Monday, September 29, 2008

"Goldilocks Market" - Competition on the Edge of Chaos

What "philosophical" issue could justify posting this photo of me precariously negotiating the wet sands of Daytona Beach on a bicycle yesterday?


Well, it is the "Goldilocks Market" at the heart of the present financial mess.

As you'll recall, in the famous Goldilocks and the Three Bears fable the young home intruder finds three bowls of porridge, one too hot, the other too cold and the third "just right". Similarly, beds were too hard, too soft and "just right".

It seems we've slipped from too much regulation to too little and are now searching for what is "just right". How to navigate the narrow "just right" line between the "bulls" and the "bears"?

In the era of too much regulation, the economy was mired in the doldrums with a slow growth rate. Then, with less regulation, things picked up, competition increased, consumers found a wide variety of excellent products and services available at great prices, and house values continued to increase. Things were "just right".


However, the situation of a business in a competitive market may be thought of as like a surfer "catching a wave" and staying "on the edge of chaos". I watched some surfers at Daytona Beach. If they were not aggressive enough, they would slip behind the wave and end up in the doldrums of the flat ocean, waiting for the next wave. If they were too aggressive, they would fall off the sweet spot at the head of the wave and into the chaos of the churning waters. The waves at Daytona on Saturday were not big enough for most of the surfers and very few managed to catch the wave. (Too much "regulation"?)

Was it the lack of sufficient regulation that led many financial services executives to become too aggressive and ignore the risks, taking their companies into the abyss of failure? Or, was it the knowledge that their firms were "too big to fail" and that we US Government Taxpayers were bound to come to their rescue? I think it was a combination of both.

Over the past few decades, we taxpayers have bailed out: 1970-Penn Central RR $3.2B, 1971-Lockheed $1.4B, 1974-Franklin Natl. Bank $7.7B, 1975-New York City $9.4B, 1980-Chrysler $3.9B, 1984-Continental Illinois Bank & Trust $9.5B, 1989-Savings and Loans $294B, 2001-Airline Industry $18.6B, 2008-Bear Stearns $30B -Fannie/Freddie $200B -AIG $85B -Auto Industry $25B -Financial Industry $700B (proposed).

It seems to me we have established a pattern here of "Main Street" bailing out "Wall Street". Is it fair to force ordinary taxpayers, working hard for a living and making due in small homes and cars to "pay the piper" for the excessive parties of the rich and infamous business and financial elite?

I'd like to see them "stew in their own juices" - but we've been warned that if we don't agree to yet another bailout, there could be another depression and we could all lose our jobs and homes and savings and retirement incomes and so on.

I'm not sure what the correct answer is, but I think CONgress (the opposite of PROgress) needs to spend at least as much time coming up with the correct solution as they did, for example, considering the issue of drugs in professional sports.


But, back to something I do know, the photo above. Automobiles are allowed to drive on Daytona Beach. They pack the sand down along a couple of lanes extending from about twenty feet from the top of the beach to about fifty feet. On Saturday, as the tide went down, I was able to bicycle along the auto lanes from our beachfront hotel north for four miles, almost to Ormand Beach. The sand was "just right" - not too dry or wet and solidly packed down.

I had to stop when I came to an area of dryish sand that was marked "4-wheel drive vehicles only". Apparently that area, while wet from the tides, is not packed down enough to support a car or, as I found out, a bicycle.

Packed wet sand poses an interesting physics problem. When it gets too dry it is too fluffy to support a car or bicycle. On the other hand, when totally under water at high tide, even the packed down auto lanes are too unstable to drive on. Conditions need to be "just right".

Well, the above photo was taken early Sunday morning, just an hour or so after the highest of high tide. The auto lanes were intermittently under water. The tide had receded a bit and the sand near the top of the beach was dryish but not packed down and the packed down sand in the auto lanes was too wet. However, after experimenting a bit, I found a narrow "Goldilocks zone" where the tide was receding and conditions were "just right".

I hope Congress and the President and the Treasury Secretary and all can do the same.

Ira Glickstein

Friday, September 19, 2008

What the Democrats don't Get

Here is another entry into the L/C-mind discussion.
I got it from the website. My comments are after the end of the article...
Stu Denenberg

By Jonathan Haidt
What makes people vote Republican? Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? We psychologists have been examining the origins of ideology ever since Hitler sent us Germany's best psychologists, and we long ago reported that strict parenting and a variety of personal insecurities work together to turn people against liberalism, diversity, and progress. But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

Diagnosis is a pleasure. It is a thrill to solve a mystery from scattered clues, and it is empowering to know what makes others tick. In the psychological community, where almost all of us are politically liberal, our diagnosis of conservatism gives us the additional pleasure of shared righteous anger. We can explain how Republicans exploit frames, phrases, and fears to trick Americans into supporting policies (such as the "war on terror" and repeal of the "death tax") that damage the national interest for partisan advantage.

