The near economic future

Better get used to those bread dinners. (Illustration picture from my “Micropolis” story, made with The Sims 2, set in a near future of economic hardship, and written before it happened.)

It is hard to say whether people are deluded or just ignorant. They refer to the bursting of the Great Property Bubble as “recession”, and technically this is true enough: When economic output shrinks for two consecutive quarters, you have a recession according to the most common definition. When there is a quarter of growth, the recession is over. Technically, this too came to pass in the USA, and the government congratulated itself on a job well done and continued with something else that it had not been elected for. (Regardless of whether this was a good thing or not.) Unfortunately for them, most people don’t live on Wall Street and have a rather different idea of when the recession is over: When there are new jobs again.

So, when will there be new jobs again? Not anytime soon, is my guess. More important, they will likely not be in the same parts of the economy. Or we should hope not. For a long time, America has been on a spending spree, driven by borrowing and consumption. As any responsible adult knows, you cannot do that forever. You have to start earning your own money. In the case of a country, this means export. That won’t be easy, since you have to compete with established trade routes. You have to either export cheaper goods, better quality or something new that the competition does not have yet. America has a natural advantage only in the third part, as a country of boundless creativity. And it will be a race just to stay in place, as others will copy them as soon as they can. Still, it is possible to get a foothold in the market, as Microsoft showed with its Windows operating system. While there is widespread piracy, there has been no legitimate competition worth writing home about. Sometimes, an initial success can land you decades of leadership. America needs a lot of this to pay its bills.

Unfortunately, as I said, this probably won’t help most of those who got laid off when the property bubble burst. Actual construction workers will likely go back to work eventually, as continued population growth will make it necessary to build new (and cheaper) housing, but they will have a rough time until that happens. It is hard to see many of them going into building intellectual property.

For Joe Plumber to get his job back, as opposed to the occasional stray job, the new growth has to be strong enough to spread throughout society. And there has to be enough of it to replace the imaginary money – fairy money as I once called it – from the bubble economy.

Of course, it is more tempting to create another bubble. In fact, I already call the current economy a “government bubble” (a phrase I believe I picked from conservative economic publisher Forbes). In reality, government cannot inject money into the economy, as government does not have its own money, only yours. So the money it has injected into the economy has to be paid off in the future, either by higher taxes or reduced services. You don’t need to be right-wing to realize this, you just have to not be an idiot. (I won’t get into details on whether all leftists really are idiots, but if they think governments can create wealth directly they are certainly superstitious. The role of the government is to create the conditions for making money, not the money itself.)

There is another problem ahead: Oil prices. You may remember that during the last months of the boom, oil prices were unnaturally high. They then crashed to a fairly low level, about $40 a barrel instead of $140. But soon they bounced back up to about $80, which is quite a lot for the greatest recession since the Great Depression. To compare, during the recession a generation ago, oil prices were close to $10. The reason is of course that the global economy involves many more countries and many more people now. China and India are now industrialized, not populated mainly by farmers planting rice by hand. Even much of Africa has started to build roads, at least those nations not in a state of war or civil war. At the same time, the world may have reached “peak oil”, the point where production cannot easily be increased and will eventually begin to shrink.

There are horror fantasies being peddled about Peak Oil: Civilization will collapse, the rich will drive horse buggies and the commoners will walk on foot, as we cannot even operate the factories to make bicycles. This is pure bull. The decline of available oil is gradual, and will take the form of gradually higher prices. There is also enough coal left for some decades after that, and while coal is not suited for car engines, it works quite well for smelting ore and even creating electricity, if you are willing to live with the risk of global climate change. Or you could use the remaining fossil fuel to build windmills, water turbines, solar power stations etc, as Obama and friends have proposed. Even if Americans are likely to reject this since they no longer are in love with Obama, Europe has been doing it for a while already. Norway is mostly powered by hydropower and Denmark has a substantial part of its electricity made from windpower. In Germany, there are subsidies for private buyers of solar panels.

