Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A relevant encyclical? Dude, it’s the XXIst century!

For some segments of the educated population of Western nations, Religion (specially what used to be known as “revealed religion”, with its emphasis on a heteronomous source of rules and precepts on how to live) is something of the past. It may still grab headlines here and there (typically as the excuse bandied about by fanatics that do such unenlightened things as blow themselves up in populous areas or protest again abortion clinics, both equally egregious examples of anti-humane behaviors in the eyes of the progressive elite), but its role is bound to diminish until it is finally and completely extinguished. According to such worldview, a letter intended by the head of an established religion to “every person on earth” (not only to those of “good faith”, or even of any faith at all) is as little worthy of consideration as an ancient papyrus showing the strange beliefs of the Egyptians about the afterlife. Of some passing cultural significance but not really something one devotes any substantial time to seriously consider, as if it had any implication for your everyday life. So it is most surprising that such kind of letter (technically, an “encyclical”) from the Catholic Pope has received the kind of media attention that “laudato si” has received since its publication last week. Much of that attention derives from it touching, even tangentially, on a hot topic of the age (in this case, environmental degradation and specifically anthropogenic climate change), but also by upending some expectations firmly entrenched in the public mind (like the one that says that the pontiff of the Catholic Church must be a regressive bigot without much knowledge about what has been going on in planet Earth since the XIVth century).

We could safely state then that Francis’ latest “pastoral letter” has caused a media uproar, mostly favorable (I still have to read a European opinion piece overtly critical with the portions of the Pope’s message they have deigned to read), with a notable exception: USA conservatives are uniformly outraged, and they do not like the Pope’s message one bit. Here is David Brooks, in an uncharacteristically obtuse piece: Brooks at his most Panglossian, while here we have Ross Douthat, more nuanced and appreciative (well, the guy is an avowedly conservative Catholic, I guess the second feature still trumps the first): Douthat torn between God and Mammon but evidently troubled by what he sees as “wholesale rejection of the last 500 years of technological progress”. Krauthammer reaction is even more obtuse than Brooks’, so tinged with prejudice and unexamined assumptions (so the Catholic Church doesn’t have a brilliant track record in Science, huh? Well, that, without being entirely baseless, is rich coming from a mouthpiece of a movement that still has not made its peace with the theory of evolution…) that one can only wonder what Charlie smokes before spouting his usual dose of venom and  rancid stereotypes. Finally, here is Millman with a more cogent critique: Millman gets (most of) it, as he realizes some of the implications of the Pope’s position, but is of course (like all the others) too invested in what I have traditionally called “desiderative reason” not to be affected by the blinkers inherent in such construct, which can be summarized in the following tenets: growth is inherently good, because the ability to satisfy material needs (even if most of those needs have been artificially created) is also inherently good, the current system allows for the satisfaction of material needs in the advanced economies at an unprecedented level, ergo the current system is also inherently good, its effect on the environment or its abysmal failure in the not-so-advanced ones be damned. If you need proof of the unalloyed goodness of growth, look no further than at the moderately clean environments of the first world economies, and compare them with the filth and squalor of the less developed ones. If we conveniently forget that part of the comfort that the former enjoy is derived from the exploitation and the export of dirty industries to the latter, we could agree that more development following the dictates of that type of reason would substantially improve the conditions (and the environment) of the wretched of the earth (although it had to be decided first who would they exploit and whose lands would they despoil with their own detritus).

One thing we have to concede those conservative critics is the understanding of a feature of the encyclical’s argument that I’m afraid has been lost on many of his defenders. It is true, as Millman says, that it “hijacks” a traditional element of the conservationist agenda (the denunciation as moral evil of destroying the environment, and the recognition of the role of human “economic” activity in that destruction) for an end that was already set before that co-opting. The Catholic worldview has seen with suspicion the pursuit of material gain even before it was widely acknowledged that such pursuit, taken to its current extremes, has a highly undesirable impact on the whole ecology of the planet. So yep, for coherent Catholics the original problem is materialism and turning the accumulation of (material) wealth in the only goal of life, with the exclusion of everything else, and anthropogenic climate change is but a consequence of such original problem. Changing the climate (or causing the sixth great extinction, or more poetically put, turning beautiful Earth in a filthy dump) is in this view not bad in itself, but bad because it is the necessary manifestation of a twisted system of priorities, in which producing more gadgets (and the concomitant rat race and “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that has proved so successful to motivate whole societies in devoting ever increasing energies to that production) takes precedence over being good stewards of the Earth, or being “our brothers’ keepers” and treating with dignity the most unfortunate between us regardless of their personal merits, something that for conservatives of any persuasion is especially difficult to accept.

For traditional environmentalists there are components of this view that are even more difficult to accept, as they are heirs of the romantic movement, and for them (for most of them, however, as there are many factions and sensibilities between their ranks) “nature” is but a convenient substitute for the God of yore as source of ultimate value and unalloyed good (in all the countries with a robust environmental movement, that God is the Christian God, by the way, so their potential convergence with the teachings of a Catholic Pope is a fascinating example of strange bedfellows if there ever was one). Taken to the extreme, this ideology posits that only “uncontaminated” nature is valuable in itself, and that humanity (as considered somewhat strangely outside that nature, which is pretty inconsistent with the thoroughly materialistic/ naturalistic worldview they profess to embrace) is at best an excrescence, at worst a cancer on an otherwise pristine environment, which would be much better if we disappeared without a trace (absent that disappearance, I guess extinction is the second best option for this kind of “philosophy”). I do not intend to discuss much about the intellectual position of that flavor of environmentalism, as I recognize I don’t share it, I simply do not understand it, and am not much interested in wasting any time trying to do so. All I would like to point out, in the unlikely event of somebody of such persuasion somehow reading this blog, is the inner contradiction of their position (the arbitrary exclusion from the only source of value –uncontaminated nature- of human will, the one entity capable of perceiving, and possibly assigning value to anything at all), but without much hope that such contradiction may be even grasped (turning a blind eye to the potential incoherence in the belief systems we espouse is something we humans excel at).

Back to the encyclical, then, the conservative critique has a point, as long as you accept the equally conservative tenets that a) this is the best possible society there can be and b) our definition of what constitutes a rational behavior is valid. As I dispute both, and I have amply documented my arguments in this blog, nobody should be surprised that I dismiss such critique as founded on an incomplete knowledge of the evils and costs of our wonderful exploitative civilization and rationality biased towards the justification of the ever increasing production of material goods (which requires at the same time its concentration in ever fewer hands as incentive for everybody to keep on working their asses off). In the end, it comes down to the role you think the poverty of billions play in our current system. For conservatives, that poverty is an unfortunate but non essential circumstance that could be resolved within the system set of rules. All is needed is a bit more effort on the side of the poor (as they are mostly guilty of their own condition), and institutions a bit more inclusive to provide them with the right incentives, and all will be well. The receipt then for the maladies of this technological age (poverty and environmental degradation) is more technology, and more development along the same lines that have brought us to this point (that a conservative, by definition, cannot accept as being “of crisis”, as a true crisis would force us to change course, conserve a little less of our institutional arrangement and innovate a bit more in the social space, even if it takes us into unchartered waters). Non conservatives are a little (or a good deal) more skeptical and wonder if may be the poverty and degradation are not accessories that could be corrected at all, but essential features of the system without which it could not function. Paupers are needed to provide a constant reminder of the fate of those that do not devote themselves one hundred per cent to the production of goods to be exchanged in the market. Overconsumption of non renewable resources is the unavoidable consequence of a system based on the promise of unlimited growth to keep even the most destitute engaged and playing by the rules.

Now, as you may have expected, conservatives were not the only ones criticizing the text, or at least parts of it. Between progressives (which you would expect to feel at least a tinge of embarrassment to be found in agreement with the head of the Catholic Church) the most frequent line of argumentation was that stating the obvious (man’s productive activity as main culprit of climate change and general environmental degradation) was well and good, as was the call to reduce our ecological footprint and for the rich world to pay the bill and be more active in the fight against poverty, but that the Pope should recognize the role of the “excessive” number of human beings in such evils, and thus advocate forcefully for population control, starting by lifting the church’s ban on most types of contraception. I’d like to call this line of argument “the population control canard”, as it is so ridden with inconsistencies itself that it is difficult to decide where to start. However, start we shall, if we want the canard debunked and our own position better stated, so in no particular order I have to point out the following elements that add up to produce an entirely fallacious argument:

