Monday, January 07, 2019

The Gardens of Democracy

"The Gardens of Democracy", is a short 2011 book by Eric Liu (@ericpliu) and Nick Hanauer (@NickHanauer), 194 pages. It is a quick and easy read - I finished it in 2 days. It has a little preface and 6 chapters. Note, this book is more politics than economics, but, the 2 are so intertwined, and it does touch on economic topics such as inequality, so I will add it to my "summary of economics reading".

I was going to include the preface in whole - it is 8 simple statements, 12 sentences. But the last statement included a biblical reference as "it is said" - i.e., common knowledge??? - which I found off-putting, so, no inclusion.

The basic, simple idea of the book is a paradigm shift - from "machinebrain" to "gardenbrain" (an unfortunate choice of terms IMO) - from deterministic, machine-like descriptions of society and economics to the organic view of a gardener. Gardeners being biologists at some level, of course evolution is involved, and ecosystems.

Gardening paradigms have been well-loved in this blog, since the 1st economics book I reviewed/summarized, back in 2012: "How Much Is Enough?" Basic Good #5 of 7 is "Harmony With Nature", and their best example of harmony with nature is a garden. So, yes, and again yes, to gardening as a paradigm for managing our world.


Chapter 1 is titled "Seeds - Gardenbrain vs. Machinebrain". It begins:

AMERICA IS AN EXPERIMENT. It is an experiment in democracy, still the greatest the world has ever seen. But it is also, like every nation, human community, or living organism, an experiment in evolution.
I think I have also seen lately, an experiment in democracy and capitalism.

This insightful paragraph reminded me of something that has been sticking in my craw lately but on which I have not yet managed to comment.

On the right, we hear ideas even more historically irrelevant: laissez-faire economics and a “don’t tread on me” idea of citizenship that might have been tolerable in 1775 when the country had 3 million largely agrarian inhabitants, only some of whom could vote, but is at best naïve and at worst destructive in a diverse, interdependent, largely urban nation of over 300 million.
[So, seriously, originalism? What complete and utter horseshit! At the time of the Founding Fathers, there were very few corporations, and certainly none with the resources of states as there are now. There were no oligarchs - and it seems to me like Jefferson et al. didn't particularly worry about them. My feeling is that they thought that oligarchy was so completely opposed to their values that "it could never happen here".

So, originalists, please, think it through. Think what Jefferson et al. would really want us to be doing today: fighting corporatism, oligarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy, I'm sure.]

Here is the transition to the next chapter:

In our first book, The True Patriot, we argued that putting self above community and country was morally wrong. In this book, we argue that it is stupid. We aim to show that in theory and in practice, self-seeking is now a counterproductive instinct and that we need a bigger idea of what freedom means in order for our country to remain great.


Chapter 2 is titled "Self-Interest - True Self-Interest Is Mutual Interest". I like their declaration of a 2nd Enlightenment in the 21st century:

Today, most of the public is unaware that we are in the midst of a moment of new understanding. In recent decades, a revolution has taken place in our scientific and mathematical understanding of the systemic nature of the world we inhabit.
  • We used to understand the world as stable and predictable, and now we see that it is unstable and inherently impossible to predict.
  • We used to assume that what you do in one place has little or no effect on what happens in another place, but now we understand that small differences in initial choices can cascade into huge variations in ultimate consequences.
  • We used to assume that people are primarily rational, and now we see that they are primarily emotional.
The rest of the chapter enumerates the old vs. the 21st century paradigms:
Simple → Complex
Atomistic → Networked
Equilibrium → Disequilibrium
Linear → Non-linear
Mechanistic → Behavioral
Efficient → Effective
Predictive → Adaptive
Independent → Interdependent
Individual ability → Group diversity
Rational calculator → Irrational approximators
Selfish → Strongly reciprocal
Win-lose → Win-win or lose-lose
Competition → Cooperation
Ha ha, the "Rational calculator" above is our old friend "Homo Economicus", getting slapped around yet again.


Chapter 3 is titled "Great Citizenship - Society Becomes How You Behave". This chapter and the following 2 define the 3 domains to which the authors will apply their paradigm shift. Their 3 domains are the citizen, markets, and government. This reminded me of Doughnut Economics' 4 "realms of provisioning — household, commons, market and state" - but the household is a bit different in concept from the citizen, and there is no mention of the commons. I think if Liu and Hanauer did a revision on this book, they would incorporate the commons.

