Why Capitalism (1): The Pre-Capitalist West

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Oct 292023
Capitalism as Religion is a serialization of a book-length argument that capitalism behaves like religion. And there's something to take from that.

The development—creation and evolution—of Capitalism was hardly preordained. But it is too easy to look backward and conclude that where are now was inevitable. Nothing is inevitable. So why then? The question warrants a look at conditions leading to the birth of capitalism.

     We will eventually need to dedicate time to capitalism’s evolution to the present. But before we can begin that important journey, we must return to the context from which capitalism sprung as a response. As an added benefit to understanding something of the human imperatives behind capitalism’s birth, we may come to appreciate that it, too, was (perhaps) a momentary oasis of stability in a long tidal development of human organization, structure, and conduct.

     So what were the conditions that incubated what would become capitalism? Before exploring that, a provisional description and definition of capitalism is in order. Provisional because we only need it now for perspective and will elaborate (maybe materially) when the time comes. Moreover, to keep things as contained as much as such a topic can possibly be, we will focus on Europe as the primary Petrie dish for the emergence of this new philosophical, logical, and—as best known and understood—economic ideology.


     Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of profit through market exchange. It is a system in which individuals, rather than the state or collective entities, own and control resources, businesses, and property. This is the original definition. What constitutes a “collective entity” has shifted somewhat. (Yes, I’m looking at you NASDAQ or NYSE-listed share capital corporations.)

  1. Private Property – Individuals and businesses have the right to own and control property. Private property rights allow “individuals” to use, trade, and transfer their property as they see fit, within the limits of the law.
  2. Market Economy – Market mechanisms allocate resources, determine prices, and facilitate economic exchange. Supply and demand forces, not centralized planning, largely determine production levels and the distribution. Buyers and sellers voluntarily transact based on mutual benefit.
  3. Profit Motive – Individuals and businesses are motivated to engage in economic activities to generate income, maximize financial gains, and accumulate wealth. Profit is the incentive for innovation, risk-taking, investment, and entrepreneurship.
  4. Competition – Competition fosters efficiency and drives innovation. It provides consumers with choice and incents producers to improve quality and lower costs.
  5. Limited Government Intervention – Limited government intervention in economic affairs means the state focuses on maintaining rule of law, protecting property rights, enforcing contracts, and ensuring fair competition. Individuals and businesses are free to make economic decisions and engage in voluntary transactions unencumbered by government interference.
  6. Profitable Investment and Capital Accumulation – Savings and profits are reinvested in productive enterprises, leading to increased productivity, technological advances, and expanded economic activity. Capital accumulation fuels economic development and higher living standards.
  7. Economic Freedom and Individual Choice – Individuals are free to choose their occupations, enter into contracts, start businesses, and engage in trade. With such individual rights, including the right to own property, one can pursue economic self-interest and enjoy the fruits of one’s labour.

     Note that today capitalism can take various forms, accompanied by different degrees of government intervention and regulation. Different countries and societies—and even tribes within societies—may adopt different models of capitalism, combining market principles with varying levels of social welfare policies and regulation. The implementation and characteristics of capitalism can vary across nations and over time.

     The development and movement to the capitalism we know were gradual processes over centuries. Many factors and changes in economic conditions contributed to that evolution of capitalism. For now, we shall remain in the pre-capitalist period in Europe and focus on the original version of capitalism.

The Enlightenment

     Specialization makes for isolation, which goes a long way to explain why the historical context for capitalism tends toward one that is improbably predominant: economics. I concede that viewing capitalism solely in economic terms is sensible. Capitalism is an economic theory and therefore the forces and conditions that spawned it must also be economic. This is, of course, right. Yet abjectly superficial and, thus, wrong.

     In the academy, it apparently required both the development of “interdisciplinary studies” and pioneering work of psychologists that wouldn’t stay in their own lane to wrench economics from its self-exalted pedestal.[1] All that work, and more, conclusively provided one insight if nothing else: to understand people and economics requires looking beyond economics. And so it should be in a consideration of this economic philosophy called capitalism. Particularly to understand how it came to be.

     While there can be no serious dispute that capitalism was a recoil against mercantilist policies in post-Feudal Europe, that part of the story is far too pat. It is insufficient in the same callow way as pretending to understand a 15-round prize fight TKO based on the final round or appreciating Romeo & Juliette solely from Act V.

     The big story is that capitalism was one of the final major intellectual outputs of the Enlightenment. This would necessarily support the oft-overlooked aspect of capitalism as philosophical foundation much broader than mere economics. Moreover, that it was built on, reflects, and owes materially to the long period of evolution in thinking that led to it. Any exploration of capitalism and its emergence that gives short shrift to the defining impact of the Enlightenment should be immediately suspect.

     There is insufficient space or need, frankly, to interrogate the fulness of what constituted the Age of Enlightenment. For our purpose, here, much of it resolves to a few critical evolutions of “common” thought and attitude that made all the difference. So our survey of this era that arguably began with Descartes (ca 1637) or Newton (ca 1687) and persisted through the start of the French Revolution (1789) will be brief and focused.

Enlightenment Ideals

     In hindsight certainly, and maybe even at the time, the dominant developments of the Enlightenment centred on certain obvious ideals. These were generally thwarted desires that bubbled to surface in nearly every aspect of life: political, social, personal, religious, scientific, artistic…

     Enlightenment ideals included human happiness, knowledge—both by reasoning and experience, tolerance, fraternity, separation of church and state, constitutional government, progress, natural law, and so forth. So embedded are these in our (Western) daily thought, it is hard to conceive a time when they were impossible dreams and quests. Foremost among these ideals, informing not only Western culture generally but setting the table for capitalism particularly, was liberty.

     Liberty can be a malleable word and concept, and served many purposes in this period—as in our own. It tended to be the catch-all expression of desire for freedom of some sort. Freedom from religious dogma; freedom from oppressive monarchy; freedom to rise and achieve; freedom to do as one pleased. It said, as many small children express it, “You’re not the boss of me.”

     The millennia preceding the Enlightenment had been one of control and dominion of one sort or another, be that by religious or secular princes. The scientific revolution and both development and dissemination of thoughts and knowledge revealed the artifice of these structures. Liberty was the cri de Coeur that found a place or made a place for itself in all aspects of life of all sorts of people.

     There are those who continue to propagate the bankrupt notion that there was a Dark Ages of effectively no forward movement for humanity; that this ended with the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and ultimately with the Enlightenment. They are wrong. But that’s for another time. Their underlying point, however, is that the centuries leading to the Enlightenment were a foundation for an evident explosion of thinking.[2] Thanks in no small part to Guttenberg’s machine, these thoughts were broadly disseminated and fed even more thoughtful advance during the Enlightenment. It’s arguable that this, itself, was liberty and liberating.

Enlightenment Legacy of Ideas and Power Structures

     Among the works and authors whose broad contribution to and expansion of Enlightenment ideals is especially notable for our purpose are:

  • David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature (1740)
  • Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
  • Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth (1766)
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

     Notice particularly in this radically abbreviated list, two Scots disciples of Frances Hutcheson—Hume and Smith—whose foundational education is humanism not economics. Also, give credit to the many others not on the list that are undoubtedly known to you, but are too distant from capitalism specifically. Thinkers such as Diderot, Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau… All of whom were standing on the shoulders of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and whose underlying purpose, treatise, and intent was yet generally foundational to capitalist thinking.

     For instance, from Locke we inherit, “Life, liberty and property,” which is of a piece with Hobbes’s focus on individual rights. It was, however, Spinoza who undergirded the members of the “Radical Enlightenment” that fomented for individual liberty and democracy. Such was the temper of the time. By the tail end of the Enlightenment, governance and economics that did not harmonize with this burgeoning expectation would have been truly without credit: a wilful act of extreme and broad force to preserve a system or systems ready to be retired.

Conditions In Europe Before Capitalism

     If the age of capitalism can be tied to a date, 1776 would be it. This conveniently, but completely independently coincides with the birth of the United States of America. Is there a connection? No doubt on many levels, if not only that they seem to be related outcomes of a universal social recoil.

     “Recoil from what?” one might ask.

     In a word: plenty. Europe during the 17th– and 18th-centuries was a fizzing Petrie dish of resentments and reactions, ambitions and antagonisms. There was a slow rolling change to the zeitgeist economically, geographically, technologically, in governance, in religious faith, industrially, demographically, and—perhaps most importantly, in ideas—or ideologically.

     Circumstances such as the decline of feudalism, migration off the farm and its urban centers growth corollary, the emergence of a money economy, and advancements in technology were fertile ground for the development of capitalism. Layer atop that a legal and institutional framework supporting property rights, contract enforcement, and the rule of law to provide stability and security for economic transactions. There was bound to be change, maybe of a predictable type and direction.

     This is, of course, not all. The Age of Discovery was barely over. The ideas behind capitalism and the establishment of the USA were children of the Enlightenment. Let us now briefly, thematically survey the most proximate and relevant features of Europe before capitalism.

Agricultural Changes and the Enclosure Movement

     This process, which accelerated from the 16th to the 19th-centuries, forced small farmers and peasants off the land, concentrating land ownership and helping propel an eager labour force into employment in emerging industries. It also played a crucial role in breaking down the feudal system.

     The agricultural revolution in Europe started in the early 17th-century and brought unprecedented advances in agricultural technique and productivity—certainly in England. Crop rotation approaches, soil restoration and drainage, and husbandry techniques such as selective breeding, as well as other means of expanding arable land were all developed and put to use during this period. The first major wave of mechanization also shook up agriculture during this period. Ploughs, for instance, were advanced materially. The seed drill, too, was advanced by the Europeans. And, in 1786, the threshing machine was invented.

     All of this led to increased food production. More food had an accelerating effect on population growth. And, ultimately, surplus labour became an issue on the farm. Surplus labourers, no longer needed for agricultural activities, moved to towns and cities to (eventually) form a new class of wage labourers. Urban migration supported, if not propelled industrialization. (More about this dynamic later.)