·         The fallacy of the Pope’s influence on the believer’s reproductive choices; many observers (the less besotted ones, I imagine) have pointed out that Western Catholics have been ignoring the Church’s injunctions against any form of modern birth control for decades, and have rightly concluded that what the Pope may say is of little consequence regarding how many humans there will be in advanced nations. However, for reasons never really well explained, they tend to argue that things are very different in the “third world”, which they imagine full of Duggar-like families growing uncontrollably under the double weight of modern medicine (which keeps all their children alive) and a superstitious respect for the church commandments. As I have already said, I’ve lived for years in developing countries with sizeable Catholic majorities and still have to find a single family there that significantly departs from the behavior in the West. It is the educational level of the females which mainly determines the average family size, regardless of faith, church attendance, respect for tradition or exposure to mass media, and that is something that no papal encyclical is going to change
·         The fallacy of blaming overpopulation as the root cause of ecological degradation; not that overpopulation is blameless, but let’s consider for a moment a well known statistic: the average inhabitant of the USA consumes as much energy in a year as 15 average Kenyans (or 34 average Bangladeshis). Let that sink in for a moment. It means that if every inhabitant of the USA (all the 320 millions of them) reduced their energy consumption just a 25% they would save vastly more resources than what a doubling of the population of Bangladesh (adding another 160 million people) would consume. I’m not saying that a doubling of the Bangladeshi (or Kenyan, for that matter) population would be a good thing, far from it, I’m just saying that if you want to reduce the impact we are having on the planet may be, just may be, there are things that would give us a better bang for our buck than reducing population, things that Western environmentalist studiously avoid to mention (because let’s be serious, the moral scandal would not be solved by reducing USA consumption in a 25%, it would require something in the vicinity of 75%, above 50% in Europe, and I don’t see anybody that comes from a utilitarian mindset able to go for such a stretch)
·         The fallacy of overpopulation requiring drastic measures (and the authority of Governments, with a very big G) to be curbed; all you really need to put an end to population growth is to moderately educate the girls and presto! They stop wanting to become baby factories for life (I’m being willingly rude here to better satirize the worldview I’m criticizing) regardless of what the Pope may say about what contraceptives they may be allowed to use. Again, and this line of argument somewhat overlaps with the first one, some progressives with little historic knowledge seem to think that the human race did not know how to limit population growth until the 1960’s, and seem to assume everybody just fucked happily for countless millennia with no regard for the potential consequences, and only famine and illness kept the population checked until in the XVIII century the advances in sanitation and agriculture overcame those natural brakes and triggered the explosion we are still witnessing. Sorry to break the news to you, kids, but men and women have known the basic relationship between where and when you ejaculate and the coming of a baby for those same millennia in which the total population of the planet has stayed basically stationary (and you can find pretty explicit references to how they kept that number from growing too much in countless testimonies, from Marx to Freud to quote just some recent examples). Yes, it was not 100% sure and safe, but then there were additional mechanisms to correct “mistakes” (some of them pretty brutal, I’m most definitely not saying we should go back to them) and overall societies knew how to keep their populations from growing too much. The only thing that changed in the XVIII Century was the incentive system, as in the new scenario of international competition between Nation-states and burgeoning salaried labor markets (created through massive dispossession of small peasants and artisans) it suddenly paid for societies to balloon in size at no matter what cost. However, the coming to an end of that incentive system (both the international competition has been subdued, thanks in part to the MAD doctrine between erstwhile superpowers and automation has made the perspective of jobs for all somewhat dubious) has understandably caused the drying of the population well… again, irrespective of what the Catholic Pope (or the representatives of the Nation State, as the recent cases of China and Iran attest trying to revert the whole modern geist and convince their populations to procreate again) may say     
So I hope to have make clear enough the intellectual bankruptcy of that line of criticism. There is another one which in my eyes has more merit, which rather than in the (more fictitious than real) insufficient attention paid to population control focus its attention in the subordinate role the Catholic Church assigns to women. I’m more sympathetic to that idea, and I do not see it as a canard (as I see the previous one), although it is a bit of a stretch to use it to undermine the overall critique of the consumerist society. I’ll just say that I agree with the overall push for more equality within that particular faith (I don’t see why women can’t be priests, bishops or even Pope), just I don’t see how that particular preference of mine is relevant to the discussion at hand.

I would like to end with a reflection on how the encyclical tackles the question of what should be done, being a question that has vexed me for a long time. If the essential rules that bind society together and that people use when deciding how to live are flawed, how to materialize a substantial enough change in them is no small potatoes. Now the Church has a powerful lever that few other institutions have: through their schools they control a significant portion of the education of the future leaders, and they can use that lever to inculcate in their pupils greater doses of renunciation to the supposed bliss of acquiring more material goods than your neighbor. That position (teach their pupils not to accept the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality I denounced at the beginning of this post) was explicitly endorsed by the previous general of the Jesuits (the order to which Francis belongs) in an address to his alumni, as brilliantly reflected in this post by my friend Pedro Linares : Arrupe's address . What he is explicitly asking them to do is brutal in its relentless opposition to the dominant mindset: consume clearly less than their neighbors, decrease their participation in a system of benefit creation that enables the exploitation of their fellow men, actively participate in changing the value system. But those words were addressed in 1973, and I find it difficult to see any sign that they were taken by heart by the audience. I do not doubt that, had they not been spoken, those alumni may have turned out more selfish and more success-idolizing, but they seem to me selfish and idolizing enough as they are, even after hearing them (they are the immediate artificers of our current world, and we, who took the banner from their hands, as most of them are close to retirement or have already retired, do not seem to be that much different). So controlling (substantial parts of) education is not enough, and we are still grappling with the same question: how can any of us contribute the most to the change of direction that I still firmly believe the world requires, to steer it towards a more humane, more just society, more conductive to the flourishing of its members (both present and future, as we seem to have entirely forgotten the latter) and more respectful of the environment.

I don’t think we can expect to find the answer in an encyclical, even one as courageous and clear minded as this one. Maybe, like the Flying Dutchman, it is our destiny to always navigate between the shoals of modernity and the countless wreckages it has left in its wake, without ever being able to reach our destination of certainty and contentment… Be it so and let the travel continue, then.     

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Even more on the jobless future

I wasn't planning on touching again on this subject for some time, but I read an excellent article in The Atlantic this week  that merits some comment (pieces like these remind me of the importance and the nobility of good, old fashioned, public minded journalism): A world without work. It has convinced me even more of the soundness of my previous analysis. A couple of especially sobering data points I think worth highlighting:

“The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ 15.4 million people—nearly 10 percent of the labor force

Well, no biggie, according to techno-utopians new technologies create as many opportunities as they destroy (here is my friend Steve Denning at Forbes, which I'm having so much fun with lately: Jobless future is a myth -well, so was the idea that house prices could go down), so sure they will come up with at least 15.4 million jobs in the next few years in high value added occupations, so funny and fulfilling and rewarding we can’t even fathom their stupendousness today, like big data analyst, or Internet of Things interpreter, or AI semantic discombobulator, or deep learning rules transcriptor, or  transgender transition coach, or poodle psychologist (as the article points that humans find it more convenient to tell their sorrows to a cleverly written software program than to another nosy, judgmental human, whilst we can assume expensive pets will have no such qualms)… but wait:

Nine out of 10 workers today are in occupations that existed 100 years ago, and just 5 percent of the jobs generated between 1993 and 2013 came from “high tech” sectors like computing, software, and telecommunications

So essentially we are screwed… as the previously hinted at works will be either a) requiring a kind of qualifications that less than 0.1% of the population may have or b) makejobs that doesn’t add any kind of value to anybody, but have the potential to be a hell of a ride for those lucky enough to get ‘em (see “entire financial sector”) or c) glorified names for fragments of domestic service (what in older and less ceremonious times were called maids and servants) to be performed for very little money and no security whatsoever, at the whim of ever more despotic masters (as in a buyer’s market they’ll know more and more they hold all the best cards of every hand, so why be nice), but in all three cases will amount to a quantity entirely unsuited to the number of available human beings made redundant by technological advance. Interestingly, the article adds a dynamic perspective I hadn’t taken into account: the loss of jobs is likely to happen not gradually, but by fits and starts. During recoveries nobody likes to lay anybody off (and they can afford to keep unnecessarily bloated headcounts), but when recession hits the managers have the perfect excuse to reduce from their staffs all the excess workers, which will not be needed again when the economy picks up speed again (for proof, see today’s labor environment just about everywhere).

