Syllogisms about Power, Corruption, and Change

A syllogism about power:

  1. Human social systems / institutions are hierarchical and concentrate power at the top of their structures
  2. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton
  3. Human social systems / institutions will inevitably become corrupt

Why?

The answer is rooted in the interplay between our basic instincts for survival coupled with our evolved reasoning capabilities as Homo sapiens. Our advanced thinking capacity provides us with the ability to make choices whether to spend, save, keep, or give of our time, talent, skill, experience, insight, and energy. Like most animals, we care for ourselves by spending for what we need in the moment yet saving some for later in the event we need it. However, only humans have the option to accumulate and keep more than is ever needed or give the excess to others who are less fortunate so that their needs are covered as well. While the “spend and save” dichotomy is fundamental within many animal species, the “keep and give” dichotomy resides solely in the realm of higher reasoning exhibited by Homo sapiens.

Having the chance to acquire more than what is needed is a compelling motivation to discover and exploit opportunities. But what if discovery, exploitation, and gain from opportunities deprive others of similar opportunities? Or what if the consequences are even direr in that not only do others have no opportunities to do similarly, but their basic survival is at risk?

The “keep and give” dichotomy becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, human intelligence provides the means by which we can make or take more than we need. On the other hand, this same intelligence gives us the insight to heed a noble principle or ideal and choose to give what we have made or taken, yet do not need, to others whose survival is at stake. This is a difficult choice. For many who are caught up in the fast track of making and taking, to give does not feature very prominently and greed sets in. For others, it is not the rush to accumulate more that drives them, but quite the opposite – the fear of loss and being put into a situation where there is not enough to survive. Regardless, too many burn up their worth as creative and innovative human beings along the fear-greed continuum.

Figure 1 above illustrates a simple hierarchical social system formed by the three basic cornerstones: fear – greed – principle / ideal. Over time, however, the triangle shrinks in height until the principles and ideals that were so sterling and compelling at the outset become lost in a sea of the platitudinous and pedestrian and their relevance and influence are lost. Hierarchy, mired in the mud of fear and greed, has little nobility; it is corrupted.

Any hierarchical social system begins with a balance of principles and ideals worthy of aspiration and hope linked to the daily realities associated with fear and greed. A social system framed by such noble thoughts seeks to give all a better life. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States offers an example of these worthy ideals framing the social system of a nation:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What really happens, though?

A syllogism about corruption:

  1. Corrupt human social systems benefit their ruling minorities at the expense of their ruled majorities
  2. Ruling minorities make rules that preserve their social systems and concentrate power further
  3. Corrupt human social systems insulate their ruling minorities from their ruled majorities

Beginning in 2003, there occurred numerous instances of abuse and torture of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq (aka. Baghdad Correctional Facility), by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company, CIA officers and contractors involved in the occupation of Iraq.

An internal criminal investigation by the United States Army commenced in January, 2004, and subsequently reports of the abuse, as well as graphic pictures showing American military personnel in the act of abusing prisoners, came to public attention the following April, when a 60 Minutes news report (April 28) and an article by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker magazine (posted online on April 30 and published days later in the May 10 issue) reported the story.

The resulting political scandal was said to have damaged the credibility and public image of the United States and its allies in the prosecution of ongoing military operations in the Iraq War, and was seized upon by critics of U.S. foreign policy, who argued it was representative of a broader American attitude and policy of disrespect and violence toward Arabs. The U.S. Administration and its defenders argued that the abuses were the result of independent actions by low-ranking personnel, while critics claimed that authorities either ordered or implicitly condoned the abuses and demanded the resignation of senior Bush administration officials.

”In Address, Bush Says He Ordered Domestic Spying” by David E. Sanger, NY Times, 18 December 2005:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 – President Bush acknowledged on Saturday that he had ordered the National Security Agency to conduct an electronic eavesdropping program in the United States without first obtaining warrants, and said he would continue the highly classified program because it was “a vital tool in our war against the terrorists.”