Feudalism and The Power of Land

     In the European context, Feudalism was the dominant socio-economic system prior to the emergence of capitalism. Feudalism was characterized by a hierarchical structure where land and resources were owned by a small noble class, while peasants worked the land in exchange for protection and a share of the produce. This system weakened as trade expanded and new economic opportunities arose, but it persisted.

     The feudal system had its heyday from the 5th through 12th-centuries, arising during a period of weak central authority and nascent (at best) legal structures. The fiefs held by local lords were petty “kingdoms”. In the 17th-century the actual feudal construct was developed. These property-centric seigneuries made the fief-holder (the peasant) an extremely dependent man. Not a slave, but one unfree beyond the bounds of fidelity owed to the landlord. Or at the very least, one whose liberties were truncated and opportunities limited.

     In England, the feudal system was laid to rest by Parliament in 1645 and subsequently by Charles II in 1660. In France, however, the system persisted until eradicated by the National Assembly ca 1793.


     Returning to the Agricultural Revolution, a key driver was the so-called Enclosure Movement. Predominantly in England, this involved consolidation of common lands and their transformation into private property. While at first blush this would seem to be a boon to feudal landlords, one need focus on the precedent for property privatization.

     The Enclosure Acts, in England, spanned the period from 1604-1919. At least in the earliest of its period, Enclosure can be said to have been an unwieldy and misguided attempt to address the Tragedy of the Commons[3] by attempting to eliminate the Commons. No commons, no tragedy. People being people, however, the tragedy persisted (and persists) anywhere there is a commons of any sort. Enclosure, it can be argued, had unintended, unanticipated consequences. Nobody could have or would have perceived that these decrees tilting toward private property would (partially) catalyze the advent of what would be called capitalism.

The Urban Shift

     The shift to urban living was pronounced in the time leading to the breakthrough of capitalism. There were various, interrelated reasons for this change. The privatization of the commons, mechanization and industrialization, trade and discovery, and money all played a part. Ultimately the shift was from rural and agrarian to urban and industrial. To put a finer point on it, many people were driven to a situation that did not lend itself well to independence and self-sufficiency of any sort. Rural people are, irrespective of scale, producers. Rather, urban dwellers were to be a factor of production, or wage labour, as it would come to be known.

     Irrespective, the pre-capitalist urban shift was only the start of an ongoing change. People moved off the farm to survive; urban-centred industry survived because of labour; discovery and trade continued—or accelerated—with the availability of people. The arrows of causality are unclear except that they point the same direction generally. It was, in any case, sufficient to be an obvious factor in the pre-capitalist circumstance.

Commercial Revolution and Mercantilism

     The fullness of the Commercial Revolution is arguably from the 11th through the 18th-centuries.[4] It is a period of significant import to us because through this period commerce became a fundamental expression of human desire or ambition; or at least a primal conception of the game of life. The period witnessed a surge in (overseas) trade, colonization, and the growth of merchant capitalism. One after the other, European nations sought to amass wealth and power through exploration, colonization, and the establishment of overseas empires—colonies providing access to new resources, markets, and investment opportunities. Mercantilism, the economic doctrine dominant during this time, was geared to maximize a nation’s wealth through government intervention, protectionism, and the accumulation of precious metals.

     Much less well publicized than its more recent sibling, the Industrial Revolution (see below), the criticality of this development—for our purpose, anyway—can’t be overstated. It is here the ideas of commerce, money, wealth, and the power that flows from it all took hold. This is not to say such motivations did not exist before. They did: Croesus was not a Florentine banker, after all.

     During the Commercial Revolution the structures to support a non-militaristic expression and pursuit of these desires fell into place. For a number of reasons: from technological to social innovation that would tame the seas and defray financial risk; from demographics to geopolitics, the stars aligned and commerce did not just flourish—it rooted deeply. To explore all aspects of every element is worthy of its own volume(s). Moreover, many interdependent drivers such as the rural flight to the city are noted in other sections. So we will satisfy ourselves with a survey some important facets of this revolution, noting how they express if not amplify the human propensities that led to capitalism.

     That the Commercial Revolution began in the Italian (maritime) city-states of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Lucca, etc. would suggest two things. First, trade over the Mediterranean was instrumental and created wealth. The disequilibrium and chaotic tentativeness of the petty feudal lords—or the absence of central (monarchical) government—was surely causal to some extent. Throwing off overlords requires means, which trade afforded. Second, the petty anarchy of the small protectorates (mostly dedicated to protecting the protector’s position…) is naturally subject to entropy. It falls apart—fast.[5] Abject poverty with no protection is undesirable. So what would make a false equilibrium on that foundation crumble? In the Italian and European experience, the answer is regional government and power: the city-state.


     Mercantilism may be the single-most important and obviously-connected element in the environment that spawned capitalism. That it is an economic system is evident. What it says about the people behind it and the environment it helped spawn may be more instructive.

     Mercantilism emerged during the transition from feudalism, which was characterized by a rigid social hierarchy and an agrarian-based economy, with wealth primarily derived from landownership. At least two significant forces in Europe at the time contributed to the shift from feudalism into mercantilism. First was the development of city-states and then nation-states. These larger, more complex, and wealthier political entities required a non-agrarian means to maintain and grow wealth. Second, (recent) growth was built on trade that flourished because of discovery, financial tools, and entities that could accept trade risk at the necessary, growing scale.

     As capitalism, in the hands of Adam Smith anyway, is a recoil from mercantilism, one would be safe assuming mercantilist policies were bad. But not all of them. In fact, characteristics of mercantilism were seminal to the development of capitalism. The capitalist response (from Smith) was arguably one of:

  • ideas that exposed failings and shortcomings, such as zero-sum trade, and consumption-driven economics; and
  • objection to a system tuned to sustain existing wealth and power, while inhibiting others.

     Consider these key features of mercantilism with an eye to where and how they echo in capitalism.

  1. Focus on Trade and Accumulation of Wealth – Mercantilism emphasized trade and wealth accumulation as essential elements of economic prosperity and national power. Capitalism preserved the general sentiment. Alas, mercantilist policies aimed to maximize exports and minimize imports for a positive balance of trade. A trade surplus was believed to result in the inflow of precious metals, especially gold and silver, which were then considered the basis of wealth. It was the zero sum notion: “our” loss was “their” gain and vice versa. Governments implemented protectionist measures—tariffs, quotas, and subsidies—to foster domestic industries, protect them from foreign competitors, and secure markets for their own goods. The goal was to safeguard local industries, create employment opportunities, and reduce reliance on foreign goods. Though generally considered poor policy (at least publicly), this focus on trade and economic nationalism laid a foundation for developments in international commerce and economic theory.
  2. State Intervention and Regulation – Mercantilism relied heavily on state intervention and regulation in the economy. Governments played an active role in promoting and protecting domestic industries, often granting monopolies, subsidizing and privileging favoured industries, and implementing regulations to control production, trade, and colonial ventures. They established guilds, controlled production methods, and enforced quality standards. Again, the aim was to protect and promote domestic industries, maintain a favorable trade balance, and increase the nation’s revenue, wealth, and economic power.
  3. Colonialism, Exploration, and Resource Extraction – Mercantilism coincided with the era of colonial expansion and exploration. European powers sought to establish colonies and extract valuable resources from overseas territories. Colonies provided access to raw materials, cheap labour, and captive markets for goods. Establishment of colonies and exploitation of their resources were key mercantilist policies. The wealth generated played a significant role in the accumulation of capital.
  4. Accumulation of Bullion – As noted above, mercantilism emphasized accumulation of precious metals, particularly gold and silver. Possession of bullion represented a nation’s wealth and power. Policies were designed to increase exports and generate a trade surplus specifically to bring more precious metals into the country. This emphasis on bullion reflected the prevailing economic thinking that metals were the primary form of wealth.
  5. Economic Nationalism – Perhaps most significantly, mercantilism was marked by economic nationalism. The interests of the nation-state were prioritized over individual economic freedoms, full stop. The aim was to strengthen the nation’s economic power and self-sufficiency.

     Over time, the limitations of mercantilist policies and the desire for economic progress led to a gradual shift towards the principles of free trade. Mercantilism’s emphasis on state intervention and protectionism was increasingly challenged by thinkers advocating for the benefits of open markets and international trade. Modern economic thinkers branded and challenged the heavy-handed protectionist aspects of mercantilism as unproductive “rent taking.” All the centrally-accumulated wealth and human desire projected by mercantilist thought was arguably the ideal set up for a truly revolutionary push back. As we will see.

Money and The Commercial Source of Wealth

The Decline of the Landlord and Ascendance of the Commercial Baron

     In these city-states, where power was based on wealth detached from land ownership, there was a degree of liberty unknown to the vassal of a landlord or king. The city-states were decidedly commercial. From Italy to the Netherlands and Belgium, Germany, and Spain, trade (in goods and knowledge), banking, and finance were the primary endeavors.

     All the discovery, innovation, liberty, and ability to endeavor was enabled and fueled by… money. In the simplest sense, the gold and silver from the New World and the trade that went along with it created a large and growing “middle” merchant class. This striving centre propelled change by the force of base desire.

Financial Innovations and Institutions

     Money! The Commercial Revolution formalized and institutionalized money unlike and well beyond anything since the Roman Empire. Modern banking took hold in the 16th-century when the (Catholic) Church became satisfied that charging interest was not, in fact, sinful. (No doubt, swelling tithes and the grace of banking families helped.)

     Dramatically oversimplifying: if you are the Jeff Bezos of your time, eventually it dawns on you that there is a limit to the pace and scale of wealth generation by (mostly) exploiting gold/silver acquisition directly. And, you may have that limit in sight. But others have ideas to explore, exploit, trade, and create wealth. Moreover, they are willing to undertake the dangers that go with it. Critically, they need (investment) money to make money. Since yours is doing nothing—except supporting artists and building churches—it makes sense to invest. But investment in this kind of venture is a long-odds bet. The better choice is to lend at interest. It’s much safer and almost as lucrative.

