is control of the system by a few bent on maximizing their wealth. And they are doing it, because the mirror image side of the processes that shift more people into poverty and then down the spiral, concentrates increasing wealth in the hands of  a few. Just reverse all the above problems. Better safer food, cleaner more aesthetic, safer environments full of consumer goods, access to a whole host of mitigating things that money can buy, like savings,  health clubs,  lawyers, private psychiatrists, private schools for kids, tutors, and vacations. But most of all, the belief that if they work hard, they will succeed. So even if they screw up, make those bad decisions, there's a safety net, and hope.

   You might think that just getting rid of these people would solve the problem, but remember this isn't a "bad people" problem, it's a system problem. With going on nine billion people in the world, and most of the wealth controlled by the one percent of one percent who are pathological wealth accumulators, odds are there are plenty of this personality type waiting in the wings to step up and fill the vacuum. Which is exactly what happens. They have different names and different titles, but in the midst of social disorder they gravitate to power and wealth and hold on tight. And nothing really changes. The system just keeps churning on, increasing their wealth and decreasing everybody else's.

   You also might think that we can pass laws that make things fairer. We have a lot of laws, and things are not getting any fairer. In fact more laws usually make things harder for middle class and poor people while the wealthy buy their way around them.  Sometimes it takes awhile but in the end, things don't change. But there is a valuable role for those that work hard to pressure leaders to make changes, it's just that this only slows down the process. It doesn't stop it. If it is the only action we are taking, we will fail.

  So is it hopeless?


   Back in the old days when human population was small, there was probably (from ethnographic analogy and archaeology) not much difference in status. If somebody wasn't sharing, it was pretty obvious and group pressure would be exerted to prevent hoarding.

   Experiments by behavioral economists suggest that most people still retain this value of share and share alike.  They have also found that some people will punish others who try to game the system to their own advantage, which puts a check on accumulators.( But over time,  if people see that accumulators are acting unchecked, they abandon the value  of doing what's best for the group and play to their own advantage). 

  One researcher has observed (and filmed for our edification and amusement) that monkeys have a sense of fairness and get upset when a researcher treats another monkey preferentially. 

  If the teacher brings out six cupcakes for the class of six, and Johnny takes two cupcakes leaving four to be split among the other five, the teacher is sure to reprimand him. Even little Sally may exclaim, "You can't have two!". 

  But if the CEO of a company with $6 million to pay as salaries takes $2 million for himself, leaving  $4 million to be split among the remaining 39 employees, nobody complains. Not the janitor who got $25,000, nor the head of accounting who got $100,000. In fact, the ratio of CEO to worker compensation  may actually sometimes be as high as 300 to 1.

   The CEO himself probably realizes that if the hostess at the party brings out six tarts for six guests, he shouldn't take more than one. He learned that in kindergarten. And everyone is sure to notice his boorish behavior. Yet, in the workplace he does, because nobody complains. Nobody complains because nobody notices.  Nobody knows what he makes, (and it's not all in dollars anyway). Nobody knows what anybody else makes for that matter. Nobody even knows how many employees there are or how much the company makes. The system is very large and nobody is really able to wrap his head around it (except maybe the CEO). The CEO easily rationalizes his behavior. After all, where would the company be without him? 

   Humans retain very old values about the importance of sharing. They express these values in small scale face to face situations like those which prevailed when the values evolved.  When numbers get big, humans eyes glaze over. We have trouble wrapping our heads around very large social systems, like the one in which we live today. Charities have found that telling people that a million people are suffering in a famine gets fewer contributions than telling the story of one person suffering from famine. Because we do not relate to large and complex human organization.

  To recap, when systems are small and face to face, most people behave fairly and work for the good of the group rather than for self. Some individuals are accumulators who try to game the system to their own advantage. These are put down by the group, or by individuals whose sense of fairness is so strong that they will take a risk themselves to punish the accumulator. Such groups maintain a stable equitable distribution of resources over time.  Some researchers think this may have evolved because humans have better survival capacity through group action than individually and because in small groups individuals are all genetically related, so survival of the group is good for survival of each individual member's genes. Cooperation within a group (as opposed to competition) has even been shown to make people feel good, through release of the hormone oxytocin.


