Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

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A Better Alternative to Facebook

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Now back to social commentary.

Here are some reasons you don’t want to use Facebook:

1. Basically lousy software: often doesn’t work; inflexible; lacks useful features;
2. Ads, ads and ads;
3. Unsettling feeling that you’re a pawn in Facebook’s get-rich-quick scheme;
4. Ultimately, Facebook is a tool of the corporatist/government/news media power structure, deceitfully hidden under the guise of a “community-building social network platform”.

They want to build a community alright – of dumbed down, brainwashed, stressed out, divided, agitated and confused  consumer units.

The user-unfriendliness of Facebook is deplorable.  Any decent software engineer could design a better interface over a cup of coffee (and probably implement it in a week!)

As proof, consider how easily we could lay out specs for a better system.  It could be as simple as this:

1.  Instead of subscribing to Facebook, you (and everybody) set up a personal blog, or just a Tumblr account.
2. Whenever you see an interesting web page or news story or have a picture or comment, post it to your blog or Tumblr page instead of FB.  (These days you can do this automatically from your web browser.)

3. One more thing is needed. Each person needs a blog aggregator web page.  This is basically a page you own, which has feeds to all your friends’ blogs.  If one of your friends posts something to their blog, a notice is given on your accumulator page.  This can easily be done using RSS feeds.  Very possibly there is already way to set up such an accumulator page (or the equivalent) in Tumblr, WordPress or Blogspot etc.

4.  If you see an interesting item on your accumulator page and want to comment, simply go to your friend’s blog and comment there.

Voila!  A better alternative to Facebook, without ads, where you totally control the content.  Someone with just a little programming knowledge could easily design a customized personal front-end page (i.e., accumulator page), in any format desired.  For example, you could have your friends’ comments, news headlines on topics of interest, and announcements from business or organizations you like in separate columns or sections.

Another possibility would be to have some third-party service set up accumulator pages for people for free or a very nominal price.

(Yes, I know that, in theory, Google and Yahoo offer this feature; but you can only personalize the pages they supply to a very limited extent.)

This sort of thing — a fully personalized ‘news and views’ front end page is the whole point of RSS feeds anyway.  These totally personalized pages should be routine.  A likely reason people aren’t already using them is because the big corporate entities — Facebook, Google, etc. — are trying to co-opt the Internet for their nefarious purposes.

So, ultimately, Facebook is not needed – unless maybe you find it somehow beneficial to know how many of your friends’ ‘friends’ are illiterate, boring or nuts.

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Written by John Uebersax

August 11, 2012 at 12:37 am

The Occupy Movement, Agrarianism, and Land Reform

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ALTHOUGH the Occupy Movement is voicing many important social and economic concerns, one has thus far escaped attention:  land reform. Here we outline arguments in favor of its inclusion.

The well-known monetary disparity, such that 10% of Americans have 90% of the wealth, is paralleled in land ownership.  Media baron Ted Turner, for example, alone owns more than 2.2 million acres — an area larger than Delaware!

Moreover, the federal government owns vast expanses of habitable land, including military bases, National Forests, and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  In administering public lands, federal agencies, especially the BLM, are frequently accused of being overly responsive to corporate special interests.

We should consider the reorganization of land to produce a more just, happy and harmonious social system.  This may seem an unconventional and unrealistic proposal, but the truth is that reallocation of land to improve social justice has been done throughout history.

Legislation to allocate small parcels of public land to private homesteaders is easily accomplished.  Though no longer in force, the Homestead Act nevertheless established a precedent we may follow

With respect to vast private lands, we must first forestall the obvious objection:  that private parties have an inalienable right to retain lands to which they currently hold title.  This is definitely not so. Ownership of real estate — save, perhaps, that on which ones house and garden sit — is not a  natural (and hence inalienable) right.  We can allow that people have a natural right to own the property on which their domicile sits; or perhaps a few acres with which they ‘mingle their hands with the soil’ for sustenance.  But private ownership of larger parcels of land is an arbitrary social convention — something created by legislation, and removable by legislation.   Society may change such conventions according to the will of the majority and for good of society.  To be clear: this does not dispute that private parties have, in our society, a right to own land  — only that this is a legislated right, not a natural one.  That is, we could envision a society in which all the people got together and decided to disallow the owning of large tracts of land.  Certainly we can find indigenous societies where such is the case.

The idea of legally limiting public land ownership is not utterly foreign to European and American political theory.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, advocated the usufruct principle.  This holds that private citizens have a right to use the land and enjoy it’s fruits — but not to own it.  If you plant an orchard, you might own the apples, not the land itself.