     Banking and the institutionalization of money as an exchange medium and moreso as influence on the Commercial Revolution cannot be understated. Except, of course, when compared to that other Leviathan of the period: the joint stock company.

     The joint stock company developed as one of two ways to manage (financial) risk during this period. The other was insurance. The risks these institutions were created to offset or mitigate were legion, nearly all arising out of discovery and trade. From the natural risks of travel on the sea, mostly owing to weather and ignorance, to risks of war and piracy, trade on the high seas did not always pan out. But when it did, it worked out very well. The monied and striving needed means to defray the risks and pursue the spoils.

     The idea of sharing risk, like the idea of money, was not new. During the Commercial Revolution it was, however, institutionalized. Discovery and trade rapidly evolved to be the purview of the wealthy that financed a founder’s company for a (substantial) piece of the action. (Sound familiar? Today we call it venture capitalism.) Its beginning is often tied to the London Royal Exchange, founded in 1565 and becoming a stock exchange by 1801. But trading exchanges, called bourses, actually date back to the 13th and 14th-centuries depending on the geographic location. The Amsterdam Bourse (stock exchange) is dubiously honoured as listing the Dutch East India Company, the first company to issue stocks and bonds, in 1602.[6] As for insurance, Lloyd’s of London was created at a coffee shop in 1688. Its underwriting and new service systematized the notion of risk quantification for sea venturers and others.

Colonialism and Trade

     Ironically, not unlike our own time, it was a climate change at the end of the 13th-century that forced innovation. This happened geopolitically, in technology, and in the drive to discover. The ensuing Age of Discovery helped shifted the economic centre of Europe farther west (toward the Atlantic) from Rome and the east end of the Mediterranean. When the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, overland trade route to the east became cost prohibitive at the very least. Once again, voyages of discovery were propelled on the back of trade and commerce.

     Which came first: the explorations and discovery or the technological advances that supported and sustained them? Capitalism would phrase this as demand v. supply-driven. On the waters alone, sail rigging designs and lighter weight hull crafting were matched with the navigational tools and techniques that were directly the result of Isaac Newton’s (Leibniz’s) calculus. It’s arguable they were complementary—as always. A discovery of some sort opened the way to an innovation that could fulfil a developing but struggling demand. Or, seen through the other end of the prism, a nascent demand being proven sets off a race to discover/innovate a means to fully exploit it.

Industrial Revolution and Capital Accumulation

     The Industrial Revolution, by which we’re referring to the British experience of industrialization through the second half of the 18th-century and most of the 19th, was another essential catalyst for the development of capitalism. A common description is that the Industrial Revolution was the time and process of changing an agrarian and artisanal world to a mechanized one. By good fortune or as an unremarkable next step to the ideas and progress that preceded it, the Industrial Revolution supercharged what was begun by the Commercial Revolution.

     The change in production at the time—both how and what—pushed forth a profound change in economy. That change in economy, in turn, altered society and individuals even more profoundly. As noted earlier, money and greater opportunity for individual advancement unleashed desires held down by the landownership-as-wealth structure. That was largely the Commercial Revolution’s doing. It took the Industrial Revolution to give those desires form and purpose beyond seafaring trade.

Invention and Innovation

     Accepted wisdom is that the Industrial Revolution began with Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1770), Watt’s steam engine (ca 1780), Cartwright’s power loom (1785), and even Whitney’s cotton gin (1793). That’s not wrong—limited, but not wrong. There were many other, less notable but equally purposeful uses of mechanization that began appearing about this time. These bellwether inventions—and the others—created the means for and proved out 5, 10, 50X increases in productivity, directly driving industrialization and economic growth for British fabricators. Development and expansion of the basic ideas of mechanized work was applied to drain mines, build a railroad transportation construct, and alter the pace and scale of locomotion on land and by naval routes, and so much more.

     But to focus solely on mechanization or even industrialization is to expose only part of the story. The Industrial Revolution was a piece with the temper of the times. For instance, consider the rural-to-urban shift. Did industrialization incite migration from country to city, or was it merely a sop for all that newfound labour? Did mechanization contribute to starting that migration or was it merely an accelerant atop Closure and mercantile policies? The machinery invented was obviously the outcome of a long period of technological innovation. It did not arrive fully formed as a gift from God—maybe Mammon. Something else was elemental to those those inventions, derived from initial mechanization that advance over decades, caused them to bloom at that particular time? One has to at least speculate that it had something to do with the many other changes during the 18th-century.

     Dissecting the Industrial Revolution is an effort worthy of shelves of space. Let us, however, make emphatic the point that the Industrial Revolution did not stand alone. The Industrial Revolution was a fact of and outcome from the crucible of intellectual, spiritual, moral, economic, and political (social) ferment of the preceding centuries: the Enlightenment and Commercial Revolution for instance.

Efficiency and Productivity (and the end of the Artisan)

     Evolution to the factory system, a natural outcome of bringing workers to one place to support mechanized equipment that prefaced orders of magnitude greater output than they ever could, was a more material outcome of the Industrial Revolution than mere mechanization. (Again: whether this started, resulted from, or merely accelerated forces of urbanization is a parlour game.) Factories could be even more purposeful alongside “industrial” modes of transportation such as rail and steam ship. Productive facilities no longer had to be adjacent to raw materials or the market. Both the inputs and outputs could be readily delivered from/to locations much farther afield. Factories led to specialization of labour skill, further over-matching and undercutting artisanal production capacity and cost.

     Of course, the Industrial Revolution would displace some and create horrible inequities that might take as long as a century to sort out (i.e., labour exploitation) every bit the same as the Age of Discovery had done before it (viz. slavery). This is not to diminish but, in fact, to extoll the value and impact on progress. But because it is not our central point here, we’ll leave that be.

Capital Accumulation

     Perhaps the most continuous and significant aspect of the Industrial Revolution, together with mercantilist thinking, trade, and the full panoply of Commercial Revolution impacts, was wealth accumulation. The descriptions provided for each show the cumulative and exponential impact of how:

  • trade and trade opportunities led to a non-agrarian merchant class;
  • discovery and colonialism created wealth for explorers and plunderers;
  • the Commercial Revolution, particularly the concomitant Closure laws, reoriented the notions of success away from the landholding precedent;
  • mercantilist policies created trade winners from venturers and pooled wealth; and
  • industry solidified the shift from land assets to money and capital assets of all sorts as the basis of wealth accumulation and investment.

The Industrial Revolution fueled capital accumulation, as entrepreneurs and capitalists invested in new industries, machinery, and infrastructure. As we noted earlier, capital was essential to full discovery and trade at increasing scale without state intervention (control).

The Birth of Capitalism

     The “birth” of capitalism is complex… and debated. There was no particular crystalizing moment. It developed gradually over several centuries as an outcome to the prevailing circumstances that included not only conditions at hand but forces of change as presented previously.

     To the extent that capitalism was born, it was an idea made manifest by events and the actions of numerous people. It was, as the contrast between its fundamental principles and the circumstances of the day would prove out, a recoil marked by increasingly powerful individual and societal forces for individual freedom and rights, by exploding desire to acquire and amass wealth, by the search for political power and autonomy that had been withheld but obviously driven by wealth. It would be justifiable to say capitalism was not so much a new ideology as the codified unleashing of primal desires in an economic context.

     Even for a long hatching such as I suggest, there are events, ideas, and individuals to mark the moment. This section surveys only a small few of those.

Social and Political Transformations

     The rise of capitalism was not driven solely by economic factors but also by social and political transformations. As noted above, the Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th-centuries, emphasized reason, individualism, and the pursuit of progress. Enlightenment thinkers challenged traditional hierarchies and called for social and economic reforms that aligned with capitalist principles, such as equality before the law and the freedom to engage in economic activities.

     Throughout the preceding assessment of conditions and forces of change, the shifts in thought and thinking play an outsize role. This brief section is a synthesis of those effects on the moral, internal, and external perceptions among the masses.

Philosophical Elements

     Philosophical or moral shifts are important because they inform everything else. These moral sentiments of what is “right” and “wrong” operate sub-sonically. That is, they tend—especially as they become more ingrained—to frame the more obvious and noisy thinking and debate. Among others, these particular philosophies informed the environment that led to and that has existed for capitalism.

  • Individualism – Individualism emphasizes the value and autonomy of the individual. John Locke among other contemporary and later thinkers of the Enlightenment championed individual rights, including the right to own property and pursue one’s own interests. Individualism recognizes individuals as the central agents of economic activity and supports the idea that they should be free to make choices based on their own self-interest. We, in the capitalist West to be sure, take this as a natural law.
  • Liberalism – Liberalism, as a political and philosophical ideology, underpins capitalism. Liberal thinkers advocated for limited government intervention, protection of individual rights, and free markets. They argued that individuals should be free to pursue their own economic interests and that government interference in the economy should be minimized. Again, today we argue about degree, never about the inherent rightness of this proposition. Principles of liberalism, including individual freedom, equality before the law, and the sanctity of private property aligned with the core tenets of capitalism.
  • Utilitarianism – Utilitarianism, a consequentialist ethical theory associated with thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, influenced the development of capitalism. Utilitarianism focuses on maximizing overall happiness or utility in society, which obviously aligns to the forces of the Enlightenment. Capitalism, with its emphasis on individual self-interest and competition, is usually seen as compatible with utilitarian principles. According to utilitarianism, capitalist pursuit of self-interest, can lead to greater overall social welfare and well-being. Utilitarianism lasts.

Psychological Elements

     For our purpose the prevailing psychology of the time is (as always) a clear expression of the dominant philosophical tendencies. Two particular feature of the changing psychology under capitalism are worth noting.

