The One Piece analogy

Caveat: There are many arguments and points raised about the whole situation in Syria. One such point is the argument that the U.S were supplying chemical weapons to Iraq back in the day, and now are parading around as the global justice police force. To that I say: different President, therefore different leadership. The U.S. political system allows for each government to be radically different from any previous government, granted that they possess the majority of the House of Representatives and Congress. Obama was not the one supplying the weapons, so he must be judged according to his own leadership and decisions and not having to apologize or make amends for the H.W. Bush and Reagan presidency, or any other presidency for that matter.

The news these days are all about Syria, especially since the U.S, through the statements of both the President and the Secretary of State, have been very vocal urging through rhetoric and diplomacy that “something needs to be done”. Several allies of the U.S and members of NATO have begun discussing possible courses of action about Syria and whether or not, in essence, they will go to war. One such nation is the U.K., which announced, after a vote in the House of Commons, that the U.K. would not be involved in the conflict in Syria. Most have applauded this decision, and, not surprisingly, some have labelled them cowards. It is a standard reaction to such situations, where immediate response is mandated by most. But, we must examine the issue more if we are to judge the UK’s decision and consider the issue of foreign involvement in a more general manner[1].

Obviously the use of chemical weapons on civilians is a crime of the highest degree and not something that should be taken lightly. But even so, it hardly provides us with an obvious decision about what is the most appropriate political and humanistic course of action. If any major superpower, guided by “justice”, attacked war-torn nations on the principle that attacking civilians mandates their interjection, then Syria does not necessarily qualify as top priority, as it is not that different from most African war-torn nations in terms of violation of human rights.

Now, lately I’ve been watching an old cartoon from Japan, which is too ridiculous to explain here, but it offers a great analogy I wish to offer here for the consideration of the reader. The cartoon takes place in a world similar to our own but it lacks a mainland and, apparently, the world is composed of many islands scattered across a vast ocean. Most of the inhabitants of this world are either seamen or villagers living really close to the sea. In the story, two characters, one a pirate captain, the other a young cabin boy, get stranded on a small rocky island with no food and spend forty days starving, waiting for a ship to appear on the horizon. On the day of their rescue, after having suffered immensely, they resolve to open a “floating restaurant”, a ship that is neither pirate, nor trade ship. They promise themselves that they will roam the seas and serve food to anyone who is hungry, regardless of the customer’s affiliation, be he a pirate, a soldier or a civilian. And so they do. They become famous for the food and for remaining neutral their only rule being “no fighting on the premises or you will be kicked out”.

This translates into the situation in Syria as follows. What we are to take from the example of the two pirates being stranded is their decision to do two things: remain absolutely neutral and provide for all those in need. In their case is to cook and provide food to the other hungry seamen, in the case of the major global forces it is by providing humanitarian help[2]. The main difference is that you do not engage in the conflict, rather you are open to provide a safe haven. The cooks didn’t roam the sea looking for hungry sailors, they were open for whoever wanted to come to them and get fed.

Now, Syria is chocked under the tragedy that is civil war. Thousands upon thousands have lost their homes, their lives, have suffered injuries, and etc. Instead of trying to break apart the conflict by interjecting, a possible solution would be for the major forces to provide escape plans for the Syrians and other people living in the area, to be transported elsewhere, away from the conflict. After all, there is a big portion of the people in the area who wish for an end to all this and just go about their lives without causing any trouble to anyone. By simply extending a helping hand to those who need it, the major forces will be capable of completing their mission of humanitarian aid and security, because after all, they are concerned about the people, right?[3]

Perhaps the fact that such a move by any major power has not been seen in the past is testament to the idea that it is all about geopolitics and not ethics. Of course, saying is like me saying that my idea is awesome and people are dumb not to have found it revolutionary. I know it sounds like that but I really don’t mean it that way. I merely wish to say that I don’t think its such a complicated idea and so one that could actually have been implemented in the history of warfare till today. I see it as another expression of globalization at its full extent, that is, the “global village” as Marshal McLuhan described it.

It is by no means perfect, as people might have to evacuate and this is not as easy or simple as it sounds, even in cases such as this one. Regardless if something needs to be done, and something does due to gravity of the situation, the best approach for my money, is neutrality and aid. It is easy for a government of a major superpower reach out to the citizens of a country that wish to leave. The only country that actively blocks its citizens from leaving (as far as I know) is North Korea. Syria is not like that. If Assad was to go that far, then any doubt about his malicious means of maintaining power is extinguished, and he will be forever guilty in the eyes of the world.

The problems of course are numerous, just the mere fact that the population size of Syria is around 25.5 million should be enough of a number to size up the problem, so a more direct approach seems to be mandated. But it does not mean that the urgency shown by several governments and the arguments used by them are appropriate. Again, saying that it is the “mechanistically appropriate thing to do” can only backfire when other humanitarian crises are presented. Most of which we already know.