I think we have seen before the basic concept of this chapter - that somehow, we have gone from being being citizens to being consumers - a much more passive and less powerful role.

National measures of civic health—from volunteering to neighborliness to social connectedness—have all declined substantially since the 1970s.

All around us, in less measurable ways, there has been a slow and quiet seepage of trust and responsibility.

More ammunition against Homo Economicus and Libertarianism:
More than that, citizenship is a rejection of what Francis Fukuyama has labeled “the Hobbesian fallacy,” the ahistorical notion that humans began as individuals and only later rationally calculated that it made sense to band together in society. In fact, humans have been social from very the start; individualism is a creation of recent centuries.
The authors raise a great point, again supported by findings of evolutionary biology: that humans are copycats, such that social behavior, for good or ill, is contagious. We 1st ran into "humans as imitators" with Susan Blackmore back in 2003.

The authors propose 5 - oops, make that 6 - rules "for pro-social citizenship":

  1. Small acts of leadership compound. Every little thing helps.
  2. Infect the supercarriers. Attempting to positively influence bigger groups is good too.
  3. Bridge more than bond. Stretch yourself, seek contacts outside your tribe.
  4. Create Dunbar units. We ran across Dunbar units in the review/summary of "Abundance" - ~150 people, the "suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person". I'm not sure I get this one. I don't think I've ever been a part of a 150 person group. I'm usually part of several 20-40 member loose associations.
  5. Make courtesy count. This is 1 I totally agree with. It takes so little to perform minor acts of kindness - plus putting a little good karma in your account surely never hurts.
    I would also here include an admonition to "smile". I try to remember to smile when I'm out in public. Most people smile back, and, the way neurons work, happiness makes you smile => smiling makes you happy. So easy to spread a little happiness.
  6. Trust in trust. Trust is foremost among the social virtues that make healthy societies.
The authors dismiss concerns over 2 possible downsides to their proposals: groupthink, which they call "hivemind", and "majoritarian bullying". I agree that fearing either of these is pretty nonsensical. The authors of "Radical Markets" also seemed to be concerned with majority tyranny. To me, this is textbook Libertarian bullshit. Corporatism, oligarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy are far greater concerns.

The authors emphasize that "society becomes how you behave". Studies of dynamic systems, like traffic, show that if everyone backs off a bit, everyone does better. So, take that, hyper-Darwinism!


Chapter 4 is titled "True Capitalism - We’re All Better Off When We’re All Better Off". Ha ha, the subtitle of this chapter is such an interesting tautology. It reminds me of the Orwell quote that I have referenced several times recently:

Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.
This book was written just after the Great Recession of 2008, when "giant financial institutions were obliterated, the net worth of most Americans collapsed, and most of the world’s economies were brought to their knees". The authors conclude that markets in their current "machinebrain" form are not to be trusted. I've put their sections contrasting current markets with "gardenbrain" markets into a handy table.

Machine viewGarden view
1Markets are efficient, thus sancrosanct Markets are effective, if well tended
2Regulation destroys markets Markets need fertilizing or weeding, or else are destroyed
3Income inequality reflects unequal effort and ability Inequality is what markets naturally create and compound, and requires correction
4Wealth is created through competition and by the pursuit of narrow self-interestWealth is created through trust and cooperation
5Wealth = individuals accumulating money Wealth = society creating solutions

[Ha, ha, row 4 is a succinct explanation for why our current president, Agent Orange, has been such a spectacularly unsuccessful businessman - 0 trust, 0 cooperation, instead a "rape and pillage" model for how to treat one's business associates.]

The authors dig in on our inequality problem. They of course trace it back to 1980, St. Reagan, and trickle-down economics.

Concentration of wealth makes the entire society sick, and America is Exhibit A of this phenomenon.
This is a telling statistic:
If the income distribution for all Americans had remained constant since 1980, the average American family would be earning $64,395, which is $12,295 and 24 percent more than they do today. [2011]
They call out right-wing hypocrisy in supposedly opposing "redistribution" - we have radical redistribution now, but from the poor to the rich.
But of course, this agenda—as exemplified by the Reagan rewrite of the tax code and the Bush perpetuation of it—is itself government-mandated redistribution of wealth: to the already wealthy. The “state of nature” does not dictate preferential treatment of capital over work, or regressivity of taxation, or the tax-free inheritance of unearned wealth and power: these are all consequences of man-made rules. The question, then, is not whether redistribution but in which direction.
They astutely point out that when money is spent, it is not destroyed, it is merely circulated - and can be spent over and over again. Money is the lifeblood of the economy, and blood must circulate, or you get gangrene.