  • Self-Interest and Rationality – Capitalism assumes that individuals are primarily motivated by self-interest and act rationally to maximize their own well-being. This psychological assumption aligns with classical economic theories, such as those developed by Adam Smith. According to this perspective, individuals in a capitalist system are expected to make rational choices based on their own perceived benefits.
  • Incentives and Rewards – Capitalism relies on the psychological principles of incentive and reward. The pursuit of profit and the prospect of economic reward (aka, greed) serve as powerful motivators for individuals to engage in productive activities. The belief that hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking can lead to financial success and social mobility serves as a critical driving force in a capitalist society.

Sociological Elements

     Capitalism recognized and amplified weak or constrained imperatives such as the naked desire to throw off the real and figurative shackles of servitude. Such sociological developments became codified in the Western (economic) ethos. Consider only three of these changes that are fundamental as air today but were unheard of pre-capitalism.

Division of Labour

     Division of labour, a fundamental aspect of capitalism, is associated with the work of Adam Smith. Smith specifically illustrated the efficiency of making pins with several specialists doing a part rather than the artisan creating from start to finish. It speaks directly to increasing overall productivity and efficiency. Capitalism implicitly is about advancing productivity as a means to succeed, grow wealth, secure freedom, etc. This sociological legacy spawned the assembly line, personal improvement, and so forth. Moreover, the division of labour promotes interdependence and the exchange of goods and services, fostering economic growth and the development of market systems.

Market Exchange

     Nothing is more central to capitalism than market exchange. Smith memorialized it with his butcher and baker. Voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers based on (hopefully) mutually beneficial agreements serves all good from allocation of resources to comparative advantage. It is of a piece with the concepts of freedom and liberty, meritocratic success, and wealth accumulation. The market, an impersonal arbiter of value—instead of a king or state—opened the door to imagination and innovation by anyone. Identification of and supply to an unserved demand founds capitalism and removed opportunity from the stranglehold of the landlord and regent.

     Market exchange is an understanding of markets as social institutions, where individuals interact and play. Its “rules” become institutionalized democratically because participants are free to join and play by the rules or break the rules and be ostracized. This is a legacy notion we hold dear even as it wears thin.

Social Mobility

     Capitalism offers the potential for social mobility, allowing individuals to move up or down the socioeconomic ladder based on personal economic success. In the feudal and even mercantile society this was rare. While “merit” can be argued and there is a long debate to be had over what basis of success is rewarded, there is no denying that under capitalism it is feasible and has at times been common. The prospect of upward social mobility, achieved by individual effort and merit, has been an important element supporting the legitimacy and acceptance of capitalism.

     Capitalism, of course, harnessed the Enlightenment cause of freedom and liberty in which economics so fundamentally plays a part. Freedom of the sort most people want is in no small part enabled by wealth. Accumulation of wealth is a core principle of capitalism. So in effect, capitalism harnessed this ideal of freedom and liberty by attaching it to wealth accumulation—and farther backward to individual merit and success.

Proto-Capitalist Thinkers and Writings

     Many prominent thinkers and writers contributed to the development of capitalist ideas. Some we have already encountered in our survey of the Enlightenment’s relevance. These thinkers, among so many others, challenged prevailing economic doctrine to lay the intellectual foundation for capitalism.

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) – Colbert was King Louis XIV of France’s finance minister. He implemented mercantilist policies to encourage domestic industry, trade, and export promotion. His advocacy of government intervention and protectionism influenced economic policies across Europe during the early modern period. And, while purists may argue that this is mercantilist not capitalist, the focus on industry, trade, and wealth creation would cast a long shadow for this protocapitalist.
  • John Locke (1632-1704) – John Locke, an English philosopher, contributed mightily to political theory and the ideal of individual rights. His writings on property rights, including Two Treatises of Government (1689), laid the foundation for the concept of private property and protections for individual ownership. Such ideas were critical to the emergence of capitalism, which would be hollow without private property rights.
  • Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) – Mandeville, a Dutch-British philosopher and economist, published The Fable of the Bees (1714). He proposed and argued that individual vices, when combined, can lead to overall social and economic benefits. Mandeville’s ideas challenged traditional moral and ethical assumptions, highlighting the role of self-interest in economic activity. It would not be a big leap to Smith’s market forces and the self-interested butcher and baker.
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) – Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher and economist, is often referred to as the “father of capitalism.” His seminal work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), provided a comprehensive analysis and postulation of the value and relevance of market economies. Smith emphasized the importance of free markets, division of labour, and self-interest, arguing that the pursuit of self-interest, guided by market forces, ultimately leads to the betterment of society as a whole.

Free Trade and Liberal Economic Policies

     The development of capitalism was closely tied to the advocacy of free trade and liberal economic policies. The concept of laissez-faire economics, championed by thinkers like Adam Smith, argued for minimal government intervention in the economy. This shift away from mercantilist policies toward free trade and liberal economic practices created an environment conducive to the growth of capitalism. Trade and liberal economic policies tilted toward private owners as opposed to being the domain of states. Without state power to compel mercantilist desires, capitalists changed the focus to allow for more benefit from the elemental give and take of trade among market players. The repeal of protectionist measures, the dismantling of trade barriers, and the promotion of open markets demanded—then rewarded—greater competition, innovation, and the expansion of economic opportunities.

Capitalist Empires and Colonialism

     The growth of capitalism was intertwined with the expansion of colonial empires. European powers, such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England, pursued colonial ventures for economic gain. Colonies provided access to valuable resources, including precious metals, agricultural products, and labour. The exploitative economic systems established in colonies, such as the plantation economies in the Americas, generated immense wealth for the colonizers and contributed to the accumulation of capital that fueled capitalist development.

     The birth of capitalism was a multifaceted process driven by a combination of economic, intellectual, social, and political factors. The Enlightenment, Commercial Revolution, and Industrial Revolution were key catalysts. The principles of individualism, private property, and free trade were its core underpinnings. In any case, the temper of the times made some sort of evolution inevitable. Arguably, capitalism best served thte needs and desires.

This is part of a series of essays exploring the idea of Capitalism as Religion.

Transformation of Capitalism, an introduction

Religious About Capitalism

Timothy Grayson is a Canadian (digital) transformation consultant, coach, and writer. Among other things, he has provided thechangeplaybook.com as a practical resource for change and project managers. Find him at institute-x.org.

[1]   I am referring to Tversky and Khanneman, and all those that followed their path to flesh out the field of behavioural economics.

[2] The only disagreement being the degree of discontinuity represented by this “enlightened” period.

[3]   This tragedy represents a common circumstance where a number of individuals acting in their own self-interest, on an open and apparently infinite resource, where no individual act would seem to have material impact, end up collectively depleting and/or destroying the resource for everyone. Originally the commons were public grazing lands for sheep. As a side note, this tragedy overlays nicely to one of the most typical oppositions to climate change action in the West: Our actions will have no effect compared to China and India (ergo, carry one carrying on).

[4]   Only on a geologic time scale could anything that took 400-700 years to fulfill be considered a “revolution” and not an “evolution.”

[5] Or, more probably, consistent with Hemmingway’s maxim: “Gradually, then suddenly.” (The Sun Also Rises.)

[6]   Again foreshadowing today, the Dutch also pioneered short selling, options, debt-equity swaps, merchant banking, and other speculative instruments.

The Hypocrisy of Freedom/Fredum and Religion

 society, ethics, Religion, stupidity  Comments Off on The Hypocrisy of Freedom/Fredum and Religion
Jun 162023
Religious people that storm about Freedom are hypcrites

The word “freedom” has been drained of any worth. There was a time when it was a foundational article of constitutional republics and democracies the world over. There was a time that young men died in the name of freedom from genuine fascist tyranny. There was a time that the fight for freedom from a genuine oppressor of some type was a cause to join or if not join at least rally to.

Those days are over.

Most demands for “freedom” are pure hypocrisy if they rise above idiocy

But the cry of freedom as a rationale or excuse is at fever pitch. Why is something ridiculous or selfish or anarchic or antisocial or… being done? Why for freedom, of course. Freedom is even invoked when it makes no sense, such as in almost every complaint in the United States that the media or private corporations are imposing on freedom of expression by disallowing some expression of mental indigestion or another.

For clarity, it’s nonsense because the 1st Amendment applies only to the government imposing on the right to express oneself. And that’s just to start. Freedom, quite unsurprisingly spelled out as “fredum” or some equally incorrect variation, is like the universal “get out of jail free” card. Until it’s not. But that’s not what this is about.

Religious people tend to be hypocrites

What this is about is a segment of the freedom claimers that belongs to any form of Judeo-Christian organized religion. This is about the rabid hypocrisy of their demands and claims for freedom. Not necessarily but certainly including religious freedom.

Before getting into this specific consideration, it’s worth putting on the table that a large proportion of religious people are raving hypocrites. Undoubtedly there are many genuine believers who abide by the tenets of their faith. In my experience though, leaving Sunday to Sunday seems to be no problem for many of the faithful, let alone for the leaders. Yes, that would be you Jerry, Jimmy, Jim, Pat, Joel… It is table stakes in many churches.

But those garden variety hypocrites are not what’s troubling and generally has nothing to do with “Freedom.” Except, freedom to keep the grift going. The religious person/freedom nexus is with all those hypocrites who chant, march, spew bile, lie, and often just generally make a nuisance of themselves for the sake of some freedom that they are claiming, demanding, justifying some kind of alleged freedom.

When they do so, it is almost guaranteed that their demand for something—let’s say the right to ignore public orders, like wearing a mask to check the spread a viral pathogen—always quickly gets to the right to freedom… to ignore that order. This could be another essay about the selfish, privately and publicly regressive attitude. But it’s not.

There is NO natural or God-given freedom; it’s certainly not a baseline

The right to freedom claim is always framed as though this freedom or right to it is some natural or God-given right. That is the baseline and so whatever is being opposed is an imposition. Of course this is idiotic on so many levels through so many centuries. Even if one believes in God, it’s idiotic. God hardly granted a right to freedom.