In an unusual step, Mr. Bush delivered a live weekly radio address from the White House in which he defended his action as “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.”

He also lashed out at senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who voted on Friday to block the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the president’s power to conduct surveillance, with warrants, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The revelation that Mr. Bush had secretly instructed the security agency to intercept the communications of Americans and terrorist suspects inside the United States, without first obtaining warrants from a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, was cited by several senators as a reason for their vote.

”Katrina’s Racial Wake” by Salim Muwakkil, In These Times, 7 September 2005:

Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath have stripped away the Mardi Gras veneer and casino gloss of the Gulf Coast region, and disclosed the stark disparities of class and race that persist in 21st century America.

The growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country is old but underreported news – perhaps in part because so many of the poor also are black. Accordingly, many Americans were surprised that most of the victims of the New Orleans flood were black: Their image of the Crescent City had been one of jazz, tasty cuisine and the good-natured excesses of its lively festivals.

Where did all those black people come from, they wondered; and where were the white victims?

African Americans make up about 67 percent of the population of New Orleans, but clearly they were disproportionately victimized by the hurricane and its aftermath. And while blacks make up just about 20 percent of those living along the Gulf coast of Mississippi, their images dominated media representations of the victims there as well. In addition to race, the common denominator between blacks in both states is poverty. The “Big Easy,” has a poverty rate of 30 percent, one of the highest of any large city. The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any state and the second-lowest median income. The state’s Gulf Coast experienced an economic boom when casinos were legalized in the early ’90s, but that new affluence did little to ameliorate the race/class divide that has deep roots in the region.

Among other things, the monster storm blew away the pretense that race has ceased to matter in the United States. Media coverage of this major disaster has made it clear that poverty and race are highly correlated.

Katrina also unearthed other uneasy truths; including the glaring ineptitude of the federal government, the domestic consequences of the illegal Iraqi invasion and the media’s proclivity to employ racial stereotypes.

Critics complain that the overwhelming blackness of the victims may have been a factor in the government’s apparent slowness to respond. In a reflection of popular black opinion, hip-hop artist Kanye West went off-script during an NBC benefit concert for Katrina victims and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

How did we get to this?

Hierarchical social systems are in a continual state of flux. Figure 2 above introduces some of these dynamics. These systems begin with lofty ideals and noble principles. This is the realm of the abstract, intangible, and philosophical where people in relationship to people posit their aspirations, dreams, thoughts, and feelings from which they describe and envision a better reality.

Such ideals do not remain in a pristine and unchallenged state. Like the people who populate them, social systems have basic needs / resource requirements that must be met in order for them to function. These resources have to be extracted / exploited and converted / deployed so the system can utilize / consume them. In other words, people in relationships to “things” make the system function and, hopefully, engage in behaviors that put the vision into practice.

People have different motivators that prompt their participation in a social system. Some are engaged by an envisioned end state constructed through relationships to people. Others are compelled by their relationships to things – the anticipation of rewards for contribution or a sense of obligation. Moving from vision to action puts the social system on a slippery slope toward compromising its values. Corruption sets in as anticipation of rewards gives way to greed, a sense of obligation succumbs to abject fear, and guiding principles fade from view.

However, the intention people have for a social system is to remain within the middle – a “dynamic balance zone” – where forces from the less evolved side of human nature that drag the system into the clutches of a fear-greed continuum are matched by forces resulting from new personalities and structures in the system that renew the vision and exalt the ideals once again. This dynamic balance zone is where relationships to people and things are positioned within a broader, more “ecological” context. Such positioning enables members of the system to take responsibility for the effect their actions have on others in the system and be held accountable for the consequences of their behaviors overall.

And that means what?

