Posted by: Carl Magruder | June 12, 2009

Incremental Paradigm Shift

House On Fire

House On Fire

There has been some controversy around my last blog post on “God’s Economy.” I must acknowledge that this controversy has not taken place in the Comments section below the blog, where it ideally would. Please do not be deterred by this. Stimulating dialogue is one of my favorite things. Bicycles, babies, bacon, brewing beer, bocce ball, birthdays, and boats are some of my other favorites. Feel free to use the Comments window! The focus of the controversy is around the question of incremental versus paradigm shifting change. It has been a useful meditation.

One issue is simply that big change requires a lot of energy and resources. It has a large impact, it scares people, and it has the potential to create massive opposition. For these reasons, it may be good to proceed incrementally. On the other hand, if the United States had waited for the South to paradigm shift itself gradually out of slavery…? Hard to say. I might be more open to a gradual approach to carbon reduction if we had started that gradual reduction under Carter and then ramped things up consistently since the 70’s. We’d probably be within a wind turbine’s span of the carbon reductions that the International Panel on Climate Change recommends. At this point, changes are going to have to be somewhat drastic.

Germaine to environmental health issues, the Senate passed legislation that would put the regulation of tobacco under the FDA’s jurisdiction yesterday. Now, admittedly, it is well beyond absurd to have any entity that is charged with protecting the public health to merely REGULATE a substance that will KILL fully a third of its users, but nonetheless, this represents progress. The Surgeon General first put a tiny warning label on cigarettes fifty years ago, and then the larger one we are used to seeing now. The FDA tried to regulate tobacco in the 90’s and was slapped down by the Supreme Court for overreaching its authority. Big Tobacco lied, bought politicians, denied that nicotine was addictive, marketed cigarettes to children, and generally behaved like criminals. Gradual steps like making it illegal to smoke in public places, running campaigns to educate kids about smoking, suing the tobacco industry for huge sums, and a gradual change in public attitude have led to the current legislation, which passed by a hefty majority.

Of course, the FDA will not be making tobacco illegal, despite the fact that if someone was just trying to bring tobacco to market now, it would clearly never be accepted. It is anticipated that cigarette companies will have to disclose which of 6,000 additives are in their products, be required to limit nicotine to non-addictive levels (which would be what?), and enlarge warning labels.

So, here’s gradual change working….sorta. We still have this deadly and addictive substance available in every corner store, devastating health, costing the economy in worker productivity, and really having no redeeming benefits at all (unlike bacon). Kissing a smoker, even one you otherwise really think is the bee’s knees, is like licking an ashtray. Anything that makes kissing not fun has to be bad.  We’ve known that tobacco was deadly for more than a century, and just now we are starting to get a little serious about regulation? Since prohibition doesn’t work—witness marijuana, booze under Prohibition, Bristol Palin’s baby—I’m not necessarily saying that we ought to ban it, but it is clear that in the contest between the public good and profits for big business, we are a little slow in this country to do the right thing. Supposedly, it’s about freedom—freedom of corporations to make obscene profits by killing people, and freedom of consumers to destroy their health. I’d sure deny those freedoms to my children if I could. I don’t think that it would impoverish their lives one little bit.

We do not have fifty years to put a larger warning label on carbon emissions. We actually did the warning label disclosure thing under the Clean Air Act, which required companies to disclose their emissions. This did cause some reductions, and it gave activists and litigators some data to work with. But the atmosphere, which had 270 parts per million of carbon in it before industrialization, and more like 370ppm now, continues to get worse. (The 350ppm estimate to stabilize climate will prove to have been a rose-tinted soft pitch by those who thought that a stronger ‘ask’ was not “politically feasible,” by the way.)

So, when your house is on fire, do you want a warning label that fires can be dangerous, followed by some regulations that say that your house can only be 85% burned, encouragement to take personal responsibility for fireproofing your house, and then a protracted discussion about whether or not fire crews should be called and if so, whether they should put out the fire completely or just slow it down a little? I’m ready to get as much water on that conflagration as possible.