Religious people that storm about Freedom are hypcrites

Or, probably more accurately, God did grant a right to freedom. One that was almost instantly taken away from the humans that proved incapable of abiding by the rules and responsibilities associated with it and too weak-minded to protect it. (Look it up. Genesis 2:16 – 3:24)

God did grant a right to freedom.
Humans couldn’t handle it and it was almost instantly taken away.

In point of fact, for those of religious bent, there is probably enough in these verses to set them on their heels regarding pretty much any order from an authority. But this isn’t theology class.

The point I have been late to making is very simple: religious adherents participating in any claim of natural or god-given freedom being imposed on by public order as a reason to defy it are hypocrites of the first order. In addition to the obvious first point just above about God having taken back that freedom, consider the following:

The 10 Commandments

Let’s say that you don’t buy my point about God-given freedom having been withdrawn at the time Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden. Let’s say that you were willing to make spurious contextual and semantic arguments. I absolutely defy you now to prove that the 10 Commandments are not massive, universal impositions on human freedom.

Fully eight of the ten are prohibitions on freedom. These are the ones that begin with or contain the words, “Thou shalt not….” The other two are positive instructions (Keep the Sabbath and Honour your parents). But, one would have to presume that God was not making an idle suggestion of these two. They are, after all, commands. So ten out of ten Commandments are impositions on freedom.

Again, it would be completely expected for you to argue that these are specific and definitive, and if the imposition were not coming from God or were of a different type, then they would be impositions on all the other freedoms (i.e., everything else). A very strict read and interpretation of an allegorical situation. Not dubious at all.

The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew recounts Jesus’ admonitions to his followers and the assembled for how to behave (Matthew 5-7). It is a formidable part of the Christian moral universe replete with guidance and the centrality of what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Again, as with the Commandments, it is not really my intention to debate the fullness of these declarations. It is, however and again, my desire to point out that the Sermon is several chapters worth of direction for how to behave if one is a Christian. Certainly the organized Churches promulgate it in their followers.

That has to be an imposition on freedom. For a Christian that wants to remain a Christian in good standing, it is kind of important to abide by these and many other rules (many of which have been appropriated by the organizations, but that’s another story). If you don’t, then, well you are at the very least a bad Christian at the worst, excommunicate. That’s a pretty fair reduction in freedoms even if they were natural or God-given.

The real point is that religious people are more than abundantly familiar with complaint to impositions on their personal freedom that come from their social leaders, or elders. Some might actually fool themselves into believing these are somehow acceptable constraints because they come from God, not from man. It’s ridiculous or if not let Him smite me now.

Moreover, it’s imposed and enforced by men even if its origination were God. The parallel, of course, is that the social freedoms or lack thereof (i.e., the impositions on freedom) tend to come from historical precedent for the social order. These are centuries old. They are codified. For all intents and purposes, they have the same origin and stature.

So, please, if you won’t stop being hypocrites, at least stop being falsely outraged when your bluff gets called. Be fearful that you will be seen naked and prepare to be cast from the Eden you’re in.

Check out some of my other extended essays and such (My Oeuvre).

Lab Leaks and Red Herrings

 ethics, politics, society, stupidity  Comments Off on Lab Leaks and Red Herrings
May 202023
The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring

Since 2020, I, like everyone else in North America, have been treated to a regular though slowly diminishing force feeding of “news” about the “Lab Leak” source for the COVID pandemic. At first, when it was novel (like the Coronavirus underlying the pandemic), it made me wonder. Today, it makes me wonder—about the people obsessing about it.

The Novel Coronavirus and the Pandemic of the 2020s

To recap:

  1. A novel coronavirus took hold near Wuhan, China.
  2. It rapidly spread, globally, because of the way modern society transits the planet and the fact that our virginal constitutions, at least with regard to this pathogen, were most hospitable hosts.
  3. The factors beneath this virus’s communicability and mortality led to it being declared a genuine pandemic of concern.
  4. To combat it, humanity in various parts of the world took various measures from the idiotic through to the excessive (and sometimes both together). That these were novel and tentative measures for which efficacy was still to be proven made some sense given the novelty of the situation.
  5. The biological problem turned into a political problem as the underlying virus issues gave way to the social issues surrounding combat measures. This, naturally led to tribal fault lines and the anti-vax movement.
  6. The WHO declares the official pandemic health emergency over. Right or wrong, we’re moving past the emergency posture. But the tribal fault lines remain as does the questioning about the source of the entire episode.

Through this latter period, one vector of attack and mis/dis/genuine information was the source of the virus itself. Did it arise organically as the result of a racoon dog in a wet market in Wuhan or was it a lab leak or was it something more nefarious.

The Source of the Novel Coronavirus

We are an inquisitive species by nature. If we’re that determined to source the origin of the universe BILLIONS of years ago, could anybody expect that we wouldn’t collectively insist on knowing “How this happened?” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In some form, most of us know that if you want to prevent the same thing from happening again, if you want to not make the same mistake again, if you want to… it’s important to be clear about the real cause.

The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring
Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

In this case, there seems to be at least one naive and two clearly purposeful reasons behind the inquiry. None of which is of particular value to any but those with very particular interests and obligations. Ultimately, the source of the pandemic is a novel coronavirus in the same way that the cause of an ebola outbreak is the ebola virus, of SARS in the early 21st-century, another coronavirus…

A virus, even by name, is not a sufficient root cause

This seems to be the broad-based response that perpetuates the interest in the “lab leak.” That ought to be true to officials of research and other containment labs, to public health officials, probably to wildlife officers and various other ecologists in remote parts of the globe—especially those that are now exposing their hidden treasures (more below).

The Pointless Constituency: The General Population

It ought to be mostly satisfactory to the broad population. The cause of our experience is a virus. What does it matter, beyond curiousity, to a house painter or an opinion columnist, what lays as a deeper root cause. Would this information, whether accurate or misguided, have any impact whatsoever on his or her daily life? And what does debating the merits of a theory about the source do for that person? Play out the two basic alternatives: it was or it wasn’t. Will that change the tilt of his or her life in any meaningful way? It is truly mere curiousity, probably combined with tribal weaponization of mis/dis/genuine information.

Alternatively, there are those for whom digging deeper could be more meaningful. The World Health Organization and other national public health administrators. Surely they have greater need for more insight. Probably. And, probably more importantly, they ought to also have more perspective on what that added insight means. That is, what value it contributes to the issue. But do they really?

Why Should They Care?

In the event that there were a similar outbreak and similar situation, would the method of combatting it be different based on knowing it’s origin? For bold relief clarity, if the source were a wet market in a Chinese industrial city v. a isolated tribal village in the centre of the Congo or the Amazon basin v. the top of Mt. McKinley or Mont Blanc? If the core uncertainty is that we’ve never seen this before and we have no further insight into it, does it matter where it came from?

Somewhat less facetiously, whether the novel virus came from a lab or from out of the deepest jungle is also irrelevant without further information. And, it is that further information upon which any kind of meaningful alteration in response action might be based.

The further information is whether the virus is indeed “novel.” Perhaps this usage does not conform with virological definition so let me specific that when I used the word novel, here, I mean have we seen this exact viral strain before and do we know anything about it. Ideally we know things about it that would leapfrog our experimental responses in the wild and allow the response to the pandemic to be more focused. And, ideally, more successful (and shorter).

Presumably, a lab leak of a virus would have this kind of added information load. So it would not be quite as novel. Let me go back to my painter. If this were known, what possible impact could this knowledge and understanding have? To him or her, who stands in as the vast majority of humanity not specifically in the public health (virology, specifically) world, it’s trivia.

Such information, that the source was a lab leak, ought to have significant impact for those public health officials as stated. But, logically, the value of that information does not persist. It diminishes as time passes. As the fight against the virus and the pandemic wears on, the underlying virus becomes less novel. It becomes less relevant where it came from because generations of evolution have turned it into something else. And (and this is the important part), we have more meaningful and valuable insight about the virus problem than any amount of understanding about it in December 2019 or March 2020 much provide. In short, at some point, even for those on the front line of virology and immunology, determining the origin of the virus is ancient history.

Today’s Value of the Lab Leak Determination

Not to diminish but simply to overlook and ignore the value of this inquiry from a tribal, political perspective, there are two constituency that has an ongoing need to know for sure whether there was a lab leak. My painter is nowhere close to either one. (By the way, dear reader, don’t get to fixated on the “painter” as a painter. As I’ll explain later, it’s a broad-based stand-in.)

The Primary Constituency: Public Health Administrators

The first constituency that should know that there was a lab leak is the community of administrators and operators of similar containment facilities. In this case it’s so-called level 4 virus containment laboratories, but it could be study spaces for bacteria or any other biological or non-biological pathogenic research. If what’s being studied is inherently dangerous to humanity if it is not engaged with through strict protection protocols, arguably it would qualify. So, atomic experimentation fits. But it seems the focus should be on pathogens that can be extremely destructive to humanity without human help. More or less, we’re talking about biological pathogens.

This constituency deserves to know if for no other reason that to understand and remedy similar conditions in their own facilities. Strengthening protocols to prevent leaks and so forth would be a good outcome—obviously, IF there were a leak. Good faith errors happen. When the consequences can be so extremely bad, it makes sense to ensure there are fail-safes, buffers, and other backstops. What if this were the first virus to develop the ability to evade all such defences in some “novel” way? Again, knowing and understanding—and sharing—this information is to the good of humanity, full stop.

The Secondary Constituency: Governments (Including Defence, Military, and Public Safety)

All this is good and well. It represents the valid ethical and humanitarian reasons for searching out the source or cause of the virus entering our human biosphere and doing its damage. And, as I’ve stated, there is at least one good reason why determining a lab leak was the cause—and hence a lab—was the source of the novel coronavirus. It is, of course, not nearly the end of the story.