With mass production, renewable energy is steadily becoming cheaper. However, this is a process that cannot be hurried beyond a certain pace. It can be slowed, but depends on innovation, so a higher pace cannot be dictated, only encouraged. That is difference between the old and the new economy. You can crack a whip over people picking cotton and shout: “Pick faster!” But you cannot crack a whip over inventors and shout “Invent faster!” – Well, you can, but it slows invention.

We are talking about a time horizon of 10-20 years here. By this I mean that we won’t see much of it until after 10 years, but we should see a lot of it within 20. Now, ten years is not much in terms of human history, but it is a very long time to go unemployed, especially in the USA. So I can certainly understand the government’s wish to borrow and spend to keep the economy running until then. But I believe they are still mistaken.

If the recession truly ends, in the sense that we have paid off and put behind us the whole sorry affair and continue as if nothing had happened, the economy will still not be at the boom level it was during the bubble years. That was fantasy money, made on the insane belief that you can keep selling houses to each other for ever higher prices without some way to earn the money to pay them. Without fantasy money, even a smooth and well functioning economy cannot grow at that kind of speed. So expectations should not be set any higher than the kind of growth we had before the bubbles started.

There is another problem. It won’t happen if government puts on the brakes now, but if the public borrowing and spending spree continues, it could happen. When the financial bubble burst, we got a financial crisis; people lost faith in the banks. What will we do if people lose faith in the government? What if American shops start saying “No, you can’t pay with dollars here”? This is basically what happened in Germany between the wars, and just recently in Zimbabwe. When a government cannot find any more creditors, it will start running the money press, printing the money it needs, and in short order make it worthless. That is pretty far off now, but we will want to stay well clear of it. Even if that means we cannot pretend the government can fix all problems.

The most likely future, however, is one in which taxes rise for all except the very poor. Unemployment remains high. Those who are willing to live soberly, without luxury, will gradually be able to retrain to new jobs, unless they are too old or too poor or mentally challenged. An unpleasant time by recent standards, but not the end of the world.

Before spring

Where is the beauty of spring?

I went for a walk, bringing my camera. But the day was one between winter and spring. The pure white cover of the snow, like the innocence of childhood, was melted away. But it did not reveal the bright green hues of new life. Instead, a scene looking like the end of life. Trees naked, barren, as if dead. The ground brown with fallen leaves, ghostly memories of a summer long past and its tragic end. As if on a planet barely fit for life, only lichen and mosses still seemed undaunted. Even the occasional green straw was covered by yellow stiff corpses of its brethren, like a survivor from a massacre, spared by oversight. An occasional conifer stood dark and brooding, as if wondering how long it could stay awake alone. All the trials of winter I have endured, and for this? In the frozen light of the photo lens, the land seemed desolate like the soul of a sinner on his first day of repentance, shocked by the sight of the decay and ugliness that had been hidden under the whiteness of ignorance. The sun seemed to hold harsh light but little warmth. There was no way for the inexperienced to know that this was the beginning of the Age of the Sun, which will inevitably call forth life abundant.

It was a strange walk. Going there, my photo lens was looking at this barren land, but the eye of my soul was already seeing the beauty that has barely yet begun to stir within, like a longing, in the rising sap of the trees, in the roots of the grass, in the spring flower buds still making their way up through the soil.

And so this is my resolution, though I am not sure if I have the strength to hold on to resolutions if I ever come to need them. But if I can, this is what I will do: When my barrenness is uncovered, and the glare of the light seems to grow harsher for each day, I will believe in the Age of the Sun. And I will feel within for the slow soft stirring that whispers toward the light: “Grow brighter yet!”

Beyond mere sanity

“You are insane” states a llama (!!) in a comment to Saturday’s somewhat controversial entry. At least it is not yet a donkey rebuking me, although I guess a llama is pretty close.

