I live in a Silicon Valley suburb. People who live here are generally well off.
Frequently we will have visitors come over the house from out of town. If they come in the winter, it may be raining. Invariably, someone will say:
"I thought this was supposed to be *sunny* California. Where's the sunshine?"
I say: "Yeah, someone should do something about this weather. I pay good money to live here."
It usually gets a laugh, but not always. Sometimes listener thinks I may be serious and the complaint may have merit.
Reflect upon that for a moment.
There are people to whom I joke: "I live in a million dollar house in an expensive neighborhood therefore I have the right to expect the weather can be, and should be tailored to my needs," - and they may think I may have a solid position for my argument.
I suggest to you now that the fact that rational people may actually think that joke has merit is the cause of a lot of dangerous setbacks in western society today.
There's serious confusion in sectors of public opinion today. In certain areas of politics and commerce this confusion is deliberate.
For instance, gravity is. Debating gravity is a futile exercise. A waste of energy. Or is it?
Gravity is why the earth circles the sun. This is science fact. Or is it?
For centuries religious institutions on this planet suggested an alternative explanation and executed people who didn't agree. With the focused hindsight afforded by time, we evaluate this behavior as erroneous. Imagine how science could have advanced had Galileo got the support of the church instead of being muzzled.
Another way to look at this history is that manipulation of information somehow served the purpose of its day. If science devalued the notion of the supremacy of god himself that may have had severe negative consequences. We look back and see the church stifling Galileo and many others as a clear attempt to retain wealth and power through control of the populace. But also, what would have happened to the future had they failed? Would their society have unraveled? What if it did?
Of course, this is the argument that is always used by those we put in power to limit the public access to reality. The social fabric will unravel. There will be chaos in the streets. Murder will be rampant. Our money will be worthless.
Again: our money will be worthless.
Because wealth is absolutely fragile. It is not physics.
The reason someone has money and someone else doesn't is because we all agree to it. We agree to how money is acquired and disbursed and what is the value of our monetary agreements. Think about that. It's not as distant a concept as you may imagine. Why does a particular bit of paper or some numbers on a computer disk mean anything to us at all? Because we agree to it. Surely, guns and bullets have a greater ability to immediately impact someone than imprinted paper.
By the way - I am a dyed in the wool capitalist who has done pretty well for himself in our system. But I know for a fact that the reason I am allowed to leave the grocery store with food in my bag, without having the police called to pick me up - and all I have done is handed over a few rectangles of paper - is because everyone I'm dealing with agrees upon what those paper rectangles represent.
That agreement is the key to nearly all political behavior on our planet.
If you want to know why something is happening that seems to have no bearing in reference to the facts you know - look at the wealth management involved.
Why do political candidates shift their most closely guarded morals, values, and views on a whim? What the hell are you voting for in a candidate who says whatever it takes to convince you of something? Why does the Nobel Committee grant prizes to controversial people? Why do people deny global warming?
Because wealth is fungible, public opinion is needed to maintain it.
This is, and has always been a problem worthy of infinite debate.
Take, for instance, the current presidential election. If either candidate would literally say anything convenient at the time to avoid having himself recorded saying something that would turn one group or another against him - exactly what substance is being represented with that candidate? That is, if you are against Mitt Romney in this election, and you were convinced that he literally changes his tune depending on what he thinks that particular audience wants to hear, what do you get when he's elected? What value does he provide? How do you know from one moment to the next what he would do if he won't allow himself to be pinned down on anything?
What tacit agreement does he bring to the equation if nearly every question put to him is deflected? We presume there's something at his core. What is it?
The answer lies in following the trail of wealth. Who benefits the most if he wins and how to do those people convince others to vote for him even if they benefit less, or not at all?
For most American voters, there is an eBay effect. That is - once you commit to bidding on an item in an eBay auction you want to win. The purchase becomes an issue of victory or defeat. This is the brilliance of eBay - an auction takes a purchase and makes it a contest. People will bid over the amount they set as their limit of conceivable benefit because they lose sight of the value of the item they were buying and seek winning as an end to itself. So it may be that once we have suggested a propensity toward a voting preference, that tiny leaning becomes a fierce drive. We want to win, and not because the person we're voting for espouses any of the values we have, or provides us with some value while he is office, but because if the other guy wins, we lose.
We think this even when there is nothing actually lost or won. Just like taking sides in the World Series contest or the Super Bowl or the World Cup. What do you actually get if your team wins? What do you lose when they fail?
I used to be a fan of Ayn Rand and the theory that the engine of human history and progress has always been certain great men/women rather than anthropology. There is some factual back up for her theories. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Alexander the Great. Richard the Lionheart. King David. We could list hundreds. But there is a downside to this.