The authors propose replacing trickle-down economics with "middle-out economics". They define 5 "core principles that undergird middle-out economics":

  1. Grow from the middle out. ...
  2. Maximize the number of able, diverse competitors. ...
  3. Break up opportunity monopolies. They mention in passing financialization, which we learned about in Paul Mason's "Postcapitalism", of our economy.
    The richest 5 percent of Americans get more than half of all the benefits of the exemptions and deductions in the tax code. We must realign our asset and tax-expenditure policy so that loopholes and tax benefits work to benefit the not-rich rather than further fatten the already rich. It is why we need to invest the revenues from these first two steps into research and development and incentives for the formation of businesses that create jobs in America—not for the illusory products of our metastasizing financial sector. [my bold]
  4. Promote true competition. ...
    The ideology of “free enterprise,” as preached by anti-tax and anti-regulation activists, is used to prevent change to the current arrangement of economic power: don’t regulate my company, don’t touch my money, don’t let more people in on the game I’ve rigged. Socialize losses, privatize profits. It’s about defending capitalists; not capitalism.
  5. Harness market forces to national goals.
This is such a common-sensical analysis of the state of affairs, restating the tautology of this chapter:
Limited-government advocates say they don’t trust the government to spend your money. We say why trust the super-rich to spend your money? We say why not trust the people of the middle class to spend their own money? Like the trickle-down economics crew, we believe there is a goose that lays a golden egg in our economy. They think the goose is the top 1 percent. We think it’s the broad middle class. They think we’re all better off when the rich are better off. We think we’re all better off when we are all better off.
Again, this seems to be such common sense - but it was also common sense back in 1932.

This chapter ends with an excellent extended garden metaphor.

When seed is spread unevenly, the garden yields less fruit. When it’s spread more evenly, it yields more fruit. And this in turn yields more seed for the next season, which enables the evenly spread plot to yield still more fruit. In societies that have true prosperity, the rich don’t get richer; everyone gets richer.


Chapter 5 is titled "Self-Government - Big What, Small How". Setting the stage for this chapter:

The current dissatisfaction with government is not a mere perception or marketing problem, as too many on the left still believe. It is a product problem. Government has for too many people become unresponsive, dehumanizing, and inefficient. And it has not successfully met the most serious challenges of our time. Only when we improve government itself will our satisfaction with it improve. Unfortunately, the American discourse on government has long been frozen in two dimensions: more vs. less government, big vs. small. We argue for an orthogonal approach: more government when it comes to setting great goals and investing to achieve them; less government when it comes to how we collectively meet those goals.
This is the argument in this book which is new to me.

Limited government, as promoted by conservatives, is described as "small what, small how". The authors find this approach to have failed theoretically, empirically, and politically. The authors get lots of points for slapping around Libertarianism, which they describe as "no what, no how". The biological analogy of the "plants-and-animals falacy" is instructive.

Libertarianism is Machinebrain thinking at its worst. It rests on a linear understanding of social and economic systems and on the falsehood that humans are reliably and inherently rational, calculating, and selfish.

...

This is why any societies that are truly libertarian are in various states of civil war, and why the most cooperative societies with activist governments are the only prosperous, stable, and secure societies on earth.

...

The libertarian thesis of limited government depends, again, on a 19th-century notion that an economy or a society is a closed system, like a gas-powered car engine. If you take away gas, the car will go more slowly or less far. The system has decreasing returns. There is a zero-sum relationship between its elements. ...

In fact, our economy isn’t closed. It is open. The feedback loops aren’t negative. They are positive. The elements of the system are not in zero-sum relationship to one another. They are in symbiosis.

Zero-sum economic reasoning suffers from what we call the plants-and-animals fallacy. In nature, it would be folly to assert that the way to create more animals would be to limit plants. Plants nourish animals, which spread the seed and increase the number of plants that can now sustain a greater number of animals. Ecologically, more of one thing doesn’t mean less of another; in fact, it almost always means more. Relationships are not zero-sum; they are positive-sum. If you want more animals, you need more plants.

Limiting government to increase business makes no more sense than limiting plants to increase animals. Robust private enterprise requires robust state involvement and investment.

Big government, as promoted by the left, is described as "big what, big how". The authors state that it fails due to "sclerosis", "impracticality", and "crowding out citizens".

Here is their table of "Theories of Government".