Those are dangerous words to utter, at least in the context of religion, but I cannot be too harsh: I myself once hurled the same words thoughtlessly at a better man than me. (My brother, to be exact.) Words come easy to those who do not need to make account for them before the Light, so it is anybody’s guess how serious is the llama’s concern for my mental health. Is it just a fire-and-forget missile of indignation, or do they truly care about my wellbeing? It would probably help if one knew more about their identity than just the species. But why not take it seriously? I have a lot to say about sanity. Or at least the voices in my head have…

I don’t know many insane people. A couple of them only, although I know well what is called “everyday psychopathology”: Phobias, obsessions, compulsions, projections, quirks and so on. As my father used to tell me when I was just a boy: All are mad, and he who is most sane is just the least mad. But neurosis is one thing, psychosis another. To be insane, you have to pretty much be unable to take care of yourself or at least unable to contribute to society.

Now, I don’t contribute to society genetically, so I am already somewhat dubious in that regard. But I still hold my job, and as a matter of fact, lately I have started loving it and making an effort to become better at it, thanks to the crazy cult, or perhaps thanks to the brainwave entrainment. It is hard to say since both are fairly new in my life, but I think the work thing is largely inspired by Master Okawa’s books, because I remember reading some passages there and realizing that I had completely misunderstood the role of work in my life.

But back to the concept of “mere sanity”. By this I mean that what passes for sanity is hardly worthy of being my highest aspiration, even in this highly advanced corner of the world and at this time of education and plenty.

There is, as I said, the everyday psychopathology. There is rarely a man or woman without some quirk or some disturbance that irks themselves or those around them. Some are afraid of taking the elevator or closing the door to the toilet, for fear that they may be trapped in the small closed space. Some are on the contrary afraid of crossing open places. Some are afraid of other people looking at them, some are afraid of being alone. Some are afraid of silence, some of the sounds they hear in the dark. Human ingenuity in misery is astonishing. And yet, this is not all. It is rather the tip of the iceberg.

When I look at the behavior that is socially accepted, even encouraged, sometimes lauded, I myself hardly find it worthy of envy. There I see people whose joy or lack thereof depends on whether a football team has won or lost a match, and a team where neither they nor anyone in their family is a member at that. There I see people who worry loudly about global warming, but eat mounds of beef and drive large cars. There I see those who bemoan the imperfections of their available health care, but who eat large helpings of fat and synthetic fructose and then sit down in front of the television for the evening.

Does it end there? If only! We are just warming up. There are two enormous delusions that terrorize the current civilization, off the top of my head. One, the most tragic on a personal scale, is the belief that happiness is something others are obliged to give us. This takes many forms, but basically they all amount to this: “If the other person would do what I wanted, I would be happy, but now I cannot be happy because they don’t live up to my expectations.” Of course, this is usually mutual. This is the madness against which Master Okawa and I are allies, though there are precious few others I can call on. It is obvious once you have actually experienced it that happiness comes from within, and depends mostly on our own choices.

The second, which is most tragic for the whole planet, is the insane intertwining of wealth and reproductive success. In a not too distant past, this was actually meaningful, for starvation was never far off for the common man, not to mention the common woman and child. A man who could display his potential as a provider during the next famine was the natural center of female attention. There may also have been an element of the instinct that forces the male weaver bird to spend a long time building a highly elaborate nest to impress the female: If he can do all this and still have time to eat and not be eaten by predators, he must have healthy genes, let’s come get them. This is fine as long as you are a bird making nests from branches, leaves, and discarded plastic foil. But when a highly intelligent species sets out to compete for their bare life to display the most wealth, regardless of the price in natural resources, pollution, species extinction and future environmental collapse… “Love hurts.” It hurts the whole planet.

There are of course the lesser evils I rail against: The notion that you will make friends by chewing gums and drinking soft drinks (I suppose it could happen, but listening to people and remembering their preferences is far more effective). The belief that being born on the right side of some line on a map makes you inherently superior to those on the other side. The rapid exchange of sex partners instead of taking time to cultivate true intimacy. Hell, throw in the whole porn industry, as if people did not have enough imagination or everyday life was not exciting enough. The insanity goes on and on.

I won’t say sanity is overrated. Quite the opposite. There is way too little of it. And I will take any allies I can find to make people stop and think: What the hell am I doing? Even when the “people” in question is myself.