But with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies, and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.
I began to study morality and culture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. A then-prevalent definition of the moral domain, from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel, said that morality refers to "prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other." But if morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom? There is no rational or health-related way to explain these laws. (Why are grasshoppers kosher but most locusts are not?) The emotion of disgust seemed to me like a more promising explanatory principle. The book of Leviticus makes a lot more sense when you think of ancient lawgivers first sorting everything into two categories: "disgusts me" (gay male sex, menstruation, pigs, swarming insects) and "disgusts me less" (gay female sex, urination, cows, grasshoppers ).

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified Turiel's definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).
This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. ("Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family.") From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?
After graduate school I moved to the University of Chicago to work with Shweder, and while there I got a fellowship to do research in India. In September 1993 I traveled to Bhubaneswar, an ancient temple town 200 miles southwest of Calcutta. I brought with me two incompatible identities. On the one hand, I was a 29 year old liberal atheist who had spent his politically conscious life despising Republican presidents, and I was charged up by the culture wars that intensified in the 1990s. On the other hand, I wanted to be like those tolerant anthropologists I had read so much about.
My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me. I watched people bathe in and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine.

It only took a few weeks for my shock to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them (remember that first principle of moral psychology) it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, and fulfilling one's role-based duties, were more important. Looking at America from this vantage point, what I saw now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused. For example, when I boarded the plane to fly back to Chicago I heard a loud voice saying "Look, you tell him that this is the compartment over MY seat, and I have a RIGHT to use it."

Back in the United States the culture war was going strong, but I had lost my righteous passion. I could never have empathized with the Christian Right directly, but once I had stood outside of my home morality, once I had tried on the moral lenses of my Indian friends and interview subjects, I was able to think about conservative ideas with a newfound clinical detachment. They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn't think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to "thicken up" the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men. I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later), and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.
On Turiel's definition of morality ("justice, rights, and welfare"), Christian and Hindu communities don't look good. They restrict people's rights (especially sexual rights), encourage hierarchy and conformity to gender roles, and make people spend extraordinary amounts of time in prayer and ritual practices that seem to have
nothing to do with "real" morality. But isn't it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition? Might we do better with an approach that defines moral systems by what they do rather than by what they value?
Here's my alternative definition: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness, two of which are most relevant for understanding what Democrats don't understand about morality.
First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill's vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other's rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama's calls for "unity") to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.

Psychologists have done extensive research on the moral mechanisms that are presupposed in a Millian society, and there are two that appear to be partly innate. First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him." A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.

A Durkheimian ethos can't be supported by the two moral foundations that hold up a Millian society (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). My recent research shows that social conservatives do indeed rely upon those two foundations, but they also value virtues related to three additional psychological systems: ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals. Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.
In The Political Brain, Drew Westen points out that the Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don't understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.
Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group. Durkheim long ago said that God is really society projected up into the heavens, a collective delusion that enables collectives to exist, suppress selfishness, and endure. The three Durkheimian foundations (ingroup, authority, and purity) play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.

The Democrats must find a way to close the sacredness gap that goes beyond occasional and strategic uses of the words "God" and "faith." But if Durkheim is right, then sacredness is really about society and its collective concerns. God is useful but not necessary. The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals—each with a panoply of rights--but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring. Our national motto is e pluribus unum ("from many, one"). Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum. They widen the sacredness gap.

A useful heuristic would be to think about each issue, and about the Party itself, from the perspective of the three Durkheimian foundations. Might the Democrats expand their moral range without betraying their principles? Might they even find ways to improve their policies by incorporating and publicly praising some conservative insights?

The ingroup/loyalty foundation supports virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that can lead to dangerous nationalism, but in moderate doses a sense that "we are all one" is a recipe for high social capital and civic well-being. A recent study by Robert Putnam (titled E Pluribus Unum) found that ethnic diversity increases anomie and social isolation by decreasing people's sense of belonging to a shared community. Democrats should think carefully, therefore, about why they celebrate diversity. If the purpose of diversity programs is to fight racism and discrimination (worthy goals based on fairness concerns), then these goals might be better served by encouraging assimilation and a sense of shared identity.