Again, there is no right answer. Only wrong answers, and I believe we are going for the wrong one if any sort of invasion in Syria takes place.

[1] I insist on a general manner since the specifics of this conflict, like most conflicts in history, remain largely unknown to the civilian populace. Only the ones in key positions are capable of actually finding out all the necessary factors that will lead to sound and valid decision. The case of whether or not these key people actually try to assemble all the pieces of the puzzle before acting is a completely different issue.

[2] Some of course say that the help that should be provided should be nothing less than military help. However, if we are to remain neutral as I will explain, we are to steer clear of military intervention. Siding with anybody defeats neutrality.

[3] Most probably “wrong”

Economist piece

This a piece I wrote for the Economist, which was attached to my application for a position I applied to. Needless to say I didnt get the job but I do like this little effort, so I decided to re-post it here.

“Greek Entrepreneurship – Stagnation or Apathy?”

Ever since the financial crisis hit Greece at full capacity the country has witnessed a massive brain drain, probably bigger than the one suffered during the post-war Greek diaspora if we are to consider both numbers and the education of the citizens abandoning the country for better opportunities elsewhere.

This phenomenon is part of the vicious cycle of the lack of entrepreneurship and of opportunity, of new markets, in the Greek area. This lack is to blame for the brain drain, because of the few jobs available, and in turn the lack of human resources only cements the problematic conditions. But unfortunately for Greeks the situation is far more complex.

The lack of new markets, new businesses, and slim evidence of entrepreneurship in general, make it very hard for one to start a business in Greece. Confusing and often contradictory legislation, confounding red-tape, and the creation and sustaining of an unfriendly environment to businesses, especially due to the government’s actions through their mixed messages to the private sector, all pile up to make things even tougher for people, condemning consumers and producers alike. The Greek Left has decided that the issue of helping entrepreneurship, of creating a new market, of re-focusing the country as an economic entity, which is something we’ve seen happen several times in countries facing dire economic situations, is secondary to the issue of safeguarding the public sector. At the same time most Greeks will point out to the public sector, it’s corruption and it’s inefficiency as responsible for a big chunk of the blame for the situation in Greece. A sentiment that is in no way unrealistic, considering that for a new business to be created it has to go through the process of dealing with the necessary public services.

Trying to assist things as much as possible is a group of private investors that wish to help out by promoting entrepreneurship in Greece, fighting to keep the youth from leaving and offer them the means to start up their companies. Athens recently has had a considerable number of such initiatives take place and the response by the unemployed youth has been enthusiastic. But is it enough? After all, how can they thrive in such an environment?

Some political parties try to push for progress in the form of parliamentary debates but they rarely walk the talk since nobody wants to face the problems head on. So far the ‘easy’ (read least provocative) way out has been taken time and again. Taxes are still on the rise and liquidity is drained out.  Again the private sector shoulders the weight. The parties that tried to push for market stability and further alterations on tax legislation, arguing that at least this way people can manage their finances, were edged out by the government and ignored by the media. The parties that did manage to enter parliament continue the Greek tradition of being pro-socialist in a very weird sense, and only provide words of feeble encouragement to the private sector. Some of those parties believe that the problem lies with the lack of foreign investment, but only claim so whilst being at the same time in complete ignorance of the conditions they’ve helped create that makes dealing with Greece and Greek businesses a toxic hazard investors are more than happy to keep away from.

If the government insists on waiting for some all-solving magic wand and doesn’t face up to what is eating away at the foundations of the country’s economy, they will keep on digging themselves in a deeper and deeper hole.

Sandel’s lesson

I must have seen prof. Michael Sandel‘s first lecture titled “Justice: What is the right thing to do” on Youtube several times since it came out. I never got around to watching the rest of the series for some reason but for regardless of my own lack of discipline I urge the reader to have a look at the series. It would certainly help with understanding today’s post by providing some form of context for what I am about to say!

There are two reasons why I enjoy watching it. First of all there is the academic benefit of the lecture, which aims to teach the students about the various ethical systems, introduce them to the people who devised those theories, and get them more acquainted with Ethics as a discipline and not a term. The lecture’s format I have to admit is not a format that I am used to myself, having a different kind of experience from my professors; but that’s not to say that I find any fault with it, just stating the fact that I’m not used to it. Secondly there is the philosophical value of the lecture, which aims to broadening the individual’s thinking through the use of what I call “impossible questions“.

When prof. Sandel asks the students what they would choose in a moral dilemma  between two impossible choices (killing one to save five, etc), he is not expecting someone to come up with the right answer. That is not the aim, even if at some point he  does ask a question which might indeed have a right answer. The aim here is to think. It is to take in the context and consider. Debate, back and forth, and get a full grasp of the situation and slowly deal with the issue as best as one can!