Superpower: Blessvision

One of the useful things I have learned from Japanese TV is that when a toddler makes a sincere effort to start on the path toward becoming an astronaut, they will begin shining with a bright light.

This entry may be offensive to atheists. You should definitely start with something even more general. There are many truths that are expressed in religion but that are actually relevant to all vaguely sane humans, such as “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. Anyone who actually tries this can verify it for themselves. But what I want to write about today will probably not make sense unless you are familiar with religion. So skip it if you can’t understand it.

I started this practice at a time when I was also getting into studying the books of Happy Science, so the two things have become a bit mixed together in my mind. But actually I picked this up from a modern contemplative Christian who mentioned it briefly in his LiveJournal. Basically, when you pass random people, try to silently say “Bless you” inside while focusing on them.

There are of course other expressions that can be used. Basically what it means is “may good things happen to you”. It is best to not be too specific about what you want to happen to them. The idea is not that you, the great and very important person, get to see it happen. The blessing may unwrap in the far future, at a point where they need it the most. Or they may just be spared some misfortune that they did not even know about. There are even events that are blessings in disguise, that don’t seem all that pleasant while they last. It matters not, just bless them, and don’t let them know.

I’ve been practicing this for months. Obviously I don’t compulsively bless every person in sight, at least not when I am in the city where people are swarming all the time. And I take time for other things sometimes, like reading on the bus instead of blessing every car we meet on the interstate. It is not something you do neurotically, it is an opportunity. Although it is in a sense a commandment if you are a Christian, for it is written: “Bless, and curse not!” and again, “but on the contrary bless; for to this you are called, that you may inherit the blessing.”

Now, doing this silently and briefly may seem pretty tame. I guess it is, but it is also very simple and does not take much time. You have nothing but your faith that it has any effect at all – on the other person. When it comes to yourself, it will definitely have an effect if you are serious about it and keep at it for weeks or months. Because when you bless others, it kind of seeps into your own substance. Same for curses, of course, but who would want to try that?

Now you may argue that this is a replacement for actually doing anything good for people. That is not at all true. It is a preparation for actually doing something good for people. It builds a mindset, an attitude where it becomes natural to bless others. And that means, at the very least, that it becomes less natural to try to take from them. You become more aware that other people are as real as you are, and you start thinking of ways in which your life can be useful for others.

OK, to be honest I am not sure how much of that thinking comes from looking at people to bless them, and how much comes from studying the books of Happy Science. But I am pretty sure the blessing is a fairly large part of it. So this is part of why I have turned around completely regarding work: I used to see it as divine punishment, and I looked forward to getting home and being alone, I looked forward to the weekend when I did not need to go to work. Now, I look forward to going to work on Monday morning, knowing that I will have an opportunity to turn my blessings into action, however poorly and incompetently yet. I may not be able to do much, but I can do it with the attitude of love and wishing the best for the people I try to help.

As for today’s title: There is a special state of mind that comes when you focus your attention on someone and think “I bless you on behalf of God who has an ever renewing ocean of blessings and loves you eternally. May good things happen to you from now on and in the future.” It is this state of mind we condense into the simple words “Bless you!”. What I am training at now is to condense this further, so that merely by looking at someone and recreating that state of mind wordlessly, I will be able to convey my blessing just with a glance. This is what I lightheartedly call “bless-vision”. I am certain that should anyone meet my eyes at such a time, they will know to some extent that they are being blessed, much as you notice when someone looks at you angrily or lustfully. But mainly it is a matter of efficiency.

My goal, which I admit is far from certain in this lifetime, is to be able to uphold a steady bless radiance, in which blessings radiate from me to every person and creature and thing nearby that can possibly receive it. That is obviously a pretty extreme goal, and as I said, not necessarily something I can achieve in this lifetime, especially since I have wasted so much of my life already and entered into a habit of wasting it continuously. But it should be possible. There are definitely people who live like these. This is what in Buddhist literature is translated as “compassion”. It is a love that has no object, but is given without conditions and without restrictions. But this is not something I can do, or more exactly be (for it is existence as love) and I am well aware that I am far from this.