The author tries not to tilt too much towards pessimism, so he presents three potential future scenarios, which he names consumption (people spend their lives in leisure, although what form of meaningful leisure society as a whole may develop, as distinct from watching 16 hours of TV a day, the author can’t fathom), community (people pool resources to essentially build arts & crafts for each other in communal centers that allow them for rich human interactions) and contingency (people live by the day, hand to mouth, hustling minimal services for each other that do not require any special qualification or result specially compelling). He can see traces of all three in our current society, and reckons that probably we will see a mixture of all of them to different degrees in different locations. What I found missing in his analysis is the macro aspect. For the first two scenarios to significantly play out all those non-workers need some sort of income, as both the leisure and the equipment needed for that resurgence of craftsmanship require to be paid for (even the broadcast model of entertainment is predicated on the assumption of the receivers being potential consumers which deserve the investment in advertising that keeps the whole enterprise working in order to convince them to spend their income in the advertised product… so no money means no leisure), and the big question is where will the money for all those non-workers come from, as without it we automatically fall back on the third, mildly dystopian scenario (even the hustle and bustle require that, between them, all the unemployed have some ultimate source of income –be it in the form of food, building materials, fabrics and leather for clothing, etc.- which they can then distribute by the provision of mutual services). A Universal Basic Income is mentioned (as has become customary when discussing this matters), along with the likely resistance to its implementation (“the rich could say, with some accuracy, that their hard work was subsidizing the idleness of millions of “takers””), without realizing that, until very recently, those same takers were also able to work, and that the product of their labor was what made the rich wealthy in the first place (not by direct coercion, or because they had their surplus value somehow mystically “extracted” from them as in the Marxist trope that requires labor to be the only source of such value in the first place for such a circular notion to make any sense, but by turning them into compulsive consumers). Previously the journalist has recounted a well known (probably apocryphal) anecdote that points to the crux of the problem:

In the 1950s, Henry Ford II, the CEO of Ford, and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union, were touring a new engine plant in Cleveland. Ford gestured to a fleet of machines and said, “Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” The union boss famously replied: “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

We have been grappling with that same question since the 70’s (with the first oil shock), and as I hinted in my previous post on this issue (How bad it may turn out to be) only very recently have the owners of capital arrived at a satisfactory answer: they do not need the robots, or the software for that matter, to buy their cars (or their watches, or their designer furniture, or their tailor made suits, or any other gadget that their automated factories churn out) because they have reached a size that for the current level of automation makes it viable to produce only for themselves. They do not need a mass market for any of the advanced products they manufacture because the constitute a sufficient market with just the members of their same class, and they can keep their very luxurious lives going just by selling those high-quality products and sophisticated services to each other. This is what growing inequality points to, a caste system with just two castes (the haves and the have-nots, the 1% and everybody else, the “makers” and the “takers”) more and more separated, more and more isolated, with less and less mobility between them (as that is essentially what a caste is, a social group to which you belong by being born into it, which you can not leave through any kind of effort or betterment of your circumstances).

The real meaning of trickle down economics will then be revealed: the upper caste will be interested in preserving the existence of the lower one as they will draw their servants from it (even if robots could cook for us, clean our houses, take our kids to school, take the dog for a walk, polish our shoes, iron our shirts, take out the garbage or drive us around there will be people, I suspect, that still find it thrilling to boss around other people… who knows, a good butler may become a coveted kind of positional good which may even drive their salaries up), so they will let some wealth drip from their vast and ever expanding stock, just enough to keep the little people alive and well (well enough not to cause too much trouble, that is).

It could be argued that our current political and ideological system would never allow such a state of affairs to happen. That the 99% have means of representation that ensure their interests are taken into account and would never let such egregious disparities to grow to such levels. Just let me finish giggling before I try to provide a (serious) answer, which will draw from my own personal experience. The first foreign country where I relocated with my family was Brazil, in 2002. I absolutely loved it (still do), but to say that my European sensibility was shocked by the level of inequality I witnessed there would be a gross understatement, and one of the reasons I wanted to move back is because I didn’t want my son to grow up accepting as a normal state of affairs such social differences, and the attitudes that accompany them. The Gini index (a widely used although not very nuanced  measure of inequality that can vary between 0 –in a perfectly equal society where all members have exactly the same income- to 100 –a perfectly unequal one, when one person has 100% of the income and all the rest have nothing) for Brazil in 2003 was  58, and it went down to 52.7 in 2012, the last year for which World Bank figures are available, in good part due to the bolsa família program, which increased the share of GNI going to the poorest 20% from 2.6% to 3.4%.  In a similar period (1997 to 2007, the latest year the CIA world factbook would show, which is in and of itself surprising) the USA saw its Gini index go from 40.8 to 45 (and the % of the total GNI received by the poorest 20% drop from 5.2% to 4.6%). So think about it. In just one decade (and the one before the crisis struck, marked by optimism and the belief that the tide was lifting all boats) the USA has seen an increase in inequality similar in magnitude to the decrease experienced by Brazil in a similar timeframe, widely credited by economic historians to be one of the most dynamic and equalizing in its whole history, and which has hugely increased the ranks of the middle class there (so an equivalent decrease would mean, in the case of the USA, the impoverishment of a similar percentage of such class). Without anybody as much as noticing, or complaining about it (the Occupy Wall Street and similar movements wouldn’t start making headlines until 2011, even Pickety’s splashy book –with a comment of which I inaugurated this post: How it all got started- wouldn’t arrive until 2013). The moral is that societies, like the proverbial frog in a cauldron of heating water, will allow themselves to be boiled to death provided the temperature (the inequality) increases slowly enough.

What I do believe is that the attainment of such levels of inequality, and the congealment of such a stratified system where a few enjoy all the advantages of a technologically advanced society while the vast majority fends for themselves between the most squalid and dilapidated structures of what once where welfare states can not (and will not) happen without substantial changes in the underlying structures of justification (the ideological scaffolding of society), that will need to dust off some old narratives to revert to a way of organizing human groups that, although prevalent during most of our History (as I tried to convey in this recent post: Inequality in history) we not only believed that we had left behind after the Industrial Revolution, but have learned to consider much less desirable than the current one. Of course, what was once learned can be unlearned, and there is no social structure so bad that does not have at least a bunch of defenders somewhere…

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On the original conflict within organizations

Today I wanted to delve a bit deeper in a notion that constitutes a substantial element of my General Theory of the Organization, the fact that conflict is one of the unavoidable consequences of every aging group, and as a result the understanding of a “good” organization as that which can minimize (both in number and intensity) the number of conflicts within itself. To understand the centrality of that notion we first have to go back to the definition of organization I proposed originally: “a set of individuals cooperating to achieve certain end and accepting a number of rules that impose certain duties on them (and also furnish them with certain rights)”. That means that there is an inherent conflict since the very moment that a human being (a free agent) decides (or is compelled) to join such arrangement, as he has to forfeit a certain amount of his freedom to submit to those rules, and  has to accept the boundaries to his behavior derived from such duties as those rules specify. Before we can understand to what extent that forfeiture may be a loss, we have to spend a little time considering what that freedom that the new member is sacrificing consists in (disclaimer: the next three paragraphs are going to be philosophically quite dense, so those readers interested only in management and “how” to design good organizational models may want to skip them, as they deal mainly with the “why”, and at a very deep level at that).

It has become fashionable in certain circles to say that freedom, or by extension human agency is but a convenient fiction, and that there is nothing to it if we consider its meaning seriously: in our predominantly monist (and materialist) metaphysic we are made only of one substance, matter (because there isn’t anything else we could be made of), and being entirely material beings we are as subject to the entirely deterministic laws of physics as any other lump of stuff (be it a stone, a tree or a cow). Under such idea of what is “really out there” we do not forfeit anything at all by joining a group, as we can not forfeit something we never had in the first place, so instead of thinking in terms of the liberty we loose, or the options we will not be able to choose once inside the group we should think in the new balance between pleasure and pain that belonging to the group enables us to achieve, as we never had such liberty, and those options we may consider were fictitious and never really open to us. 

Readers of this blog already know I do not subscribe to such predominant metaphysics (for more details see this old post: The problems of materialist monism and subsequent ones on the same topic), but what I will be arguing may be construed in a way that makes it independent of the metaphysical beliefs of the proponent. I think that even if we admitted that freedom was an illusion (which, again, I do not admit, but bear with me) I think we can all agree it is a powerful, pleasant illusion. People cherish the impression (wrong as it may be) of being free, thinking they have a power over their own lives and capable of choosing without compulsion. So limiting that impression by accepting a set of rules is indeed a source of displeasure, a burden, that has to be compensated by the satisfaction of increasing our chances of reaching the desired end we share with the whole group. Herein lies the original conflict then, in the fact that if those chances decrease (because the organization looses some of its ability to attain its ends) the potential satisfaction becomes more remote, and may in the end not be enough to compensate the displeasure of forfeiting part of our (fictitious) freedom. In that case, from this perspective, what the individual member should do is leave the organization to pursue his ends in some alternative fashion (either alone or within a different organization that provides him with better chances).

But now let’s get back to my true opinion, the consideration that we are really free (which depends on my stated dualism, although for reasons I will expand in another post, it could still obtain even if such dualism were not true, as for it to be valid it is enough for monism to be epistemically insufficient, even if it were ontologically true, constituting an exhaustive enough description of reality). This position is not as immediately conductive to the same perception of the original conflict of belonging to an organization, especially if we accept as valid a Kantian definition of what being free consists in. Let’s remember that for Kant to be truly free consists in accepting a set of rules we give to ourselves, autonomously (without coercion, but also without undue influence from external sources like tradition, inherited religious belief or imposed laws). That autonomy in determining the rules we would self-impose on ourselves he equated with universal reason itself (universal because it had to be, again, independent from any particular tradition or local flavor), so for him being a rational being was equivalent to being able to find those rules and always act according to them. Those rules, by the way, always had the formal feature of being a Categorical Imperative (something we had to do no matter what, that we could wish everybody else also did, and that was compatible with treating every other human being –to be more precise, every other rational being- as an “end in itself, and never as a means for a further end”), but that formal feature is not necessary for my current argument. Now, given that we always have to act (if we are going to act rationally and thus to be truly free) according to some set of rules, and that there is only one set of rules we should accept as valid (those that have the form of a categorical imperative), we aren’t sacrificing anything at all when we join a group: either their rules are a subset (or compatible with) the rules we are already using to guide our behavior, or they are not, in which case we shouldn’t submit to them no matter what.