The best way to do philosophy, I feel, is the “lets argue about it” approach. I contrast this with the “let me tell you what. No! let ME tell you what” approach that we are all familiar with, from our own philosophical worries that we discuss with friends, down to pub arguments about the best football team. First one needs to understand the difference between the two approaches. One is collaborative and “preachy” the other is not. Of course both have time and place, but when doing philosophy, it is very rare that one can claim superiority. This can only happen when one possesses a better understanding of the context and situation at hand and offers his perspective as a means to “enlighten” those who have missed something. It is to that end that those trained in philosophy try to reach.

The problem then is how to get people to reach that end. And that’s where the impossible questions come in. Asking something which is unanswerable, but at the same time everyone has got an opinion about it, gets people talking and debating. This is just the beginning. The method still needs refinement. Slowly with time people start to realize the depth of the problem and will hopefully realize that there is no right answer. Most people when they get to this realization, will use it to argue against the point of doing philosophy. “Nothing comes out of it” they usually say, “unlike the hard-sciences”, they might add. That is true, never believe a philosopher who has the “right” answer. The reason why this whole thing is worth it is only because there is a better answer! That is our aim, when dealing with impossible questions at least. We train ourselves into discovering what is better, compare to other alternatives, why is this better than that? Argue on the premises, debate them, and try to find an appropriate perspective. Think on it. Do philosophy!

When the situation is such that there actually is a right answer, we are now well-equipped to find it. Dealing with impossible questions allows the mind to go berserk with thought, and tries to get rid of the box altogether. As a friend of mine says “forget about the box, just think”. You acquire skills, you change your thinking pattern by being open. Then you take those newly acquired skills and apply them to other new, real-life scenarios.

That is the real lesson behind the lectures I feel. As I said, I haven’t watched the whole series yet but I highly doubt that prof. Sandel will in the end provide the “correct theory of Justice” to his students! This a big lesson for a lot of people. Those who do philosophy and those who wish to know what philosophy actually is. My own personal interest lies in meta-philosophy, so I love dealing with issues such as these. I am trying to do away with the image of the philosopher who smokes cigarettes in a Paris bistro and tries to discern what the color red is, stroking his beard, and using big words to show off his intellect (as if vocabulary is any sort of proof of intellect). Philosophy is far simpler and more complex at the same time. But regardless of that, let me at least try to answer you the question of “what philosophy is”.

The best ideal

I have this feeling that I’m running out of steam these days and for that reason I think I’ll attempt to tackle a very risky and difficult topic this time just to get the juices flowing. I could easily have gone for another topic, since so much has taken place both here in Greece and around the world, but regardless of the fact that they could all serve as a great source for material I don’t think I can actually contribute right now in any meaningful way, and especially not from over here. So, since I am bound to fail today lets crash and burn instead with the following topic.

Today’s topic once again stems from a discussion I had with a friend of mine when we were talking politics and we were trying to figure out, for fun, which political system would work best in its ideal form. In short, which would be preferable if it existed in the form its creator(s) had in mind? Ideal communism, ideal monarchy, ideal democracy, ideal anarchy, etc? Most people, and especially the people at the same table as me and my friend, were unable to follow our conversation since they all had the same complaint, that is, that all forms of government in their ideal form are perfect by definition so there can be no disagreement on which is actually preferable since any of them would do the job. This is true, but only partly so. It is true that they would all do the job; but the job implied is only social governance. There is indeed some form of order imposed upon society in all the above mentioned forms of governance and they, in some form, can indeed function. But is that all one wants from society, some established rule of governance?

The point me and my friend raised together is that most political systems never seem to account for the nature of man itself and how he behaves and lives. So not matter how much one tries, you will always get some degree of imposed governance, some unavoidable oppression of certain members of society, or people in direct affect with that society. (A good example of such a group are the slaves during the Ancient Greek democracy of Athens). What we need to answer then about each form of governance is which system actually considers the most relevant factors directly related with society. Which system tried to take int account all the relevant factors and process them into a working, applicable, theory of governance?

Immediately we were able to reject perfect communism, as described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The reason behind that being that these two when composing their thesis (which regardless what history will make of it, it remains a massive  and very important effort of sociological and economic analysis) they understood society as groups of people, as social strata, essentially removing the individual from the picture and treating society as masses. The individual is not treated as an individual, rather they claim that his social position and societal role is something which cannot be removed from his immediate identity and continue on to work on their ideas on that premise. Communism is indeed solid as a system of organisation and social governance but it is not complete. It is not robust, as it has left out the individual as an entity and, after all, a society is comprised of individuals.

