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Connections, Revisited

The clock goes off at a pre-set time, maybe launching a radio station that fills the air with familiar patter and music that you’ve come to rely on. You wander to the bathroom where the tap has hot water waiting and you can start your day on a schedule.  If you timed it right there’s time for a cup of coffee from Colombia, maybe a banana from Costa Rica or a swallow of orange juice from Brazil.  You might have some processed food taken from a box and reheated in a Chinese made appliance.

These are the systems you’ve come to rely on – as much as the systems have come to rely on you to be part of them.

Two years ago I wrote the magnum opus of Barataria, the Systemic Connections series, in an attempt to make sense of the whole process.  The intention was to provide a framework for us all to think past our daily grind or the big crises beyond our control and look at everything from a strong half-step back – just enough distance for some perspective, but not so far back that we can’t get our hands dirty.  If you haven’t read the epic 5-parter of some 4k words, please pour yourself a cup of coffee and give it a read.

Why get into such deep philosophy?  If it wasn’t obvious in 2009 it should be obvious by now – our world is changing rapidly in ways that none of us can control.  The old economy and politics that provided us with frameworks for understanding how it all fit together are passing into oblivion.   Entire careers are gone, policy makers are helpless, and our political system is broken.  Anyone who tells you they know just what comes next is probably delusional.

The problem with times like this is that paralysis is inevitable – on both a personal and systemic level.  People and institutions both are likely to do little but stand back and freeze like a scared bunny.

While we’re all petrified, I thought I’d provide some reading material.

The topic came up again, as it often does, in the comments you readers leave here on Barataria.  Last March, the first Hyman Minsky lecture was held at Washington University in St. Louis.  A link to the event was left as a response to a discussion on how we’ve lost a whole decade in this downturn, how we’re beginning to realize it finally, and how we should have seen it coming.  The usual stuff – for Barataria, that is.

If you’re not up for heavy reading material today, give the video a play.  It’s more than an hour long, but it’s worth it.

Hyman Minsky was an economist who was obsessed with the simple observation that there was a gap between micro or market economics and macro or systemic economics.  His seminal work is 30-50 years old, but he predicted that something like the mess we see was bound to happen someday.  Why?  Largely because we have that gap between the scales of our lives and the terrible disconnect between them.  That and our tendency to do what works best, stopping only when it is very obvious that it isn’t working anymore.  Tranquility and success always builds into it the seeds of its own destruction.

It may not seem like a lot of comfort to say that our situation is neither historically unique nor unexpected in the long scheme of things, but it should.  It’s the perfect antidote to fear, anger, and depression – none of which are very helpful on a personal or social level.

Whatever comes next will arrive a lot faster once we get to work.  What Minsky wrote about, and Barataria attempts to popularize, is a description of what that work is and how to approach it

An hour long lecture and a 5 post series may seem like a big slog.  It is.  The point is that the sooner we can get the world looking at the connections that bind people into a systems which create and define everything in our lives the sooner we can see what is really broken and set to work to fix it.

At some point, it should all become a bumpersticker slogan, but we’re not there yet.

The systems of life as we know it are indeed quite broken.  But we can still wake up every morning because some things are still truckin’ along, as are we all.  What are the connections in our life that make it happen?  Which ones are broken and in need of repair?  What are the new ones that might have a lot of promise?  Where it all starts is an understanding of connections themselves and how systems are built.  From that we can work as individuals to build whatever new systems will make up a tomorrow full of progress.

If you’re still bleary-eyed and not quite awake it may be a bit of a heavy load.  But give it a try when you can.  There’s nothing wrong with this world that a change in perspective can’t make a bit more obvious. And, as always, your perspectives are important for the same reason, so please let us in on them in the form of a comment!

Here’s that link again:  Systemic Connections

14 thoughts on “Connections, Revisited

  1. I will have to go back and read it when I have time. I remember it was brilliant, if lacking in conclusions. I know you want to get people to think differently before we get too deep into solutions but it’s hard for most of us to do that. Since you first put this up you’ve been much more specific and talked about solutions to the problems we have, which is much easier to relate to.

    I was not at all familiar with Minsky but it sounds like he influenced you a lot and was a pretty good thinker. I will catch up on that as well. Is this your end of summer reading list? 🙂

  2. Anna: I think it’s best to go back and forth – that’s why I wanted to write all this down in the first place. As we’ve gotten more into specifics and solutions it seemed like a good time to pull back a bit – especially after I got the reminder of how much Minsky has influenced my thinking.

    Yes, this is your summer reading list! 🙂 Seriously, I have a funny feeling that people will “get” this a little better than they did in 2009 now that we’ve been talking about it and events have moved more towards calamity. Remember, two years ago it was more than a bit heretical to call this a “Depression” (not that heresy every stopped me!).

  3. I am slow but I am beginning to get this. I see what you are saying as something other than individualism vs socialism or whatever it would be called. That seems helpful but you have to go a long way before you change people’s minds I think. If you want this to define a political movement it still has a long way to go and not just as a bumpersticker slogan.