The (quite counterintuitive) conclusion we have reached is that only if we admit a monist metaphysic (and the utilitarian understanding of behavior derived from it) it does make sense to speak of that original conflict that will help us understand all the subsequent ones, while if we stick to our guns and accept the dualism I believe is in better accordance with what we know of nature (and the deontological rationality that follows) there can be no conflict, as accepting rational rules is what we already do, so we aren’t sacrificing anything at all (unless we join an irrational group whose rules are not of a form that admit of universalization, something by definition we should never do). As the conclusion, in addition to being counterintuitive, seems to rob us of one of the stronger tools we have to understand the evolution of groups and the behavior of their members, we will need to refine a bit our analysis to see if things are really as they look at first sight. That search of refinement leads us back to the different ends we used to distinguish the different types of organization, as we will find that not all of them are equally “universalizable”:

·         Educational organizations strive to expand some (this worldly) area of knowledge. They are paradigmatically universal, as not only can we wish everybody participated in such knowledge without contradiction, but such participation is part and parcel of the satisfaction of its end. The beauty of knowledge is that it is not a finite, consumable resource, as has been said so many times. The fact that I become familiar with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics does in no way prevent you from becoming equally so. In this case we may say indeed that pursuing such expansion of knowledge in no way limits our freedom or has necessarily to constitute a loss
·         Religious organizations strive to embody some (other worldly) truth, and in that sense they are also very much infinitely extendable without contradiction (the fact I believe in something not only does not preclude you from believing exactly in the same thing, but may even sway you towards such belief, as the example of a fellow human being has been in all ages a most powerful enticement to join a creed). Although most faiths impose on their followers significantly more restrictions in how they should live than what their education does (although some scientists can devote as much of their lives to the pursuit of knowledge as the most devout believer, so educational organizations can be in some cases as dominant of their members’ lives as religious ones, this is not normally the case) first person reports usually do not convey those restrictions as a loss of freedom (something that from the outside is difficult to accept, specially from the secular framework of Western culture, as the endless arguments about the use of hijab and niqab by Muslim women attest). As in the previous case, belonging to a religious organization, as long as one believes in the main tenets of the faith, is not perceived as a loss or as a renunciation, but as an expression of liberty, and thus it would be wrong to talk about an original conflict in them
·         Political organizations are a bit more problematic, as by definition they seek to perpetuate (via reproduction) only a subset of people, namely those that share some common history and culture (a nation, a people) or a certain ideological mindset (a political party) or certain common interests (a union, a trade association), and it doesn’t make much sense to think they could aspire to extend their appeal to the whole of humanity (something that until now we could take for granted was quite good at reproducing without any of us taking particular care about it). However, given these organizations are not overly confrontational and geared to the improvement of the lot of their members at the expense of somebody else, even they admit of a certain degree of “universalizability”. You could wish without contradicting yourself that everybody belonged to a nation (regardless of which one) and strived for the good of that nation, and worked for its perpetuation, as long as that belonging did not imply actively attacking the members of other nations to rob them of their land or other resources (as then the different wishes of different nationals would conflict, and would be contradictory between them). So there is no conflict in wanting to be German, and wanting Germany to thrive as long as it is under the auspice of the charter of the U.N., but it is definitely not OK to want Germany to thrive by the forceful taking of lebensraum from its neighbors. Similar thing with political parties or professional corporations (it’s OK to pursue the continuance of the nuclear industry, as long as it is not at the expense of lobbying against subsidies for the solar industry so they can never take off, for example).
·         You probably by now can see what we have come at: there is no way on Earth we can universalize the ends we declared as the real ones for economic organizations (or commercial/ productive, I still can’t seem to settle on one term for them). They pursue to improve the social position of their members, and social position is a zero sum game (the only way to improve in a hierarchically ordered scale is to make others’ position worse) so we can not wish everybody adopted as their role of conduct such improvement, as everybody’s rule with contradict that of everybody else. What we can see, then, is that the necessary conflict at the heart of the membership in any economic organization is indeed much deeper that what we hinted at previously. It is not a problem of deciding how much freedom we forsake for the pursuance of an end we esteem as worthy, but of having to renounce freedom altogether, at least as freedom is understood in the Kantian tradition (as acting in accordance to rules we ourselves identify as reasonable, which means we can wish they were made “universal law”). The moment we accept to participate in an economic enterprise we have to submit to its rules, which will always be “hypothetical imperatives” (that can always be reduced to the form “IF you want to earn more money/ progress in social esteem, THEN do this or that”), but can never be (like the rules of educational, religious or some political organizations aspire to be) categorical ones.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the ethical tradition that most scholars in the area of “business ethics” appeal to is utilitarianism (understood as a variant of consequentialism, where the consequence they seek is the maximization of pleasure over pain), although you still can see flashes of deontology (normally via contractarianism, as in Donaldson) that deontology has to studiously ignore the real motive behind people collaborating for material gain, and accept a purported end (the betterment of society through medicine/ building/ infrastructure design and whatnot) that in our understanding is nothing more than window dressing.

Now I can imagine some people may take exception to this characterization of what could be called the “moral soundness” of the different types of organizations, as it seems to imply that all religious (and educational, but schools and universities don’t seem to have as many detractors as established churches) organizations are good and noble whilst publicly traded companies are somehow crooked and evil, with political ones standing somewhat in between (depending on how aggressive they are towards other polities). Guilty as charged, that mindset is not that far from my current sensibilities. In a world of “new atheists” and of predominantly secular thinking this particular proud son of the Enlightenment wouldn’t mind to see a bit of the animus directed against churches to be applied to those veritable churches of the masses, the big corporations that spout the destructive materialist ideology that is brilliantly succeeding in making untold millions miserable. However, this particular line of thinking I’m currently engaged in has less to do with blanket statements of moral soundness and more with the identification of a primal conflict that arises from the very fact of belonging to such organization. I rest satisfied with how I’ve shown (conclusively enough) that for some types of organizations (all economic ones, and some political) that conflict is unavoidable, as all of their members, consciously or not, incur a cost by joining  (sacrificing some liberty), and must then expect that cost to be repaid by the satisfaction of attaining some goal valuable to them.

A final objection I would like to deal with is that such a cost may be compensated already by the unalloyed good of belonging to a group bigger than oneself and thus granting the opportunity to engage in social exchange. According to evolutionary psychology (although I’ve stated previously that the movement in toto is mostly a load of crap, let’s take this particular statement at face value and consider it on its own merits rather than dismissing it right off the bat) we humans are naturally social beings, and we need to spend time interacting with other fellow humans as much as we need to eat and sleep. Organizations (any of them, regardless of type) would be a prime venue for having those meaningful interactions, so if we are going to theorize about how they work based on the alleged burden some of them impose originally impose on their members, we should take in consideration this very real benefit, as it may compensate (or more than compensate) that burden and thus make the conflict disappear. I do recognize some merit in this objection, as I’m the first to dismiss any reductionist view of human motives (so I wouldn’t like my theory to be understood as “humans subscribe to economic organizations just to gain social prestige, and no other motive counts”, what I’m saying is that first motive –gain- vastly overpowers all the rest that undoubtedly may coexist with it, or it wouldn’t be an economic organization in the first place what he would be joining), but I still don’t think it is strong enough to make me reconsider the inevitability of that primal conflict. I’m not denying that in some cases the work site provides the employee with her stronger social ties, as coworkers may end up being her main acquaintances (and the relationships with them becoming a significant source of self-esteem and of perceived value), or that working climate may be an even bigger source of satisfaction than the monthly paycheck, and have more weight in deciding to stay at a certain company; all I am saying is a) the richness (and truthfulness) of those satisfying relationships would be compromised if we knew they were entered for the sake of keeping the employees happy and thus being more productive (as they would then show its subordination to what we maintain stubbornly is the ultimate end of every economic organization, which is increasing the monetary benefit and thus the social status of its directors), which shows that b) forming a fulfilling, dense network can at best be a subsidiary end, subject to the conditions of the labor market but in the end inessential to the organization, so the main, constant, real end can not but cause the primal conflict we have been arguing all along for.

Enough for today, in my next post I will want to explore how the original conflict resurfaces in every subsequent one (many times what looks like a discussion about resource allocation, or rewards distribution, is an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the initial agreement of one of the parts so what the member renounced to back then is still compensated by what he gets in exchange now –the level of attainment of his initial goal), and share some thoughts on why conflicts are potentially more disruptive in our “postmodern” age (when the lack of an overarching narrative that is widely accepted by most subgroups within any given society makes it more difficult to reach a resolution that is accepted as legitimate by both conflicting parties).