   We now have a lot of people. Population grew and a lot of other things happened, too. Organization got more complicated, and in the absence of electronic communication, people developed hierarchical structures to get things done. Hierarchical structures funnel resources and information "up" and "down" through the hierarchy (as it is usually drawn), that is, one person is in charge of a certain umber of other people and all those at his tier are in turn answerable to another person in the next tier up, and so on, sometimes up to just one person. Basically, it works like a phone tree, which is how people got information out to other people before the internet. Humans naturally think hierarchically  nowadays. I recently attended a group forming to accomplish a community task, where the first order of business was to appoint a "Board of Directors", that is, a second tier up.

   Government is hierarchical, business is hierarchical, churches are hierarchical, unions are hierarchical, the Communist Party is hierarchical,  charities are hierarchical. Everything is hierarchical. 

   But there's a problem. If you were to act this out, with a crowd of people handing off dollar bills to a middle tier, and then the middle tier to a second tier, and then the second tier to one person, you might guess what this problem is. As the dollars (resources) pass from tier to tier they get concentrated. It could be information too, going up or down the hierarchy. If you wanted to steal $50 at the ground level, you would have to steal it from 50 people 50 times, but if you you could get in the fourth tier, you could steal it all at once. If you wanted to spread a vicious rumor at the ground level you would have to tell 50 different people, but if you situated yourself in the fourth tier, you could spread it to 50 people all at once.  Those small number of people who desire to accumulate (or desire power over others) have not failed to notice this. They are drawn to upper tiers. 

   Where might we find these upper tiers? In the state legislature, or the Congress, in the upper levels of management in business, at the heads of charities, among union bosses, at the leadership of religious organizations, to name just a few.

   The small number of people who desire to game the system for their own gain, who would be found out and put down in a small face to face system, operate with impunity in hierarchical systems due to the system's size and complexity. People just can't keep track of it.

   Upper tiers of hierarchical structures attract predators like food left out at your campsite attracts bears. So just don't do it.


   Well, there wasn't much hope prior to the Age of Electronics. Space was an unconquerable barrier. It is said that the Roman Empire failed because it just got too big to get information from one side of it to the other. Too bad they didn't have the internet.

   But now we do, Maybe this is the time to rethink hierarchical structures, specifically, getting rid of them. Because if we can, we make it much harder for the predators to get at the goodies. The predators will have to come much closer in, to our face to face groups where we can see them and take them down.

   I think people are on to this. I don't think most people think about the theory behind it, but intuitively they feel they have more control when things are more local. This is true of both politically left people and politically right people and a place where we can really agree. Local control is good. For the right this means no big government. For the left this means no big corporations. Both are right on.

  When we create institutions which are local we get rid of tiers. We  emphasize smaller, more face to face organization where the natural human values of sharing and fairness come into play. Small scale is where we evolved, small scale is where we are at our most moral. For the right this means government that is not overbearing or wasteful of our resources, for the left this means food production that doesn't poison us and work that is dignified with fair compensation.  These are all admirable goals which will create a more equitable world.


   Getting back to our baby born into unfortunate circumstances and being processed through a system that creates more poverty for many and more wealth for a few, how can we design a system that self corrects?  Pathological wealth accumulators operate unopposed in large hierarchical systems where they can get control of crucial points where resources and  information are concentrated. Traditional human measures for self-correction in the distribution of resources  fail when systems are large.We can solve this problem by eliminating tiers, decentralizing and emphasizing local control. This decentralization (sometimes called horizontal structure) is facilitated by the Electronic Revolution. This plan addresses concerns of both the political left and the political right.

   Creating new institutions is a lot of work. It's done at the local level, and it's plodding and slow. It involves working with neighbors we may not want to interact with. It involves giving up leisure time to go to meetings or do volunteer work. It is not glamorous. It may not produce results in your lifetime. It is not fun. It is the solution.

   Developing local structures carries with it the potential problem of inter-group strife. Without overarching tiers (the Pax Romana), local groups may diverge or compete. Care must be taken to prevent his.


   This involves the gradual replacement of existing institutions with institutions which are smaller and more local. Eliminating tiers should be a goal. Although revolutionary in its aims, this can take place "under the radar". It is crucial to develop replacement institutions before removing existing institutions, in order to avoid the social upheaval which allows new pathological wealth accumulators to move in and take control.  

   This is a process which has already begun. Valiant people are working hard in communities and neighborhoods all over the country to promote new ways of organizing ourselves from the ground up. But we need many more workers.