Agrarianism

What concerns us is not just land redistribution, but, more broadly, effecting a transition to a more sustainable, natural, agrarian society.  Agrarianism, in a historical sense, can be defined as:  “the doctrine of an equal division of landed property and the advancement of agricultural groups.”  Today we may extend the definition by envisioning a migration of a certain number of modern urban dwellers to the country, where they may live sustainably in individual homesteads and/or intentional communities.

Sustainability would imply emphasis on self-sufficiency, including cultivating gardens or crops for food, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and like things.

Advantages of a More Agrarian Society

It seems self-evident that much would be gained by redistributing land to give more people the ability to leave the large cities and start self-sustaining, rural homesteads.  Certainly this is appealing to the sensibilities of many.  Specific advantages include these:

  • Gets  people out of crowded urban areas
    • reduces pollution
    • reduces stress, anxiety, and confusion associated with modern urban life
    • reduces water and energy problems
  • Eliminates commuting lifestyle
  • Healthy country living and natural food would promote good health and reduce health-care costs for society.
  • People can live in harmony with nature: the earth is made for man, and man for the earth.
  • 5000 homesteads = 5000 experiments in sustainable living and crop innovation
  • With the option to leave and migrate to the country, urban workers gain better bargaining position; can demand better wages and working conditions
  • Agrarian happiness doesn’t require a $100k college education
  • Committed individuals living on land can help preserve it (stewardship)

The last point is important because it counters the objection that National Forests or large conservancy land tracts should be left free from human habitation.  Responsible people can live within such areas in ways that enhance, not interfere with forest and wildlife preservation.

Feasibility

Is redistribution of land possible, or merely a pipe-dream?

It’s important here to refer to American history, in which a strong current of agrarianism has always operated. Indeed, the history of American economic ideology can be seen as a dynamic tension-of-opposites between agrarianism and commercialism.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the opposing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson, the Virginian farmer, wanted the country to follow an agrarian path.  He hated cities, in fact, and considered them breeding grounds for vice and unhappiness.  He believed that a nation of independent, citizen-farmers was the best way to achieve just and stable democracy.

In a draft constitution for Virginia, Jefferson proposed: “Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned 50 acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of 50 acres”.  This proposal did not eventuate, but Jefferson did succeed in abolishing primogeniture laws in Virginia. Primogeniture is the custom by which all land in a family is inherited by the oldest son; abolishing primogeniture had the effect of, over several generations, breaking down large land tracts and distributing land ownership more fairly.

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example…. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition…. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff…. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strenth of the human body.

Source:  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 19, 1787.

Jefferson was not the only advocate of agrarianism.  John Taylor of Caroline, for example — the American foil to free marketer Adam Smith — supplied a philosophical and economic foundation for agrarian principles.

In contrast, Alexander Hamilton (who, incidentally, was one of Wall Street’s founders), believed America must follow the path of commerce and industrialization; for this, centralized banking and a financial infrastructure to promote corporate investment was needed.   Hamilton’s party won the day, setting in motion a series of reactions and counter-reactions that have continued since.

Acquisition of new territory (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase), along with growing unemployment and immigration in cities, produced a gradual campaign of political agitation for land access.  A wave of agrarian fervor swept the nation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  And a few years later, a new phase of agrarian populism began, associated with such names as Horace Greeley, George Henry Evans, Henry George, and George Julian.

The movement gained steady ground.  In 1848, Martin Van Buren ran for president as the nominee of a newly formed Free Soil party.  Pamphlets circulated, and the phrase “Vote Yourself a Farm!” became a popular slogan.  Extracts from one such pamphlet are revealing:

Are you tired of slavery — of drudging for others — of poverty and its attendant miseries? Then, Vote yourself a farm.

Are you endowed with reason? Then you must know that your right to life hereby includes the right to a place to live in — the right to a home. Assert this right, so long denied mankind by feudal robbers and their attorneys. Vote yourself a farm.

Are you a man? Then assert the sacred rights of man — especially your right to stand upon God’s earth, and to till it for your own profit. Vote yourself a farm.

Would you free your country, and the sons of toil everywhere, from the heartless, irresponsible mastery of the aristocracy of avarice? Would you disarm this aristocracy of its chief weapon, the fearful power of banishment from God’s earth? Then join with your neighbors to form a true American party, having for its guidance the principles of the American revolution, and whose chief measures shall be — 1. To limit the quantity of land that any one man may henceforth monopolize or inherit; and 2. To make the public lands free to actual settlers only, each having the right to sell his improvements to any man not possessed of other land. (Reference: 1846 handbill.)

This activity culminated with the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Act, an applicant could receive up to 160 acres of undeveloped public land. Requirements were minimal:  applicants needed only (1) to be at least 21 years old, (2) to live on the land for five years, and (3) to show evidence of having ‘made improvements’ to the land.