Monarchy’s problem is similar to that of communism, but only so in effect, not in root. What this means is that during a monarchy, where a very strict system of governance is established and the gap in power is as big as it could be, both legally and actually, renders the vast majority of people devoid of any personal freedom or room for personal growth. The problem here is more direct and its consequences seen immediately in the general psychology of the populace. Fear coming first and being at higher levels than in other systems. I don’t think this needs further elaboration, you cannot have a society based on fear and oppression, all of which derive from the whims of a single individual. The social structure wont survive it, and even if it does, the society wont really go far in terms of progress in various ways because everything will have to be allowed on an individual basis. In the end, as I said the problem is similar to communism’s problem, in that it cover the social structure issue but that alone is not enough. Even if fear is nonexistent, the lack of personal freedom due to the dependency upon others and the need for allowance renders the whole thing a ticking bomb.

Absolute anarchy also doesn’t cut it but this time it goes completely the other way in that it celebrates human freedom and individuality but has no thesis about how societal structure is to exist within this system. Sometimes, anarchy, ironically, comes closest to the “law of the jungle” than other systems. Its defenders will come up and say that the individuals will be governing themselves and harmoniously coexist, since anarchy provides the mentality of “co-existance and understanding”. This is something to which I do have a soft spot for but I cannot completely buy into the argument for the simple reason that I cant give people that much credit. Its as Churchill said (but this time he was talking about democracy) “The biggest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the voters”. Anarchy sometimes seems to try and emulate the beauty of Athenian direct democracy, where there were no heads of state and issues were resolved together, by the people. However practical issues, such as population size which bring forth a plethora of problems (how are you going to feed these people? someone needs to grow the wheat, that’s a full time job, that man might not have the time to be a fully-active citizen, is that fair?), is not something that is accounted in anarchy and remains an ideal further from reality than any other system unfortunately.

So. What do we have so far? There are two things that I can identify that any system needs to address after writing this piece. Social structure, and tendering to the human needs and psyche of its citizens! (It is interesting to note that several ex-communist thinkers when they saw the flaws of the system they used to support (such as Cornelius Castoriadis), turned to psychoanalysis in search for answer concerning the individual. This enriched their thinking and approach to all matters societal in their future work).

Reminding ourselves that we are dealing with the idealized form of each system, as they were first introduced (of course I can’t do them complete justice in this post, only use them to drive home the argument which I am about to make) we need to focus on the balance between the two and see how a political system has to cover them acceptably.

The main issue at first was the no system took into account human nature as something to consider when trying to organize social structure. Then came others who tried to put too much emphasis on the individual and ignore the fact that a society (in one of its various forms) will eventually be created, thus begging for some form of structure. This structure will continue to be challenged the more successful it will turn out to be because more and more will adopt it or try to enter it to reap its benefits. It only seems natural!

Democracy is still considered the most just system that we have, but as I’ve said in a previous post democracy is a very specific right that the members of the democratic society posses. This means that you could have various forms of democracy, but what I care about here, today, is whether or not the issue of the human psyche (a person as an individual), is actually considered and treated adequatelu when designing such a democracy. So far, I can think of only one such example in history. The American democracy as seen in theAmerican Constitution. It is the only democracy officially declared which promoted civil liberty and that it will struggle to maintain social structure in a just way, promoting equality and giving the power of governance to the people. Of course at the same time I am of the opinion that the whole edifice that are the USA is a colossal failure in terms of what it was founded upon, and what it actually is right now. But we are only talking about ideal versions. If we take away corruption and the many failures of the American government to stay true to its founding ideals, what we have is a marvelous treatment of what humans want and how society covers their needs, but also a just system of governance, essentially covering all that I have raised serious doubt for, so far in this little entry. There have been plenty of other declarations in the past that put the citizen in “the driving seat” of society, but I rarely do we seen heads of state actually standing trial like in the USA (although the Bush Administration has probably changed all that now. After all, this administration scared even Hunter Thompson). Yet, ideally, it fits the criteria, I feel.

The question, “which system looks upon the individual and builds a society around it” is quite complex. The reasons behind that are numerous but most obvious is the fact that there is no correct perspective upon which to look upon the individual. Do you see him as a psychodynamic being? as a member of society? as a social class? Do you deny him certain rights for utilitarian purposes, or do you believe that the individual will naturally bring about the desired social structure provided you tender to his basic needs?

In the end since there is no right answer we will have to settle with the answer that tops the rest.Its the best we’ve got. I love quoting Thomas Nagel’s “The View from Nowhere”  and I’ll do here here again, because I find it so appropriate. He said: “Our problem has […] no solution, but to recognize that is to come as near as we can to living in light of the truth”. This fits perfectly the problem of the same ideal. I have stayed true to the basic premise of this site and did the best I could be only providing food for thought. This is the best I can do here!

An interrupting, personal note

When topics such as today’s intended critique of the modern versions of political regimes, creep into my mind, I usually end up writing a piece about them, and every time, the same question always follows. What am I accomplishing by writing here? It would be extremely naive of me to seriously think that I am having any sort of impact to anybody out there. And it true that I don’t, but the pessimism of thinking how futile and useless this whole endeavor is, is the kind of thinking that justifies sloth of the worst kind and fails to recognize one small detail. That I, the one who writes these pieces, is the one who benefits the most out of the whole project.