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tips for a better Deadlift I (from a moderately competent deadlifter)

Not long ago I started a series of posts about the squat with the rhetorical question of what move would I recommend to the whole of humanity to improve their lives by acquiring more strength, more balance and a better ability to move. I still think the squat is the go to exercise for the vast majority, and the one that gives everybody, from the 90 years old granny to the elite Olympic weightlifter, a bigger bang for the buck. But that doesn’t mean that squatting is enough for a healthy physical development. Or rather, it is probably enough (it surely beats not doing any kind of resistance training, or doing only something with pink rubber dumbbells, or doing something with iron but moving the same weight for the same reps for years on end), but can be improved upon by the judicious addition of some select movements, that share with it the features of being multi articular (demanding the participation of multiple joints) and thus involving many muscle groups so they can be progressed almost indefinitely. So in my next “barbell sports” posts I will be talking about the exercises that can better complement a sensible dose of squats. I will use the same structure I used to discuss that first move: I’ll talk a bit about how to safely perform the movement, discuss the equipment that is convenient to use and finally provide some tips to improve once one has mastered the most fundamental basics. I intend every post to be as self contained as possible, so I have to ask my readers in advance for a modicum of patience if I sometimes repeat some concept or insist in some cue that has already been discussed.

The first movement I’m going to deal with is the Deadlift. It is probably the simplest lift you can perform: just approach the bar, grab it (which will force you to crouch down a bit) and stand up without letting it go. Once you have fully stood up (technically, you should reach a “locked out” position, in which your knees and hip are be fully extended, your back solidly fixed in neutral position –to support without danger the maximum weight possible, and the shoulders slightly back and down) you just put the bar down on the floor again. That’s it. Some people do argue about it as if it were an extraordinarily complex and technical movement that requires a PhD and two years of post doc practice before you can even think about performing it productively and safely. Well, like most things in life, it has many nuances and shades, especially when you become better at it and start moving some significant weight, and there comes a point when you may miss some lift you have the strength to complete successfully because you do not go through the exact positions, with the exact timing, that would have allowed you to do it, but overall I don’t think you can find a simpler movement to perform. When in doubt, just do what feels natural (while respecting a few basic safety rules we will talk about in a moment), and 99 times out of 100 that will help you get into the position you are stronger, and go through the motions most efficiently.      

Like in the squat, there are a number of variants you may want to consider before you start deadlifting, although my recommendation is to become proficient in all of them, as they complement each other nicely and switching between them helps defer the dreaded stagnation that is the bane of every lifter. In the case of the deadlift, the two variants that we will be talking about are the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. There is a third widely used way of doing it, the Stiff Legged Deadlift (which some people mistake for the Romanian Deadlift, with which it has many similarities), that we will deal with as an assistance exercise, as it allows for less weight to be moved, and thus can be used to strengthen some parts of the main lift, but doesn’t constitute a legitimate lift by itself.
This is, then, how the two main variants (conventional and sumo) of the deadlift look like, seen from the side and from the front:

As you may notice, the main difference comes from the fact that in the conventional deadlift the feet are kept much closer and the hands grab the bar outside the legs. Those closer feet keep legs vertical, so the hip starts at a higher position (the angle between the back and the floor is more acute) and, for a lifter of the same height, the bar has to travel longer & higher, so the lifter performs more work. However, as part of that work is done by the opening of the hips, the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and erectors) becomes more engaged, so that extra work may be easier than the alternative. In the sumo variant the feet are spread apart as much as possible (almost touching the plates), so the hip starts in a lower position, the back is more vertical so the posterior chain has less work to do, and the main contributors to the lift are the quadriceps, that straighten the knees to lift the bar. What variant is better for you? It depends on the relative dimensions of your legs and torso. Lifters with a long torso relative to their legs tend to do better with the sumo version, while lifters with shorter torsos and longer legs gravitate naturally towards the conventional. In powerlifting competitions the lighter categories (up to 105 kg for men, lightness is pretty relative here) tend to pull mostly sumo, and in the heavier ones it is more common to see the conventional style. All of this being standard wisdom, I’ve never seen any convincing definition of what constitutes “a long torso relative to leg length” (something along the lines of “if the ration between DL and DT is above 0.8, DL being the length from the crest of the hip to the ankle when standing, and DT the distance between the crest of the hip to the top of the collarbone at lockout, then pull sumo”) so the previous definition is probably of as little use to you as it has always been for me… just pull both ways for a few weeks and find out what feels better and allows you to move more weight with less exertion.
Before moving on to the safety rules for deadlifting properly I’d like to reflect for a moment on the potential application of this most basic and primal move to the sport of Weightlifting (consisting In the competitive execution of the so called “Olympic lifts”, namely the snatch and the clean & jerk). If I’ve chosen the deadlift as the second movement to expound is because I think it is an unbeatable help to develop raw strength. It allows the lifter to displace more weight than any other movement (well, nowadays and thanks to knee wraps and multi ply squat suits there are many top powerlifters that squat substantially more than what they deadlift, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). But, and regardless of how many very knowledgeable and very vocal coaches say, in weightlifting there comes a moment (and it comes very fast) where how technically sound you are is more determinant of how much you lift than how brutally strong you are. Coaches of a powerlifting persuasion love to quote how Chuck Vogelpohl snatched above a 100 kg (225 pounds), a very respectable weight that many dedicated weightlifters (me included) will probably never attain, the first time he attempted the lift in a gym, and conclude from that anecdote that aspiring weightlifters should spend more time getting strong with basic, simple to execute lifts (namely the deadlift), and devote a much smaller percentage of their training time perfecting their technique (the reasoning behind such recommendation being that they may derive more benefit from squatting and deadlifting than from endlessly repeating the snatch and the clean & jerk). Sorry, but as much as I respect some of those coaches I have to call poppycock.
The idea that there is some weightlifting methodology where people only practice the lifts with relatively low weights is mostly a straw man, as most actual practitioners squat their asses off, not just because they need to squat a ton to recover from a heavy clean (and to a lesser extent from a heavy snatch), but because that is their way of imposing a systemic stress to their bodies that forces them to adapt by becoming overall stronger. Furthermore, most of us achieve a decent level of strength much faster, and much easier, than a decent level of technical proficiency. Consider my own case: after a few years training consistently I can deadlift 220 kg (490 pounds), a not too shabby number for a 45 years old, 90 kg male. But the strength gained doing that exercise only allows me to clean & jerk 100 kg (223 pounds), which is really nothing to write home about. What should I do, then? Keep pounding at the deadlift, which requires most of my energies for months on end to gain may be 5 kg? I very much doubt that would add a single kg to my C&J. What I need to do is practice clean & jerking much more (ideally under the supervision of a knowledgeable coach) until I manage to perform it without thinking with a half decent form, which has the potential to have a much greater pay off (actually, that is what I intend to do after summer, if I manage to have my dissertation finished by then). By the way, one of the biggest technical hurdles I have to overcome is my very poor transition between the 1st and 2nd pull (roughly, the 1st one is done mostly with the quads, and takes the bar from the floor to just above the knees, and the 2nd is done with the hammies & glutes, and launches the bar from mid thigh to sternum level, although just reaching navel height would be enough if I managed to change direction and get under it fast enough), transition that owes much of its deficiencies to the fact that I’ve been doing a completely different movement pattern for years… you guessed it, by deadlifting heavy, powerlifting style (which is much more dependent on straightening the knees and the hips at the same time after the bar passes the knees, while in weightlifting the knees stay bent so the quads can still contribute to the second pull). So, summarizing this long detour, if you someday intend to do Olympic style weightlifting, be very careful with how much and how frequently you deadlift, and consider ingraining since the very beginning the pattern of (much more dynamic, to the extent of performing a little “scoop & jump” at the top of the move, and without locking out… and forget about mixed grip, obviously) “oly style” deadlifting.  For the rest (I guess the vast majority of my current readers), feel free to deadlift to your heart’s content in the manner I'm about to teach you.
Now, as with the squat, if you are going to deadlift, you’ve gotta learn to do it right (Kenny Rogers words, not mine), and that means respecting the following rules:
·         Get the feet below the bar (so your shins are one or two inches from it, looking straight down you should see the bar above the middle of your shoelaces) properly centered and at the right distance from one another, which will obviously be different depending on the style you are going to use: if you are going to pull conventional, feet should be approximately at hip width (a very used gimmick to find the exact optimal width is to close your eyes and get yourself in the starting position for a standing vertical jump: that will instinctively be your optimal position for producing maximal power through the legs); for pulling sumo, open them as much as possible, as long as you feel able to still push them against the floor to raise the bar (the limit, obviously, is set by the weight plates, as you can not go any wider than that)
·         Lower the hip keeping the arms hanging loosely (as vertical as possible) until they meet the bar. At that point the shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar, and the height of the hip will be dictated by your particular anthropometry. Grab the bar resolutely (if you are a beginner, it is OK to have both hands pronated –palms facing towards you, while when the weight gets heavier you will probably need to resort to a mixed grip –one hand pronated, normally the weaker one, and the other supinated) as if you were going to crush it
·         Flatten your lower back and puff out your chest (look to a point in the floor about 15-20 feet in front of you) to ensure you achieve a neutral back (neither in kyphosis nor in hyperlordosis)
·         Start extending the legs while keeping the back angle constant (so the hip and the shoulders rise at exactly the same speed). Rather than pulling the bar upwards, think in pushing the floor downwards and away from you. Keep at all times the weight evenly distributed between the ball of the foot and the heel (another good cue is to wiggle the toes inside the lifting shoes before you start to pull to ensure the weight is safely centered towards the back of the foot, rather than towards the front).
·         Although this has been said a thousand times, it bears repeating: do not jerk the bar from the floor! There are many, many rituals to set up and start doing something that, for big weights, is quite hard (start moving a weight that is completely stationary, without the help of a minimal stretch reflex), but none of them includes jerking the bar. Pull gently to take the slack off the bar (the more flexible the bar is, the more it may give before starting to show some resistance) and then continue, applying gradually as much force as possible, but do not go down and then try to jump up (flexing the arms, probably rounding the back, and thus courting either a bicep tendon tear or a herniated disc). The key here, and the essential feature that distinguishes a safe, effective lift from a failed, potentially injurious one, is keeping the lower back flat as a table during the whole lift, keeping the erectors (and also obliques and abdominal muscles, same as in a heavy squat) engaged and working isometrically  for the whole duration of the exercise
·         Once the bar passes the knee, start opening the hip (so now is the time to rise the shoulders) contracting the glutes hard until you achieve lockout (a natural position where the weight is evenly distributed between the anatomical structures best suited to support it). Remember to keep the lower back flat at all times!
·         After solidly locking out (and do not worry, you will absolutely know if your lock out has been successful or not) put the bar down gently: first relax the hip with a minimal sitback while letting the bar slide down the thighs, and once it has passed the knees bend them until the bar is on the floor again. This can be done reasonably fast (as gravity is a powerful helper), but has to be always under control
Although in the squat I suggested doing the movement with the empty bar for a few reps until these safety patterns were properly ingrained and were done automatically (without having to think consciously about them), the empty bar is not that adequate for learning the deadlift, as the bar has to be at the right starting position (with its axis 45 cm from the floor), so use the lightest plates you have of the right diameter (that would typically be 10 kg or 25 pound plates, taking the total to either 40 kg or 95 pounds, which is still a very reasonable weight for healthy males of nearly every age and young sturdy females, but may be a tad high for the very elderly, which may require either a technique bar of lower weight or the empty bar raised on blocks or stacked plates).
In my next post on this issue I hope to talk a bit about equipment (the good news is you need less than for squatting, so we will devote less space to that) and (hopefully) ten plus one tips to improve your deadlift once you have started to do it regularly.

