Saturday, June 25, 2016

Complexity Theory and the Study of History: Overproduction of Elites, Food Shortages, and Power Laws

I have written quite a bit about cliodynamics, the scientific approach to studying history, in the past. Peter Turchin has done quite a bit of work in this area, writing most recently about the inevitable collapse of the European Union.

Turchin's overall thesis is that an overproduction of elites results in inequalities that lead to the collapse of empires. And, as Egypt suggests, not just empires. However, one of the leading complexity theorists, Yaneer Bar-Yam, has developed a complexity model that suggests societal collapse comes about due to food prices increasing. More, network theory predicts power law distributions of revolutions/political collapse.

These are not necessarily conflicting views. Certainly the argument that there is a power law distribution of historical events like revolutions could easily complement the models of Turchin's and Bar-Yam's. It is also not impossible that the same dynamics that result in food prices increasing could result in the overproduction of elites and inequalities to increase.

Bar-Yam's thesis is particularly interesting, though one does wish he understood economics a bit better, especially around "speculation," which actually helps to smooth out prices and make them less volatile. At the same time he's right about the complete idiocy behind turning food directly into fuel, which unnecessarily drives up food prices, especially around anything involving corn (not just for direct consumption, but as feed for chickens, pigs, and cows, driving up meat prices). And he leaves out various farm subsidies, which politicians argue keeps prices down, but which in fact drive prices up (when New Zealand eliminated its subsidies for sheep farmers, wool and mutton prices dropped even as farmer incomes increased).

It would be interesting to map the food price-driven patterns of unrest with Turchin's patterns to see what overlaps there are and to see if one could find similar causes resulting in these two effects. I also don't know that Turchin has looked for power law distributions, but he certainly should. I would certainly be surprised if Bar-Yam's version didn't result in power law distributions. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My New Journey

I've begun a new journey, and while I'm on that journey I will be absent from the internet in many ways, including from posting on this blog, my other blogs, and Facebook.

I'm currently getting the training required to get alternative certification to teach elementary special education in Dallas ISD. Now you may wonder why it is that I'm not getting it in English. The reasons are many, and involve such things as DISD isn't offering this program I'm in for English teachers, because they don't have a shortage of English teachers, and my own personal arrogance surrounding my refusal to get certified in anything in which I have a Ph.D. because that requirement is incredibly insulting and ridiculous and is the most egregious example of protectionism imaginable.

The reason I chose elementary special education is itself multifaceted. Part of the reason involves my having an autistic child. Part of it involves my brother having dyslexia. Part of it involves my experiences as a substitute teacher taking special education assignments. I took high school and middle school assignments and saw that many of those students had not received the help they needed to mainstream them early on. I saw some overlooked entirely. At the same time, I enjoyed working with the elementary SpEd kids, and I seemed able to reach them. All of those contributed to this decision.

So I'm spending the summer getting alternative certification. I'll spend a year as an "intern," and after that I'll be hired full time.

So the next year promises to be busy. And something has to go.

Economics will be going. Indeed, pretty much all of my scholarly work, including book reviews. I've enjoyed doing those things, but they have not otherwise benefited me. They brought me nothing but personal satisfaction. And that doesn't pay the bills.

Poetry and plays will be the primary focus. They also bring me personal satisfaction, but poems are less burdensome, and the plays are the reason I will be doing everything I can over the next several years to save up to get and run a theatre. (Donations and volunteers are welcome!)

And of course I'll continue learning about autism and posting on it. After all, it will benefit me in my job and in my home life and on my blog. And you never know---one of these days someone may want to hear what I have to say on the topic. My expertise is, after all, both personal and professional, both subjective and objective.

And politics sucks. All it does is divide everyone. That's its great evil. Of course, sometimes we have to differentiate ourselves from injustice, and that too requires politics. There are some people and some things from whom we should divide ourselves. But I'm going through a phase of relative indifference to everyone arguing about which sinking ship to jump onto.

I'm going to focus on beauty, family, and money. That is, things of value.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Life of Unity -- Reflections on Obsessions and Personal Life

Starting in 1971 (the year I was born), my maternal grandfather, Virgil Inman, started keeping a diary/journal. On my trip to South Bend, my grandmother gave me 1971-1976 (those she had read) for me to transcribe and edit and try to one day get published.

My grandparents were avid birders, and my grandfather's diary seems to be almost entirely about birding. We see lists of birds he saw on this or that birding trip. The most mentions of people involve those who were birding with him, talked to him about birds, and/or were members of the Audubon Society. There are few mentions of his family, and the day of my birth results in a brief mention of that event before he starts writing about birds.

In many ways this and my other blogs are my own diaries/journals, and in many ways I have done exactly what my grandfather did in his. Just search this blog for Anna, Melina, Daniel, and Dylan, and see how relatively few hits you get compared to Nietzsche, Shakespeare, poetry, or spontaneous orders. My obsessions are what I write about much more than anything personal. And if you do search for my family members' names, you will find that much of the time I am writing about some topic in which I use them as an example.

