The relationship between fear and violence

Over the past week or so, on a few separate occasions, I was reminded of how fear can make people accept the infringement on personal liberties, question the rights of others to exist, and even participate in horrible acts of violence towards others:

  • with me being German but (luckily) Germany not having been victorious at the end of World War II, I quite often think of how Nazi propaganda was used to instigate fear in the population against both political enemies of the NSDAP and an ethnic group, eventually leading to people either accepting or ignoring the genocide of the Jews
  • the recently (U.S.-) released movie “The Act of Killing” shows, from the perspective of a group of men who have killed hundreds, how in the mid-1960s the Indonesian population had to endure one of the worst mass-killings, when fears over a communist  take-over of the country were used to justify cruel and atrocious acts
  • even though the Civil Rights Movement changed America forever, to this day people of color, particularly men, are often faced with implicit prejudice about their intention, whether or not they pose a threat, making them the target of even non-police suspicion, as happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin
  • since the 9/11 attacks, America has been struggling with how people of Muslim background, whether or not they are religious or fanatic, are subject to extreme scrutiny and Muslims in America are probably suffering from the continued classification as “potential terrorists”
  • the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine seems to be based on fears on each side that the respective other side’s main motivation is to inflict harm and pain on the own population, leading to ever renewed outbreaks of violent acts, such as bombings and retaliative airstrikes
  • recent Russian legislation now threatens people who either identify as gay or sympathize with the struggle that gay-identifying persons are facing, with the justification being that homosexuality threatens the Russian society, and the most recent events of a gay man being killed and a Dutch man being detained may just be the beginning of a much larger “campaign” that could result in a lot of violence

And the list could easily be extended… On the outside, the people involved may have strong rational sounding opinions about why the conflict, suppression, or violence continues. Often, the reasons entail a perceived but at least at face value plausible threat to society or individual well-being, and the measures taken are made out to be necessary to restore or uphold peace and justice.

However, in all of these cases, I would argue that the base issue is that one group of a population either already holds the belief or is being made to believe that another group is to be feared because of their intention to cause harm. And these fears then bring about condoning or even participating in the infringement of rights and, in part, even violence against anyone suspected to be part of the feared group.

In some of these instances, there may even be factual reasons to be vigilant. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 actually happened, and it is normal for people suffering such a painful loss to react with fear of subsequent acts of violence. However, what is hardly ever considered is that the people on the “other side” of the conflict who are cheering at the results of these violent acts may be ultimately motivated by the same reason: fear. But is fear truly helpful when it comes to improving a conflict?

One of the results of Americans being afraid for their lives in everyday situations, I believe, can be seen by the fact that the USA is leading the statistic for number of guns per residents. Unfortunately, it seems that being afraid for your life and owning a gun doesn’t make life safer. On the contrary, overall I would argue that more or less constantly fearing for your life is probably an enormous stressor itself. And at the very least the number of people owning a gun seems to be correlated with the number of deaths by firearms.

And somehow I have the strong hunch that the level on which people “prepare for an attack”, either by individuals buying guns or the legislature passing new laws against a group of people, or entire countries procuring weapons suitable for fighting wars between nations, is relatively unimportant. As long as actions taken by individuals as well as policy makers are based on fear, I believe that violence is no longer the means of last resort but rather the next logical step…

Contrary to this approach of using force and violence, my personal vision would be to educate the public about a few things related to fear and violence, and that while these two may seem like two links in an inevitable chain of events, I believe that there are certainly methods to reduce the impact of fear–compassion can be thought of as a counter-force for violence and previous research suggests that compassion can be taught.

Eventually, I think that if humanity cannot overcome the impulse to translate being afraid of other humans into violence against the group to which those we’re afraid of belong, sooner or later someone will push the big red button and blow us all to pieces. It’s not so much if but rather when, and so I think it’s probably worth investigating how a reduction of fear can be achieved in favor of trying to find “smart solutions”, that do not overlook the actual dangers present, but do not allow the fear of these dangers to dictate decision making.