We see this phenomenon all the time in the form of entertainment stars. We make them heroes. So someone who has distinguished themselves by acting suddenly becomes a worldly leader by virtue of convincingly delivering lines to a screen and looking pretty. Upon being granted that status they become in our eyes an "expert" on all subjects.
I have seen this same phenomenon in the business world. Some company has a great exit, goes public or is sold at a great value to another company, and makes a lot of money for the investors. Suddenly, the investment community clamors for the advice of the leaders of that company irrespective of whether or not skill played any part in the successful exit. For instance, are the guys at Instagram somehow greater entrepreneurial minds than the guys who started Exodus, Excite, or At Home? Certainly the fact they got a billion dollar offer for their company indicates their skill. The other companies I mentioned have vanished from the planet. Surely they were idiots.
Are winners of the California lottery smarter than the millions of losers?
The reason people gravitate toward wanting to believe wealth equals intelligence and correctness is because we all want to be wealthy, and we believe that by agreeing with wealthy people somehow through divine providence, wealth will be bestowed upon us.
And all of this leads to my thesis on global warming and the way the global warming deniers are driving the conversation.
First: Global Warming - or climate change - whatever you want to call it, is fact. It's indisputable. Well, let me take that back. Any human can dispute anything. I'll bet there are people who would dispute gravity given the chance. The question is how successful they are disputing things that are obvious. Many illusionists/entertainers/magicians do their "magic" by using the trait that people will believe literally anything that is said convincingly enough. And then, what is truth? In our society, anyone who says something we wish hadn't been said can be convincingly accused of manufacturing the data behind the statement.
So when climate scientists say: the earth's average temperature is increasing, here's the data, the infantile response that comes from those who wish it weren't true is: "No, it's not."
Temperature exists. The value of the temperature of the earth's atmosphere in certain places is a knowable number. Nobody argues this, even scientists who disagree with each other. That number is measurable. They agree with that, too. Inevitably when those low-level arguments are settled, as they will be, they argue about what the numbers they see actually mean.
After decades of argument atmospheric scientists agree the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere is increasing and has been for at least a hundred years. The only contrary argument that can come up is stated thus: "No, it's not."
There are variations in this average temperature. It does not change smoothly up or down. If you look at the numbers from week to week, or month to month, or even year to year, you can see down trends. People can provide contrary data by looking at sections of the data and saying, "See, here's a downtrend."
Sure, there are downtrends. Sometimes even a whole 10-year period will show decreasing average global temperature.
There are times when the balance on my Visa account is zero and there are times I owe them ten thousand dollars. Overall, I wind up owing them nothing. Just because I may have a balance on my account today does not mean that my credit card balance always trends upward. Those data subsets are part of a larger whole. You must look at the whole dataset to see the trend. If the issue was that between 2003 and 2005 the average temperature of the earth decreased - that would be true. The numbers support that. Then numbers also support that the temperature of the earth in the 2000s was overall higher than it was any time in the 1990s. ANd the 1990's were hotter than the 1980's, and so on.
If you don't want to believe something, even if its considered a fact, you don't have to. But it doesn't change what everyone else can measure when you're not around doubting things. Because as soon as you take your ideas away, everyone else goes on looking at their thermometers and seeing the same thing.
Now the real scientific argument starts. What causes this increase? What will happen as a result? Is this a natural phenomenon or does human activity play a part? If human activity does play a part, could humans cool down the atmosphere? What other things may happen as a result of this atmospheric change?
These are questions to which there are many ideas. But what is solid is that the temperature is rising.
The other solid numbers are that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is increasing and has done so for over 150 years. You can say, "no it's not," but that doesn't change what people all over the world are finding.
You can try to substitute your own reality, but most people who take the measurements seriously aren't going to agree with you. And there's no merit in being the outlier or underdog in this unless you are one of the people who stands to lose money by global warming being a fact.
Now some years ago, right after I met him in Antarctica, I came back and wrote a node on my pal Ted Scambos and his work on atmospheric science in Antarctica. My thesis was then that Ted had all the evidence from ice core studies in the polar regions and satellites that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide was indeed causing a warming trend on the earth. In fact, it was causing the ice to melt at the poles at a rate not seen before in human history.
What Ted was very careful not to do was to suggest a human mechanism to alter this trend. His conviction at the time was that this warming trend was indeed man made, but he wasn't ready to suggest it. He didn't have all the data lined up. A year or two later, he did.
In my node I pointed out the courage it was going to take him to do what he did - which was to link warming with C02, but to not bend to political pressures either to say it was driven by humans or not. Clearly there were going to be ramifications of his taking a side in the argument. I even used some known conservative arguments for his waiting for a solid foundation before coming out with his theory, hoping that I could show a balance in my approach in presenting the topic myself. But for reasons I presume have to do with my lousy writing skills someone came to the conclusion that I was espousing an anti-science, anti-Climate Change, attitude, and saw fit to attempt to rebut an argument I never made. And I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction is exactly the behavior I was suggesting is the cause of the animosity in the debate.