Friday, June 19, 2015

More on the application of the ADVISE model (of theory vs. practice)

After developing an example of a practical application of the ADVISE model, a number of questions arise: If a very big company, that has grown considerably “worse” (less ADVISE and more RACKET), is still in spite of that worsening considered wildly successful, doesn’t it somehow point to a flaw in the theory? What good is belonging to an organization that, from the point of view of its members, is “preferable” for being adorned with the “right” features, if the verdict of the market contradicts that preference, and rewards having just the opposite ones?

I’ll note first that this is a classical conundrum for any management theory: whenever It posits a number of normative features of its subject (be it qualities of a leader, characteristics of a company’s culture or functional requirements of an information system), stubborn reality presents us with as many counterexamples as the wildest imagination can conceive of instances where leaders (or cultures, or systems) that show none of those features are (either temporarily or in the long term) generously rewarded with tons of success.  Look no further than the case of Steve Jobs. Lionized as he is after his death (a visionary! A fearless leader! A perfectionist that led his company to new heights of excellence (and market capitalization)!). But according to the biography written by Walter Isaacson (quite revealing of Jobs character that he only agreed to provide information to a biographer that had previously devoted his energies to the life of Newton), and confirmed by countless testimonies every time the subject still surfaces in social media, he was a jerk, a tyrant, a bad person, a bully, a sadist and a megalomaniacal egotist. More or less what every book on leadership tells you not to be, as “better results” are obtained when you are selfless, nice, understanding, sensitive, compassionate, inclusive, respectful of other people’s opinions and the like. Just what Jobs what not… (by the way, I’m aware there is a new biography out there, becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli that presents him in a quite different light, as a person that learned from the errors of his first tenure at Apple and came as a much more inclusive, integrating type of leader, no surprise that both Tim Cook and Jony Ive have praised it extravagantly).

For another funny example, yesterday I came across this piece by Steve Denning The robots are not coming maintaining with very weak arguments that “the jobless future is a myth” (well, he writes in Forbes, so you can not really expect too serious journalism from such bigoted bunch of “greed is good” paean singers)… the article is crap, but it directed me to this other priceless piece of entertainment: The havoc a silly organizational model can wreak which I wanted to comment, as I mentioned the holocracy at Zappos (somewhat dismissively) in a previous post. Really, have a good read at it, because it amazes me that any adult with a minimal experience managing anything more complex than a boy scout group can fall for this egregious example of snake oil (you can have a look to the “holocracy constitution” here: Just wow! and note that this is “release 4.1”, in which “natural language” has replaced “legalistic language”, Jesus Christ, you really couldn’t make this thing up even if you wanted!). If I were a stakeholder at Zappos I would be demanding Tony Hsieh’s head for trying to implement such monstrosity, more adequate for a college fraternity than for an actual company trying to make money. The funny thing is that Zappos is not some cutting edge technology firm trying to resolve some of the basic problems of humanity, or some multinational ensemble cryin’ out for an innovative business model to support their ultra complex operations, but a friggin’ online retailer of shoes based in Las Vegas… shoes that other people manufacture, and which they just distribute…  pretending to change the world and reinvent the corporation so they can make an additional dime from monetizing what they can learn from people tastes so as to make them spend a bit more on what they wrap their feet in.

So, back to the glaring gap between what theories of management prescribe and what the most cursory observation of actually successful companies show us. There are two possible reactions by the authors of such theories. One is to appeal to the inherent complexity of the human sciences, and declare that “all things being equal” their prescriptions would have worked, but as all other things are never indeed equal, it doesn’t matter that much that actually they didn’t. So Apple would have been even more successful if Jobs had been less of a Jerk, and Zappos would be growing even more (and not suffering a 14% attrition) if it hadn’t adopted a completely moronic organizational model… so it still applies that you shouldn’t be a jerk or try to implement organizations that any 14 years old kid could tell you are plainly dysfunctional, real experience be damned (which by the way put all such theories beyond the realm of falsifiability, as they hold no matter what happens in “the real world”). 

The other possible reaction is to go full empirical, and declare that until every possible variable has been tallied and correlated and its influence weighted in a big enough sample, no conclusion can be reached. So, for example, if argue that simpler organizations are better organizations, they would first make me clarify what I mean by “better” (can they generate a greater return on invested capital? Do they exhibit higher employee satisfaction scores in internal surveys? Do they create more shareholder value in the short term?), then how I measure that simplicity (although I proposed a fairly objective measure for that: total number of different roles divided by number of members), and then they would want me to measure both in a big enough number of organizations, spanning multiple sectors, multiple countries, and if possible, multiple years, to see if the relationship holds and there is a certain coefficient in a multiple linear regression model that can be considered significant.

Unfortunately both approaches seem to me wrongheaded. The “damn the evidence, it just sounds reasonable so it must be so” is naïve and doesn’t take into account the unavoidable confirmation bias we humans have, that make us find plausible even the most unlikely propositions, if we arrive at them gradually and each seem to reinforce some belief of us. The “don’t make me loose time with intuitions, gimme the hard data” never seems to consider enough variables or, even worse, satisfies itself with sample sizes that end up being too small, because its conclusions rarely survive the test of time, as any change in market conditions tend to unsettle all its classifications (a couple books I recommended in the third post of this series provide a nice confirmation of the vanishing validity of these methodologies: In Search of Excellence and What Really Works both identified a number of companies as exhibiting the most promising features for being resilient, solid, durable and, well… excellent, and a decade after their publication most have vanished or underperformed their competition). It is a sobering reminder of how little we understand about what helps a company thrive and to what extent it may depend on pure chance (chance being just another measure of our lack of knowledge) to read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig, where he debunks a good deal of claims by the “empiricists”.