One way or another, sometimes only whispered because saying it out loud is diplomatically charged at best and racist at worst, the real reason EVERYONE is so interested in whether a lab leak is behind this is not the “leak” part, but the “lab” part. The point of the lab leak hysteria is whether there was a Chinese lab involved. More specifically, was a Chinese lab purposefully holding this virus in the Wuhan lab (that the origin is Wuhan, at least, is beyond dispute)? And did the virus “leak” from that lab?

Leak is a funny word in this situation. It’s banal obvious meaning is that perhaps through error or for any other of a hundred reasons, the virus being contained simply “got away.” Kind of like a lion escaping from a zoo. Maybe a keeper left the gate unlocked; maybe years of rain and heat corroded some part of the enclosure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that (a) there was a lion there and (b) it got out.

The constituents in the heading are interested first in confirmation that this otherwise unknown virus was or was not known to “the enemy.” Let’s assume that’s proven, which in that world can mean anything from it is a very strong rumour that everyone feels good about through to there is absolutely unimpeachable, conclusive proof.

Once that has been “established,” a number of further allegations can be supported in a way. First, they “had” and knew about a novel virus that they kept from “us.” Obviously (natch!) this can only mean that they were seeking to use it as a biological weapon directly or as a stepping stone to something more deadly.

Such labs are known to perform gain of function experimentation. We do it for obviously good reasons. But maybe they were doing it for obviously(!) nefarious reasons. Either way, we obviously didn’t know about it. So, if we can establish there was a lab leak, then we know they were doing something and can focus attention on where they might have been going.

Even if we can’t prove “they” were doing something nefarious, we know that (a) they were being secretive and (b) they’re sloppy. In either case, we have a Western feel-good narrative. But wait, what if the nefariousness were not merely in what was going on inside and a mistake? What if the “leak” (see, I told you “leak” is a great word in this situation.) were purposeful? What if the pathogen’s release were not accidental but meant? What if the zookeeper wasn’t actually a little doddering but, in fact, left the gate open to see how many children the lion would eat before it were caught?

Speculation. Leave It For The Speculators

Who knows? Who cares? The point I’ve been trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the vast majority of us that neither administer public health facilities such as containment labs nor tread in the international diplomatic/military waters.

Sure, maybe my painter (who could be a divorce lawyer, dentist, accountant, investment banker, car detailer….) has some kind of morbid fascination with such things because he or she doesn’t have enough to do, a good family life, or an interesting hobby. But to get riled up by politicians and media using this as something to further deepen the chasm between political tribes is a little silly.

This aging red herring is almost certainly being poked to stink as a distraction from what’s important and to lend urgency to what’s not.

Have a read of Zeynep Tufekci’s column in the May 12 New York Times. There is some insight there for those of us in the pointless constituency: “The Pandemic Threat That Hasn’t Gone Away

Easily digestible conspiracy and pseudo-insight: strong misdirection?

 ethics, politics, society  Comments Off on Easily digestible conspiracy and pseudo-insight: strong misdirection?
May 052023
Magicians use misdirection to achieve the impossible or at least improbable.

Misdirection. A few days ago something exploded over the Kremlin. It was such an elaborate pantomime of an attack that only the willful, gullible, or compelled would not make common league with the conspiracists to consider the whole episode remarkable bullshit.

That Russia immediately took to its airwaves and any other channel that would sustain its message to say that it was a drone attack intended to kill Putin was the next proof point. One could argue that is a reasonable thing to allege in the circumstance. But, of course, it was conveniently—literally out of the blue—the doing of Ukraine apparently.

That kind of sealed the deal that it was likely a “false flag,” given that it had never even come close to happening in the past and that as the Ukrainian leader said, they don’t have enough ammunition to waste in defence of their territory. Why would they waste drones on an inevitably futile gesture? It beggars belief. Then, when that didn’t really stick the Russians took another tack: it was the United States (through Ukraine).

My usual response to ALL the idiotic allegations of “false flags” that have erupted in the past 6-years in the United States, is to roll my eyes. But in this case, it’s hard not to firmly believe that’s exactly what we’re witnessing.

But this is not my real point.

My point, as the title of the post would suggest, is that in all the shouting about false flags and injection of “false facts”, the simplest answer is to follow Occam and conclude there are a lot of idiots with the opportunity to spew their stupidity far and wide. And, when stupid meets up with stupid, it multiplies. It’s probably the right answer.

But what if it’s not the right answer. What if the answer is more sinister? What if there are, in this equation, some rational actors that are being “underhanded” (for lack of better word)? What if there’s a conspiracy about conspiracies?

“WTF are you talking about?” You might ask. Fair enough.


I could just as easily have focused this post on my second analog: magic. A false flag has a different intent and extent might be different, but ultimately these are of a kind. Let’s stick to magic and more particularly to illusion.

Magicians use misdirection to achieve the impossible or at least improbable.

There is typically nothing “magical” about magic. It is nothing(!) but the rigorous and directed application of physical and psychological conditions, constraints, and phenomena to achieve goals that somehow seem miraculous or impossible or, at the very least, improbable. That’s it.

A magician will use our brains against us including how it process the stimulus of light (I.e., vision). Magicians play with perspective. Our brains will attribute importance to things seen recently, more frequently, for which they have been “primed,” or longer. Magicians “force” card choices in this way. Some magicians—commonly known as “mentalists—use the same and other techniques to convince you that they have extrasensory powers and such.

Magicians, mentalists, and so many other persuaders (like lawyers, priests, reporters, analysts, executives, etc., etc.) use one technique more frequently and often than others. That technique is misdirection. We are all such frequent targets of it that it’s a wonder it continues to escape us. (And, by the way, when I say “us,” I’m not being falsely inclusive. The fact of that matter is that EVERYONE, irrespective of experience, education, raw cognitive or emotional intelligence, is at one time or another, with greater or lesser credulity and frequency, a (willing) victim of misdirection.)

As it’s name would suggest, the point of misdirection is to get the target person to focus on something else. (It’s important to understand that when a human focuses on something, everything else goes out of focus—to the point of being ignoring or overlooking a guy in a gorilla suit walking right in front of you.) In the service of the magician, the point is to make sure you aren’t watching too closely when (s)he palms the coin or such contrivance that is decidedly NOT magical. Politicians and advocates will emphasis something to get you to ignore another (probably damning) thing.

This post is about conspiracy theories, false flags, alternative facts, and all the other forms of wasteful attention-sucking misdirection that is going on in the world—especially in social media. It’s actually not that far removed from the theme and plot of many sci-fi stories: how the dupes are tricked into focusing on something silly while the “overlords” have their way. Or, getting closer to home, maybe watch the movie Wag the Dog. The boldness of the relief used in art, however, usually makes the premise ridiculous.

But isn’t there something just a little too on-point about the concept?

  • Why is it that when, more often than once daily in the United States, people (children! in schools!) are killed or injured en masse with a firearm, the usual suspects from the NRA and the GOP appear to redirect everyone’s attention to the Constitutional right to bear arms? (Like somehow the right to have firearms is related to the right to pull the trigger and kill… and all the logic that leads from possession to death…)
  • Why is it that when a Hollywood icon is proven out as a racist, misogynist, paedophile, or what have you, suddenly (with rare exception) talk immediately shifts to the value of “the art”?
  • Why is it that politicians and political parties and hypocrites (but I repeat myself) are caught up in their own lies and reversals, the focus immediately turns to something else? Pro tip: if the issue is small, widen the focus; it it’s broad, focus on the particular. Or, in the words of advice given to every second year law student: “When the facts are with you, pound on the facts. When the law is with you, pound on the law. When neither is with you, pound on the table.

I don’t care about the answer to any one of these questions. They are merely representative of the larger question that we all ought to recognize and expose. And that question is not about the direct nefarious reason for it (“…false flag”) or its truth or falsity (“check the facts”).

The question to ask is what else is going on that this person/organization wants us to miss? Why are these events or arguments going on? Why are these idiotic “facts” or what-have-you being sprayed out into our perceptual field like attack countermeasures from the back of an airplane or submarine?

Because we can only focus on one thing at a time, what is it that we’re supposed to not see?

Maybe it’s just magic; a form of entertainment. And it will evaporate. But that’s the risk we have to take. Because it could just as easily be something serious.

“Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong

 ethics, society  Comments Off on “Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong
Apr 182023

Politicians lie. Trump lies. Criminals lie. But now I’m repeating myself. The point is that lying is human and it wouldn’t be central to every single ethos since the species became social if it weren’t. The quotation, however, come out of the mouth of fictional doctor Gregory House—itself… a lie, of a sort.

Oh the Lies, they are a changin’

Maybe it’s the excess or, if not excess certainly exuberance of the the lying going on in the first quarter of the 21st-century. Maybe the sheer volume and velocity of lying going on; maybe it’s the shamelessness and hypocrisy. Something has, however, triggered attention to be especially intensely directed toward lying. Even if the lying is banal or not even there, we see it. Some of us are creating conspiracies out of phantom lying. (Or maybe it’s real lying but merely pales by comparison to what we see every single day from those in positions of trust. There’s usually a pretty reasonable core to every conspiracy theory. )

But let’s get back to lying. There can be no doubt that it is capturing our attention. Media “Pinocchios” and flagrant political/corporate liars abound. Whether that is representative of anything more than that class of people (and by class I do not mean socio-economic, only “cluster”) is unclear. Though there is certainly a lot of evidence in “exaggerated” social media posts to suggest that the problem is wider spread.

Pinocchio is the archetype for lies that are visibly evident.

I will concede that it is entirely possible there may not be a widespread lying problem. It could be that the big lies (not just The Big Lie) are overrepresented and the vast majority do not actively create, generate, and propagate their own lies over and above what has been typical and normal through human history. In conceding this though, there is no accounting at all for the obvious gullibility and rampant willingness for people to believe the lies they are told and repeat them.