Of course one would then ask why do I go on, improving myself, doing this for myself, in a such a public display? Why do I have to try and promote myself and my work if it is aimed solely for my benefit? This is the other extreme. I do believe that some of the things that I have to express here are indeed worthy of further consideration, and that is all that I have promised and provided. I have tried to steer clear of definite answers and strict conclusions, remaining as philosophically pure as I can, in order to continue to do what I do best, which is analysis. So since all this is harmless, why shelter it from the world? If I am to be criticized for being stupid at some point in my life well, today I’m most probably not the guy who wrote this back when I posted this.

+ + +

I have said so before in this site that I am of the same opinion as Wittgenstein on the nature of philosophy, which is that “one does philosophy, not reads or studies it”. Again, I have met and worked with several people who are not ‘trained’ in philosophy per se, but are far better at thinking philosophically and being open than graduates of prolific universities and their philosophy departments.

The only thing that I wish to do in this little website is show my manner of thinking, and my approach to the topics I wish to examine, and present those to anyone who will read me for their own scrutiny upon my methods. ‘How to think’ is the best thing to improve upon. Avoid ‘what to think’. This is my small contribution to whoever reads me and it is the best I can do from where I stand. If nothing else, it helps me reflect upon my own thoughts, something which is intensified as an act by the fact that these pieces are now public and not some documents on my computer.

This means that I push myself to be certain of what I write and create, coming back to it again and again. I have a tremendous fear of writing or expressing anything specific since I am a person who changes his mind far too often on various issues, and I loathe the moment where I will be confronted, at some point in the future, with a belief I held or expressed sometime in the past when it no longer applies to me. It hard to prove you’re not the same person you used to be. Even when it comes down to insignificant things.

I just had to post this today because I see myself writing more and more in the near future since I keep making notes about what to write about, which means there will be even more things to worry about after writing about them.

Hopefully this will make my readers more lenient and forgiving.

Nothing new here

Yogi Berra once said, in his infinite simple wisdom:

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is!”

No matter what I can say, the statement is true. But lets try and go a bit deeper.

The people who know me personally are always keen to point out my fixation and love of theory and use it against me by claiming that I am constantly stuck in an ivory tower, ignorant of the realities of the world below. This is not a unique sentiment the my friends have. It is something that most people are feeling when it comes to the debate between theory and practice, dismissing theory as useless. Time and again I have come into the defense of theory in various discussions that I find myself in, but what led me to this piece today began during a conversation about economics that took place a couple of days ago.

To summarize my position before going into details I find theory to be necessary and usually the problem arises from terrible application of the theory (i.e. terrible practice). I was never one for dogmatism anyways so I am very keen to dismiss any theory that is dogmatic but it is precisely this argument that most people will use again theory in general, that it is dogmatic due to it unwillingness to recognize that things could be different that what it describes. That might be indeed true but I am not a proponent of those kind of theories. Theories can actually be saved from dogmatism if developed correctly.

Now, it so happened that the economy was once again the topic of discussion, being in Greece these days it will be the one thing that people are keen to avoid discussing but at the same time be attracted to like moths to a flame. Specifically this time we were discussing about the effects of printing money on whether or not it causes inflation. Traditionalists (in short) believe that printing money creates inflation since the value of products is lowered in virtue of people having more money in their pockets. But, according to Keynesian economics, especially the neo-Keynesian school,  money enters the economy with the purpose of increasing production and demand by providing the populace with the means to spend (i.e. money). This does not drive inflation up since money is now used to increase the numbers of products available and therefore not overvalue them due to scarcity (which is the usual defining trait of value for commodities). The caveat though, which must be repeated, is that money needs to enter the economy in an effective manner, to drive production and increase demand. Therefore, when money enters the economy, and then is made proper use of, the inflation problem never arises. Practice is backed up by theory.

Especially in economics, one must never approach things as being stable or frozen. You change one thing you must consider the effects it will have (in this case money on demand and supply, and not just inflation), or at least give it enough time for it to be affected. ‘Things in motion’ is the correct perspective.

This simplified Keynesian stance is seen as ill-informed since for most people, automatically, assume that printing money = inflation, which is indeed true, but only when practice fails. The attacks on theory are based on the fact that no theory is actually all-encompassing and vigilant to whatever might go wrong. No theory can guess the black-swans that Nassim Taleb talks about in his book the Black Swan (which is nothing new for those who have read on the history of science), which is indeed true. No theory can deal with the human, unpredictable element, that might enter the equation and ruin its application.