The purity/sanctity foundation is used heavily by the Christian right to condemn hedonism and sexual "deviance," but it can also be harnessed for progressive causes. Sanctity does not have to come from God; the psychology of this system is about overcoming our lower, grasping, carnal selves in order to live in a way that is higher, nobler, and more spiritual. Many liberals criticize the crassness and ugliness that our unrestrained free-market society has created. There is a long tradition of liberal anti-materialism often linked to a reverence for nature. Environmental and animal welfare issues are easily promoted using the language of harm/care, but such appeals might be more effective when supplemented with hints of purity/sanctity.

The authority/respect foundation will be the hardest for Democrats to use. But even as liberal bumper stickers urge us to "question authority" and assert that "dissent is patriotic," Democrats can ask what needs this foundation serves, and then look for other ways to meet them. The authority foundation is all about maintaining social order, so any candidate seen to be "soft on crime" has disqualified himself, for many Americans, from being entrusted with the ultimate authority. Democrats would do well to read Durkheim and think about the quasi-religious importance of the criminal justice system. The miracle of turning individuals into groups can only be performed by groups that impose costs on cheaters and slackers. You can do this the authoritarian way (with strict rules and harsh penalties) or you can do it using the fairness/reciprocity foundation by stressing personal responsibility and the beneficence of the nation towards those who "work hard and play by the rules." But if you don't do it at all—if you seem to tolerate or enable cheaters and slackers -- then you are committing a kind of sacrilege.

If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns. They should then consider whether they can use more of that spectrum themselves. The Democrats would lose their souls if they ever abandoned their commitment to social justice, but social justice is about getting fair relationships among the parts of the nation. This often divisive struggle among the parts must be balanced by a clear and oft-repeated commitment to guarding the precious coherence of the whole. America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom.

Unity is not the great need of the hour, it is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation. The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.

I liked this article and generally agreed with most all of Haight's hypotheses.
However, I found this paragraph to be misleading:
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.
The above paragraph implies that conservatives are not only more complete but more diverse in their ethical positions than liberals. I don't know the reliability and validity of the statistical analysis of the surveys but I find it hard to believe that liberals do not care about "ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity". I think everyone cares about all five of these issues but to varying degrees. I would even go so far as to say that everyone has has the capacity for every belief,emotion and action, good and evil, as everyone else --- but these vary according to the individual which, I guess, is just another way of saying that we're all human.
And to end on a lighter note, here is a "joke" that even a liberal/independent like myself has trouble arguing with... HOW AND WHY I BECAME A CONSERVATIVE - nonfiction Discussion Forum

A little pertinent humor:

Right to the point and one of the big differences between Democrat and Republican outlook.

I was talking to a friend of mine's little girl, and she said she wanted to be President some day. Both of her parents, liberal Democrats, were standing there, so I asked her, "If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?"

She replied, "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless people."

"Wow - what a worthy goal!" I told her. "You don't have to wait until you're President to do that. You can come over to my house and mow, pull weeds, and sweep my yard, and I'll pay you $50. Then, I'll take you over to the grocery store where the homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50 to use toward food or a new house."

She thought that over for a few moments because she's only 6 years old. And while her Mom glared at me, the young child looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?"

And I said, "Welcome to the Republican Party." Her folks still aren't talking to me.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

T-Mobile@home with Competition

Our landline connection to the local telephone company has finally been severed! We are "free at last, free at last!" Well, not quite free - we'll be paying around $12 per month (saving about $25/month) and getting better features.

As I pulled the plug a couple days ago I reflected on the recent comment that mentioned the "ethics-free competition of capitalism". In my lifetime, telephone service has evolved from a "natural monopoly" with a single supplier and limited choice to a vibrant competitive marketplace with a wide variety of service options and prices suitable for nearly everybody. Lots of telephone operators and others lost their jobs, but many more new jobs were created, and, best of all, consumers now have tremendous communications opportunities at reasonable prices.


When I was young, we did not even have a telephone in our Brooklyn apartment. My parents made calls from pay phones. Incoming calls came to the candy store on our block and a kid would be dispatched to fetch us. When we finally got our own phone it was used almost exclusively for local calls because long distance was so expensive. Early in our married life we had a farm in a rural area of New York and experienced the joys of a four-party line.

I remember when the monopoly phone company would not even allow you to connect a "Brand X" phone to their lines because it might "disrupt" service to others - a "phone-y" excuse as we now know. Like all monopolies, the local phone companies provided minimum service, with little efficiency, and used inane "public service" excuses to keep competition out.


Well, along came cell phones, with multiple companies competing against each other and against landline phones. Some of our friends cut their landlines at that point. Then, with the advent of the Internet, and broadband connectivity to most households, along came Internet phone service. More and more of us are cutting our landlines, getting better service at lower prices.