   What this is not about: Setting up intentional communities unless these communities actively work in their cities and towns to involve average citizens in new institutions. The impact of such communities on the larger society is close to null. Either they remain insular (like the Amish) with no impact, or they just die out (like the Shakers) or they just blend in with local culture and add a few more kids to the "liberal" mix (like the Back to the Landers" here in Vermont.)

   What this is about: People who are growing vegetables in the front yards and vacant lots of cities and towns or putting solar panels on the roof of their barns, People who volunteer to sit on restorative justice committees or form "citizen grand juries" to investigate complaints against law enforcement, people organizing to set up community centers, recovery centers and "swap" centers at local landfills, forming groups to bring local hydro power back into service, or providing information to people about their rights as jurors. These are just some of the projects that a handful of people in my own community are working on but they seriously lack person power.

   Please stay tuned for Part II: New institutions that are being built and some suggestions for ones not yet thought of.







Thursday, September 18, 2014

Occupy Wall Street 3rd Anniversary: the Few, the Proud and the Truly Faithful

  I'm relieved that the internet connection problems I've been experiencing are due to the hostel network (probably the result of hundreds of 18 year olds simultaneously using it) and not my laptop. So here I am somewhere else. OK, it's a Starbucks. I'm sorry. I know they are on the GMO don't patronize list. But I was panicking. At least it gave me some time to reflect on my experiences yesterday.

   We were 200 strong at most, by night time 50. Of course because the bigger march will be Sunday, where some are predicting 10,000. That march includes and has the support of better funded organizations who themselves are hierarchical in structure. You know they are better funded because they have nicely printed posters and signs and t-shirts. If you see people with t-shirts that all say the same thing you know there is big money involved. If you see hand written signs on posterboard, you know it's Occupy. The march route Sunday according to one speaker has the blessing of the NYPD and is planned to avoid inconveniencing world leaders meeting at the U.N. by being unessessarily in their face. Of course many Occupy people will be there too, including many Vermont Occupiers.

  Over 1400 groups are "partnering" in this endeavor (it's important to look at key words and this one is interesting) including unions and there are celebrity endorsers, like Hollywood personalities and and his royal highness prince Albert the II of Monaco. With that said, you have an idea of who wasn't at the Occupy 3rd Anniversary.

   No one was calling for revolution. But most people didn't seem to think that electing new people or writing new laws  was going to help much either. One fellow was taking a survey about "Tweeking" vs. "Revolution". I think this was on a lot of people's minds. I attended a group talking about solutions. I don't think anybody really had any, Many people spoke passionately about about the events that had lead them to activism (serving in Vietnam, losing a home, losing a job, living with police brutality.) It seems to me that the faithful of Occupy are those for whom the system has almost entirely failed, or those like me whose heart goes out to them.  I think those marching on Sunday are those who still believe they can get a hold of the system and steer it for their more equitable ends. I personally have come to believe that this has never worked, and won't work.

  But if not this system, if not this structure, then what? And how? At times I had the feeling we were just standing around waiting for a lightening bolt from the Universe. Let's hope it strikes soon.


The day began with a press conference and meeting of alternative media.

   Indeed, given the small number of actual bodies, the media is crucial. Also we need to have better communication between small Occupy groups like ours in northern Vermont.And we need to come up with more solutions that don't involve getting elected to office or getting donations and lobbying people in office. We have lessons from history to tell us which ones don't work. But what will work?

  At 12:30 a small group of us went over to the statue of the bull for an action we had heard was going to take place there. The bull was surrounded several people deep by tourists clamouring to get their photos taken with this beast. Nothing seemed to be happening so we went back to Zuccotti. Finally a group of marchers took off for the bull. This wasn't much more than a half an hour later, but when we arrived the bull was surrounded by metal barricades and guarded by several members of NYPD, high priests of the corporate idol. This didn't affect us much, as the action merely involved symbolically sacrificing pictures bankers and President Obama to the Bull of Greed, but it did inconvenience the tourists and made a great  photo op. Here, tourists on  buses get to see the NYPD guarding a big bronze sculpture as if it were Fort Knox!

   Authority just throwing its weight around. Letting everybody know it's OK to be a mindless tourist getting a meaningless photo taken. Not OK to express opinions (formerly know as Free Speech).