In fact a year or two later Ted did publish that there is indeed a human mechanism driving the CO2 levels, and thus climate change.
What prompts this note from me is that here it is, all these years later, and we are still having to "argue" a subject that should be by now taken as science fact. And why aren't we?
Because there are ramifications to wealth. Because people have taken sides on this issue and they want to win. They have accepted the primary attack argument which is summed up by me thus: "no, it's not."
If it is true that the oceans are rising, then island nations such as Nauru and the Seychelles are in jeopardy of obliteration. And if the cause of the ocean rise is climate change, and if climate change is influenced by human activity, then humans may be expected to alter their behavior to somehow stop these nations from being wiped off the planet. And that will cost someone money.
Have no doubt - people who fear losing their wealth are driving the climate change argument. They are afraid for themselves, and they have managed to drive that fear into sections of the population who would actually not benefit from these guys winning the argument. My implication is that there should be no "argument." There should only be a discussion on solution - or to not bother with a solution if one is not possible.
I think I should be clear on that. Global warming is real. Global warming is changing the climate. This change can have devastating geological affect. A component of that change is driven by human activities. If we can stop driving these devastating effects, we should consider doing that until we can get a handle on what to do about it. Getting a handle on things will require some people to make less money and have less power, and others will have more money and more power.
If we can't do anything about it, we should put our efforts into mitigating the risks.
But what is the objective of the discussion on climate change? Is it to shift the balance of wealth in the country/world? Or is it to stop people from being destroyed.
The pro-climate change people believe their science and want to stop people from being destroyed. Typically they're not the ones with the money and the power, so they tend to not care where the money and power goes.
The anti-climate change people believe the science and want to stop any threat of a drain on their money and power. They believe the most effective attack is to choke off the problem at the source - attack the science itself. And they've enlisted hundreds to help them.
I'll reiterate that people are willing to side with powerful interests for a couple reasons: a) they believe that siding with powerful people will somehow make them powerful too, b) we equate power with being omniscient and correct, and therefore rich wealthy people seem to have the right opinion about nearly everything, and c) if the argument becomes emotional, we simply are willing to spend anything, including our logic (maybe especially our logic) to win the argument and see the other guy "lose".
The argument made against global warming action put out by organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, attacks the scientists. It goes toward the source of the information, and lets face it, if that can be successful, it takes any other issue off the table. Everything is subordinate to the data. Eliminate the data and suddenly the argument against fossil fuels dissipates (except for the issue of energy reliance on foreign oil) , the argument for green power evaporates, the argument for carbon credits and cap and trade goes away.
Why do working people in middle America care about cap and trade? Why do they care about carbon credits?
Because they believe that their lives will be better when the people selling them these theories win. Because they have been led to believe they will lose their livelihoods if the climate change people alter the rules. Because they fear a change in the way things are. Because they're controlled by powerful interests.
And by the way - this is pretty much true about everyone, including me. So I'm pretty scared about the whole issue.
One other thing that really bothers me about the Ayn Rand theory is that somehow everyone has the ability to become the superman who changes the world.
It's an incredibly optimistic viewpoint. I hear this a lot from my Republican friends. Anyone can become president. Anyone can start a company and become a billionaire. If you work hard enough and apply yourself, you can do anything.
Movies are made about this. We all love them - the story of the underdog who perseveres against all odds and wins the football match or succeeds in love or business. As Americans, this is our favorite story, and I have to say that the Republican party is the one that most closest espouses the idea this is true.
By contrast, Democrats are the Eeyores of politics. Disasters are always waiting to happen. Without laws and government programs, nobody would get anywhere in life.
When I heard Obama say about that business guy, "You didn't build that business by yourself," my heart sunk. I knew exactly what he meant by it, but I also knew the Rand-style positivists would take it as an insult and a threat. They wouldn't take it to mean as Obama meant, that we all stand on the shoulders of the people who went before us, and the people who currently maintain the infrastructure that allows us to proceed with focusing on success.
If the entrepreneur didn't have roads to drive his BMW on, he would never get to work. If he didn't have sewers, he'd be pissing into holes he'd have to dig in his backyard. If there were no streetlights, or public schools or electric power lines or bridges over rivers - he would be so focused on trying to stay alive that he wouldn't be able to start his company. That's what Obama meant.
John F. Kennedy once said, "Life is not fair..." I recently read a biography of him, and I fell in love with his quote. Here is a guy that was born into amazing privilege, who worked his way into the presidency sometimes using skill, but other times using mafia-like strong arm tactics, and sometimes doing things that skirted the border line of illegality.