We selected T-Mobile@home because we have T-Mobile cell phones and it is available for only $10/month plus tax and fees (a few bucks, we are not sure yet). Advantages: 1) You get to keep your old landline phone number, 2) all the existing phones in your home ring and can be used to make calls, 3) Your computer does not have to be on to receive or make calls, 4) The speed and voice quality are as good or better than a landline phone, 5) You can use your old answering machine and/or let the T-Mobile system record your voice mail, 6) Unlimited national long-distance is included, 7) Caller ID is included, 8) Call Waiting is included, 9) Call Forwarding is included., and 10) 911 works to alert emergency services to our home address.

We normally leave our old answering machine on and it intercepts and records voicemail normally. When we are away we can turn our old answering machine off and calls will be answered by T-Mobile voice mail -or- we can forward them so any calls to our home phone will ring on one of our cell phones. The only disadvantage of T-Mobile@home is that it fails if the electricity goes down (but that was the case already since all our phones are wireless and the base units need electricity to work) or if the Internet goes down (in which case we can use our cell phones.)

Our local phone bill, with Caller ID but no long-distance or Call Waiting or Call Forwarding, was over $37/month. We expect to save about $25/month once we recover the one-time $35 access fee and $50 wireless router fee.

There are many other Internet phone options if you have broadband service. They range from free to about $25 plus taxes and fees. If you are willing to leave your computer on to receive or make calls, you can sign up for services like Skype for free and make voice and video calls to others, WorldWide, who also have Skype and have mutually registered. Something called Magic Jack costs about $20/year and allows calls to be made and received nationally like a regular home phone. Services like Vonage cost about $25 plus tax and fees and appear to be similar to T-Mobile@home except you do not have to be a T-Mobile customer to qualify.

I expect other cell phone companies will be forced by the competition to offer $10/month home phone via Internet service. However, many cell phone companies are also in the landline business and will be reluctant to do so.


The main purpose of this posting is not to "sell" T-Mobile@home, although I certainly recommend it. My purpose is to counteract the media-sponsored idea that competition is somehow evil.

Fair competition - even the "cut-throat" variety - with government serving only to police standards and fair advertising and contracts, is far more responsive to consumers, and more efficient, than monopolies can ever be. Something that is now said to be a "natural monopoly" may, due to technology advances, no longer be so "natural". Beware of claims by monopolies that they are "protecting the public" or "assuring service to poor people or to rural people" or "protecting American jobs", etc. They are usually self-serving, anti-competitive, and, over the long run, bad for everybody, especially the poor and disadvantaged.

Ira Glickstein

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Socialist Utopia Found and Lost

A relative by marriage spent a number of years in a Kibbutz (communal living) in Israel. She recently described how this seemingly idealistic lifestyle, which she enjoyed when she lived there about forty years ago, has since succumbed to the worldly pressures of capitalism.

NOTE (added 10 Sep): At my invitation, the relative mentioned above has posted a Comment below, using the "Anonymous" option. As she mentions, there was lots of information coming at me rapidly and I was not taking written notes, so I got some information factually wrong. I thank my relative for Commenting and I have corrected my Topic text to indicate the corrections. [Changes are indicated by brackets. Material in quotes is from her Comment below.] My erroneous text has been grayed out. I appologize for the incorrect information I included in my original posting.

As she recounted her time in a small (100 person) non-religious (no rabbis allowed) kibbutz south of Beer Sheva in the Negev desert, I found myself drawn by the idealism of the concept and the reality that it could (and did) exist here on Earth during my lifetime. I was sorry to hear how and why she and her husband left the kibbutz for a new life in the US and how, on two subsequent visits, she found the original concept diluted to the point she hardly recognized it.

Could it be that this dedicated C-mind (me) has some L-mind memes kicking around?

Her utopian story awakened my idealistic, utopian imagination!


She was born and raised in the US in a non-practicing Jewish family and met her husband-to-be while he was visiting from Israel. He had spent his teenage years living on a kibbutz. They married and ended up living in a small kibbutz, one of a group of three that were some distance from each other and quite far from any other settlements.

Living arrangements were simple. Each couple had use of their tiny apartment with a bedroom and a shower and toilet. Everything else was communal.

Children lived in a separarate building and were, in essence, raised by the whole community. With only 100 people, everyone knew everyone else and took responsibility for every child. I was reminded of the saying "it takes a village to raise a child" - in this case it was literally true. (That "African proverb" was made famous by first lady Hillary Clinton's 1996 book It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.)