Despite problems, including widespread fraud by middle-men brokers (and national theft of Native American lands), the Act was, to judge by the number of families who participated, a  spectacular success.  Another testimony to the program’s success was its longevity: the Act stayed in effect for over a century: until 1976 in the lower 48 states, and 1986 in Alaska.

Prospects

This brings us to the present.  Clearly the tradition of agrarian reform is long and deep in American history.  It is eminently practical, and reflects the simple truth that it makes no sense to crowd people in cities when there are millions of acres of habitable land available.  It is, arguably, simply unnatural.  In 1850, 85% of Americans lived outside of cities.  By 1900, 60% of the population lived rurally.  Today the rate is perhaps 20%.  Perhaps we should reverse this trend.

This doesn’t mean scrapping cities.  Logically, what seems best is a balance between commerce and agrarianism, urban and rural living.  It seems, though, that we are today at a crest of a radically commercial phase, with urban areas falling apart and becoming increasingly aversive. A convergence of social and environmental problems suggests it may be time to shift towards agrarianism to restore balance.

Reading

Clawson, Marion. Uncle Sam’s Acres. Dodd, Mead, 1951 (repr. Greenwood Press, 1970). ISBN: 0837133564.

Commons, John R. (ed.) A Documentary History of American Industrial Society: Volume 7 and Volume 8. Labor movement (1840 – 1860, Parts 1 and 2). Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1910.

Dick, Everett. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands. University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Gates, Paul W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN: 0826316999.

Landau, Elaine. The Homestead Act (children’s book). Children’s Press, 2006. ISBN: 0516258702.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought (3 Volumes). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927 (repr. 1987). ISBN: 0806120819. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Porterfield, Jason. The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History. Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN: 1404201785.

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936. Peter Smith, 1950. ISBN: 0803208669.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth. Harvard, 1950.

Thompson, Paul B.  The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. University of Kentucky, 2010. ISBN: 0813125871.

Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy. Hill & Wang, 1935 (repr. 1960). ISBN: 0809000288.

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Each Man a Scholar

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deer-with-tHE other day I was walking around Brussels, noticing the people in the streets, many overburdened, and wondering how I might help make the world better. Suddenly the words, “Each man a scholar” came into my head, as if whispered by a Muse. What struck me was the intelligence in the faces I saw. Brussels is a very sophisticated city, and it seemed very plain that these same people, bright and well-educated, were capable of great achievements. Yet I suspected many or most were going home to watch television, sink on the sofa, or just worry about life in general.

Hence the implications of the thought, “each man a scholar” (which, of course, I naturally understood to mean ‘each woman,’ too). With these words came all at once a much broader and grander vision. The idea is that in this age of computers and the Internet, the role of each person in society is different. Each person can become an expert in some small, but important subject, and share the results of their work with the entire world. Not only is that possible, it seems like this what God is calling us to do, for He has placed us on the earth, you and I, at the precise moment in human history where all this technology has become available.

Such, I propose, is a natural and effective response to the difficult issues that confront us today. Solutions to such problems as hunger, poverty, injustice, disease, alienation, and war all exist. What we lack is a model for organizing ourselves to solve them. The Internet provides us with opportunity to forge such a new paradigm. What might be accomplished were each person who is able those blessed with a good education, computer literate, and with sufficient free time to spend an hour or two every week donating their time to public service in this way?

Belgium, 2008

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself – 2009

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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself – 2009

The famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” come from the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (March 4, 1933). These comments, of course, were made in the midst of the Great Depression. The parallels between those times and the current economic crisis are worth considering.

Roosevelt’s address contained some other remarks applicable to our times:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

and also:

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion.”

and, further:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), Roosevelt was correct in his diagnosis but wrong in his response. He leapt to the conclusion that the correct solution was to supply the federal government with massive new powers. It was correct to conclude that the solution was to be found in new commitment to service of others, but arguably incorrect to assume that the federal government must be the primary agent of this. We have paid the price of that decision ever since. Indeed, some suggest that the current economic problems are partly the result of ill-advised government policies and regulations in the 1990’s. Thus, Roosevelt also said in the same speech:

“But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

However this is no place to criticize the policies of FDR. The goal, rather, is to make two points about the current situation.

The first is that things now are not necessarily as bad as people (especially the media and governments) are making it out to be. What really counts in life are love, happiness, kindness, friendship, respect, virtue, education, and, above these all, religion and spirituality. Not only are these things money can’t buy, there is general agreement that unnecessary concern for money interferes with them.

