I'm the author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011). I write about big ideas, culture, creativity, and the interaction of complex systems.
Posts tagged "government"

Even elections are subject to the economic story.

Take a look at How a Presidential Election Boosts the Economy, courtesy of The Atlantic.

(Photo “Happiness” via wikipedia creative commons licence:  Photographer - Sabrina Campagna)

Blogging is erratic right now, as we’re busy being smitten with our new baby (hooray!), but in that vein, I just had to make a note of something I came across while skimming a Canadian Paediatric Society Report called "Getting it Right at 18 months: In support of an enhanced well-baby visit."

The idea behind the report is that Canada should assess more factors at the 18-month checkup for a baby, because that’s the last scheduled checkup before the baby eventually goes to kindergarten at age 4 or 5, and sometimes the last time a doctor sees a child (illnesses aside) until that next milestone.

That baby visit is an opportunity for doctors to look at specific risk factors like positive parenting over the next few years, because experts are finding that early child development has a big impact on later life experiences, and that there’s a widening “opportunity gap” between babies who get those early child development experiences and those who don’t.

Specifically, a couple of paragraphs on that opportunity gap are what caught my eye in terms of the economic story:

Measurement of the sensitive indices of early child development in senior kindergarten (age 5) across Canada, through the use and analysis of the Early Development Instrument (EDI), shows that significant numbers of children are not adequately prepared for their school experience. Approximately 27% of Canadian kindergarten children score as ‘vulnerable’ on the EDI, when vulnerability rates greater than 10% can be considered ‘excessive’. In other words, approximately two-thirds of the developmental vulnerabilities (language/cognitive, physical or social-emotional) that children present with in school are preventable (6). The rates of vulnerability vary widely across Canadian neighbourhoods—from less than 5%, to nearly 70% of children—depending on socioeconomic, cultural, family and local governance factors.

When children fall behind, they tend to stay behind (7,8). Being a vulnerable child on the EDI negatively affects children’s school performance, reduces their well-being and decreases their chances of getting a decent job later in life. Each 1% of excess vulnerability will reduce Canada’s gross domestic product by 1% over the working lifetime of these children (9). Thus, if Canada fails to address developmental vulnerability in the early years, economic growth will likely be reduced by 15% to 20% over the next 60 years (10).

In other words, lots of economic reasons are provided for why being a vulnerable child is a bad thing.

"Reduced well-being" doesn’t get a lot of attention, does it?

occupy photo(Image via wikipedia creative commons)

On September 17th, a few individuals in New York began the Occupy Wall Street protests, calling for ” a revolution of the mind as well as the body politic.” By October 5th, protests in New York had swelled to a reported 20,000 people, with further demonstrations spreading to other cities across America, and demonstrations held around the world on October 15th.   

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to develop, its outlines are beginning to parallel what poet, playwright and first president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel wrote about in an essay called The Power of the Powerless. Havel outlined how relatively powerless people stood up to the ideological rigidity of the Communist government of Czechoslovakia in the last weeks of 1989. That power of the powerless culminated in what came to be known as The Velvet Revolution (velvet because it was non-violent and saw the overthrow of the government).

Here in North America, the Occupy Wall Street protests reveal a growing collective belief that though we live in a democratic and free society, we too have become ideologically rigid by wholeheartedly adopting an economic paradigm that many believe is now failing us.

In an audio-taped address to Canadian university students, award-winning documentary filmmaker Velcrow Ripper, on location in New York, says that protestors are ultimately calling for a paradigm shift that recognizes that our economic system, constantly held up as our saviour, is actually broken. The protests, he says, are an opportunity to reinvent that paradigm and to figure out what gives us a source of meaning.

Ripper echoes Havel, who wrote that a rigid ideology in society creates the illusion that the way things are is a natural extension of the human order and the order of the universe. Havel said that when people finally stand up to the illusion, they show that it’s possible to live outside that “world of appearances” — and which is why their behavior tends to be suppressed swiftly and brutally.

The rigid ideology that creates that world of appearances is made up of a tangled web of beliefs and assumptions that form our understanding of who we are as human beings, what the world is like, and how we and the world are supposed to interact. Those beliefs and assumptions become the story we tell about how the world works — the structure for our collective unconscious that shapes how we think, feel, and act. Based on the assumptions of the economic paradigm, we’re each encouraged to believe that we don’t have to be responsible for anything other than our own survival in the system, and that in order to survive, we must each be a wolf among wolves. That lack of responsibility eventually creates, Havel said, a deep moral crisis in society.  