The main work at the kibbutz was farming. They raised much of their own food and sold the excess to fund purchases of supplies. There was sufficient social pressure to assure that everyone worked relatively hard. Work was distributed to everyone according to their abilities. For example, she told me, one man, who was blind, was kept busy sorting lumber by size by feeling it. Another, who was mentally handicapped, was given tasks he could accomplish despite his limitations. Everyone did their share of "grunt" work on the farm and took turns preparing, serving, and cleaning up after communal meals.

No one was paid for their work, except for a small "stipend" that could be used to buy personal items. Social pressure and the public nature of communal living assured that everyone consumed only what they needed.

No one was "in charge". She told me there was one designated person who dealt with the external authorities, but he had no special authority within the kibbutz. There were regular meetings attended by all adults and decisions were reached by general consensus.

Thus, the kibbutz was a living example of the Karl Marx slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" (1875). (I have refrained from calling this kibbutz "communist" because that word has gathered the "bad breath" of the totalitarian examples of Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. I think it is better to think of it as idealistic socialism.)


So, I asked, if it was so ideal, why did you and your husband leave?

Well, it turned out that her husband ["wanted to be a success in the business world."] was not satisfied with the productivity of the work arrangements. He, along with some others, wanted to start a factory and hire outsiders to work there and also supply labor for the farm. ["The philosophy of this kibbutz was that all work was to be done by members and if something required extra hands, that work would not be undertaken if it required becoming a 'boss' to outside 'workers.' This arose in one case because we had a few extra fields where peanuts or potatoes could be planted, but not enough 'hands' to do the work, so the fields remained fallow."] The problem with that was the idealistic idea that no one should have any employees and no one should work for anyone else. The whole problem with capitalism, according to this view, is ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class and the necessary exploitation of labor class that that system implies.

Shortly before she and her husband left the kibbutz, a decision was reached to purchase a communal TV set. That, in her opinion, was the beginning of the end of the kibbutz as she knew it!

They came to the US where they completed their educations and found professional employment and raised their family.


She made two subsequent visits to her former kibbutz and sadly recounted how things had changed.

A decision was reached to build a factory and hire outside workers. ["There is now a factory for polymers, but there are only three workers, none hired from outside. The crops have changed to amaryllis for export rather than crops for local and internal consumption. And there is the major difference that they have migrant workers for the fields (interestingly, from Thailand primarily) -- which is so against the Marxist philosophical foundation)."] With additional income, kibbutz members demanded larger stipends and used that money to purchase their own record players and other luxuries.

Children no longer lived in separate housing. Apartments were enlarged to accommodate entire families.

As outside workers were hired to work the farm, more and more kibbutz members found employment outside the kibbutz. The number of kibbutz members working the farm declined to six (out of the total membership that remained about 100). Those earning larger salaries in their outside employment objected to giving their entire earnings to the kibbutz to be shared equally with those working the farm. ["More members now work outside the kibbutz than inside the kibbutz, but it is not true that they resent having their larger salary pooled back into a central source. "] Demands were made for larger stipends and they were met. The level of privately-owned luxuries increased. ["As exposure to material comforts increases, through television and movies -- and the consumer movement, the stipends must grow."]

More and more non-kibbutz Israelis settled in areas near the kibbutz until it was no longer remote from outside influences. The kibbutz had houses built on some of their former farmlands and rented them to non-members. ["While some kibbutzem do rent out houses for outsiders, the kibbutz where I worked and lived does not. Interestingly, of the 100 plus people who lived there in the '60's, so many have remained! I was truly astonished at how many old friends were still there. Of course, the obverse is also true, I did not see that many new people and changes, such as the pending decision to allow individual automobiles, is being pushed by the newer members."]

I must confess I was sad to hear how their utopian, idealistic socialism had been corrupted by capitalistic tendencies. The kibbutz members were now owners of a factory and farm that employed others as laborers and also landlords of rental properties. Oy!


Well, we have been led to believe that democratic socialism does not go far enough and that "real communism" has never been tried.

The problem, we have been told, was with tyrants like Stalin and Mao and others who distorted communism and replaced the privileged capitalist class with "The New Class" (Milovan Djilas) of privileged Communist ruling elite.

The problem was the large scale of supposedly communist countries.

However, the story above has no tyrants at all. It is on a small scale of 100 people who voluntarily agreed to come together on a kibbutz. And yet, it still failed to maintain the idealistic utopian concept. [This apparently was an overstatement by me. My relative disagrees: "I think that by and large it still has maintained most of its Marxist underpinnings, but they are being eroded by time and a shrinking world. The kibbutz movement started primarily from a harsh need; how to survive and how to build an agrarian community with only a handful of people."]

Perhaps the problem is the basic concept: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"?

Perhaps it is irreversibly at odds with inate human nature?

Ira Glickstein