I'm not sure how interested anyone would be in reading about more personal things. I don't know how interested anyone is in reading this blog at all. Its topics evolve, change, jump around, and will continue to do so, I'm sure. I've decided to focus more on theatre, on playwriting, and as a result, I'm sure what I write about here will reflect that change.

I have also written before about how I am my interests, meaning if you have been following this blog, if you have been reading what I have been writing, you have about as intimate an understanding of me as possible.With most people you can disentangle the different parts of their world; with me, you mostly cannot. There are a few exceptions--too much of my employment, for example--but I don't typically write about work. I would if my work and my employment ever managed to overlap. Which is the goal, of course. Because unless and until they do, I will remain unfulfilled in life.

For many a job is a way to make money and life is almost completely fulfilled through relationships with others. My personal relationships are few, and mostly involve my wife and children, who do in fact fulfill pretty much any and all of my needs when it comes to personal relationships. But my wife understands the degree to which my identity is tied in with the writing/work I do. Still, they are prioritized over that work, as evidenced by the fact that I spend time with them when I should be working, and by the fact that I will be starting training for a job I'm taking just to have an income.

Still, I want to live a more fulfilling life. And that's why I have decided to concentrate more on being a playwright and on doing what I need to do to run my own theatre to perform my plays (following a strong tradition of poets/playwrights over the past several centuries) so I can at last concentrate on the writing/work I think is truly most important for me to do. Perhaps I can even get the theatre to a place where we can be a theatre family, so to speak. Complete unity of everything important in my life. That is the ultimate goal.

I'm sure my grandfather would have loved to have such unity as well. For his job he worked with computers. But there's no mention of that in what I've read of the diary so far. And I've only ever heard brief mention of the work he did to make a living over the decades. But there was never any question about the birds. I imagine he would have loved to have been an ornithologist so his life could have achieved unity. I'm too much like him for him not to have wanted the same thing.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Journey

This past week and a half, I took a trip to South Bend, IN to visit my grandmother. We actually stayed with my Great Aunt Mercedes in Coloma, MI, and drove back and forth. That gave us several trips through rural west Michigan, including a day trip to St. Joseph/Benton Harbor to see Lake Michigan. The downtown area of Benton Harbor is very rough-looking, but the lake shore of both cities is being developed with museums and other arts venues to attract visitors. Another day several us went to Shipshewana to visit Amish country to eat and shop.

My great aunt lives in a farm house with 19 acres left of what was once a pretty big farm where they used to raise apples and cherries and raised various vegetables. She still raises some vegetables, and she has a small strawberry patch the children picked. Melina, Daniel, and Dylan all had a great time, and they all said they would love to live out there.

Among visiting with family and friends I haven't seen in a while and being out in the country and seeing Shipshewana, where we saw a store for sale for less than our house is worth, and the lake front of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, I came to realize something that has been simmering under the surface for a while now: I'm absolutely miserable living in Richardson. What I find miserable is this suburban pseudo-existence of just barely getting by doing nothing I want to do, always busy and getting nothing done. I'm neither relaxed nor accomplished. In the country one can relax; in the city, you are surrounded by action. But the suburbs have the absolute worst of both worlds. It's neither relaxing nor is it close to anything at all, meaning you have to get in your car to do anything.

Add to this the fact that I'm getting ready to get alternative certification to teach elementary education special ed in Dallas ISD. This is certainly something I can do, but it's not what I'm supposed to be doing.

And that's what I've come to realize this past week. What it is I'm supposed to be doing. It's not teaching, that's to be sure. No, what I'm supposed to be doing is running a theater so that I can perform my plays. I would love to do it in a small town like St. Joseph or Benton Harbor, which attracts just enough people from places like Chicago and South Bend that it could be successful and get a reputation. And the towns are the right size to have things to do and have shopping close by and still have some easy living.

So that's the goal. I'll have to teach for a little while, but the goal is to own and run a theater somewhere. I need to write plays and direct my plays and provide myself with a real purpose. I appreciate the attempts people have made at helping me do just that with scholarly work on economics and higher education. I've learned a lot doing those things. But they are not what I'm meant to be doing. I'm a writer. I'm a play writer. It's time I took my life into my own hands and made that reality into something.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Why Has Community in America Collapsed?

I recently saw a TED Talk in which the person was talking about the seeming rise in DTSD among soldiers. He noted that there are fewer soldiers than in past wars, that the experiences are far less traumatic than in past wars, but that PTSD is much higher now than previously.

What is going on? The speaker suggested that what was happening was that soldiers who had formed close social bonds with their comrades came home to a society that is radically fragmented. They moved from a tribal situation to a radically individuated situation, and that it was that which was traumatic.

I think he's mostly right.

American society is deeply fragmented. I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among political views, though that's certainly a contributor (and a consequence). I'm not just talking about the increasingly deep divisions among racial and ethnic groups, though that's certainly a contributor as well.

I'm talking about individuals becoming increasingly alienated from each other. We not only do not rely on each other, we are actively discouraged from doing so. We are encouraged to mind our own business--and we then in turn empower government to do all the minding we used to do in our neighborhoods. We even tell our children to mind their own business, as though their friends and families and neighborhoods aren't their business. If other people aren't our business, what is?