Perhaps I am like a toddler who wants to become an astronaut. It is a fact that there are extremely few astronauts in the world, and will be for the foreseeable future. Very few toddlers grow up to become astronauts. But all astronauts have once been toddlers. So I intend to keep toddling. That is my plan, Light willing.

Utopia and the freeconomy

If money was our only motivation, only idiots would become teachers. Not that it would matter, since nobody would give birth to children in the first place. But what does this have to do with Utopia? Read and find out!

We are living in troubled times. There are wars and rumors of wars, and due to first high food prices and now the financial crisis, millions of people have sunk down into poverty over the last year or two. It is natural that many people living in this world today feel gloomy. And with unstable regimes gaining nuclear weapons – and some of them probably qualify as mentally unstable as well – the fears of massive destruction are returning a generation after the Cold War ended. It seems like a bad time to stand up and shout: “Turn your mind around, for Utopia is near! Listen to my words and let us together create a Golden Age!”

And yet, the objective truth is that we are living in an age of almost unbelievable affluence for much of mankind. Even as America and some nations that depended on her has had a bad year, economic growth in China remains far above what we in the west would call a boom. Many developing countries have continued to develop, as far as each of them was independent on western financing. And even in the valley of recession, most people in the West have a standard of living their grandparents could not have dreamed of. I know this because I was there, but there are plenty of books, old newspaper archives and movies from 50 years ago. It is a scientific fact that for all classes of western society, living standards have improved and life expectancy has increased. Yet we rarely celebrate this. A large part of the gloom is of our own making, then. We quickly adapt to what we have, but mourn our losses for far longer, and even feel the loss of what we never had. If we turned our mind around, we would already be living in a Golden Age. (I have cheated a little and already done this before I started writing, so I know this from experience.)

Today I want to write once more about a special part of the Golden Age, which I have mentioned before but not in this context. It is what we call the “freeconomy”. The word is obviously a combination of free (as in not costing anything to get) and “economy”. This is a poorly explored field, because it should not have existed according to most economic theories.

Economics is based on the notion that people will do anything for money and nothing without it. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. The ruling economic systems in the world today are based on a species that does not exist on our planet. This is rather famously said about communism, but it is to a large degree also true of capitalism. While more realistic than its eastern counterpart, capitalism is still breaking down past a certain point, namely the point where our physical needs are actually filled.

The fact is that when we have food, clothes, a roof and some such stuff, we start wanting to realize our inner nature. How much money this requires varies depending on each of our nature. Traveling is still fairly expensive, while there are other people whose inner nature manifests in making things from nothing and giving them away. Economic theory breaks down in face of such people. The solution society has found is to apply relentless pressure on the populace to create artificial needs through intense, manipulative advertising. If you have been away from television for months and get to see some of their ads, you will cringe at the crass and completely unrealistic message. But as long as almost everyone is bathed in this message from toddlerhood onward, it works, keeping people down in in an artificial state of need.

When I call modern emotional advertising satanic, I am not merely using the word mythologically, but quite literally. The Hebrew word “satan” supposedly means “adversary, one who plots against another”. These people pretend to be helpful to you, but their success depends on keeping you from discovering free and lasting sources of happiness, much less making other people happy. I ask you to stop for a few seconds to think: Will you believe those who use you like a milking cow, over someone who freely gives his time and his money to try to reach you with a message that will make you happy forever? Which of these two has the motivation to tell you the truth?

Here and there, scattered people are breaking free. The reason may vary. Almost the whole world of blogging, for instance, is a facet of the freeconomy. People contribute their knowledge, their insight, their experience for free, or even in some cases pay to reach a larger audience. Of course, much of this is very nearly worthless, but they still try. And in the world of entertainment, the freeconomy is now a big part. People write short stories and whole novels and publish them on the Net for free. A multitude of online comics are available for those who like that, more than you could possibly read each day and still keep a job. Most free games are still quite simple (though you can download free chess programs that are a match for any non-professional player), but even commercial computer games have a whole underbrush of free additions made by their fans. And of course there i Linux, the free operating system that is now on a similar level as Windows and in some ways better.