A syllogism about change:

  1. Corrupt human social systems are vulnerable to change
  2. Subversive groups form within ruled majorities, gain power, and force agendas of change on the ruling minorities
  3. Corrupt human social systems are supplanted

A human social system is corrupted through the increased infatuation of its members in their relationships to things rather than their relationships to themselves and others. This love of the material immerses people in the fear-greed continua and distances people from one another. This distancing is a critical determinant of how the social system will function because it establishes a condition where the consequence of one’s behavior on others is not directly experienced. In other words, there is an isolation / insulation of people in the ruling minority from the ruled majority. This breakdown in causality might be useful in the military where commanders issue orders that put soldiers in harm’s way in an effort to attack or defend. In a social system where the general health and well-being of members is contingent on socially responsible and ecologically balanced actions such a breakdown can lead to disastrous outcomes if the ruled majority pursues countermeasures; e.g., Barbara Bush:

And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.

The degree of corruption is offset by degree of affiliation. Just as getting mired in fear and greed isolates people from one another, the formulation, articulation, and pursuit of a noble principle / ideal brings people together. No meaningful collective action can occur without people first agreeing on what they want to have happen as a result – envisioning a future worth achieving.

Figure 3 above illustrates these two counter-balancing dynamics: on the one hand, more fear and greed, more corruption; more principles and ideals, less corruption; and, on the other hand, more principles and ideals, more affiliation; more fear and greed, less affiliation. Of course, in a complex system these dynamics are playing out continuously and in a highly unpredictable manner. The only assurance we have is that there are as many or more ways to affiliate with others for mutual benefit across the community as there are opportunities to engage in the pursuit of sheer material gain. It is a question of balance for each of us and to realize that the operation of the whole requires both. How DO we stay centered? Well now, that is THE question!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Friday, December 23, 2005

The Problem of Power

Since humanity began its odyssey out of Central Africa millennia ago, hierarchy is the only consistently adopted structure for distributing power within a social system. This structure holds intact the social system in which it exists. To do so, it exercises three roles:

  1. Define “boundaries” – territorial, birthright, and behavioral – that determine who’s in and who’s out
  2. Provide security that protects the boundaries, preserves the lineage, and maintains the behavioral guidelines
  3. Respond to changing circumstances so that the primary social system persists

Hierarchy is easy to install since it begins when one person assumes a dominate position relative to another. It is efficient. The dominant one sets the boundary conditions and subordinates operate within them. When coupled with fear of consequence if one does not stay within the boundaries and the promise of reward if one meets or exceeds expectations the vast majority of members comply with the dictates of the hierarchical social system.

Members of hierarchical social systems participate in governance, free enterprise, and non-governmental affiliations. The rulers set the parameters in which members operate so that government has the resources to assure security, enact rules of conduct, ownership, and commerce, and provide a system of jurisprudence in the event that members do not follow the rules or violate the rights of members. Property owners, business owners, and those who contribute their skills, time, and energy are compensated, pay some percentage of their profit and income to government so that it can function, and voluntarily give to community-based organizations that benefit the commonweal and care for those who cannot contribute. It is a system of cooperation, choice, and commitment that is simple and elegant.

Hierarchy is a structural “tool” for managing social systems. It is the integral framework upon which all institutions – governmental, business, or non-governmental / not-for-profit – are built. As such, it becomes a common denominator that cuts across society in all its endeavors. Like any tool, it is neither good nor evil. How people use hierarchical structure within their institutions and throughout their social system is what imbues it with certain characteristics of morality, ethics, and fairness and places it on a continuum of social justice ranging from barely evident on one end to being a matter of course on the other.

The driving force that shifts a social system along the scale of social justice is the use, or abuse, of power. Hierarchical social systems concentrate power in the hands of a minority number among the overall population. As Lord Acton stated, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, when holding a dominant position, some are seduced by the power they have over others. This prompts them to do the following:

  1. Stay in their positions of power
  2. Keep the hierarchical social system intact so that the positions of power they hold are preserved
  3. Curtail affiliation among those who are disenfranchised by the system so that the threat of insurrection is quelled.

Basically, people who are so affected are drawn by the possibility of extracting even more profit or garnering more control. They limit choices for subordinates and force compliance to rules and conditions that are not beneficial to members. In addition, they attempt to keep the system as it is so that their gain is consolidated and ideally, continues to grow.

