Friday, January 03, 2014

The Only Way To Kill This Machine Is To Starve It

Utah Phillips' son once asked him, "How did you get to be like that?" a question which his father understood as, "Why is it that you are fundamentally alienated from the entire institutional structure of society?" I don't know if that's true about me . . . yet.

The school's been closed for the past couple weeks for the holiday break, which I've taken as a license to be a little less rigorous here on the blog, especially about things like getting posts up by a certain time, or even posting every day, especially since readership right across the internet tends to fall off during holidays. At least that's what I've been telling myself. It's given me time to thumb through some of the older pieces and the one I've re-published below, with some editing, came back to my attention as I was working on a post from last week entitled Innovation and Creativity. I tend to write quite a bit about politics, mainly as I see it impacting education, but I often find myself on the topic of economics. Sometimes people chide me to stick with education or children or at least parenting, topics about which I have some experience, and therefore at least a smidgen of standing to speak, but the more I've learned, the more impossible it becomes to separate the various aspects of our modern life into convenient little boxes. After all, as the great John Dewey framed it, "Education . . . is life itself." I've learned from my Reggio Emilia trained colleagues that "environment" is a vital leg in the three-legged stool of education, the others being "parents" and "teachers." This doesn't just refer to the physical environment, but the organizational, political, economic soup as well, which is why it's important to keep discussing these matters in the context of our children. I cannot think deeply of education in general, or our cooperative school in particular, without trying to understand how it connects with the wider world.

No, I don't feel particularly alienated from the entire institutional structure of society. That would imply that I don't feel connected to it, when the opposite is, in fact, true. I actually do believe, perhaps naively, but down to the tips of my toes nevertheless, that our institutions are a reflection of us and that if we don't like what we see it is our job to speak up about it, gather like-minded folks together, then do what we can to make things better. Does this make me a socialist? A capitalist? Or can I say, like my 3-year-old once shouted in a pique, "I'm not any kind of -ist!" I don't know and, frankly, I don't care. What others say about me is none of my business. I'd like to think that this is the way in which I'm like Utah Phillips.


In the greatest film ever made, Stanley Kubrick's, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, the US, at the height of the Cold War, has accidentally launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. As the unstoppable bomb is on its way the Soviet ambassador informs US officials that his nation possesses a "doomsday device," a series of hydrogen bombs that will automatically detonate, destroying the entire planet should the Soviet Union ever come under nuclear attack. In the end, the world is destroyed.

This movie often comes to me in my day-to-day life. That's how you know something is great art. I think, for instance, of a particular scene from the early chapters of Moby Dick every night as I crawl into bed. I was reminded of this phenomenon when I was pointed to an article from Forbes entitled: How Pursuit of Profit Kills Innovation and the US Economy.

My poor wife. Whenever I have something on my mind that has no logical outlet here on the blog, I tend to make her listen to me. I've been going on for some time now about my idea that the concept of "profit" in the context of the neoliberal/libertarian ideal of an unregulated marketplace is a doomsday machine that will not just destroy the economy, but render the planet uninhabitable to humans. But now she is saved because in finding that I have a kind of unwitting ally in Harvard economist Clayton Christiansen, I've also figured out how to connect my thoughts on the topic to preschool, at least our preschool, and at least peripherally, so please understand that I must write this to save my marriage.

I don't think it takes much of an imagination to see that if left without any kind of regulation by we the people, corporations, in their mindless pursuit of profit will slowly, but surely destroy and devour one another until all that is left is one big corporation that controls everything. Libertarians object, insisting that the innovative capacity of spunky entrepreneurs will prevent this from happening, but come on. How did Microsoft with its demonstrably inferior operating system come to dominate its industry? Not through creativity and innovation, but rather through using the advantages of its superior market share and deeper pockets to either crush or buyout its competitors. There will never be a successful mom and pop oil company for the same reason; in fact, oil companies have been systematically destroying or absorbing competitors for over a century, through economic and political maneuvering, not innovation. Just look around. In every category we now have fewer choices than we did thirty years ago when our current craze of deregulation began -- fewer airlines, fewer banks, fewer retailers, fewer health insurance companies. And the choices we do have tend to be from among a handful of giant corporations who, at bottom, by law, must pursue profit above all else.

