Monday, August 31, 2015

More about free markets

I have written about the free market mythology before. I have pointed out that in the name of the free market, Congress has forbidden the government to bargain with drug companies over the price of medicines mostly bought by Medicare to be supplied to the elderly. But many of these medicines are sold by only one company that has a monopoly. The market rhetoric is in this case completely misplaced. There is no free market. Congressional legislation simply subsidizes the monopoly drug producer.

I have also pointed out that many of the devotees of the free market are adamant that we must close our borders to  immigrants. But that flies in the face of free market ideology where competition, in this case, for jobs should not be limited by government action. If we really believed in the free market we would open our borders to all comers even though that would seriously depress wages.

 One aspect of the free market mythology consists of the idea that private companies could do anything better than the government. Public services should therefore be privatized. As an example of that I have written about private prisons that provide inferior services to prisoners, allowing violence, rape of young men, and many forms of corruption in our prisons. The prison companies send their lobbyists into state legislatures to lobby for three strike rules and longer mandatory sentences regardless of whether those are good policies.. These companies are not interested in public policy. They are only interested in making more money. Privatizing government services is a very questionable practice.

But powerful myths die hard. It is worthwhile to point out the many contexts in which free markets, or what are thought to be free markets, are only damaging. I will continue to present examples of the failure of the free market myths when I run across them.

A recent conversation with a young man, recently graduated as a software engineer, provided a number of examples of the free market fallacy.
He pointed out that software companies often compete with each other on price. They must limit the amount of money they spend developing a piece of software in order to be able to undersell their competitors. In order to hold down the price of their product, companies limit the amount of time developers have available to perfect their product. The product may not be completely adequate but when time runs out the result of the development work will be sold to the public. The result is faulty software or software that does its job really badly. Market competition means inferior products for the consumer.
Some software companies have virtual monopolies. Microsoft is a prime example.

What do Windows users do when software does not work? According to the free market mythology they can go and buy a different product. But Windows has a monopoly. There is no free market in operating systems. If you don't like Windows you have to buy a whole new computer from Apple. The third option, Linux, is not a realistic choice for many computer users.

The free choice among competing products which is an essential part of a free market does not exist in many parts of our economy. It does not exist with respect to many pieces of software where one company is the only one who develops a program to solve a specific problem. It is often nonexistent in the field of medications where only one drug will address a specific illness and that drug is only produced by one company.

Even where a particular piece of software is produced by several competing software companies, free market mechanisms often do not work because the software is terribly expensive. A company that has invested in one example of the software may be very dissatisfied with the product they are using but they cannot afford to jettison it to buy a different one. Often, in addition, these very expensive and complex programs  are sold with a five year maintenance contract and so the buyer is not free to return to the market in order to buy a competing product, if what he bought before proves unsatisfactory.

Software companies sell their programs. When the market is saturated they could close shop but that's not really an acceptable option. They could produce a different product but that would require a serious investment in time and money. So what they do instead is to bring out a new version of an older program. Programs that at one point were perfectly adequate for the majority of users, become more and more complex which creates a real burden for users and opens up that many more opportunities for software malfunctions.

Market competition and the myth of the free market do a whole lot of damage to the users of computer software – all of us. Repeating the clich├ęs about the blessings of the free market are an apt way of shooting oneself in the foot. It is high time that we stopped allowing businesses to deceive us with their continued fairytales about the great benefits of the free market.

Monday, August 24, 2015

              Are we losing our soul?

I recently read an article about the current leadership in China. In passing the author mentioned that during the era of Mao, the Chinese people shared a socialist ideology. They were united, more or less, by common values and the commitment to see those values put in practice. Today, by contrast, the article continued, there are few shared values and projects among the Chinese people. In good capitalist fashion people want to get rich, they want to have a good place to live, and be able to procure a good education and good job for their child.

One cannot read that without asking oneself whether capitalism in our country, so far so much more successful than capitalism in China, has deprived us too of shared values and left each of us concerned only about family and children and getting rich. People may very well give different answers to that question. But asking it is really important. Are there common values that unite us, that many of us are committed to sufficiently to work to realize them or have we really, as so many people say, become mainly consumers, private individuals who care for family and children and not much else? Are we losing our soul?

Here are some thoughts about this. When the French aristocrat deTocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the lively participation of ordinary people in local affairs and projects and in politics, in general. Wherever he went there were meetings, people were arguing with each other. Everyone seemed to be participating. Today half of citizens do not vote in presidential elections. 80% stay home when only local candidates are to be chosen. 32% of Americans sign a petition or send a letter to a representative – activities that require three mouse clicks and about 20 seconds of your time. An additional 16% engage in four political actions. Only 13% are as active as our ancestors almost 200 years ago. A quarter of all citizens volunteer for some activity whether that be in soup kitchens, to help out in the public library, to tutor schoolchildren or immigrants who need to learn English, or to clean up trash on Earth Day once a year.

It certainly looks as if large numbers of Americans are quite passive with respect to politics, specifically, as well as with respect to community affairs. Their interests are turned inward on themselves and the family.

A few years ago I asked a class in an introductory philosophy course to write a page about what they thought the good life would be for them. I was struck by the fact that everyone gave pretty much the same answer: Everyone wanted a family, a house, two children – a boy and a girl – a job they enjoyed and a dog. ( No cat lovers in that class.) In the present context it is striking that no one was thinking about conditions outside the house and the family. There was no worry about schools, about safety. There was no thought about justice and fairness, about opportunities for the children. There was certainly no thought about the coming ecological crisis.

We live in a liberal democracy and that means that different sets of values are acceptable – obviously within limits. We are allowed to choose our religious affiliations and may reject all religion if that's what we want to do. Our society makes room for people who choose rather different lives – some are scholars, some ardent sports fans, some spend all their time enriching themselves. If they choose to be couch potatoes that is alright also.