As an example, approximately 50% of the world’s population earns less than $2 / day per capita through subsistence agriculture. The hope of a higher quality of life is dashed each day eking out an existence under the harshest of circumstances. Leadership in these countries is averse to mechanize and modernize agriculture because those displaced would venture to cities in an effort to find work. This would overburden the already congested and over-stressed infrastructures in these urban areas elevating discontent and unrest. Better to keep people where they are so they are contained having to care for themselves. Meanwhile, the economies grow and the top echelons gain wealth.

Another example: according to an article in The Open AIDS Journal entitled, “HIV Infection and AIDS in Sub-Saharan AfricaUNAIDS report,” Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70% of all people afflicted with HIV in the world. This area holds some of the world’s richest natural resources, yet the population is in grave peril, health-wise, including leaders. In fact, that is the point. The world has known about AIDS / HIV in Africa for nearly 30 years and has only in the last five mobilized efforts to do something. All indications suggest it is too little, too late. Millions have died from AIDS already and millions more will do so over the next two generations as the endemic unfolds. Sub-Saharan governments are rendered ineffective due to a lack of competent, experienced leadership, citizens are not able to care or fend for themselves, economies slow their growth, and property ownership and control shifts to foreigners. Colonies once lost due to revolution are reclaimed – without firing a shot.

As yet another example, consider genocide. In his 1994 book, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900, author R.J. Rummel defined and documented “democide,” e.g., atrocities committed by governments on their citizens. Of the nearly 170 million who died at the hand of their governments during the 20th Century, 130 million, over 75%, were victims of four regimes: Soviet, Communist Chinese, German, and Nationalist Chinese. This does not include Rwanda in 1994. And genocide continues as the people from Darfur have borne witness every day this year. A weakened population becomes weaker. Those who hold the most power in the world act as though they are powerless as these horrific injustices go unchecked. The reality is there is nothing to be gained by intervening and much that could be lost if circumstances go awry. The people of Darfur, like the millions before them, are collateral damage in an economic power struggle of global proportions.

In his unsettling essay, “Waiting for the Lights to Go Out ,” published in the October 16, 2005 edition of The London Times, Bryan Appleyard posits a rather grim future wherein civilization is doomed to return once again to the Dark Ages. The central theme of his essay is the meltdown of society as we know it due to our insatiable addiction to oil, the inevitable depletion of oil reserves, and our woefully inadequate and untimely response to that eventuality. At the heart of his thesis is that human nature has not progressed very far since we began our migrations throughout the world from our African origins. Appleyard states, “Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong.” Not particularly encouraging!

Rulers enact laws that are increasingly restrictive, militaristic, and draconian or become arbitrary in their decisions. Owners pull more profit, become more risk averse, and offer fewer benefits. Having less voice and impact, non-governmental organizations become more fanatical and close-minded; their ratios of administrative overhead to pay-out increase, and beneficiaries receive less real assistance.

In summary, the thirst for power and the specter of losing it becomes a corruptive force that undermines the fundamental tenets of a system that is given to efficiency and effectiveness if used honorably. People suffer for lack of true justice. Is there any way institutions, no matter how well-intended, can escape the slippery slope into corruption and injustice? Or is this simply the dark underbelly of hierarchy which must be accepted until people have more distance in time from their early violent struggle for survival as Homo sapiens? What is your opinion?

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 12, 2005

Confessions of a Chocoholic — It’s All in the Bean

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting friends and noticed a Christmas catalogue from a German chocolatier on the table. Thumbing through it my mouth watered with the turn of every page. This visual distraction was converted into a topic of conversation. Soon, the only recourse was to raid the pantry of its Belgian chocolates and indulge our chocolate fetish. Wow!

Beyond the selection of finely-crafted chocolates featured in the catalogue, there was a section on the history of the company, some tidbits about chocolate-making and general comments about the source of chocolate – the cacao bean. I decided to research chocolate a bit further. This turned out to be quite a learning experience.

Information about chocolate is easy to find. Google has 66,500,000 hits on “chocolate” and 3,410,000 on “cacao.”