Change? Yes, we can!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time “brooding” over the amount of debt the American people have accrued, both the nationally but also the privately held debt. It is almost as if I can literally feel that debt weighing down on me as well as on many other people. I even began by writing this very blog entry dedicated to putting together a lot of exact numbers–back in high school I was fairly good at math, maybe that’s why I liked the idea–but then I realized: it is actually relatively unimportant how large the debt exactly is. What matters is the effect that “being so deeply in debt” has on people. For the most part, I would say that being in debt comes with a feeling of “not being able to afford something I usually would want to get and could pay for”. And sometimes the things people cannot afford to buy can be very important things… But being as deep in debt as we are at the moment probably comes more with the feeling of being “owned” by whoever I am indebted to.

Naturally, there are still quite a few Americans who do not yet personally suffer from the effects of either the national debt or their personal debt, should they have some. At least the way in which they suffer is probably very subtle, almost invisible even, and has not yet reached levels that affect their day-to-day activities let alone their ability to buy enough food to live off. But there are yet ways in which this kind of indebtedness affects everybody: by reducing our freedom in a considerable way, slowly eroding it. My assumption is that, if the amount of debt keeps increasing, the American People will, in the end, be “enslaved” by policy decisions made solely based on fiscal arguments. Even in the current presidential race, few people seem to ask the question whether or not any of the budget items for which candidates suggest cuts are useful or essential. The fact that “we need to save money” seems like all that matters. And another aspect is that not only those people with little money and potentially monetary debt will be enslaved, but also those with considerable wealth will be enslaved to follow “the rules” the financial markets dictate.

I’m now trying to step back from any concrete problems and instead attempt to describe the intersection of the society and economy I live in as I see it… It seems a fair assessment that, based on the division of labor and the highly specialized processes required to produce many if not most of the goods we have grown used to, we simply need a way of ensuring that the wealth that is being produced by the people through some form of work is, somehow, distributed. And I want to make it clear that I do not refer to wealth only as physically graspable goods, such as food, clothing, or cars, but also other accomplishments that increase our general quality of life and welfare, like education, public safety, and the rule of law! On the other hand, I sometimes have very strong doubts that some of the services provided by parts of the financial industry can ever be described as “generating wealth” of any kind, at least not when it comes to “commonwealth”, which is just a translation of the word republic!

Over time, the pre-dominant way that developed to determine the distribution of goods and services, in general, is based on a token-based, free-market economy. In such an economy, goods and services are “swapped” for currency based on a price that is, at least in theory, determined by supply and demand, which then automatically provides each individual participant of the economy with the greatest value, hence maximizing the overall wealth. For one, it ensures that goods of “lesser value” with the same requirements for resource use are, over time, removed from the market place. Importantly, the reason this system is chosen by the government, the democratically elected representatives of a republic, is not to benefit the few and allow individuals to get rich, but rather so as to generate the greatest benefit for society as a whole! It is also important to take into account that if the profit margin of anyone providing services, such as in case of education, or producing goods, such as in assembling cars, becomes too great, the price should be considered too high, such that the general population certainly does not get the “greatest value” in return…

As far as I can see, this description does not contain any information on how the required currency is provided, nor does it give any detailed rules as to how some of the less individual but rather society-based desires can be satisfied. And at this point I would like to describe my most recent thoughts based on a few observations:

In almost all market-based economies, the idea of having a central bank, which is as far as possible from government influence, that provides the currency seems being considered as without alternative. To the extent to which I understand economics, this is however by far not a proven fact, but rather it is the currently favored, and thus accepted, hypothesis or model. While some past occurrences have indeed shown that by simply giving the right to create money to the executive branch of government can lead to disaster, I don’t think that any proof has been presented that would allow to draw the conclusion of the opposite, namely that putting money creation into the hands of privately run banks is necessarily “in the interest of the people or society”. And given that this privilege of creating money seems to come with at least “some power”, I must admit I am quite surprised that the Supreme Court of the United States hasn’t yet found that allowing private banks to “create money” is unconstitutional.