LeftRightNew
Big governmentNo/limited government Self-government
Services & programsDo-it-yourself Tools
MomDad Coach
MandatesSilenceGoals
RulesNo rules Incentives
CentralizedDecentralized Polycentric
Big what / big howSmall what / small how Big what / small how

The authors provide the "elements of a big what":

  • To set strategic goals for the community, whether it’s a nation, state, or city, and to do so with an implicit moral opinion that some outcomes are preferable to others. ...
  • To equip every citizen with the greatest possible capacity—and equal opportunity—to join in the pursuit of those goals. ... It means spending some of the common wealth—generated by taxes—to improve education and health and to ensure that the disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest never grow so wide that it undermines social mobility.
  • To generate trust and to encourage cooperation. ...
  • To sustain true competition and break up concentrations of wealth and power that are unearned and self-perpetuating. In a non-linear, critical-complexity world like ours, advantage and disadvantage compound rapidly. Inequities of opportunity become self-reinforcing.

    This last point I feel cannot be understated. If we were on a completely level playing field, then maybe you could consider the pipe dream that is Libertarianism. But one of the key features of capital is that it accumulates, and after over 2 centuries of capitalism, there are such massive accumulations of capital that our "level playing field" resembles the Himalayan mountains.

Next we get the "elements of an effective "small now"":
  • Radically re-localize. ...
  • Be the citizen’s hardware store. ... This is a vision that the technology guru Tim O’Reilly has described simply: “government as a platform.”
  • Be a smarter prime contractor. ...
  • Create and amplify positive feedback loops. ...
  • Offer pounds and pounds of prevention. ...
  • Design more nudges. Exploit the cognitive biases present in humans, as we learned about in Richard Thaler's "Misbehaving".
  • Tax more strategically—and progressively. ...
  • Create incentives and rewards for over-performance. ...
  • Weed relentlessly.
I guess there are some concrete proposals in the sections for each of these list items, but nothing jumped out at me as low-hanging fruit.

The authors next point out the 0th problem - that our democracy has become markedly undemocratic. They propose the common sense reforms one would expect:

  • Reform redistricting. We do just recently seem to be making a little progress against gerrymandering.
  • Restrict money in politics. They reference the Citizen's United disaster.
  • Stop the revolving door. Ha ha, I think that Agent Orange's cabinet consists almost exclusively of former lobbyists.
  • Reform the filibuster. Didn't the traitor Mitch McConnell, the master of nation-be-damned expediency, decide to sacrifice the filibuster to some short term goal a year or so ago?
  • Reinvigorate voting. Voting in the United States should be mandatory, so that representation of the people is a reality and not a fiction. Australia has mandatory voting.
One thing that I have gotten completely tired of writing: all this can be done, and we can move forward instead of backwards, if YOUNG PEOPLE START VOTING! Finally, the 2018 mid-terms were somewhat encouraging. Young, savvy leaders like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez seem to be getting the yung'uns fired up. Finally!


Chapter 6 is titled "Harvest - We Reap What We Sow". Here are some of the exhortations from this brief, final chapter.

We have been depicting, in short, a grown-up version of freedom. What does freedom mean? Only children and other immature people truly believe that it means only “I get to do whatever I want.” Only the immature believe that a slogan like “Don’t tread on me” makes any restriction tyrannical.

...

But the reality of the Revolution and of the intellectual, moral, and political atmosphere that yielded it is that our nation’s founders were formed by a philosophy of freedom as mutual obligation—of rights as duties.

...

Freedom is just another word for we’re all in it together. If it is to mean anything, freedom must mean responsibility. In the end, freedom is responsibility.

...

We are all second generation Americans. Great seeds have been sown for us. Let us now tend, with wisdom and humility, the gardens of our democracy.


So, overall, up until their new concept of government, not a lot of ideas we have not heard before. But, conceptually, a paradigm shift from machine to garden is most excellent, IMO. I am behind any paradigm that references gardens and/or gardening.

1 thing I did find annoying. They reference the Tea Party 3 times, as opponents of big, overreaching government who "want to reclaim ownership of government and regain the attention of our elected leaders". There is no mention of the fact that the main thing that actually enabled the foundation of the Tea Party was the racist backlash against the election of the 1st black president.

Here's my garden last May: tomatoes, zucchini and yellow squash, brussels sprouts, broccolini, leaf lettuce, kale, snow peas, cabbage, and green, red, and jalapeño peppers. Plus, in the background, a tomatillo bush that my wife planted, which produced tomatillos out the wazoo.