Wikipedia

The theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods,” is an evergreen tree, native to the tropical regions of South America. Each tree has 6,000 flowers that produce maybe 20 pods. Each pod contains 20 – 60 beans. It takes 300 – 600 seeds to produce 1 kg of cocoa paste.

Field Museum

There are 592,000 Google hits on cacao production. Like most agricultural products, there is a general production process for cacao that is millennia in the making yet heavily influenced by scientific and technological developments over the past two hundred years. The pods are harvested, cut open, fermented (sweating), dried (cured), and packed in the first phase of processing. Then, the seeds are sorted, cleaned, roasted, cracked, fanned, and winnowed to separate nibs from shells in the second phase. In the third phase, nibs are ground into chocolate liquor (cocoa paste). Then, some of the liquor is pressed to render fat (cocoa butter) and the coarse leftovers are dried and ground into cocoa powder. The remainder of the un-pressed liquor is mixed with condensed milk, sugar, and extra cocoa butter form a crumb which is refined, conched, tempered, and molded into chocolates.

Much of the first phase of processing – harvesting, opening the pods, fermenting, drying, and packing – is done the same way it has been for centuries. It remains labor intensive since mechanization is not possible and several steps can only be done by hand. In addition to the physical work there is considerable human judgment involved in deciding which pods are ready to be harvested, monitoring fermentation, and controlling drying so that the result – the bean – captures the full richness of flavor and quality possible. This requires considerable skill and experience on the parts of those who are involved in this phase.

Designer Traveler

Because the cacao bean, the key raw ingredient required for making chocolate, can only be grown in certain tropical regions around the world, it’s price per pound is exceptionally high. That price is driven up by overseas buyers from Europe and North America who process the cacao but cannot grow it themselves. This is the reason cacao-growing countries like Ecuador don’t have a strong chocolate-making culture despite having the perfect cacao-growing conditions. The cost of the raw ingredients is just simply too high for the local consumption.

The cacao “Nacional” is sold in Europe as an elitist gourmet-product and gets prices up to 50 Euros per kilogram, whereas at the beginning of the production one kilogram costs only 0,58 Eurocents.”1

The post-harvest phases are highly mechanized thereby substantially reducing operating costs and improving consistency of quality and output. Considering a nearly 100:1 ratio of finished chocolate to packed cacao beans, this concentrates revenue AND profits in the later phases. It leaves very little for skilled labor conducting first phase work.

Because of high labor content, keeping the cost for labor low is an imperative. It can lead to abuse of the workforce without respect for the value and criticality of their knowledge. The most severe form of this abuse is slavery.

Food Empowerment Project2

There are 940,000 Google hits on slave labor chocolate industry. Slavery is not a new problem. Still, it challenges one’s sense of assumed social, economic, and political progress to think that the institution persists.

Dissident Voice

There are 6 hits on Google News about slave labor in the chocolate industry. There is nothing available that shows the current situation in real-time – a ground truth benchmark – but indications suggest the practice continues. It is, as it turns out, an engrained part of a colonial system setup centuries ago to facilitate exploitation. That system will not change easily because it pays-off.

TransFair USA

There are 1,330,000 hits on Google for fair trade certified chocolate. It suggests that if a sufficient number of people buy from stores or sources that sport the Fair Trade Certified label the system will change because the pay-off changes. That means changing the buying patterns of people. This means informing them about critical factors they need to take into consideration when they buy certain products, making the process of buying the products they need and want through alternative channels as easy, or easier, than conventional channels, and assuring availability with competitive prices. A tough call.

Ithaca Fine Chocolates

Equal Exchange

There are 7,900,000 hits for chocolate bars on Google. Two weeks ago I would have taken any of them. Now, I’m keeping time to a different drummer. A system changes one conversation at a time. In this case, it is one chocolate bar at a time!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Friday, November 25, 2005

  1. http://www.ecuadorline.com/ecuador/newsletter/Newsletter200501.htm Original article quoted no longer available
  2. http://www.showmenews.com/2005/Feb/20050214Busi010.asp Original article no longer available

Tackling Population Density, Diversity, and Disparity

Dateline: 4 November 2005, a NY Times editorial by Thomas Friedman entitled, “From Gunpowder to the Next Big Bang” outlines how China is grooming entrepreneurs to increase the rate with which business opportunities are identified and acted upon.