   Dinner, chalking, the guy with the whistle, night falls. The march to Wall Street, originally scheduled for  morning, happened at 8:30 PM. When nobody was there. Though somebody from New York told me that Wall Street is moving elsewhere and the area is becoming more residential. So maybe somebody looked out their window.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Legal System's Best Kept Secret: Jury Nullification

One page from the first issue of our new little newsletter to be put around the community.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Occupy 3rd Anniversary, New York City September 17, 2014

I will be posting to the blog from New York September 17 and 18.

"The 99 Downtown Party" Was a Big Success

Haven't posted here for awhile due to lot of work involved with our yearly community event.

The 99 Gallery and Center and NEK99% hosted their third annual totally free community event "The 99 Downtown Party" Saturday at the gallery. Music by Michael Hahn and Hornbeam, hotdogs by Scotty Dogs and the Condiment Queen and a variety  of activities for adults and children made the afternoon fun for downtown residents and visitors from afar. The young lady who won the Newport Idea suggestion box gift card raffle wrote "make recycling more convenient".

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Vs. Revolution

 As is their tradition, NPR today, July 4th, played the Declaration of Independence in it's entirety read by Americans of all backgrounds. Usually I listen to the first stirring sentences and then my attention trails off. But his year I listened to the whole thing carefully. I listened because the word "revolution" crops up more and more these days. Not necessarily a revolution of the violent kind. Often it's used in the context of  social revolution or a revolution of the heart, but I think it's mostly used out of frustration, "We need a revolution", because so many Americans are upset with the current situation. It doesn't make any difference whether you're right or left, or whether you blame government or corporations (or if you understand that it's really both), whether you think there's too much regulation or not enough, the fact is that inequality is increasing, the rich are getting richer and the middle class is declining and  social mobility is rapidly becoming an American myth. People feel the effects and get angry, but don't really know who to blame. Immigrants? President Obama? Republicans who won't compromise? The Supreme Court? But in fact what's taking place is a social process which involves a huge complicated system, really too big for most people to wrap their heads around. So for both left and right it's sometimes a great stress reliever to contemplate throwing everything out and just starting over.

   In this context it's good to start thinking about revolutions and how they generally go. People  point to the American revolution as an example of a courageous people with much sacrifice overthrowing the yoke of oppression and ending up with something not half bad. The states stayed together and whatever you think about our leaders we mostly have maintained a rule of law. The founders were not all motivated by high ideals, but they did craft a system aimed at preventing the worst abuses they witnessed in 18th century Europe.

   But mostly revolutions haven't gone that way. Kudos to France for, after terrible bloodshed and several permutations of despots, ending up with a government that has a lot of things about it we might imitate. The English don't seem to do revolution very seriously, instead politely and quietly confining their despots to gilded cages. Poor Russia---no matter what kind of system they try they can't seem to escape the tyrannical oligarchy, which just seems to come back with new titles. Cuba lucked out to a certain extent in that their new leaders didn't end up looting the country as many do, and due to the plucky nature of the Cubans themselves, have managed to survive all manner of deprivations caused by U.S. sanctions. We had a lot of hopes for the Arab Spring, but now take it as a cautionary tale. If it seems too easy, it probably is. And you might start asking which of the various powerful forces in the background are really pulling the strings. And if it's not easy, you might want to think about the loss of life to millions, the creation of refugees, the breakdown of social order that opens the door to untold demons waiting in the wings for chance to grab power in the midst of disorder. The jury is still out for some of the Arab Spring uprisings. Possibly because many Tunisians  speak French as well as Arabic, they will end up following the path of their linguistic compatriots. Maybe because French is the language of lovers.

   So why did things go relatively well for us? I'm not a historian, but it seems to me that what should be properly called "The War for Independence" was not really an "American Revolution". It's clear from the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence that the colonies had functioning governments. One of their biggest gripes was that the British Crown kept erratically and brutally interfering with that government, with no recourse on the part of the colonies, and was asking them to pay taxes for the benefit of this meddling. So we weren't tossing out anything. We were just asking to separate ourselves from somebody else's government.

   This is really different from overthrowing the government you have in place. When you do that you create a power vacuum, like the U.S. did in Iraq. The results of this are not usually good. In the midst of social disorder, people do not meet in the town square and make rational and just rules for how to run society. They worry about not getting killed, how to get basic necessities like food, water and electricity. Mostly they panic. Things that were working before even if unfairly grind to a halt. I believe most people are good people, but disorder is a paradise for all manner of bad people who will try to capitalize on it. Often it will be the people with the biggest weapons. We're not talking guns here. We're talking tanks, rocket launchers, bombs.