In addition to the idea that a central bank is organizing the monetary supply, the idea that interest has to be paid for a loan seems equally without alternative. And what’s more, in the current flavor of monetary lending practices, the interest is not only paid on the original loan, the principal, but on all subsequently accrued interest-based debt, that is to say compound interest, in other words a possibly exponential growth of debt. Funny enough, I would at least see several ways in which the currently existing system could be “extended”. I’m not necessarily saying that each of my thoughts would be an improvement, but to say that “things have to be the way they are” simply seems to easy. For one, Congress could set rules prohibiting extremely high interest rates beyond, say, 10 per cent. And in cases were such interest rates yet seem reasonable, such as where the risk for the borrower is indeed very great, legal provisions could enforce that interest rates have to decline over time automatically and that compound interest is only legal for very low interest rates. In other words: if my history demonstrates a high risk of me being a potentially defaulting loan recipient, I might initially have to pay a high interest rate, say 25%, but once I have made regular interest payments over a certain period of time, the interest rate either would have to be lowered substantially or, alternatively, any interest that was not paid will not be added to the amount on which I have to pay that interest rate, as this amount was not part of the initial risk of the borrower anyway. And finally, if someone giving out a loan makes some profit with receiving interest, I find it not only fair but essential that this person than also truly carries the risk in the case of a default on the loan.

Why do I see those issues as problematic to begin with? Well, starting with the second area that is not covered by the description of a free-market society, I would argue that there are many desires which a society might express as a whole rather than individually. For instance, in the United States some of these desires are put expressly into the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

I would argue that, naturally, the pursuit of happiness is certainly something every individual has, but on the other hand it might not be necessarily true that each individual wants to guarantee this for every other individual equally, which is why it was made something government shall try to achieve. In a way, this principle is somewhat contrary to the idea of some of the elements in our very economy insofar as competition, in the sense in which it is used in sports like the Olympics, requires equal chances and footing. Obviously if someone owns a lot of capital, mostly in form of currency liquidity, that person does not have to “struggle” as hard as someone else if they wish to pursue their happiness–or pursue anything else for that matter, so how can that be considered fair competition. Furthermore, it seems to me that while none of the people heading the “too big to fail banks” has been elected by “The People”, banks and other financial firms are beginning to exercise a great amount of influence over political decisions, to the point where I would question to what extent the actual government is still “in power”–and if that were not the case it would almost seem like a constitutional duty to attempt to abolish any form of government that has not been given the consent of the governed.

Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of socialism or another kind of systems that wishes to simply “equalize” monetary means among participants of a given economy. But the idea that some participants of our economic system can consume goods and services in pursuit of their happiness simply by owning “excess capital” and living off interest payments made by others who require some of this excess capital to be able to participate in the economy at all seems not only strange but outright dangerously close to violating some of the principles the Founding Fathers wanted to see granted for every person living in the United States. The King of England was considered overbearing at the time, and in my mind at least the financial industry is playing an every more important role in how our daily lives are shaped.

As part of living in a society that, I would hope, is a civil society with a basis in the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers, my vision is that each and every member of society should participate on both sides: giving and taking. And the giving should not be limited to having one’s money “do the work”–which is a true misnomer in my opinion: money cannot work, it can simply be used to suck up someone else’s contribution to society in form of interest payments…

Do I see any hope? Well, yes, of course! But the vision I have would require people to give up quite a bit on the idea of “owning” an entitlement that is counted in forms of a dollar amount, at least when it comes to amounts that, by far, exceed what they could ever spend on regular consumption goods in the foreseeable future. So long as someone has the ability to “conserve” effort that was put into the economic system for very long periods, and pile up this conserved effort to ever higher mountains, the system will always carry an incalculable risk of failure. In that sense, I actually believe that re-designing some of the government-run programs, like Medicaid and Medicare, into a system that, within reasonable contraints, promises to pay for people’s basic needs and medical expenses when their insurance doesn’t cover for it or they simply don’t have an insurance, but that doesn’t do so in form of expressly stating dollar amounts is a necessary step to fix things. More generally, holders of U.S. Treasury Bonds would have to give up at least part of their entitlement, which next to Medicare and Medicaid also includes debt held by retirement funds, private investors, and investment firms.

But another big contribution that has to be made is that banks need to return to an actually useful business model: that of providing required services to society, not a way of providing the people working at banks with the means to get rich for their own sake, which then is rather a disservice to society. Financial capital is meant to serve the people, not the other way around…

Do I blame anyone involved? Not at all. If anything, I would say that the mantra of “if I just had a little more money, I’d be so much happier” works a bit like a virus. Once it infects our minds it almost is like taking over control of our lives. Involuntarily I am reminded of a movie from the 80s: They Live. A zombie-like world where many people have been brain-washed and are no longer seeking true happiness in their lives. And just as in the movie, at the very end, no-one in our society, not even someone who seemingly benefits from this way of organizing our economy, truly wins. Maybe we should step back a little from the numbers and think about what we, as a society, want our lives to look like, and what our government’s functions are supposed to be and then find ways for us to strive towards that goal and our government to fulfill those functions.