Dateline: 28 October 2005, an article by Howard W. French entitled, “China Luring Scholars to Make Universities Great,” describes how China is making a concerted effort to beef up their academic institutions with rigorous, cutting edge research capabilities and open the door to more discoveries, inventions, and innovation.

Dateline: 26 October 2005, an editorial by Thomas Friedman entitled, “Living Hand to Mouth” explains how China is rapidly pushing the limits of sustainability by incurring heavy societal penalties in air and water pollution, deforestation, and loss of arable land to support the growth rate it has enjoyed over the past 10 years.

Other than being about China, what do these articles have in common? They highlight three essential tasks society is required to address as we come closer together as a global community.

First, population density. As the world’s population continues to grow, more and more people will choose to live in metropolitan areas. China has over 40 cities exceeding 1M population with the most populous being Shanghai at almost 10M. India boasts 35 cities with populations over 1M, the most populous being Mumbai at just over 16M. Cairo, the most populous city in Africa, has a population of almost 7M. Sao Paulo, Brazil, with over 10M, is the most populous city in South America; whereas Mexico City, at almost 9M, is the most populous city in North America. More especially, counting the greater metropolitan area for Mexico City, the total population stands at over 17M making it one of the densest population concentrations in the world! How do people have a quality of life in such densities? Certainly, the migration of people to these population centers will only continue. The question begs answers.

Second, population diversity. As people migrate from one area to another in an effort to improve their lot in life, they encounter those from other races, ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions, etc. The United States is a nation forged by those who came to the country in hundreds of immigrant waves across a 500+ year history. The U.S. is not alone. All countries experience migration patterns through emigration and immigration coupled by varying degrees of mobility within their borders that sees people move from one rural or urban location to another. These migratory changes are unstoppable, but not always welcomed. The consequences range from an inappreciation and nonacceptance of difference to outright conflict and bloodshed as incompatible groups find themselves in one another’s space. How do people learn to live together when they come from different places and have differing beliefs? This diversity will only continue. The question begs answers.

Third, population disparity. As people find themselves in the presence of others outside their native groups, they are confronted with a reallocation of power and resources – the pecking order is reordered. Depending on relationships with people new to the mix, this reordering takes away or grants influence. There will be winners and losers no matter what. If the losers are reduced to a point where they can no longer fend for themselves and meet their basic needs for subsistence, they will take extreme measures to assure their survival; namely, destroy the environment for water, food, clothing, and shelter, and increase the birthrate as a hedge. Both of these consequences are disastrous not only for those who are scrounging at the bottom of the power ladder, but ultimately everyone as the environment is compromised by over-population and other ways that adversely affect the whole system. How do people realize that to take so much from others and put lives at stake costs far more to correct than to leave enough so that even the least can enjoy a minimum quality of life? This disparity will only continue unless another course is taken. The question begs answers.

China is a nation dealing with density, diversity, and disparity. And the consequences of not adequately addressing these three are dire. However, as Friedman notes, China’s leaders know the future is not going to be bright for long if these conditions persist or worsen. China is stewing in the questions that beg answering.

Friedman also states that what is needed is an integrated solution. This involves countries and organizations outside China working with institutions and groups inside China. That is where the articles at the outset of this posting have particular poignancy: China is reaching across internal and external boundaries to bolster research capabilities, strengthen academic rigor, awaken and advance entrepreneurial spirit, and direct attention to improving environmental quality and along with it quality of life for Chinese citizens. That degree of focus and commitment, coupled with an abundance of resources to put into the effort, give China the opportunity to learn and gain much. While China will not find THE answers to these questions, the lessons mastered in addressing them will benefit the world. May we all get an “A” in the course!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, November 6, 2005