As a person of faith, this is partly because I attempt with constant failure to adhere to values that do not include endangering, well, EVERYTHING ON EARTH to protect the right of class elites and corporations to amass more wealth. This is my conservative nature coming out—I think that the world has rules, and I am not a believer in the hippy-dippy “if it feels good, do it” approach of liberals. I’ll admit that I use “Right/Wrong” thinking! My favorite Right/Wrong is Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  (A Sand County Almanac, 1949)

Yes, dualism is a sign of spiritual immaturity, but I find that there is still plenty of paradox and ambiguity in the world without my having to think that victimization of the powerless by the powerful is inevitable, human nature, or even to be tolerated. It’s part of the Cowboy Code. (http://www.elvaquero.com/The_Cowboy_Code.htm) Apparently money is mentioned in the scriptures more times than any other subject other than love, and not generally in the context of the principalities and powers having a right to exist regardless of the damage they do. That’s not mentioned. I feel bad for the workers at GM, but not for GM per se. They dismantled the public transportation systems that made American cities great (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_streetcar_conspiracy), necessitating the dominance of the automobile, and then they refused to make good cars, opting instead for planned obsolescence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence). The death of GM looks a lot like natural selection to me, or even just deserts.

What about those workers? Hey–those folks know how to make stuff, and we need a couple million wind turbines and solar panels right about now… How about if the Fed funded the startup of a massive worker’s cooperative like the Mondragon Group in Spain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondrag%C3%B3n_Cooperative_Corporation), where they made stuff America actually needs, and the highest paid person earned no more than 500% of what the lowest paid person made? Now THAT’s a paradigm shift… Wish we could have done that one last month!  I’ll bet they’d pay back the taxpayers a durn sight quicker than Fiat…

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Responses

  1. Incremental change is a lot easier to implement, and the ease of implementation is inversely proportional to the degree of behavioral and perceived changes in the status quo. This is true almost by definition.

    Incremental paradigm shift is possible; the modernization of life brought on by the industrial revolution has caused human perceptions of “normal” to change gradually with technological innovation. To those that recognize them, intellectual paradigm shifts may happen more rapidly. They may be brought on by radical behavior or events, much as 9/11 gave the American military-industrial complex a boost, and the nation a new rallying cry – not Reds, but Fanatic Islamists

    The paradigm that needs to be changed is the one that places America in the position of the global policeman or, even worse, the position of global Judge. Retribution is not to be had for 9/11. The individuals responsible, and even the groups, are largely deceased, disbanded, or hiding in the mountains [it does seem as if finding them should be possible. The problem is that they are a rather amorphous mass, whose existence does not depend greatly on any one individual. If a leading figure is killed, there are many in the wings to take up the cry of Jihad. The “Global War on Terror” is a ridiculous notion that implies we will wipe out evil all over the earth where it is encountered, much like a comic book super-hero.

    Aldo Leopold is spot on. Regrettably, his attitude is rare. The profit motive rules, so, if it looks like money can more easily and reliably be made unearthing fossil fuels than providing for their alternatives, that is the way we will go.

    There is a role for government here. It has the right and the responsibility for the entire population’s welfare. There are many potential advantages to an alternative path. The question cannot be left at “Can we make a profit in alternative energy technologies?” If they would operate at a loss based on private business accounting, how large a dollar subsidy would be required to make up for that cost? The benefits that do not come in accounting dollar revenue may be substantial:
    – Environmental benefits – We still need to be careful not to ruin our environment by by, for example, making solar panels carelessly and spreading trace heavy metals all over the place [I made this example up].
    – Productivity – Repowering America should be done using the principle of matching the type of power used to the task to be accomplished.
    – labor economy – We would like to have a productive use for all of the American labor available and willing to work.
    – Global Competitiveness – Other countries will be developing these alternative power methodologies, and may dominate the market (that seems to have tremendous potential) by the time we get in.
    – Circulate more money domestically – rather than sending large chunks of dollars overseas, lets spread that money around America. This would mean more money in our economy to move around from hand to hand and lubricate domestic business.

    Currently the government pays out in tax breaks, bailouts, promises, etc. a large amount of value (i.e. dollars) that would be better spent subsidizing a move toward future ways of meeting humankind’s ever-expanding demands for energy. This would mean more money in our economy to move around from hand to hand and lubricate domestic business, i.e. increase its velocity.

    Spread the word.


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