What he meant by "Life is not fair," is that sorry to say, as much as the Rand people would like to believe it, all people aren't created equally. We do not all have an equal chance. The Rand people think that being born into wealth, or with superior DNA, makes you a rare and superior creature and worthy to lead those who are not. Kennedy didn't believe that even though he was born into wealth. (We could argue he had lousy DNA, but that's another topic.)
Obviously some people are born with physically superior DNA for specific purposes. For instance, I doubt anyone reading this blog has the ability to beat Michael Phelps in a swimming match, no matter how much he or she trains for it. For instance, as hard as I trained to be a mountain bike racer, I realized one day after a race that no matter what I did I would never beat someone who had a higher strength to weight ratio than me. And adding muscle weight would slow me down, so it was simply a matter of physics.
Same can be said for mental horsepower. I've met plenty of people smarter than me, and plenty not as smart.
These distinctions are not all alterable by the person involved. No matter how hard I try, I will never be as brilliant a physicist as Richard Feynmann. In fact, I'll never be as good as most graduate students in theoretical physics. It's not a matter of will or effort. It just is.
Ask any competitor who dedicated their lives to their sport yet didn't win a medal in the Olympics. Ask any musician who dedicated their life to their art and never became the soloist they dreamed they'd be.
There is a physics to life that is undeniable. Think of how many great guitarists you've heard that never made it out of their garage. How many engineers do you know that had a fantastic idea that never went anywhere? How many search engines were there before Google? Lots? Were they worse? How come they're not around? Did those guys not work as hard?
I helped start two companies and for three years each I worked 24x7 to be successful. I sacrificed huge chunks of my life to be successful. Each company made fantastic products that were bought by customers. In the end, both companies went out of business.
Was it for lack of trying? Should I have done more? Maybe I shouldn't have slept at all. Did we do less work than Instagram? Were we dumber than the Zynga guys?
But you may discount this and say the human mind is infinitely powerful and if you REALLY put your mind to it, anybody can start a Facebook, win Olympic gold, and anybody can run a four minute mile. If you can't you just didn't focus.
What of being born into or out of economic status? What if you're the son of a family so poor they can't afford health care for you? What if lack of resources made you weak? How many brilliant minds in the Bronx or Appalachia have suffered for lack of food or warmth and never developed because of that hardship? Are you a whiner if you're not getting enough protein in your diet to enable you to hold concentration long enough to read a book?
Should every man be expected to overcome every hardship tossed at him irrespective of the unequal distribution of hardship?
There is a kind of gambling in this world we call "investing." Any investor will tell you that investing involves risk. Managing risk is gambling. We do this every day, by the way. My life insurance policy is a gamble. My home owners policy is gambling. My putting money into my daughter's college education is a gamble. Buying shares in Intel is a gamble.
The issue with gambling is that it involves luck. And the error in the Rand hypothesis is that the idea that intense human focus and will can completely eradicate statistical risk. Heisenberg's principle assures us this will never be possible. In our society, lots of entrepreneurial success is pure luck, plain and simple. Lots of entrepreneurial failure is luck, plain and simple. Sure, if you work hard, you get luckier than if you don't. But plenty of great people are unlucky and visa versa. The problem is that we equate economic success with brilliance and leadership. With being somehow worthy. Like I should be able to change the weather at my house because it is expensive.
Choosing our leadership based on that is like tossing our fate to the winds. (The thing I feel is patently criminal is using the hard earned wealth of the middle class to eradicate the bad-luck bets of the rich so that they basically accept no risk...but that's another discussion.)
Not everyone is born equally. I posit it was easier for a Jack Kennedy to get into politics than me, given his families connections. Mark Zuckerberg's sister has a reality TV show premiering soon. Did she get that break on her own great-woman merits or did her brother have something to do with it?
Fortune and opportunity are not distributed equally in our world. We worship the people who are successful. Who beat the odds. But what about those for whom the odds are too extreme?
We have to face the truth of our lives, which is that there are some people who no matter how hard they try can never lift themselves out of poverty and despair. And in an honorable, moral society we must find a way to care for them. Even if only out of self interest. A country where 47% of the people are hungry and sick is a leper colony. How does that benefit the fortunate 53%?
The attitude which has developed in this area is similar to the global warming attitude. The poor are demonized. They're freeloaders. If only they would work harder they wouldn't need to take anything from me, the taxpayer, to survive. If they were righteous, they'd have money. In a bitter twist of irony these views are held by people who actually are great Americans who believe fully in a person's ability to pull himself from the jaws of defeat to ultimate victory. Perhaps if I stop paying into entitlement programs everyone will win. I will pay less money and have more for myself, and those people whom I suddenly deny services will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make themselves and this country great.
It really is a treacherously optimistic view, and ignores the bald fact that everyone is not equal in this world. But we all have souls. And as such, I think everyone has the right to be saved.