So if neither an appeal to common sense nor a recourse to hard data gathering are entirely acceptable solutions to sustain the validity of a theory’s claims, how should we differentiate crackpot theories (like holocracy) from valid ones? Well, we just have to admit that we can’t, or at least that there is no universally valid rule, as any theory can be valid within a certain domain of application and then fail miserably within another, or after some time even in the original one. We shouldn’t think of organizational design (or leadership education, or even information system implementation) as an engineering problem, where if we can measure a certain number of environment conditions and know the universal laws that the process we are designing conforms to we can find an optimal configuration for such process (be it the optimal output of a vacuum pump or the optimal concentration of certain isotope of uranium in a fuel rod). We should rather think of those endeavors more like the creation of a work of art (or, if we prefer to be a bit humbler, the building of some instrument by an expert craftsman from somewhat faulty raw materials) where we apply some heuristic rules and the best of our experience (that may not be fully algorithmical, or even “algorithmizable”) to some given elements, with their own resistance, their own peculiarities (be it the hardness of the wood, the irregularities of the stone or the shades of the paint we are about to use) that prevent us from knowing in advance how we may best approach it, and require a certain flexibility from our part to extract the best they can provide. As I explained in this post: More on science and pseudo-science there is not (and there can not be) an agreed upon rule to differentiate the “true” statements from the “false” ones in the humanistic disciplines (and “management” can aspire to be a discipline at most, if it someday gets some organizing principles and a hierarchy of authorities to put some order in the cacophony of conflicting, contradictory claims that today vie for acceptance within its domain). That is why I maintain that “human sciences” is an oxymoron (and an unnecessary one at that, derived from the sad and untrue opinion that science –meaning experimental, empirically verifiable, science- is the only valid method of obtaining “valuable” knowledge).

So back again to the question that launched our original enquiry, does it matter that “Emphast” is more successful (has a much bigger market capitalization and still enjoys a substantial lead in market share within its industry) even if it is further from ADVISE than it was in its time of struggles? Well, I still say it does matter, and I still use it as an exemplary case for a reason. I firmly believe an ADVISE organization is better in an absolute sense for its members (as any minimally conscious individual would tell you she prefers to exercise her freedom, be treated fairly and equitably, fill her time meaningfully by her own decision and collaborate with other similarly minded people as spontaneously as possible). This kind of organization, in the economic sphere, fosters happier employees, and as everybody knows happier employees tend to be more productive, make less errors and produce overall more value than unhappy ones (it could be argued if, “not all other things being equal”, the potential extra cost of keeping those employees happy was more than compensated by the additional benefits derived from their enhanced productivity and commitment, but that is, as I have already said, a question that admits of no universal answer, and which should then be analyzed separately for each particular case).

How then, do I explain the continued success of a company that was becoming more “RACKET’y” (and should thus suffer from less enthusiastic employees)? Well, with organizations, as with political systems, it is not so much how good or bad you are absolutely, but how good or bad you are compared with your competition. “Emphast” should have suffered from the degradation of its ability to give its work force what they truly wanted (starting with a viable path to partnership, or however the equivalent position was called in a publicly traded company), but for that to happen its competitors should have been able to keep offering something similar to THEIR workforces. But as it happens, the whole “IT consultancy” market (which, as much as they loved to talk about their strategy practice, and their human resources practice, and their start up incubator practice, and their M&A practice, is what they were really all about ,the rest being the icing on the cake, nice to boast about but economically insignificant) was going through a tectonic shift, from a relatively low volume, high value added orientation to just the opposite (what, using a term that few know has distinctly Marxian origins, was a more and more “commoditized” market) where competition happened mainly around price and ability to deliver at enormous scale, with the high margins of yore quickly imploding and the blazing careers of the pioneers a thing of the past. So “Emphast” could mistreat its employees as much as it wanted, because they were not going to find anywhere in the outside world the deals of old, so they would rather stay there and adjust their expectations downwards.   

And I definitely don’t need any complex study, survey, multiple linear regression analysis or even back of the envelope calculation to tell me that is what happened, that is why it happened, and that it is nicely explained by my model, which is why I find it valuable. And why I intend to keep on using it in the organizations I work for.       

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some historical perspective on inequality

Readers have probably noticed that as of late my thoughts on where our society is heading tend to gravitate towards the somber side, even after denouncing neomalthusians for their excess of pessimism (but after also lambasting cornucopians for their unfounded optimism, a big thanks to my admired Pedro Linares for teaching such wonderful word to me). I see inequality rising, economic growth staying anemic at best, with crises and setbacks outnumbering periods of expansion, and technological progress slowing, stopping, and eventually regressing. You read here and there that humanity can’t unlearn the results of centuries accumulating progress… people saying that have the most limited understanding of how technology works and how detailed drawings, blueprints for machines and process documentation are stored… the Antikythera mechanism shows that complex technologies with immediate practical application can be forgotten for centuries, and for additional confirmation look no further than our ability to send a human being to the moon: we did it in 1969 and we are completely unable to do it now, to the point it would take us a decade at best to repeat it, as much of the underlying  technology would need to be redeveloped from scratch.

Of course the three trends are tightly linked: inequality rises because there is no growth of aggregated wealth, so the advantaged class (advantaged because they have more intelligence, more discipline, more willpower, and also start with far more capital, which between other things ensures they control the means for imposing social compliance on the rest –they command the institutions that have the more or less complete monopoly of violence, plus the ones that most contribute to the creation of public opinion) can only satisfy their impulse for improving their situation and their children’s by taking more of everything, at the expense of everybody else; the economy doesn’t grow and will not grow because one of the bigger motors behind historical upwards trends (demographical expansion that puts more consumers on the market for goods) has mostly disappeared (there would still be some global growth to reap from the increased income of many millions of consumers that today are unacceptably poor –the traditional “lifting the masses out of poverty”, and the few good news we may still hope to receive in the forthcoming years will come from that area,  but as long as the plutocrats find it more profitable for themselves to increase their riches by keeping a higher percentage of the total produced by mankind, there is little hope for the downtrodden of the Earth to rise much higher); finally, a contracting economy for a contracting population with rising levels of inequality only poses one problem for the more brilliant minds to tinker with: how to keep the masses entertained to prevent them from revolting (so the little “progress” we see centers on how to move information around so it is presented in the most attractive manner, as if all the traditional challenges of mankind –how to generate energy, how to distribute the material goods we create from it, how to improve our knowledge of the world to lead better lives, how to ameliorate illness and death- had already been solved), and leaves every other concern in the dark, with one exception: the rich will keep financing generously medical advances, socially expensive as they may turn out to be, in the vain hope of one day avoiding their own death, an especially pressing concern in an age that has stopped believing in any kind of transcendent reality beyond this life.

Some critics would say the three worrisome trends have one underlying cause: the dominating global system, aka “capitalism” (this line of criticism is traditionally peddled by the old, stale left, so in the end is just pinning all the blame for society’s ills in their traditional bugbear, as they have been doing for the last two hundred years, when these particular problems are with us only for the past five decades, and have become really threatening in the past ten years), but I don’t think that explanation carries much water. Talking about “the social system” or (usually meaning the same thing) about “capitalism” to diagnose worldwide problems is like appealing to “animal spirits” to explain the business cycle. It may make the appealer sound vaguely knowledgeable, but when you scratch under the surface there is not much in terms of explanatory power (no isolatable causes, no levers you can pull, no experiments you can devise, no causal connection between the explanandum and the explananda). Although there is one single social system (or, as Wallerstein puts it, a single contemporary world-system) that encompasses from the CEO of the multinational company and the Wall Street banker to the Melanesian hunter-gatherer or the dalit living from a city dump in Varanasi, it is wholly inadequate to describe it as “capitalism”. Not because the means of production are not in private hands, those of the name-bearing capitalist (some are, and some aren’t, as the public sector plays an important part –to different degrees but important in all cases- in all national economies), but because such label has been applied to too many social agreements (or impositions) to be able to be of much significance. Of course, what is really behind the appellation to a worn-out label is a programmatic intent to replace it (whatever “it” may be) with something that, although being very imprecisely imagined by a not too brilliant thinker almost two centuries ago (that’s Karl for you boys and girls), the proponents of the term still consider the most advanced blueprint of a perfect society ever devised, organized around the “social” ownership of the means of production (without noticing that in our current age those means are becoming less and less “ownable”, and there may lie a good part of the problem). Rather, then, that blaming everything on “capitalism” (a quite useless term in my humble opinion –although I guess good ol’ partisans would accuse me of “false class consciousness” or being a “lackey of capital”, as behind the denunciation of old categories they always suspect a conscious attempt to hide the original reason of all inequality, i.e. the illegitimate appropriation by the capitalist of all the surplus value generated by the worker… I couldn’t care less, really, as I think I’ve done my part and then some, as I’m still doing, for denouncing the true reasons of inequality without resorting to clichés that cloud more than what they reveal) I would say the problem is a dominant reason that was as common and pervasive in communist countries, and would likely be in a “socialist paradise” if we ever see one, as it is today  in capitalist ones. A dominant reason that presents as the only defensible claims on how humans should behave the ones that maximize the desires they can satisfy, and that only understands those desires that require for their satisfaction the consumption of some material good. As only socially sanctioned way of reasoning, it has proven to be superb (for the last three hundred years when it has been hegemonic) to increase the per capita income, measured in terms of material goods amenable to being priced, but abysmal at giving humans fulfilling lives.