In reality, at least those of us in the United States and Western Europe, things right now are, comparatively speaking — not that bad. Perhaps life is not (or superficially does not appear) quite as nice as 15 years ago. But, overall, it’s still better than it was 100, and probably even 50 years ago. (Recall that 50 years ago we didn’t have computers, the internet, mobile phones, compact discs, or color televisions.)

The most important of today’s problems have nothing to do with the recent economic crisis. They concern things like insufficient planning, inept government, easily preventable chronic disease, and loss of moral direction. In short, we are today experiencing a “values crisis” which far exceeds in importance any kind of economic crisis.

Further, one must seriously question whether the crisis is being exaggerated for the express purpose of producing fear in the citizenry. Fear, and its companions, anxiety and anger, have the effect of reducing the ability of the mind to focus on and solve problems. Were it not for incessant fear in modern society — a fear actively fed by popular media — perhaps we would wake up and realize how good we actually have it.

Yes, the current economic “bailout” is equivalent to placing each US citizen two or three thousand dollars in debt. So what? Before that happened I had to wake up each morning, go to work, and earn a living. It can be difficult, but it can be rewarding, too. And today nothing changes. I still do the same work, and in most outward ways my life is the same, yet somehow there’s this ominous word “crisis” floating about.

It is a blessing to be alive. It is a blessing to be in the midst of other people. The only problem is our own inability to see what great, miraculous things these are!

But this post isn’t a simple morality sermon. Yes, I would indeed exhort all to discover the immense potential of love and joy in their lives. But I am more really more concerned here with drawing attention to what prevents this, which is fear.

The System creates fear. The System wants fear. That is the problem we have to face and overcome.

But what is the System? We know it exists. We suspect that in involves interacting levels of government, economic institutions, and the media. But we can’t define it exactly. Its very ambiguity, in fact, is one of its most problematic features.

But fear is its greatest weapon, because once the mind is occupied with fear, the two things the System most wants to prevent — namely love and reason — are crowded out.

At least we can say this much with some confidence: whatever produces fear, especially in a widespread and systematic fashion, is likely a direct manifestation of the System. Knowing this we may remain alert, prepared to defend ourselves, and able to avoid getting drawn into fear. We know the face of the enemy.

However it is too simplistic to merely to see an external System as the cause of all our problems.

While, again, the details are not clear, it is nevertheless a consistent empirical observation that the System is somehow connected with our own internal states.  To some extent the System is a projection or external manifestation of our own personal disorder.  Thus our primary weapon against the System consists in self-improvement, growing in virtue, and purifying the ego.

Here we have alluded to two related but distinct issues.  There is fear, but there is also failure to appreciate the good things in life.  It is not only that fear makes us unable to see the good things.  To a certain degree the reverse is also true:  by failing to remember and see the good things, we leave ourselves open to fear.

Thus, fear and failure to appreciate the important things interact:  fear reduces mental clarity, and lack of mental clarity makes us unable to consciously direct our attention to positive things and away from fear.

However living in a community of other human beings works to our advantage here.  We should use every opportunity to build up others, to encourage them, and to direct their attention to positive things.

Written by John Uebersax

April 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Libertarian Tea Parties

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Libertarian Tea Parties

On April 15, 2009 (the date that US tax returns are due) dozens of libertarian groups around the country will stage protests, called Tea Parties (named after the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773). The purpose is to “voice opposition to the out-of-control spending and taxation started by the Bush administration and carried on by Obama.”

This sort of grassroots activity is exactly what’s needed these days. The organizers are to be commended. It’s only in the United States that something like this would happen. More Americans need to mobilize, organize, demonstrate, and express themselves in this way, because: (1) it’s the right thing to do; (2) it’s effective; (3) it keeps the flame of Liberty alight; and (4) it serves as an example for the rest of the world.

My one suggestion is to not personalize this by blaming President Obama. The problem isn’t the president, it’s the economic-political System in the US. The System *wants* people to personalize things, and to express hostility. That insures that accusations merely flow back and forth, and nothing constructive gets accomplished.

Flat Income Tax

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the idea of income tax reform, and, in particular, the idea of a flat tax. To adopt a flat tax would go a long way towards getting the US economy back on track. The flat tax is a winning proposition for everybody. It can lower the marginal tax rate across the board, yet generate more tax revenue. This happens because:

  1. People and companies don’t need to waste so much time (days, weeks) merely figuring out their taxes and doing the necessary accounting on an ongoing basis;
  2. Compliance will be improve because everybody will view the system as fair and positive;
  3. Companies and the rich will spend less time finding clever ways to avoid their taxes and more time producing what they’re in business to produce.
  4. In an economy stimulated by the flat income tax there would be more business activity, more income, and more total income tax paid, even though the marginal rate is reduced.

Written by John Uebersax

April 12, 2009 at 4:26 pm