I’m sure it’s splitting hairs to prosecute them as liars and conveniently unnecessary since they are fools and maybe idiots anyway. And, in point of fact, could be liars in their own right in a much smaller arena that doesn’t grab wide attention—probably because they’re not placed appropriately for it to be seen. (I’m still going with fools and idiots. I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor.)

There are a lot of cognitive biases in play for anybody (and by “anybody”, I mean practically “everybody”) focusing on how much lying is going on. Despite the fact that it may have always been that way, we may be noticing it as a result of thinking errors like:

  • Confirmation bias — we see what we want to see and what supports our conclusion. More people are lying, we believe, so we notice more lying.
  • Base Rate fallacy — Essentially thinking the specific is the norm. We have noticed a lot of lying going on, so we jump to the conclusion that this is the broad norm: everyone is lying a lot and egregiously.
  • Illicit Transference — Applying the specific to the general and vice versa. Together with our base rate misunderstanding, we attribute specific (Ted Cruz) to the norm.
  • Frequency illusion — Once you notice something, it’s everywhere. The volume and voracity of lying from some parts is front of mind, so now we see it in everyone.

So, there are reasons in our heads. BUT, it’s not all in our heads.

Everybody lies. I lie.

Sometimes its banal, like when I say, “Doing great,” in response to the obligatory, “How’re you doing?” greeting instead of getting into my prevailing concerns or woes. Sometimes it’s significant but I weigh the lie as better than the alternative. There is absolutely no win in telling your spouse, “No, I think those pants make your ass look extra wide.” Nor is there any real point in pointing out to your child that his rendering of his recital piece made dogs howl. Just say it’s great, go for ice cream, and move on.

Some lies are obviously wrong in every respect, not least in law. Fibbing during sworn testimony is plain wrong. It is unredeemable lying. And could land you in jail. Even if you get away with it in the moment, the truth will out eventually. For those who are religious, I’ll point out that lying to God or God’s representative on earth is also a very strict no-no.

Between these extremes are shades of gray(son). It is here that theologians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, and so many others can wile away their days. And to what end? It is extremely unlikely that a definitive rule can or will be set. If for no other reason than the lying is contextual and other values come into play. It is almost certain that any choice on lying will end up bumping into and having a significant impact on some other (possibly moral) matter. (Is a “negligable”—in the sense of nobody being materially harmed—lie, in the service of a greater good, righteous?) This warrants a separate thought; let’s explore righteous lies just a bit.

By the transparency zeitgeist motivations and demands for personal freedom and uninhibited knowledge of everything, a national leader that makes a decision to keep something secret is hunted down politically at least and pilloried. After all (s)he knew and kept it from us, and lied about knowing it, and well, we really wanted to know because, we have freedom and agency and the right to know and… You get the idea.

If that secret saved thousands of lives, kept the economy stable, and let the country or the world get about its business was it worth it? Just because a relatively few wanted to know and felt that they should be part of the “need to know” crowd, but the vast majority didn’t need to know, wouldn’t know what to do when they found out, and knowing or not knowing made no difference to them anyway, does that make radical transparency alright? Does it make the lie less righteous?

This is territory that the vast majority of the population is ill equipped to trek. What the vast majority ought to be interested in is whether lies affect them (negatively) and what that does to their level of trust in the teller of those lies.

The real concern ought not to be on whether somebody is lying any more than on whether (s)he is speaking English, French, or Mandarin. It is something to be accepted, embraced, understood, and evaluated. That allows attention to be put on the purpose. What is the purpose and the outcome? Is the lie told to take unfair advantage? Is it to save another’s feelings? Is it for the benefit of the teller or someone else? Does it break the law? Does it do harm? If you swing that way, does it break a Covenant with your Lord?

We’re too focused on the lying and paying insufficient attention to the reasons and outcome.

None of which is to let the big orange Pinocchio off the hook for his LIFETIME of lying. It is to say that after so many years, we know it’s a lie. We (and by “we” I mean those who are followers) need to look at the end for which lying was the means. In his personal life, in his business life, in his sporting life, in his political life. In all these ways and for all these purposes the lying was for self-dealing and illegal, unfair advantage.

Enough said. Everybody lies. (Some more than others.)

For more thoughts and ideas check both other posts and my oeuvre.

The Malevolent Imagination

 Business, ethics, society  Comments Off on The Malevolent Imagination
Mar 072023

Why are good ideas perverted, leaving an ineradicable bad condition?

This is an update to the post only to serve as a pointer to a genuine journalist who is on the same track and published very soon after this was posted. Ezra Klein’s Times piece, “This Changes Everything” (NYT 12/3/23) is well worth the read.

Name one “wonder” technology that wasn’t brought into the world on the crest of great promise of only good things that wasn’t quickly exploited for much less glorious purposes. It’s hard.

Imagination gets perverted

The printing press certainly opened knowledge to the masses, yet it was but a small hop to printed propaganda. Firearms probably were sold as the defensive equalizer, and … (Oh who’s kidding whom: firearms always had only one purpose: maybe noble, even necessary, but rarely “for good.”) What about social media? (cellular) telephony? the Internet itself? All wonders. Or crypto-currency? No, forget it. Again, there is really one purpose and value—and it’s not any sort of societal, human advance.

All were sold based on how they would enhance society or address unscratched itches, blah, blah, blah. To a one, each is non-trivially corrosive. They are technology lye: useful but will eat the skin right from your bones.

Wonders or not, the genie’s out of the bottle. So there’s no point in pretending it could be otherwise. More than that, it would never be otherwise. We are an imaginative and creative species. We will explore, discover, invent, and innovate. All of which will always be sold on the basis of the great good they can do because we are generally an acquisitive and ambitious species.

I’ve been talking to (smart) people about this for a while. What is almost never given adequate attention is the “malevolent imagination.” That is, the highly creative counterpoint to beneficent creativity. It exists. We see examples in every movie, novel, or other story featuring an evil mastermind. Some of us, within the fantasy of the story, admire the way the author has taken what we know as good and turned it to something bad. (It’s like how I admire a good burglar.) Even if it comes dangerously close to the loopier territory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory.

Malevolent imagination is the dark side of creativity
Image by Alvaro Zabala, ArtStation

Why isn’t such innate creative talent put to better use at the birth of these wonderous technologies? Why isn’t there considerably more open evaluation and understanding of new technology exploitation? At the very least it would create a richer appreciation for the technology and its potential—a boon for the innovator and promoter.

More important here, it would identify where caution should be taken and attention paid for the general good. For example, why is it that only with AI have many of the brightest minds come forward to say, “Hey, slow down. This could be really dangerous…?” Were they the only once primed by Terminator 2?

I am in no way suggesting that technology innovation should stop or even be curtailed (mostly). I am saying that there are an awful lot of stupid people that will amplify and push a technology because they are not clever enough to see the hazards. Even more people may see it but, frankly, don’t care because in the short term anyway, it’s valuable (to them).

So it’s incumbent on the relatively few remaining—so vastly outnumbered—to sway the rules of the game to account for these contingencies and risks. Even if they do not succeed in the short run, wouldn’t it be great to be aware of what could happen? What the warning signs might be, and what correctives could be applied? As in everything: forewarned is forearmed.

This thought is about the malevolent imagination. It exists and like the technologies identified, is neither good nor bad. In some circumstances, coupled to a IGNOBLE heart, it lends itself to the “evil mastermind.”

But what of the malevolent imagination attached a NOBLE heart? (It’s probably easier to think of this as partners rather than an individual; though it makes more sense in an individual.) In its most virtuous sense, the noble heart might ensure a dangerous technology were stillborn because of the terrible future the malevolent imagination sketched. Probably that only delays the inevitable. But having bought only some time, the noble heart could prepare countermeasures.

What if Oppenheimer’s later regrets were manifest globally prior to the atomic bomb’s development? More proximately, what if one saw the blindingly obvious eventuality of the attack/defense arms race of cybercrime or how “freedom of speech” becomes license to anonymous libel and extreme incivility in a global town square? Would the Internet or social media never happen? Would that particular path be erased?

Not in the least. But it is possible that we all might have given clearer thought to prophylactic measures viz. cybersecurity or time to take action to ford up civil connection at every level as a vaccine to the coming decadent societal impacts.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing. Fording up social trust, reinvigorating morality or some other ethic may have been the bulwark. It may have worked. It may have had ripple effects. But these are different times.

Still, as a red team or by whatever name you choose, going dark early could be the only way to preserve the light.

If you’re intrigued, there’s plenty more to make you think about creativity and other things in my oeuvre.

Gwyn Morgan: the apologist

 Business, Canada, ethics, Management  Comments Off on Gwyn Morgan: the apologist
Sep 092014

I read this op-ed piece in the Globe & Mail this past weekend by retired CEO Gwyn Morgan. Before I could respond in the G&M comments section, there were approximately 400 comments which, using the first 50 or so as a sample set, were about 90% on the side of pillorying the man. To their credit, the G&M readers did not object merely on loose philosophical grounds–the kind that Morgan raised in his 700 words; they responded on mass to the unadulterated hypocrisy. When you can tell the shill is the shill, the ruse no longer works.

That pisses me off because I really wanted to take a shot at the plutocrat who felt compelled to make a plea that readers of the Globe & Mail stand up and defend corporations! Seriously! They are under attack and need defending by corporate CEOs, executives, and other cheerleaders. Those damned, Communist, lefty haters of all things capitalist were ganging up on business. And, damn it, it’s just not right.

Again, to their infinite credit, the commenters in the Globe’s comments section for the article were substantially NOT wing-nuts. Their points were… well… pointed, well thought out, cogent, articulate, caustic in many cases and decidedly NOT about business or corporations. One could even, as an apologist for the masses, say say that they were remarkably likely to say, about corporations and business exactly what the scorpion said to the frog in the old saw joke: “it’s in their nature.” And that’s OK.