Read Karl Popper. Read Thomas Nagel. There can be no perfect theory, there is no such thing. But we the practitioners can be vigilant where theory fails us. The ones who try to apply theory need to able to recognize the limits they inherently possess and work around those. Theory is there only to help us, to point out what to aspire to, and onto, what we wish to develop and end up with. If we apply it wrongly then the fault lies not with the theory but rather with the practitioner.

Theory must not be dogmatic, but neither must the practitioner in believing in his theory too much. On the other hand we must not limit theory too much and recognize the possibility that its application has been mistaken in most cases or that it is not followed enough, leading us into failure.

(EDIT: Having re-read this piece I almost cringe since I hear myself speak like an old-fashioned communist who blames everything but his dogma for the mistakes of the past and its failures. Of course I am aware of that possibility but I think my point will still come across, if not before, it will now after this edit by showing that I am aware of my own shortcomings and what I wish to avoid. So dont think of me as a purist, but rather as someone who tries to consider everything.)

On representation and meritocracy

Seems that politics will continue to dominate my posts for a time, but if anything this is an opportunity for myself to organise my thoughts and place myself somewhere in the political spectrum (however unnecessary I find it).

This piece will be about my thoughts on representation within a democracy, its problems, and some of its advantages, so we’ll need to clear a few thing up before moving on, so let’s start with some semantics (which is something that nobody seems to consider when discussing politics or ideology anymore leading most arguments being petty and/or unresolved).

First of all, most people are not clear on what the basis of a democracy is. The word itself means that the people (specifically the community) are the ones who rule. Of course what it not made explicit in the meaning is the how the people govern and that is how democracy has been allowed to exist in many forms, and almost all of them keep the basis premise of the people being the one’s who govern. But this is not where I want this discussion to go, to the various forms of democracy so lets return to examining quickly on what it is at its core.

Some say that it is free speech, others claims that it is the ‘majority wins’ rule when in effect. The reality for those two examples is that they manifest naturally in a democracy but the basis of democracy began as a right for the citizens of a country or a city-state, as was the case in Ancient Greece. It was the right to voice your opinion and for it to count in matters of the public, something which still holds even to this day albeit at a different scale as we shall see. It is the right to vote and be voted. In Ancient times it was easy to gather the populace and decide on important matters since their numbers would be such that counting would be easy, today where the deciding body amounts in the millions it is inefficient to have them gather and decide. Plus the fact that once the people’s numbers grow so much more decisions and more matters pop up constantly meaning that more elections need to take place and more votes to be cast. Therefore democracy gave birth to meritocracy as a solution to deal with large numbers. Essentially granting ‘the best among us’ the right to choose and govern us by acting as our proxies on the important decisions we no longer are able to attend and vote on, for practical reasons such as  keeping the economy running over at the front lines. Democracy is maintained in that we are the one’s who decide who the best amongst us are, we voice our opinions on the matter and they count towards a decision being reached collectively. (This is where anarchism, proper anarchism, focuses its attention, rejecting proxies and wishing for the people to be the one’s to govern themselves in actuality. Perhaps after I am done with this piece you will associate me with the anarchism, but I don’t have an issue with that if you do, for indeed I breed some fondness for proper anarchism, yet at the same time I recognize that it is too much to ask for it to be established since I find people to be unable to take proper advantage of it.)

Meritocracy then is a direct descendant of democracy. We, in the western world, are experiencing a very limited form of it since we are only choosing the pool of candidates for government positions. Meaning, we are not choosing the best suited for health minister of foreign minister, for example. We are only choosing the potential candidates for those positions and leave it up to them to decide amongst them (or by their own choice of who’s best which is usually their leader) who will take which position. If we did indeed choose on that basis then the term would have been even more appropriate it would seem. This almost makes me agree with the point that once someone holds a ministerial position he or she should not be eligible or allowed to hold another such office especially if it is of unrelated nature since that person has been already deemed to be the best at x, so what is he doing at y? The counterargument to that is that most such governmental positions are merely administrative and managerial in nature and those skills are omni-applicable. Therefore a person can be extremely effective in both roles. I happen to feel that these positions are hardly “only administrative” and are actually more complicated and delicate. But this is for another time, back to our focus point.

By employing meritocracy we elect representatives, voices that echo our own voice in the forum where they can and should be heard in order for them to have an impact. Here lies my problem which led me to this whole piece. I feel that there is a gap between the people who elect their representative and the representative itself. The nature of this gap has various forms. It could be a gap in communication, meaning that the voter and representative might not have access to each other and work together, and another is the fact that voters are unable to alter their choice and are effectively distanced from the person they chose since he no longer is suitable in their eyes.

This gap is only ever bridged completely when the voter is tasked with casting his vote (essentially a vote of confidence). It is the only instant in which the voter associates himself (either partially or completely) with the representative candidate. Yet almost never can one claim to know exactly the person he or she has chosen. Its like I said in my previous post, I personally might have voted for Obama if I could but it seems, the more I monitor his presidency, that he leans differently than I expected on certain important (for me) issues, making him less and less the representative of my choice.