A central problem with our economic ideology here in North America is that it isn’t just limited to the economic system. The economic ideology is truly a cultural phenomenon, spreading through our other social systems over the last 40 or 50 years and overwriting values that we once understood to be primarily non-economic. That means our political, religious, intellectual, aesthetic, and kinship systems are increasingly based on the same beliefs and assumptions that underlie our economic system - and so we come to understand our government, our faith, our education, our creativity, and our relationships with others in increasingly economic terms — all of which serves to reinforce the dominance and rigidity of the economic paradigm.

Havel also would have agreed with Ripper’s conviction that the slogan “We are the 99%” (which pits the 1% of the population that controls much of the wealth against the 99% that doesn’t) should be “We are the 100%” — meaning we are so interconnected that any attempt to divide us into “us versus them” falls apart under closer analysis. Havel believed that people who are powerful in the system are not directing it, but are caught up and constrained by the system too. To be fair, that seems hard to take in when even in times of crisis, hedge fund managers take home hundreds of millions of dollars a year in salary and bonuses while thousands of workers below them clear out their offices and start looking for other jobs.

Nevertheless, Havel believed that we are all “involved and enslaved, not only the greengrocers but also the prime ministers…Both…are unfree, each merely in a somewhat different way. Everyone,” he said, “in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates the entire society and is a factor in shaping it…which is expressed by the entire society as an important feature of its life.”

The growing support for the Wall Street protests suggests that more and more people are coming to believe — and are willing to publicly state — that the economic system as we know it constrains us, limiting our humanity and our ability to live in a wider spectrum of human values. Protestors are demonstrating their awareness of the limitations of those beliefs and starting to question the many manifestations of that “world of appearances.”

Still, what remains to be seen — and what history will ultimately decide — is whether or not the protests will lead to our own velvet revolution, and whether that revolution will in turn result not just in the transformation of the system, but in the more fundamental transformation of the mind.

Today, in line with the rise of the economic story in communities and an economic emphasis on efficiency and private sector management, the BBC reports that the Ministry of Justice in the UK has announced plans to close two prisons and privatize eight more.

The decision is “to balance the need to increase efficiency”, the MoJ said….Birmingham prison will be the first jail to be transferred from the public to the private sector in the UK in October, with the loss of more than 100 jobs.

In the book, I talked about how over the last few decades, science has moved from what was called academic science to industrialized science, where one of the things that happens is that basic research, which used to be the foundation of science, is put aside in favor of applied research.

In his book The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus, the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau summed up the problem when he said, “Only the applied scientist sets out to find a ‘useful’ pot of gold. The pure scientist sets out to find nothing. Anything. Everything. The applied scientist is a prospector. The pure scientist is an explorer.” Of course, the line between pure and applied science isn’t always distinct, but the two do have a different focus, and that focus changes what scientists do and are asked to do. For example, Cousteau pointed out that

In 2006, C. H. Llewellyn Smith, the former director general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, commented on the funding policy of almost all countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Now…governments will invest in basic research only if it can be shown that it is likely to generate rather direct and specific benefits in the form of wealth creation and improvements of the quality of life. This is a bad policy…and may actually be economically counterproductive.”

Alos in 2006, the directors of Germany’s leading research organizations wrote an open letter to their country’s minister of federal research, calling on him to reverse his policy of channeling funds away from pure science to research targeted on economic priorities. The minister ignored them.

Public libraries everywhere seem to be in the news lately, as cities try to cope with shrinking budgets. But really, slashing libraries? You’ve got to know (and hope) that people will be upset about that. People might even mobilize.

In the UK, citizens are starting to campaign against cuts that would see 375 branch libraries and mobile book-lending services close. Love those book-loving citizens of Stony Statford. On January 18, 2011, The Independent reported:

In Stony Statford, near Milton Keynes, residents spent last week withdrawing all of the town library’s 16,000 books in protest against Milton Keynes Council’s planned closure of the library. The local authority aims to save £26m in the next financial year. At one point books were being withdrawn at a rate of 378 an hour.

As our definition of what a public good is starts to change (see MONOCULTURE for details), government support for libraries starts to change too. I think we can expect to see more of this in North America in the coming years.