Nobody is suggesting business or corporations are bad (or good). I think what I understood from the comments is that there are others like me. We appreciate what capitalism and laissez-faire not only has to offer but what it’s generated economically and socially for all of us. We laud “business” as a noble pursuit. But, let’s not by any stretch of the imagination let anyone believe that we’re caught up in the nonsensical argument that a CEO “deserves” 50x, 100x, 500x the compensation of the average employee. Perhaps the entrepreneur or owner who has been “at risk” deserves that kind of reward. But an overpaid employee with nothing “at risk” does not–no matter what Gwyn Morgan might have to say.

And even at that, let’s be honest, the largest of corporations–where highly overpaid capitalist employee-CEOs hide out–are not a place where you would find anybody with real capital “at risk.” The risk such as it were disappeared a long time ago. These are for the most part money-printing machines (i.e., banks) wherein the only real risk is the utter incompetence of its human brain (read: CEO and executive). So… if there’s no risk involved, then the (one could easily argue, “absurd”) profit extracted out of the economy that moves to shareholders or to non-taxable off-shore domicile is nothing more than a clever wealth transference mechanism that takes from the 79% and moves to to 1%. Note that I left the bottom 20% out because, in Canada, they are either net benefactors of social assistance or meaningless contributors (i.e., collateral damage) anyway. And that just doesn’t sit well.

So, take it from me, a genuine laissez-faire capitalist and free market democrat. What the rest of society doesn’t like is corporate welfare assholes pretending they are hard done by, offloading the downside risk and the cost to everyone else while they take in the risk-free upside benefits… and then whine about it in a national newspaper.  Gwyn, turn in your capitalist membership card.

The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back

 Canada, ethics, politics, society, stupidity, Uncategorized  Comments Off on The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back
Aug 242014

Today’s politically correct vogue is to wring one’s hands and fulminate about how dangerous the world is and how dire the need to protect one and all from its perils. Mental health disabilities and concussions are, among other human traumas, serious stuff. But it all seems a little overdone.

While the incidents of mental health claims and sport-related serious injuries are as high as ever in raw volume, a doubter might question its significance. Is there really more? Or are we just searching for, noting, and recording it now? This challenges the premise of greater danger, and the argument applies as readily to mental health injury as to cancer and allergy epidemics. It’s harder, I think, to argue that concussions went unrecognized and so could have been under-reported 30-years ago. That suggests greater danger. It does not mean it’s not ridiculous. Not the injuries; the circus of problem-solving.

The same day newspapers carried the story about Minister Clement’s pronouncement on mental health action, I saw a fellow on a bike wearing what looked like a 40-year old Cooper™ hockey helmet. It wasn’t a zippy cycling helmet, so it caught my attention and took my thoughts to the ongoing, very public finger wagging about concussions in hockey. I recalled that there was a time when that flimsy piece of plastic with an eighth inch of Styrofoam was the only wrapping on kids’ heads. Yet, so many of us live to reminisce about it.

What bothers me most about the well-meaning debates and pronouncements, be it about depression furloughs or kids’ cranial collisions, is that they are just so typically focused wrong. It is, of course, easier and more socially acceptable, never mind profitable, to push protection and palliatives than it is to deal with real problems. We leave uncomfortable stuff alone.

Regarding employee mental health issues untenably impacting labour costs, what we really don’t want to talk about is that we’ve done and keep doing it to ourselves. We avoid how mobile devices and PCs before them inconveniently changed what it means to be working. Not only are we all expected to be available within the hour if not actually responding in the moment, it doesn’t end at 5:00PM or Friday at the pub. That is fact.

Instead of acknowledging and debating the incompatibility of commercial efficiency and human frailty, we are treated to paeans to the “new reality” or some derivative. It’s liberating, they say. Not so much unless fetters factor into your definition of free. But it is an efficiency gainer, so it’s not going anywhere. That leaves the chattering classes to accept the root issue wholesale and babble on about the deleterious effects.

What about the hollowing out of the organization? It’s good for organizations because short-term productivity is high. It’s not good for people, because no machine runs at the yellow line for years on end without burning out. People in “management” are being overworked, the demands on their time extend well beyond what was traditionally work time, and they know that they are always one false move from not having to worry about it at all. Why would anyone be stressed or depressed?

Then there’s this business of sports injuries, with concussion trending right now. Of course being concussed is bad, especially for a brain still being formed. Then again, so is pushing a teenage body to meet the demands of an adult body. Speaking only of hockey, what we don’t want to talk about is that WE are the cause of the problem, one that we’re not eager to cure.

Back to the Cooper™ helmet. Hockey is a pretty rough sport. It was when I played as a kid. But it was rough within limits. Bad helmets and other variants of plastic, felt, and sponge left a lot of opportunity to feel pain, which took some spirit out of the boys. You didn’t try doing too much harm to others because, among other things, it was probably going to hurt you too.

Over the past forty years, we’ve outfitted our little gladiators with Kevlar and ballistic protection that makes them (feel) practically invincible. When over-protected, the most important organ in the body doesn’t work effectively. Because there is no pain escalation to indicate it’s time to back off, one can forget that one is, in fact, going to get hurt. And when it inevitably does happen, it won’t be just a little owey either! Add a persistent hockey season. Unlike the few boys that went to one-week, summer hockey camp in the 1970s, now every child has pre-season training and development prior to the try-outs that precede the season, which gets followed by a post-season work-down, etc… In other words, kids have the protection needed to detach them from the reality of being hurt, plus we train them to be stronger and more aggressive earlier. Never mind the parents who demand that little Mikey behaves like the NHL star that dad wishes he’d been, and then encourage aggression by behaving like lunatics in the stands.
Hockey today isn’t more dangerous, nor is cycling or skiing or any other sport. Work and life is not harder than a century ago. What we’ve done to ourselves in the name of progress, though, is create everything we need to push ourselves and our children up to and past the breaking point physically and mentally. Contrary to my first employer’s view, people are really not machines. You can’t merely grease them and replace worn parts.

They can’t work at their limit all the time. They can’t be expected to always self-heal from the inevitable injuries. But every employer knows that there is plenty of supply. So, ultimately, they can be replaced when worn out. It’s just costly; and not very pleasant salon conversation.

Meantime, we can all talk about how children are being physically injured and adults are being mentally tormented, and about what paternalistic safety equipment and palliative programs we can enforce. It makes us feel like we’re doing something valuable. And that’s good for our mental well-being.

* I wrote this a few months ago and submitted it for op-ed… nothing.

Personal Information as Money

 ethics, IT Security, Privacy  Comments Off on Personal Information as Money
Aug 192014

I’m a fan of bit torrents. To be clear, I rent movies legally; I do not “share.” Still, bit torrents fascinate me because the peer-to-peer system represents thinking for what could be the next great leap in online privacy protection.
The obvious problem with privacy (online) shows up in one of two types of news items. One: a breach of data on some organization’s servers or lost off someone’s USB drive puts thousands or perhaps millions of people’s private information into the hands of unauthorized and probably unsavoury characters. Two: an organization that has amassed privileged, personal information about customers or citizens for some purpose shows its industriousness and uses its “intelligence” to draw undesired conclusions about and harass those same people. In either case, when such a situation is exposed, people feel justifiably violated… even if there is no real harm done.
As I say, these are obvious challenges to privacy. They are not, however, the real issue. Privacy breaches are a symptom and proxy complaint. What’s happening in both circumstances is a breach of trust. In the first case by criminals (or the government) who have larcenously acquired private property (your information), and in the latter by an institution that said “trust us with your important information,” then misused it without your understanding or approval. Blame gets properly directed toward those that have let us down.
Funny that we don’t turn that blame inward. After all, the root of the problem is that we have trusted some organization to keep safe and use only as prescribed something of value to us: our most personal information. At least that’s what we say while we’re railing on about its loss or misuse. But we did let go of that information in the first place, likely without appreciating the potential impact. And probably for not even fifty pieces of silver. So the real problem is that we have ignorantly given up what is dearest to us to somebody else’s keeping. Worse, we gave it to someone or something that is acquiring similarly valuable information from many others and keeping the whole lot in a single place. That creates a treasure trove of value for a thief and a wicked temptation to any other amoral entity.
Is it really any wonder not that there are privacy breaches at all but rather that there aren’t more?
Whether you are reading this as an individual whose information is so entrusted or as an organizational leader in possession of that information, perhaps you’re thinking about information wrong. Chances are that you imagine all this personal information is ones and zeros. Less of a nerd, perhaps in your imagination it is benign sets of discrete data. In any case, “information” is almost certainly an abstraction. Even when rendered as reams of paper (Who else does that anymore?) it has no substance. That makes it very easy to minimize and marginalize.
Try a little thought experiment with me. Contrast and then equate this personal data with cash. Yes, now your (customers’) information is money! Now it has meaning and substance. Doesn’t that change things a bit?
If it’s your information/cash, don’t you take more care with it? Won’t you be a bit more circumspect about where you pull it out, where you put it, and with whom you entrust it—and why? The problem with information (and where this metaphor breaks down, actually) is that it is not a diminishing asset: when you give it up, you still have it. So, perceptually, there is no fine point on losing possession of it.
On the other hand, if you are entrusted with money (information), you now have a fiduciary responsibility for it. Financial institutions (except certain S+Ls, derivatives houses, and mortgage lenders) tend to take their responsibility for their customers’ money seriously. To start with, their customers take it seriously. Then, of course, so does society in the form of strict regulations and governance.
Moral, legal, and economic incentives seem to have the necessary impact. So you don’t often hear about frivolous or cavalier disregard for how a financial institution tends to and uses its customers’ money. And, we don’t hear about too many thefts arising from the interception of bits and bytes that represent real money. When there is such a theft, there are again many incentives to pursue and recover the money, and prejudicially prosecute the crime.
Only a fool expects complete safety and everyone wants some control and means to exert control to get (what’s left of) their money back from those to whom they have entrusted it. The entire system of “tangible” fiat money makes everyone care more about the exchange.
We could do a lot worse than think about our allegedly valuable personal information with the same concern that we give dirty old cash.

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