There is a certain libertarian thread that emphasizes exactly this kind of minding one's own business that is very common and popular. We are told not to judge anyone for anything they do--and while this has of course resulted in growing acceptance of a variety of lifestyles and ways of being human, cultures and cultural practices, etc., it has also meant not seeking out commonalities and not creating communities. You cannot have a community of people who mind their own business. If you want to destroy a family, have the parents insist the children should mind their own business, and have those parents insist their spouses mind their own business. The fact is that family members ought to be one's business. We ought to be concerned with the way people behave. That shows we care about them.

The irony of this libertarian emphasis on minding one's own business is that in creating more radically individuated and thus isolated people, the social fabric disintegrates, leaving a space for governments to come in as the solution. We need social bonds and to work together, and if those natural bonds disintegrate, governments will offer ways to force those bonds, or the social outcomes those old bonds once made. Neighbor pressure to keep your property looking nice has been replaced with local government passing ordinances to keep your property looking nice, with professional busybodies to enforce them by driving around and looking at everyone's property. The problem with the government solution is that, even with local government, there is a lack of local and tacit knowledge. One's neighbors, when one is close to one's neighbors, knows more about your situation than does some bureaucrat. The bureaucrat doesn't even care about your situation--they just care about being obeyed no matter what. The neighbor knows what your situation is, and adjusts their expectations (and complaints and pressure) accordingly.

This attitude of minding one's own business extends even to our institutions that have historically provided the kinds of social bonds that create community. For example, my wife and I have grown completely frustrated with the church we have been attending because, though we have tried to be involved through such things as having Melina in the children's choir, we have felt almost completely unwelcomed there. Not in an active way, but rather just completely ignored by everyone. It's as though they could care less whether we were there or not. Another example would be our local schools, where we send our children without really ever getting to know the teachers or fellow students, let alone fellow parents. Once the centers of our communities, our schools have become yet another institution of practically faceless, impersonal bureaucrats who seem annoyed more than anything if anyone wants to help or contribute in any real way.

Zoning laws separate neighborhoods from any sort of social meeting places. I have to get in my car to go shopping. If I want to hang out at a cafe, I have to get in my car and go there. And the people there won't be the people from my neighborhood. Even if I get to know a few people at the local Starbucks, I won't know them outside of Starbucks. I won't know where they live. I certainly won't be invited over to their homes. With mixed neighborhoods, where there are local cafes and stores where you see the people from your neighborhood all the time, you get to know people and as a result, you end up looking out for each other more. Zoning thus keeps neighborhoods from becoming true communities by isolating various aspects of our lives from each other.
Licensing also contributes to this problem. It' worse than ridiculous that you have to get a license to hold a yard sale or for your children to have a lemonade stand. These are among the opportunities lost to connect with your neighbors and transform them into communities. Local businesses are less likely to crop up as a result as well. So not only is are community bonds suppressed, but community economies are depressed.

The problem is that there are inevitably anti-social people who don't want any of these things taking place in their neighborhoods. But why should only the anti-social elements of society get what they want? Just because they are going to complain about what's going on, while nobody's going to complain about what's NOT going on? This is a problem of the "seen" taking precedence over the "unseen" that all too often plagues the insights of economics and sociology. We are trading the "tyranny" of community for the tyranny of government, persuasion for force. It's a pretty stupid trade.

The real problem is that when people come to understand that there is something missing in their lives, they then look to government to fix those things when the source seems to come from the outside. We are missing something in our societies, and we then ask the government to provide all the things strong communities once provided. The problem is that when governments do things, they tend to crowd out private solutions. And that undermines the creation of strong communities even more. Licensing and zoning are the consequences of anti-social complainers, and they work to make us all more anti-social and isolated.

The fact is that humans are naturally social, naturally community-minded, naturally compassionate. If we find a group of people not behaving that way, behaving rather more selfishly and anti-socially, we need to ask what is happening in their societies, in their institutions, in their governance that is causing people to behave this way. What is actively encouraging them to behave in ways that are, quite frankly, unnatural? We love to blame "capitalism," but we have had capitalism far longer than this situation. Further, the system we haven't isn't even free market capitalism anyway, but is rather extremely regulated capitalism. Those regulations, as we have seen, have more than just economic consequences, as bad as those are. They have social consequences as well.

We all know there is something deeply wrong with American society. What is wrong is that we have been actively replacing community with government. We are regulating ourselves into isolation. Natural connections are replaced with government regulated interactions. Yes, my traveling several miles to sit at a cafe is a government regulated interaction precisely because I cannot sit at a cafe anywhere near where I live. My having to get in my car to grab a few avocados for dinner rather than walking to the neighborhood fruit stand is a government regulated interaction. We do not even recognize we are being controlled and being separated from each other, but we are. The consequence is more and more government regulations to try to make up for the losses caused by government regulations, causing more and more separation.

The increase in PTSD among returning soldiers is the canary in the coal mine. How many must stop singing before we get the message?