And humans have this silly tendency to base their decisions about reproduction on how well their individual lives have subjectively gone (how they perceive them to have gone so far), as that in turn influences how valuable they think life is overall. Give enough of them shitty lives, and they understandably will choose not to propagate such “gift” (nothing new here, that’s my “gonadal vote” theory of social reproduction in a nutshell), and our current social compact is just not that good in providing lives that are not shitty. So if I were to identify the root cause it would go something like this:

Desiderative reason -> Meaningless lives -> no reproduction -> no economic growth -> no technological (or scientific) progress -> more inequality

So really capitalism has not much to do with it (unless you equate “desiderative reason” with “superstructure developed by evil capitalists to keep proletarians working their asses off for a pittance once religion has exhausted its original usefulness”, which seems like quite a stretch! –and gets you a bonus if you can read it all in one breath). Which leads us (after the usual circuitous and rambling route you should all have grown accustomed to by now) to the initial intent of the post, which was to reflect on what kind of inequality we have seen historically, for the clues it may provide us about the levels we may reach before everybody comes to their senses and impose a UBI.

You still can read (and hear) some fools arguing that primitive societies were havens of equality, and that the appearance of private property spoiled everything forever. Such a claim comes straight from Rousseau (unknowingly in most cases, as those who spout it are too illiterate to have read or heard of the Genevan), and it was as idiotic in his time as it is in ours, maybe a bit less, as the ethnographic record has provided us with countless factual examples of societies that were as primitive as you may wish and unequal to the hilt. It is generally accepted that the agricultural revolution was really bad news for the hoi polloi (the archaeological record shows that average protein intake, average life span, average height and average bone density all fell precipitously after the domestication of plants and the onset of stable sedentary agrarian societies), although great for the budding caste of rulers that now had a much bigger aggregate product to plunder and enjoy for themselves.

The advent of writing has allowed us to peer in more detail in the wealth distribution of ancient societies (Babylonia, Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Indus valley, pre-Confucian China) and the landscape is uniformly bleak. The justification for the extreme concentration of wealth at the top may vary (depending of the source of legitimacy of such rule, be it military success, religious dogma, political savvy or raw charisma), but the result for those at the bottom (which were about 90 or 95%) was similar: very little in terms of material comforts, long working hours and the totality of their production being confiscated by the ruling elite. Hunger when the crops were not good (and temporary fullness when they were), poor health, lack of security (be it from foreign invaders or from the whims of the local despot), few surviving children and the general expectation that life for them would not be very different from what it had been for their parents, or for their parents’ parents.  

A quick note on those few surviving children: some modern commenters seem to think that during all of world history women have been busy having one child per year starting with their first menstruation and until menopause, and that only starvation and disease put a merciful brake to demographic explosion. According to that (quite uninformed) narrative, the advances in medicine and sanitation that started to see the light in the XVII century just blowed off those brakes,  and only the discovery of contraceptives in the 1960’s has delivered us from the terrifying evil of an (even more) overpopulated planet. That downright moronic view is exemplified by a (presumably Western and well educated) reader of the NYT that commented on an article about the one child policy imposed by the CCP exulting on how beneficial it had been for the whole of humanity, as absent such a coercive measure there would be untold millions of Chinese people lurking around in our already overburdened land. Never mind that the article itself reported how even before the policy was enacted all the urban population of the country were already limiting themselves (voluntarily) to one children per family, as having more was anti economical an incompatible with the social advancement that even back then they were actively pursuing (or that the official end to the policy has barely dented the 1.2 boys per family that the Chinese keep having). And never mind that for centuries China had managed to keep its population stable, at very high numbers for the level of technological advancement it had achieved (something that already marveled Adam Smith in the 1870’s, as Giovanni Arrighi never tires of reminding us)… The fact of the matter is all societies, regardless of their size or level of technical development, have been practicing diverse measures of birth control (in some cases post-birth, from Taygetus mountain to exposure) for many centuries before the 1960’s, and that the supposed revolution of social mores and the basic fabric of human organization that the modern technologies (“the pill”) has supposedly enabled happened mostly in their proponents heads and nowhere else.

The evolution of a demos is a complex matter, but I’m willing to stand on one leg here and declare that it depends more on the “happiness” (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment) of the population than on the technologies available to check its growth. The happiness I’m talking about is something we moderns (educated in the desiderative type of dominant reason I’ve spent a good part of the last five years decrying) may find it difficult to grasp. It has little to do with the satisfaction of desires (understood in their utilitarian form, as something that gives us more pleasure than the pain or renunciation it imposes), and even less with the acquisition of material goods. It has rather to do with finding that your life has a deeper meaning than providing you with pleasure. With finding your own particular place in the world (both physical and social) where you think you rightly belong, and being contented with it. With accepting a form of social organization in which you believe, and which you want to promote and extend. Some of it is quite circular, I know, but I hope I’ve made clear what I’m pointing at. We are truly happy when things (what we do, what is done to us, which we can not always control) “make sense”, and when we play a role in the chain of events around us that we can consciously identify with. 

Unfortunately, we can not create the sources of such sense all by ourselves, that is an Enlightenment fiction that, as much as I am a fan of the period, has failed every time it has been tried. We need to “inherit” it, to receive it from others (a family, a culture, even, gasp! A religious tradition) and all we can aspire to is to gently modify it at the borders to give it our imprint when in turn we pass it to others. My contention, then, is that no matter what the law says or what the technology allows for, a “happy” people, by definition, will find ways to multiply itself, whilst an “unhappy” one, no matter what incentives are provided or what compulsions are devised, will in the end shrink. I admit this contention may cause seizures and frothing at the mouth on many quarters in the left for whom anything that smacks of advocating population growth is the summit of irresponsibility, short of proposing outright genocide, female genital mutilation and cruelty towards animals (or not so short, as for unimaginative thinkers those three evils are somehow or other caused by excess population to begin with, so you can not foment the latter without endorsing the former). Bunk, I say, as I am not proposing or advocating anything so far, but pointing at what I see as an undeniable fact of social life, regardless of what we think about it. I am as troubled by the negative consequences of overpopulation as anybody (frankly, a bit more, as I consider myself vastly better informed than your average shrill Malthusian): resource depletion, anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity, sea water acidification, deforestation, topsoil erosion… all aggravated by how many of us are around, and poised to get even worse before they can start to improve. All I’m saying is that those who want to improve them right away by drastically curbing population growth should at least be aware that the only way of doing so is by making life as miserable as possible for as many people as possible (not that it is so great right now for untold millions, which partly explains why we are where we are).

Back then to my reflections on inequality, after this short diversion in my own quaint ideas about demography. The old world was pretty unequal, then, nothing at all like a middle class in there. Both Greece and Rome contributed to the birth of such a class, the first through its experiment in (very limited) democracy, where all the “citizens” could be equally heard when It came to deciding what the collective should do, the second through the development of a legislative body of rules to be applied independently of the person being affected by them (in principle, as in the case of Greece the original idea suffered all kind of travesties in its implementation). Late Rome also witnessed the birth of the idea of “universal citizenship”, or a set of rights and duties that should ideally be extended to any human being, something codified by the stoics (a sect where slaves where overrepresented, hence their interest in decoupling dignity from legal citizenship) and which passed from them to Christianity.

So in the European middle ages we had a peasantry that had a couple of distinctive advantages over the multitudes that had preceded them toiling in the fields: the tradition of written rules that bound the behavior even of the rulers themselves, and an ideological motor (the Catholic Church) that preached the gospel of universal brotherhood (again, what it practiced may have been radically different, it is the ideological underpinning we are considering here, not the actual performance). Those two things, plus the right combination of fertile soil, moderately unyielding cereals (that prevented population increases like China’s, based on rice’s superior yield) and the right (rainy) climate, made possible the appearance of a new class, the Yeoman farmers in England, and similar figures in France and the Germanic lands that would create cities, launch the Reformation, start the Industrial Revolution and set the foundation of the modern world (the rest, as they say, is History).

What I wanted to get at is that the very existence of a middle class with the features we now take for granted is a very, very recent, and pretty exceptional, development in the History of our species. Let’s review some of the features of that middle class to grasp what we may be at the cusp of loosing:
·        reasonably well off as to not live in constant fear of not surviving the next month, be it by aggression, famine, or easily preventable illness (of course, what constitutes an easily preventable illness is something it has taken us some millennia to understand, and we may as well loose it if we continue abusing antibiotics)
·        politically independent and able to express their preferences and see them reflected in the general course of society. That independence has historically been supported by two tenets: the basic legitimacy of their claims granted by the “universality premise” (rights held by every individual just for being human) and the protection of their number (so it requires amply shared prosperity to be maintained)
·        entirely free to decide what interests to pursue (between the ones on offer, of course), what level of exertion apply to them and what jobs to perform to pay for them
·        filled with the expectation that their children will be better off than themselves
None of them has many parallels in our past, so we shouldn’t just assume that they are achievements enshrined in stone that no plutocrat, no elite, no ruling class would dare to take from us. They will dare indeed, and given how things look like now, chances are they may succeed.