Is Obama good for the American Economy?

So far I have avoided blogging about a topic in the overlap region between politics and and economics. But after watching a couple of YouTube videos I found on the website of Prof. Franz Hörmann, I have repeatedly asked myself the following question: if I were an American Citizen already and had the option to participate in the Presidential Elections come November, would I vote for Barack Obama? Do I truly believe that Obama is good for the American Economy? And if not, would Mitt Romney be better?

Well, I honestly cannot answer the question about who I’d vote for with certainty. I mean, really, who knows with absolute certainty who they will vote for anyway, if there are still weeks ahead with the potential to reveal important information pertaining both candidates… Yet, I have at least found my disappointment with the current President grow into a sense of disillusionment over the past few months. Here are my thoughts on why I would at least feel much less inclined to be voting for Obama, and why I think that, ultimately, Obama isn’t the President to spearhead the changes necessary to find a way to make a free-market economy work for the benefit of all Americans. What America needs is a President who is not afraid to stand up to the forces that have invaded, pervaded, and perverted the political process, transforming it into something similar to a anchor-hosted regular television show where two supposedly opposing teams vie for “who’s the fairest of them all”.

As far as I can see, the problem is systemic in nature. And my guess is that many people “in power”, both in politics as well as in financial institutions, are at least subconsciously aware of the fact that there is a problem waiting to blow up. Maybe some even have a good idea what the problem is, but it seems that, so far, playing by the established rules seems the preferable choice, and I can see several very good reasons why it seems that way… So, what is the problem?

In short: We, The People, have over time gotten accustomed to how the monetary system is organized to a degree that even just thinking about possible alternatives comes across as “communist”–which is maybe just a different way of saying something like “crazy”, “impossible”, or “un-American”. Furthermore, some of the collectively held beliefs about money are simply false but, given that they support the current system to a degree that were they to be questioned the economy might collapse, no-one dares to bring this up. Let’s start maybe with some of the reasons why we (think we) need money:

Exchanging goods in a free-market economy is simply impractical without a form of currency, some representational good that can be converted into any other good or service we require. In addition, based on the fact that the “good or service” we contribute to society, usually in form of performing well at a job, leads to the acquisition of only relatively small amounts of currency units at a time, an economy with a monetary exchange function gives the opportunity to “save” some units of currency for future transactions, in other words to delay consumption in favor of “investment”. Naturally, for this to work reasonably well, people must have faith and be willing to trust that the value of their savings will not decline too much, and this trust has to be earned, to some degree, by the experience of stable prices.

If those were the only functions of money, we probably wouldn’t be anywhere near this economic mess we are faced with at the moment though. So, what are the problems in the current system? Well, I can see a few of them, and some are probably mixed up, but I will try to single out the root as far as I understand the matter:

But first it is important to know that the control over the monetary system does not lie directly with the people or their representatives, but instead, at least in the U.S. economy, with the Federal Reserve, a public entity which all the same states on its website that, quote, “its monetary policy decisions do not have to be approved by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branches of government”. While that in itself may not necessarily be a problem, so long as this entity is given a clear set of instructions and its performance is more or less closely monitored by the sovereign’s representatives, it means that the control over monetary policy is, for some reason, not considered something worth putting into the hand of the elected representatives. One of the typical arguments given is that if the government were allowed to print money, it could increase spending without limits. The misconception in this statement lies in the understanding of where inflation, the loss of value per unit of currency, comes from.