How much different things would be, how much different our relationships with corporations would be, if we simply moved profit one notch down the list of priorities, putting "to serve the public good" just above it. This would put we the people back in charge of these doomsday machines.

Unregulated corporations, programmed to mindlessly pursue profit first, not only wind up doing the kind of insane, self-destructive things pointed out by Professor Christiansen, but it also makes them into a series of hydrogen bombs that will ultimately destroy the world. For instance, today's corporations look at pollution as a mere side effect, the avoidance and clean-up of which puts a damper on profit so they send their lobbyists into legislatures to work for looser environmental regulations, dumping those extraordinary costs onto the rest of us. In a sane society in which "the public good" comes first, we compel corporations to clean up after themselves, to pay for the true cost of doing business, or to go out of business. Today corporations rely on our gigantic military to protect their ability to safely exploit labor and resources around the world, counting on we the people to foot the bill for their dangerous exploits. When "the public good" comes first, we make them pay to protect their own tankers and mines and sweatshops. Today corporations look at their employees as mere resources to be exploited, used, then discarded when they become "too expensive." When "the public good" comes first, we compel corporations to pay us back for creating the system and infrastructure that allow them to thrive in the currency of good jobs, otherwise what good are they to us? Today corporations look to our schools as institutions of vocational training and are using their economic and political might to make our children cubicle and assembly line ready. In a sane society, we would be educating our children in the skills required for self-governance, not the pursuit of profit. Today's corporations have come to fancy themselves as "people," and if they are, then they are people without conscience, without compassion, and without soul: they are dangerous sociopaths in their mindless, inevitable pursuit of profit above all that is human. They are a series of hydrogen bombs that will take us down with them.

Every time I talk to a libertarian, I see Major T. J. "King" Kong astride that accidentally launched H-bomb, whooping like a cowboy on a bronco, waving his hat in the air, riding it into the trigger of the Soviet doomsday device.

I talk to a lot of people who have a lot of ideas about a beefier regulatory structure, about how we can regain control over our own country and our own lives, but I sometimes think we're missing the point. When we look at the big picture, it's always been a pendulum that swings back and forth. Perhaps now is when it begins to move back in the direction of humanity, but inevitably, as long as we rely upon the doomsday machine of profit, there will come a time when it will move back again in the direction of inhumanity. Even if we are wildly successful in re-regulating business it will only, in the big picture, be a temporary reprieve because it is in the nature of doomsday devices to never quit unless destroyed.

Our little school is a cooperative. This means that the parents who enroll their children are the owners. There is no state agency or corporate board that sits over us. We don't have the pressure of a legal charter that demands we focus on profit. We have a free hand to create the school we think is best for our children within the limits of the resources we are willing and able to set forth. You know, sanity.

As the only employee, I have between our two classes, in the parlance of corporations, 60+ "bosses" in the form of these family-owners. They hire me, they fire me, they pay me, they evaluate me. On any given day, however, I am the "boss," at least inside the classroom, where these owners work alongside me as my assistant teachers. But you know, I can't write the word "boss" without the quotation marks because it's not like that. We are in reality colleagues, working together toward something deep and meaningful.

The pursuit of profit above all else is a sickness because it compels us to chase something artificial and only superficially rewarding. Humanity is at it's best, when we are working together toward something real, something with intrinsic value, something for which the reward is the pursuit itself.

I think this, ultimately is the only real way to destroy the doomsday machine. Not cooperatives per se, but for all of us to seek out communities, modes of life, and institutions that live outside of the dictates of profit above all else, because after all, this machine is powered by what it devours. We feed it each time we choose our job over our family, a drive over a walk, a mass-produced gift over one that is hand-made, a dollar over a hug.

The way to kill this machine is to starve it and instead feed our souls.

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Peg Swartzman said...

Yes sir reenie! The life of villages around the world....connection!

John S Green said...

Beautifully written with depth, experience and insight. I used to be one of them (a Wall street pro), but now I espouse non-profit structures with the goal of early childhood education and development (with plenty of humor, community, peace and justice). Thanks.

Josie Sawers said...

Great post. I personally rate the Simultaneous Policy idea. There are a couple of web sites that position the idea but the book (available for next to nothing second-hand on Amazon) is best of all.

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