How responsible is every voter for the actions of their representative? I realise that throughout history several figures that have done more harm than good were given their powers democratically, even when there was ample evidence of what the future would hold if that person would come into power. But what about when there is not? I call upon Obama as my example again and his use of drones. Nobody expected that for instance and yet here we are.

We have ended up with a system that has a type of leap of faith tightly embedded in its operation. We are in essence tasked with guessing the future and reading a person we have no real, tacit, knowledge of and grant him powers to govern. Of course we can get it right sometimes and the system itself has not imploded even after all these years it has been practiced, so something must be working that eludes me. But for now these questions are, I feel, valid and important. They provide a glimpse to my anarchic streak but always remains reasonable. The question is, how reasonable is everything else I touched upon today.

(EDIT: because of issues such as the ones above and the kind of syllogisms they can leads to, we are, perhaps, hinting at why the system we have adopted in the majority of the Western world is considered the “best alternative we’ve got”. Its true. We have amble arguments against democracy and its variants but in the end it is the best we’ve got)

What are they thinking?

After writing up my latest entry, which was on Cyprus, my thoughts remained on politics and I have found myself going back and forth on the same issues that bothered me when I contemplated democracy as a whole. Some of these thoughts will appear here today, but the one question that continues to baffle me, and unfortunately is far from seeing a bright day, concerns politicians themselves and specifically their thought process behind their decisions. First of all, in order to simplify things, lets just assume that indeed politicians are looking after the common good and are actually doing their best to help out and are not out to personally profit from their decisions. Assume this for the sake of argument because if we do not take that into account, most arguments are rendered irrelevant due to the whole system being so complex and fragmented no action would make any difference. I realize that the possibility is big enough that it shouldn’t be ignored but for now lets just go with it and blame mistakes on stupidity and inability, not corruption and abuse. Lets just believe that their intentions are indeed good and pure, even though we all know what they say about the road to Hell.

So what are politicians thinking? What is it that makes each of them reach the decision that they did, and how would they justify it if and when asked to defend it? What the people usually get from interviews and public forums is nothing less than media buzz and words of assurance with no basis and no justification. The European crisis has been riddled with such talk, of efforts to calm the public concern and the markets, of docile words of wisdom, usually coupled with harsh talk of punishment hidden behind them. In short we don’t get the full picture, ever, regardless of whether or not the story is recent or old news. Didn’t we recently acquire access to the tapes of the Lyndon Johnson presidency since they got declassified and new light has been shed on the Vietnam war which showed a new side of Nixon? Isn’t it infuriating that Nixon is long gone and this piece of the truth was kept hidden from public view when it mattered?

There is a tremendous lack of communication between the people and the government and this has been a historical fact for most of recorded history. This is something that has been traditionally kept as such and, if you think about it, manifests in many different ways in our western societies. For instance, the fact that whoever you voted for should remain a secret you should keep to yourself and not share with others, for me, says a lot in that not enough scrutiny comes into play. The choice is something momentary and then you’re free. The people themselves are not liable to answer for their choice, protected by this unwritten rule, and apparently the same goes for proper politics. We all seem to be guilty of the same thing. Not the same thing exactly, but they seem to have similar roots.

If you take this lack of communication and stretch it, you could argue that you’ve got a different regime in effect from the one you thought. After all, how are they liable to the people if they are not liable to the people? How can a politician be asked to sit in court if we don’t know whether he should or not? And how will we know this if we do not learn the thinking behind his choice. After all, his job is being responsible for others and if he fails at that he or should have the decency to resign if the most minute form of self knowledge exists. Even matters that are not direct crimes but are so indirectly when having a considerable negative impact on people lives, such as a new tax system is something that politicians need to be able to support and back up. Yet they don’t  and they don’t seem to have to. Politics, unfortunately it is still the easiest way to power.

It is for reasons such as these that I find myself a supporter of Wikileaks and other similar endeavors  I feel their contribution is significant for it sheds light to the whole truth, which we can all agree is important to have when considering to make a decision. Even more so when that decision will affect us for years such as when deciding who to vote for. Now, this takes us over to questioning representation itself in a democracy and how it actually stands which is something I’d like to leave for another time, but I have to point out the link for it shows the importance of it and the general point of this piece.

How will people be able to decide in the future who to vote for when they know so little. And this is not just about future decisions, what about right now. I don’t want to finish this piece and have focused only on the importance of the issue in terms of future decisions. The present is also something that could benefit from all this. Perhaps we should take an example.