We pride ourselves in being tolerant of fundamental differences. But often this tolerance takes the form of refusing to think about the important questions. As soon as, say, moral issues come up in conversation someone is sure to say "everyone has their own opinion."  Most often that means: Lets not talk about that. Values are not worth thinking or talking about.

From being private matters, values have been turned into a subject we will not think about. Instead we allow advertisers to tell us what we should want.
Most Americans are not interested in participating in their community, locally or nationally. If they think about their life at all, it is centered on individual and family. Neighborhood, community, collective are nonexistent or not valued. We allow everyone to have  his or her own set of values and, on the whole, we refuse to think about them. Our values are made for us by advertisers or perhaps by some minister or another.

Given these observations it is not unreasonable to fear that America too is losing its soul. We are no longer a nation but a large collection of individuals and families. There is not much we stand for, except a national chauvinist desire to remain the most powerful nation militarily speaking.

Could this be connected to the epidemic of drug addiction and of drug overdoses? According to government figures an average of 120 persons die of drug overdoses every day.  For them and for the many addicts still alive, life seems pretty pointless and really quite unbearable without constant drug use. According to the National Institute of Drug abuse an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) are in need of drug treatment. Young people are disproportionately represented in that group.

A significant number of Americans, especially young citizens, cannot stand the life that the country has to offer them. That is a frightening fact.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to change the world?

Change is, in part, what got Obama elected. Everyone talks about making the world a better place. People want "to give back," they want to foster kindness, they want to end bullying among children and war among adults.

The dream is an old one. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament looks forward to a time when "the lion will lie down with the lamb." The dream is still very much alive. In our Christmas cards we wish each other peace.

But world peace seems to be just pie in the sky. Very many people despair of making significant change in our world. Our political system is coercive through and through. It takes the form of constant coercion of the weaker by the strong, the poor by the rich, of black by white, women by men, children by adults. This pervasive violence is often thought to be the effect of “human nature.” We cannot help ourselves. So you hear, only too often, that “you cannot change anything.”

Change is imposed by force on the unwilling. If advocates of gay  marriage win victories in the courts, the court order is enforced by police. The opponents are coerced into acquiescence. If legislators vote for a law limiting union activities, the laws will be enforced by courts and police. Legislative decisions, decisions reached through voting always leave a minority of dissenters in a position of being forced to accept what they despise. When there are more than two parties in a debate, the winners may well be less than half of the participants. More than half of the voters are then forced to accept a distasteful decision.

What we call democracy is a competition between groups each of which is trying to impose its own interests and beliefs coercively. The victims of today’s coercion will seek to turn the tables and coerce todays dominant group tomorrow. As long as everyone is open to coercion, the peaceful society remains elusive.
But there exist peaceful ways for groups to make decisions and to better their conditions. By supporting those who practice these peaceful and non-coercive methods, you too can work for peace.

More than three hundred years ago, long before the development of our current electoral system, Quakers and other religious groups in England understood that very different ways for communities to make decisions would be needed in a truly peaceful society. They developed techniques of decision making known today as “consensus  decision making.” Groups come together to discuss issues facing them. The goal is not primarily to make decisions but to re-enforce the unity of the group. That unity does not so much consist in agreement among members but in strengthening their ability to reach decisions after careful, cooperative  reflection about  difficult problems facing the group.

In these proceedings, the first step is for everyone to understand precisely what is under consideration. A facilitator chosen by the group will provide all the necessary information or ask others, better qualified, to do that. The entire assembly ask questions and works towards perfect clarity of what is being discussed, what are possible alternatives, what information exists about possible pitfalls and disadvantages of different possible proposals. Only when the group feels well-informed can the facilitator raise the question about proposals for action. Different members of the group may make proposals, they will explain them as fully and lucidly as possible. They will provide supporting evidence. Compare this to existing democratic practice where deception is the rule when politicians present their proposals.

It is important to notice however that the proponents of a particular proposal are not there to convince anybody. There is no room for competition for having the most glossy, attractive, emotionally seductive proposal. The goal of the discussion is not to win. The goal is for the group to make the best choices that are in everyone's interest.

Different proposals will be discussed. If everyone agrees there is no problem. Some people may not be completely convinced but are willing to allow the group to follow what many desire with the understanding that everyone will carefully monitor future outcomes. At times some people may feel unable to join the majority because the proposal, they think, will do serious damage to the group. In that situation different groups have developed different techniques for dealing with fundamental disagreements. In some cases the whole project is shelved. In others the dissident minority is ignored. In other cases committees convene to work further on the serious disagreements and bring the proposal up at a future meeting.

The goal is never for one party to win. The goal is for the entire group to fortify its ability to make decisions particularly in very controversial and difficult situations.

During the upheavals of the 1960s secular groups discovered this alternative technique of decision making. The Occupy movement invented many interesting methods for peaceful, non-coercive group deliberation. It has been adopted by a wide range of groups such as cooperatives, enterprises owned and run by its workers. It is in widespread use in Japanese businesses; The Federal Bureau of Land Management encourages consensus decision making in negotiations among stakeholders. Many Courts in the US encourage parties to a civil lawsuit to try to resolve their conflict in a way acceptable to all the parties rather than having a judge imposing a solution coercively.

You can contribute to a peaceful society by supporting these efforts. If you need repairs made to your house, find out whether there are any local cooperatives or worker owned businesses that offer services you need. Buy your vegetables from a cooperative grower, if you can. If you have conflicts with your neighbors seek out mediation before you go before the judge.

Everyone can participate in making the world more peaceful. Don’t wait. Start today.