  4. Jim: I can’t create a political movement out of nothing. But we all can together if we figure out what we need. That’s why comments are so important – they help refine and reshape the thinking into something more relevant and more easy to say. Having worked on my own “elevator speech” constantly for years, I have to tell you that I can deliver several of them quickly and easily – much better than they were the first time I tried.

    I felt we were getting a bit deep into how to interpret the data of our lives (which is getting lousy again) and it was time to pull back. Why is Initial Claims such a good number to follow? Because it’s closely linked to business health, especially in manufacturing (a key industry) and we get it in very real time. It’s those connections that make it useful, and understanding those connections help us to use it without falling into a bad “assumption trap”. As Minsky tells us we get used to certain behaviors and keep doing them long after they are useful, don’t want to do that.

  5. Dale: Trying to get a new Progressive movement together, seeing as the one we used to have is pretty well spent & useless. That’s going to take some intellectual leadership, for lack of a better way of putting it. This doesn’t lend itself to becoming dogma like the right-wing stuff has become, but … wait … that’s a good thing … 🙂

  6. Erik, thank you for posting the Systemic Connections series. You mentioned systems under stress and that got me thinking about farms–farm lives, farm economics, and farm politics. Bruce Gardner of the University of Maryland in an article on US agriculture in the twentieth century says,” Considering that the basic facts about twentieth century agriculture are not seriously in dispute, it is surprising how differently they are seen by different observers.”
    Here’s a link to the article
    Populism and progressivism in the US was partly borne out of the turmoil in farming. For most of the 20th century prices declined. The number of farms declined. Gardner does point out that there were 3 price spikes (1917-19, 1943-48, and 1973-74).” High-price periods have led farmers to take on debt and invest to an extent which has proven unsustainable, particularly in driving up land prices.” As we recall there was much sorrow in the US farming world when farms were foreclosed on by the banks. On the upside American agriculture fed America and parts of the world. We can be proud of that. Norman Borlaug is rightly a part of that triump.
    I bring this up to draw parallels to the failures and success of American housing. And to the successes and failures in American housing policy. There are different options for an improved housing policy but it ought to take into account how people feel about the failures and succes in American housing.
    On a somewhat tangential note I want to bring up Chinese lending to the US. According to the economist Martin Feldstein China’s investment in the US can be seen as a lost opportunity for them to invest in themselves. They have a long way to go in increasing per capita income. And the Chinese people do not have representative government. If they invested in themselves we would have more to export to them and the American taxpayer and American consumer would have to start paying up and stop living off the future.

  7. Smithson: As always, you bring up many great topic. First of all, it’s impossible to say enough about Minnesota’s own Norman Borlaug. I did my best when an interesting story came through:

    I haven’t said much about agriculture here partly because I’m not an expert and partly because I admit I am a bit confused by all the different things I read. But we do feed the world! It’s a great triumph of the US – and yet the American Farmer is always just barely getting by it seems. Your angle, which is the perception of success and what that means to policy, is a very interesting one. I love it when I get something to think about!

    I have been talking about China’s need to invest in T-Bills to maintain a US Dollar reserve against their need to invest in themselves. It has to kill them to have to take on our debt and they will certainly put pressure on ditching the US Dollar as the reserve currency when they are up against the wall. We have to come into conflict at some point because of their own internal conflict as well as our own (but aren’t all wars really like that, economic or shooting ones?)

    Good stuff to think about on a beautiful weekend day, thanks!

  8. so I am oddball enough to sort of listen to a lecture about Minsky, but nothing from it has jelled into a comment. I was more interested in pursuing the idea of connections made through social media and what role this will play in current /future institutions/economy. As a slow adopter/ Amish level user of these new technologies I got nothing there either. The one idea I have to contribute is off on my own tangent again. It is connecting Erik’s topic to analysis made by George Lakoff of the systems thinking displayed by Obama in a speech earlier this year. Obama Returns To His Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully! I don’t really have any insights on this either, other than it seems to tie into developing a new progressive movement.

  9. Laurie: Social Media as a connector is something I enjoy writing about, but I keep it to a minimum because others write on it and reader polls suggest it’s not the strong suit. But I do get to it once in a while, if for no other reason than to elicit comments.

    The Lakoff “frames” way of looking about public topics/debates is something I sort of assume, meaning it’s worth talking about fairly often. 🙂 But framing the New Progressive thinking is what I think we’re getting to after we use economists like Minsky (and, BTW, Graciela Chichilnisky for her work on Game Theory, even if she’s more known for climate change!) and linguists like Lakoff along with a few political theorists. Heck, maybe I should make a list of “experts” that we’re pushing together, eh?

  10. I have been thinking about this and I think that you have a very sly way of getting people to think about something other than themselves for once which is good. But I don’t know if it will take off because it is a bit dense. The more you can boil it down the better I think.

  11. Sheryl: I am working on it! But yes, I doubt things will get better as long as people are as selfish as they are now. It’s tough to organize people who don’t think beyond themselves. That is step #1, IMHO.

  12. Pingback: The Gig Economy | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

  13. Pingback: Owe the Future, Owe the Past | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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