Barack Obama would have been my choice for U.S. President if I had the right to vote in the USA. However, after he got elected it turns out that he leans more to the right that I had hoped on certain issues and after reading his book “The Audacity of Hope” he seems to exhibit certain traits I didn’t want from the next Democratic President. But this all applies to my choice (had I had one) about the next election. What about his policies right now on the economy. What about his foreign policy? His drone attacks? Why aren’t we hearing from him or his staff the reasoning behind his every move? The obvious answer is for security reason from enemy forces, but how much cover can this excuse provide. Are matters on the economy a matter of security? Are matters of justice, etc too?  What about the Cypriot President? Why did he agree to such a plan when he made he promised the people of Cyprus, on his honor  that he would never make  a deal such as the one he just did? Why isn’t he explaining things to us? Why are the people left out of all that affects them, then at the same time asked, implicitly, to participate in the matters of the common (as is the case with democracy) but nevertheless do everything that is possible for apathy to grow and the feeling of frustration grow, leading to people just carrying on with their lives thinking subconsciously that things will never change, politicians will forever be the same and just not care anymore?

Of course nobody is the perfect candidate but the issue of government and representation requires total transparency and we’re not getting it. Some might argue that the people aren’t ready and I can totally understand that sentiment but the problem is nowhere close to being solved nor are we even considering it. Maybe we need a show of good faith from both sides, but the one’s above need to take the first step since they are the one’s hiding.

When the bank run comes

Riddle me this. How is the situation in Cyprus not making everybody fear for their fortunes right now? How is it that a democratic country suddenly imposes withdrawal caps, freezes accounts, and has its government reach into people’s money, out of the blue, and take what it wants, not making people run for dear life?

As every banker worth his salt will tell you, the whole financial system is closely tied up to the banking system, which itself it tightly coupled to one thing, and one thing only: trust (trust to the system). If the people’s trust to the banking system is gone or fades even just a little, the whole thing comes down. This is something we cant deny. It is a fact. So how is it that the people who are responsible to sustain the current financial system chose the solution they have for Cyprus? How is the decision to reach in and take away the people’s money this way just like that, not going to scare them? A bank is, at least in the collective unconscious, which is the source of our trust (this unconscious of ours), a safe, a place where we store our money for our facilitation. What happens when this concept is destroyed for us? Why actually risk the people’s trust to the system and not go for something like we saw in Greece where the money was collected through taxation or the electricity bill? Was it because they wanted to go with another solution to save face and not have the world think that “Cyprus is the same as Greece”, because the same thing is happening again?

A reporter on Bloomberg recently asked the following question: “Is it possible that the same could happen to my money which is in a bank in America?” This question was inconceivable a week ago! If someone had asked this the answer would be immediate and the same everywhere “no, of course not, its YOUR money”. Well things are not what we thought they would be.

The people of Cyprus right now can only withdraw a maximum of 300 euros per day, per person. This withdrawal cap is there to avoid a bank run. Its the only plausible reason why anyone would take this step that I can think of. But all it does it postpone the eventual bank run. The blow has been dealt and I am very, very surprised that the other southern European countries aren’t seeing a bank run right now because for the first time the troika has shown the lengths it is willing to go to, and the threat to the people’s money that it can be (regardless of its intentions). After all, for most citizens of most countries, what matters is not the greater scheme of things, as the troika allegedly is trying to fix, but rather the microcosm in which he or she lives in and that person’s effort to makes ends meet. For him/her things now are tougher, the game has changed. And yet I don’t see what I expect to see.

I spoke to an economist recently and he said that in the history of economics these things don’t happen immediately, they take time and they happen gradually. The people’s trust to the banking system, will not and cannot change in a day.

We can only wait and see. But whatever the outcome, if people realise what has happened or they don’t, the truth is that what we have seen is radical, unexpected and most definitely scary.

It’s something

(spot the difference)

Recently the new Pope talked about celibacy hinting at a small progressive stance, by saying that priests do not have to be celibate and can have families of their own. A completely new attitude to a dogma that has always been traditional and conservative on issues such as this.

I welcome that step. I welcome it regardless of the fact that the current Pope is far from my ideal Pope (ignoring for now the fact that Pope itself as an existence is unnecessary in my opinion), because it is a step forward. Some people are actually not satisfied with the news, they think that he should do more, that he should persecute the child molesters, stand behind condoms, and so on and so forth. People expected from this Pope to be the great reformist, someone who will make the Catholic Church a more progressive place, but that’s like waiting for water to turn into wine. It’s not going to happen because it is not within water’s capacity to turn into wine. What I mean by that is that conservatism, tradition and dogma are so tightly embedded into the Catholic Church that if those things change in a major way the whole thing comes down. It is a defining feature to be as it is now, take that away and we are talking about a different thing altogether.

It’s improbable that this will happen anytime soon, so thinking about it is pointless right now. But don’t miss the important thing: the fact that this is a step in the desired direction. It is upon this step that, hopefully, others will build upon and follow the same path. Its something, isn’t it? Maybe in the future we’ll see other such steps and slowly, little by little the whole thing will come down!