Trolls against Compassion

In watching the Republican Tax Deform bill works its way through the institutional process, I can’t help but see trolling in play.

Online, a “troll” has been determined to be a person that understands human psychology, and uses it to disrupt functioning social systems. They have all the tools necessary for compassionate engagement, but choose to use them to cause fear and pain.

You see this in the tax bill crafted by Ryan and McConnell. After accounting for the additional $1.5 trillion in debt that will accrue to the public during the lifetime of the program, only the rich will benefit from the bill.

Every successful troll claims a beneficial intent, and we see this advancing in the Republican policy program. Ryan and McConnell want to create a fiscal crisis so that they have a remit to cut middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This is a program that has been pursued by the Republican Party since the Reagan era. America’s $20 trillion public debt was amassed due to tax cuts for the rich advanced during eras of Republican control. They created the public debt, and now claim it as the reason to cut benefits established and paid for by the middle class.

To understand why these trolls are not exposed, we have to understand who benefits from their strategy. It is the financial system. Large money-center banks suck at the teat of government debt. They profit every time a government bond is sold and redeemed – and long-term deficits means that those redeemed must be replaced by new. They profit from fiscal irresponsibility in Congress. The same is true of our trade deficit: every time an American buys a Chinese product, dollars must be converted to yuan, which flow overseas and then come back to America as dollars that buy our government debt. Every step in that process makes money for the financial industry.

What should be alarming is that profits enjoyed by the financial industry accrue from the exchange of dollars that does not add value to our economy. The value of the dollars does not change – they simply move from place to place.

Wall Street is effectively a tax on Main Street.

What is painful is to realize how deeply this psychology has migrated downward into our economy. Payday lenders make short-term loans against future earnings, sometimes charging as much as 1/3 of the loan value for bridge financing that lasts only a week. In Kansas, the most successful franchise (raking in billions of dollars in profits) was started by three brothers that claimed Native American sovereignty to get around state regulations that prohibited predatory practices. Eventually, the FBI stepped in to tear down their empire. But as the empire collapsed, the remaining brother took the protected financial data and created a list of fake debt claims that were then sold on to the debt collection industry.

Yes, many debt collectors are no longer paid by claimants. They actually pay for debt listings, and do little to verify the validity of the claims. The Tucker family made millions by selling the fake debt claims to multiple debt collectors. Those debt collectors had mouths to feed and mortgages to pay, and the only way to make good on their investment was to get money out of the people whose private financial information they had acquired. The FBI is now investigating the abusive practices of the collectors working against those false claims.

The abusive behaviors of the financial system, libertarian politicians and online trolls are linked by another factor: their behaviors harm people that they don’t know personally. Safely at a distance, trolls reach out through our communications infrastructure to wreak havoc in the lives of their victims. The don’t have to confront the mounting desperation of individuals and communities ground down by their hunger for money or power. They simply acquire wealth that they use to finance the careers of politicians that oppose regulation of their industry.

This is what makes men like Paul Ryan so pitiful. They believe that they must be doing something good because people tell them that they are taking on a problem that poses an existential threat to our country: the federal debt. But the people that applaud his determination are those that engineered the creation of that debt, and that benefit most from its existence. The true motivations for their investment in politicians such as Ryan is to ensure that their wealth is protected when the system collapses.

Trembling underneath this juggernaut of debt, there are those in American commerce that still believe in producing goods for consumption, and that compete to create value for their customers.  Working in the automation industry, I am conscious that the work that I do displaces workers, creating distress from a distance much as does the financial industry. But being involved with the creation of goods and services, I do feel the pulse of that part of the economy.

The mantra that is evolving is hopeful. On the surface, that is hard to see: robots are displacing blue-collar workers, and artificial intelligence is threatening knowledge workers. What remains for people to do, then, is to ensure that customers are happy and successful, building a base for repeat business.

In other words, while the masters of the universe troll society, on the ground people are focused on learning to care for each other.

Jobs Jobbing

Steven Bannon is spinning his political agenda as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” His candidate, Donald Trump, is pushing three methods for creating jobs. The first is tax cuts for the wealthy and business, a replay of the failed “trickle down” economics first foisted upon us by Reagan. The second is to protect American jobs from foreigners by restructuring our trade relationships and deportation of illegal immigrants. Finally, we have infrastructure spending, long a Democratic priority frustrated by the Republican Party’s “no new taxes” policy that has locked the federal gas tax at $0.28 per gallon.