   So if things are really bad, should we just lay down and take it? Hell no. But here's a saying:

                      When you want to take down an old supporting wall, first you build the new wall.
                       Then you take down the old wall.

   I don't know how much time we have, but we really need to get busy building the new wall. I'll leave it to you to think about ways we can do that.------Diane Peel

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Four Legged Friends

This pet is homeless. So is his human companion.

Walking around downtown Newport, a low income area, I've noticed how many people have dogs. I don't have a dog myself, but I do have a cat, and I know that dogs have to eat and sometimes need medical care, which can be an expense for people on low incomes. I also know several people on disability who have pets they are quite attached to. One lady has rabbits. I know some of these people will go without food themselves to feed their pets.

I also know lots of better off people who have dogs. I know how much they care about these four legged friends. Sometimes in this world when your two legged acquaintances have failed you, the love and faithfulness of a four legged friend is the best therapy in the world. As a nurse, I also know that animals are healthy and a visit from a “therapy” dog can really brighten up the day for a frail elder.

Now if I were a really mean person, one without a shred of empathy, I'd probably say that poor people shouldn't have pets because they can't afford them. But I'm not. I hope you aren't either, because the calming health-giving effects of a faithful pet for people whose lives are full of turmoil, stress and less-than-wonderful humans, a dog might make the difference between keeping it all together and going off the deep end. This is good for all of us.

Lately here at the center we've been grappling in a personal way with the problem of homelessness in Newport. This has made me realize a problem I hadn't really thought much about before. It's hard enough to find affordable housing if you are a person on social security or disability who doesn't drive a car and has to live near services. It's even harder if you have a pet. If that pet is a golden retriever, it may be impossible. The housing that some people are forced to live in if they are very low income is hardly fit for humans, let alone human and a pet who needs a little space.

So for all of you out there who love your four legged friends, imagine what it would be like to have to either give them up or be homeless. Not much of a choice.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Time to Get Off the Sofa

Mary asks us to discuss solutions, then DO something. Because, yes, the situation is critical.


Yes, climate change is real and it is primarily human caused.  Soon it will be out of control
Yes, inequality is real and the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer at an increasing rate.
Yes, most of us are worse off than our parents were and have little hope of economic growth.
Yes, unemployment, underemployment, low wages, poorer working conditions are increasing.
Yes, money rules elections - the political system is irrelevant.
Yes, multinationals are unregulated and uncontrollable.
Yes, US infrastructure is in deplorable condition, approaching that of third world countries.
Yes, college is un-affordable for all but the rich and college loans are oppressive.
Yes, huge agricultural conglomerates dominate our food supply and negatively affect our health.
Yes, capitalism depends on continual consumerism, with little or no social benefits.
Yes, capitalism depends on unemployment and low wages.
Yes, democracy is dead.
Yes, human rights are at risk in the US.  Violations of human rights starts with US government.
Yes, our educational system is very confused, and federal government controls too much.
Yes, our economy is destroying our environment.
Yes, China will out-grow, out-consume, and out-produce the US.
Yes, the industrial age is over and we are in the communication age, with less economic output. 
Yes, we are at the limit of available fossil fuels, and other resources.

So now what?
So now what do we do?

•        Accept the consequences with a huge collective sigh - ‘oh, well.... there is always change!’?
•        Protest, march, occupy, petition, rally, write letters to the editor or politicians, speak up at community meetings, organize community groups, use alternative currency?
•        Practice individual life-style behavior - recycle, re-use, slow food, low consumerism, organic gardening, buy local, weatherize home, install home solar or wind energy systems, down-size, purchase hybrid/electric car, use public transportation or bicycle, lower thermostat, use smart-house technology, car-pool?
•        Withdraw - commune living, home-schooling, off-the grid, back to nature, don’t vote, smoke/ use drugs, hoard, join a survival group? 
•        Don’t worry, there are great new technological solutions coming soon: smart cities, giant off-shore tidal wave power generation, giant wind or solar farms? 
•        Act charitably, share, give, raise funds for good causes, reach out to neighbors? 
•        Revolt, rebel, overthrow the government, secede from the US, blow up Fort Knox?

Mary Brenner