The real problem, I think, lies with the fact that while the central bank, the Federal Reserve, provides the economy with “physical” currency, every regular bank and every mortgage lender creates money out of nothing every time a loan is made. You don’t believe it? Well, here is how it works: if I go to my bank tomorrow and request a loan over $100,000 and the loan is granted, all the bank needs to do is add $100,000 to the number on file in a computer, my account, and that’s it. Well, not quite. In return for this generous act of creating $100,000, I must promise to pay back the money, which the bank generated out of nothing, and pay it back with interest. This promise is a debt the bank puts into their books as well. But from the day the number is added to my account, I have to pay interest, whether or not I convert this number into physical currency or not. And the true problem with this system lies in the fact that to pay back the money with interest, the total amount of money has to increase. And the amount by which it has to increase in any given amount of time, the interest rate, is not controlled by anyone, not even the central bank! It is “set” by the “market”, but in a free-market economy you have supply and demand, but since the money I took out on the loan didn’t even exist before I took it, the supply is endless, and the price should be much lower.

Also, the total amount of money in all regular banks must grow, regardless of whether and how it is spent, simply by the fact that it exists (in the banks’ computers). And given that banks have very little motivation in having people pay back their loans early, as that would lower their profits, both the interest rate as well as the suggested payments are in favor of prolonging the loan term and bank profits.

Now, it is often argued that the interest rate is the price for the risk of the bank, but what exactly is that risk? Given that the money was generated out of thin air only at the time the loan was made, the risk only materializes in the case of a default of the lender, in which case the promise the bank has put into their books has to be written off. But the people running the bank are unlikely to be personally liable should the case occur that a huge number of people default all at once. This has led, in the past, to the incentive of giving out more and more loans even to people who the banks sort of had to know would not be able to keep their promise of paying back the loan, because the risk is deferred to the future, and only threatens the bank, but not the people making the bad decisions. And to top it all off, those “bad loans” were then bundled together into “good packages” and re-sold to investors who wanted to put their profits, in part coming from interest payments of people already in debt of course, to “good use”.

Given that it is not the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges for central bank money but rather the average interest rate of lenders that determines the amount of additional money required in the system, any inflation that occurs–that is to say the ratio between money in existence and all available goods produced by an economy in a given time–remains largely invisible to the people, until the point comes when those who have profited from the system were to try and “cash out”. And until that point comes, those who “have” will always become those who “have more” and vice versa… In other words, while the current system lasts, all but those “invested” in financial market products will become disenfranchised over time. Even big industry players are suffering from this, which might be one of the reasons for the Koch brothers to support the Tea Party rather than the GOP establishment.

Finally, the belief that our economy is a free market driven by supply and demand is incorrect in at least two regards: First, money cannot be scarce, given that it is created by banks whenever a loan is taken out. And to pretend otherwise so as to keep people in the mood of paying a high price for it is, in my eyes, simply unethical. Second, if people truly had a choice about what “work” they could “offer” on the market, my guess is that certain jobs would pay much better than they do. And the reason that they don’t pay better doesn’t lie in the supply of those services or, put more accurately, in the willingness to do so, but rather in the fact that they seemingly do not require highly specialized training.

Given that our current economy requires people to sell their “workforce” to either acquire currency (cash) or the “right” to obtain money from a bank by having someone “deposit” money into their account, this in the end leads to the potential for a modern-day slavery system, where those people without preexisting means, such as owning monetary wealth or other ways to generate income, or specialized knowledge are essentially forced to sell their workforce at “market value”, which in a industrialized economy drops to ever lower amounts if those who can offer unprivileged services increase in number.

But contrary to talent-searching shows on TV, people who really matter in our daily lives, such as policemen, teachers, security guards, or simply the person who always holds the door open when someone doesn’t have a free hand to do it themselves, will never appear during prime-time, and yet it is those people who truly make our lives better. If our economy were to go through another recession, which it very well might if the burden of debt isn’t brought down to bearable levels, who is going to have a greater impact on my life with their talents? Some “talented” rich kid with the added bonus of being able to impeccably smile in front of the cameras, or yet the hard-working, honest average American who does not expect the system to provide luxury but a simply a decent way of living? I put my bet on the latter “talent” any old time!

And as long as the political debate solely focuses on how to improve the economy for those who are already in power and well off, the general population will hardly ever see any real improvement. So, who would I vote for? At the moment I would say: I wouldn’t vote at all. Maybe if enough people send the message that neither candidate is worthy to lead America out of this mess, the required momentum to rebuild the political process and debate from the bottom up will finally come together. But it seems that we rather prefer to support a broken system based on partially false beliefs, because that way we can at least dream of being rich, instead of being free and happy. What did the Declaration of Independence say again…? I think I have to do some reading!