Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

103. Facing Limits

Note: This post is the one hundred and third in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

"Hope you don't think users are the only abusers niggaz
Gettin high within the game
If you do then, how would you explain?
I'm ten years removed, still the vibe is in my veins
I got a hustler spirit, nigga period
Check out my hat yo, peep the way I wear it
Check out my swag' yo, I walk like a ballplayer
No matter where you go, you are what you are, a player
And you can try to change but that's just the top layer
Man, you was who you was 'fore you got here
Only God can judge me, so I'm gone
Either love me, or leave me alone"

From "Public Service Announcement" by Jay-Z


"It all belongs to Caesar, It all belongs to Caesar
Go to the bank, Go to the bank
We're going down to Mexico
To get away from this culture
Go to the bank..."

from "Go to the Bank", by James1


I've been reading through the archives of Morris Berman's blog.

Writing this series of posts has led me into a habit of automatically classifying people as commercially or guardian minded (remarkably few people seem to manage to see both sides on a regular basis) and Berman is one of the clearest cut cases of a Guardian thinker I've come across. Whether he's decrying the building of a casino at Gettysburg (lack of respect for tradition), supporting efforts to take vengeance against the current U.S. elite (encouraging people to vote for Sarah Palin to speed up the collapse, for example), or recounting the loss of community in the face of a relentless self-interested thirst for more consumption, he is consistently singing from the Guardian songbook.

Berman is best known for a series of books on the decline of the American civilization, the most recent of which, "Why America Failed" traces the roots of America's cultural decline to its origins as a nation of 'hustlers' and the eventual takeover of the nation by commercial (hustling) interests.

Of course, there are lots of folks out there commenting on the decline of our civilization, and lamenting the commercial takeover of our communities. But it was one post in particular, that I wanted to mention here, the reason being that in this post Berman comes quite close to recounting some of the main points I've been circling here.

In this particular post, Berman likens humans to frogs:

"[In] An experiment with frogs some years ago ... [they] were wired up with electrodes in the pleasure center of the brain, and could stimulate that center–i.e., create a 'rush'–by pressing a metal bar. Not only did the frogs keep pressing the bar over and over again, but they didn’t stop even when their legs were cut off with a pair of shears."

Berman does allow that some of us frogs are a bit smarter than others:

"The first intelligent frog who comes to mind is the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, perhaps most famous for having been married to Margaret Mead. For Bateson, the issue was an ethical one. As he himself put it, 'the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems.' The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more. More is better, in this scheme of things; words such as 'limits' or 'enough' are either foolish or meaningless. Clearly, the 'American Way of Life' is a system of maxima, of indefinite expansion."

Berman links the notion of respecting (or not) limits, with the goal of maximization vs. optimization, and from there, with the difference between individual and collective decision making:

"the economist Robert Frank, writing in the New York Times (12 July 2009), argues that 'traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups. For instance,' he goes on,

'a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles with other males for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.'"

The problem is that what was rational on the individual level was irrational on the collective level, thus leading to a systemic collapse.

We are thus led, quite naturally, from a consideration of optima vs. maxima to the question of individual vs. collective behavior."

Berman goes even further to note that democracy is a more tenuous method of transforming individual preferences into collective behaviour vs. dictatorship:

How, then, can excess be curbed in a free democratic system? For we can be sure that the intelligent frogs, who are really quite exceptional, are not going to be listened to, and certainly have no power to enforce their insights. True, there are certain countries–the Scandanavian nations come to mind–where for some reason the concentration of intelligent frogs is unusually high, resulting in decisions designed to protect the commons. But on a world scale, this is not very typical. More typical, and (sad to say) a model for most of Latin America, is the United States, where proposed “changes” are in fact cosmetic, and where the reality is business as usual. In the context of 306 million highly addicted frogs, the voices of the smart ones–Bateson, Frank, Posner, Hardin, et al.–aren’t going to have much impact or, truth be told, even get heard."


"Of course, authoritarian systems don’t have these problems, which is a good indicator of how things will probably develop. Under the name of 'harmony', for example, China regulates its citizens for what it perceives to be the common good. Hence the famous one-child policy, introduced in 1979, supposedly prevented more than 300 million births over the next 29 years in a country that was threatened by its own population density. In the case of the United States, the imposition of rules and limits on individual behavior to protect the commons is not, at present, a realistic prospect; the population is simply not having it, end of story. But how much longer before this freedom of choice is regarded as an impossible luxury?"

So, just in this one post, Berman covers quite well one of the main areas that separates the guardian syndrome from the commercial one, the ability to deal with / impose limits. The commercial syndrome prioritizes individual competition which prevents collective (cooperative) decision making, which can work in an unlimited domain where maximization is the goal, but fails when faced by a limit because it becomes impossible to constrain individuals to respect the limits and to optimize rather than maximize, and to allocate shares within the limit rather than everyone just taking as much as they can.

And he raises an interesting question, if the citizens in a country face real limits, but would rather pretend those limits don't exist and will only elect politicians who act as if those limits don't exist, will democracy survive?

1As an aside, I was looking up the lyrics for the James song I referenced at the top of the post, and ended up at the song meanings entry for a different (but similarly themed) James song, "Lost a Friend (to the sea)" about a man trying to free a friend from living in the world of television and bring them back to reality. While there, I found one of those occasional nuggets of gold that one gets if you sift through enough of the mountains of dirt that make up most comment sections on the web, a comment from 'draven66':

"I logged onto for the first time yesterday and realized that I have lost my friends to the sea. A sea of electronic lies, bloated materialism, and denial that hides their suspended disbelief that modern western lifestyles of decay are not only consuming them but everyone we kill under "foreign policy" to maintain this sick way of life. You've seen it before .. those tired sore smiles that say "I am hypnotized, and adequately, even willingly! desensitized, and sedated! Please don't let my suspicions be true, please just give me another hit. The worst part is when everyone can capture it fifty times a day, digitally. This life was made possible by FUTURE SHOP, keep on pretending you sad empty sheep, you are owned and cultivated and laughed at! GOD I feel so alone.

Nice song though."

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