None of these proposals make much sense over the long term. Since Reagan, top-down stimulus policies have resulted in the largest income disparity in the nation’s history, with manufacturing jobs replaced by retail work. Overseas workers are themselves being displaced by automation, with electronics manufacturer Foxconn in China laying off 60,000 workers this year after installing robots, and illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t. Finally, infrastructure spending is not a permanent solution to unemployment – it will only make a significant dent now because the situation has been allowed to become so dire, with so many bridges, roads and dams in danger of collapse.

The future of employment was cast in a new light for me by a recent OECD study on computer use. In an assessment of users in advanced economies, the study revealed that only one-third of users could do more than fill out forms. This was also typical of most manufacturing jobs. As variability in sources of supply were reduced, it was less and less that the skills of the craftsman were required. Workers were trained to perform procedures.

Unfortunately, artificial intelligence and automation is assuming most of those tasks. Cortana will fill out our order forms for us. The Army is testing robot chefs that learn to cook watching videos on YouTube. In the near future, self-driving trucks will begin to erode the last great mainstay of blue-collar work, throwing 5 million drivers out of work.

From my experience as a fab tech in college, I know that it wasn’t the work that made such jobs enjoyable. People whose minds aren’t engaged by their work invest that energy in politics – whether innocent socialization or profiteering. During a year spent routing, sanding and soldering, my peers would disrupt each others concentration by squirting isopropyl alcohol on unsuspecting bums. And while I was building book cases using a wood working shop owned by one of the technicians, he took me out to a party run by a packer who had built a cinder block building behind his house stocked with goods that had “accidentally” fallen off of the forklift. I came away with stain and varnish.

While both examples sound abusive, they demonstrate an aspect of work that no machine will ever be able to replicate: building trust that allows us to have fun. Studies of laughter among apes shows that it serves primarily to indicate that aggressive behavior is regulated by empathy. Scratching, biting and hitting doesn’t progress, except accidentally, to actual injury.

One interpretation of our 24×7 political system is that this activity is being elevated as work in its own right. It is currently financed principally by mining out of the wealth held in the middle class commons. On the one hand, financial services companies no longer take a percentage of portfolio gains, they reap a service charge on each transaction, regardless of gain to the investor. Churning of retirement funds transfers wealth to the financial elite. That elite then finances the careers of politicians that vote for deregulation and lower taxes. The middle class, sensing incipient doom, then commits from its remaining wealth to fund the campaigns of revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

This impulse toward social cohesion is not always driven by desperation. Regional currency systems ensure that neighbors buy from each other, conserving wealth in a form that the money-center financiers can’t access. Sustainable multi-crop farming requires ten times as many workers as monoculture. With the spread of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the inefficiencies and environmental degradations of family farming can be overcome, and communities rebuilt around the social cohesion that historically characterized agricultural societies.

My friend Sister Gloria celebrates her resuscitation of plants that appear to be dead in their pots. She simply applies her will to their survival. The biological capacity to heal through spiritual investment is explored in more depth in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s beautiful treatise, The Lost Language of Plants (reviewed here and here). This is the skill exercised by our nurses, and expressed as nurturing by teachers. It is a skill that our captains of finance and industry, so focused on exploiting resources to capture wealth, have been hostile to for thousands of years.

It is faith in this capacity that I believe will restore our broken political and economic systems. This capacity of intuition, that guides living things into a mutually supportive future free of fear, will be supplemented and supported by information systems that analyze information and prescribe treatments. Those decisions, however, are meaningless without the fundamental benefit of nurturance: the transmission of the spark of joy that fortifies our desire to survive.

As was the industrial age, this economic transformation will be frightening to those that cannot perceive its virtues. We are seeing such a fundamental shift. I doubt that Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon understand its nature, for they attained power by trumpeting doom. What they fail to understand is that in the new era, it is exactly those social and emotional skills that cemented the cohesion of industrial teams that will be of most value. The information age will unleash the nurturing potential that was held captive by the industrial age, ushering in an age of healing and sustainability.