While the most obvious signs of the freeconomy are online, I will go further and claim that there is an element of it in ordinary employment. Here in Norway, for instance, you actually lose money by taking a long education. This comes from a combination of progressive taxation and a low spread in payment. People with a long education earn their money over fewer years, and so even if they earn a bit more each year even after tax, it is not enough to make up for the cost of their education, in many cases not by far. They still do it though, because they love their job. They are actually willing to lose money to do the job they want. This is a flagrant breach of the laws of economy. If economic theory was true, Norway would soon have one of the least educated work forces in the world, but the opposite is true. Depending on how you measure it, we are the top or one of the top 3. Because people can afford to lose that money, they do it, because they want to do what they love and love what they do.

When our physical needs are met, there are other needs that take priority. It is true that one of the most powerful is recognition, or praise. But the truth is also, as a much better man than I has said, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”.

Even if it did not bring joy, we would have been obliged to give something back to the society that gave us food, clothes, education, entertainment, communications. With all due respect for our parents – and for me and many others, our parents have been awesome – the fact is still that they in turn relied on the greater society to make our lives possible. And even after we grew up, we rely from day to day on a huge number of ordinary people who go about their work so we can have the essentials of civilized life: Yogurt, computer games and Internet access. If we are physically able, it should be morally compelling to work even if we did not get paid more than we needed to stay afloat.

But moral compulsion aside, doing something for others is a source of joy in its own right. I am sure you have felt this. There are of course many ungrateful people, and human nature is to think about these for days or decades after you met them. But if we shift our perspective and think of the times when we felt that our help reached someone? Do you remember the feeling you had at that time? The warm glow, the joy welling up inside when you saw a smile light up the face of someone you helped? When we consciously seek to help others through our job, and pay attention to the opportunity to give, there can be many such occasions.

Imagine a realm of Heaven, where all your physical needs have fallen away. You will never feel hungry or thirsty or tired or in pain. Yet, these absences are not in the long run sufficient cause for happiness. You can only so long go on thinking “yay, my head does not hurt, my neck does not hurt, my back does not hurt” etc. But if we add other people, things suddenly change. Because we can make each other happy with good words, and this comes at no cost to ourselves. In fact, on the contrary, we will feel that warm glow and joy inside when we bring a smile to the face of another.

Now, you may not believe in Heaven, but you probably do believe in Norway, which is a reasonable approximation. Oh, we still can have pain here, but due to the widespread high standard of living, we don’t have to worry about food, clothes, roof and walls. In a society like this, work is not simply a way to stay alive. It can be either a way to earn more and more money and waste it trying to gain happiness by curling up around your own desires, or a way to help others and bring a smile to the face of a stranger. Which of these do you think makes people more happy? Yes, that was a leading question, but it is still trivially true. Even if you were emperor of Earth, you could never get everything you wanted, because your wants would simply grow to always exceed what you could give them. This is human nature. But even if you are just an entry-level worker, if you work with something that benefits others, you can imagine the smile on their face when they realize what you have done for them, and you feel that warm glow in your heart and mind.

Take away the satanic brainwashing of modern advertising, replace it with simple truth, and the advanced societies like Norway would immediately be able to enter a golden age where people were motivated to work by the joy they would bring to others, rather than by their raging desires. Utopia is that close. We just have to stand up to the lies, lift the radiant torch of simple truth, and grasp the better world that is just within reach. Best of all, we can do this one by one. There is nothing to say that we can’t help others AND get paid for it. I do this each workday, and perhaps you do too, but you may not have seen it in that light. Please do. Think about how you can help bring happiness to others with the work you would do anyway, at the workplace or in your home. When we start seeing things this way, we can see that the Golden Age is right here, right where we are.

Turn your mind around, for Utopia is at hand!