World politics


From my perspective, Carl Sagan has literally brought a revolution in the way people see and understand the world. Although it could be argued that his view on our society is in many ways self-evident, it is the beautiful way in which he can articulate and express this view that is really outstanding and touches not only the mind, but also the “soul” of those who are willing to listen to him. It is highly likely that his perspective on humanity and our place in the universe will leave an important mark on our history, even if this claim may sound farfetched today.

My main argument in this regard is the fact that, in his attempt to popularize science, Sagan has struggled to give meaning to human existence in a way which inspires us to do greater things, things which far surpass our focus on everyday personal achievements. In this way, his view on our place in the universe can give meaning to our lives in a way similar to religion.

I will leave you to him now:

Recently, the international world has began to slowly slide towards more tensioned relations:

– Terrorist bombings in the US

– Chinese and Japanese taunting each-other over some islands

– North Korea threatening everyone with nuclear weapons

– Even among EU’s member states, things seem to have gotten more tensioned in the past few years

While it’s too early to say anything for certain, to my untrained eye it would seem that the world is becoming more… “democratic”, although a much better word to describe it would be: “leaderless”. The transition from that unipolar US dominated world to the new multi-polar world is taking place and  the consequences of this may not necessarily be what some (especially those hostile to US influence) hoped for. But it’s doesn’t really matter what they or anyone else hopes to achieve or imagines to achieve in their local and international environment, because this is all part of the way our society evolves and changes over time. In the end … lessons will be learnt and our future will be shaped based on these past mistakes experiences.

North and South Korea

On the horizon
Source: italianinsight.files.wordpress.com

 In the past decades, the media has often been sprinkled by debates regarding the future of the pensions system. Almost every time, the debates revolve around the unsustainability of current system and the need for reform. There are a few ideas on how to deal with this problem, like reducing the value of pensions, increasing the retirement age or moving towards private pension schemes. Unfortunately, these are temporary solutions that don’t solve the deeper problem which created this situation, which is the accelerated population decline of the developed countries.

How does the pension system work?

The pension system works like a loan between generations and is highly social in nature. To understand it, divide the population into 3 groups:

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What you are being told

You are paying a contribution to a large, government controlled fund, which then redistributes your contribution to those who are retired.

How it really works

The public system

In a nutshell: The active population is paying for the education of the young population so that when the young become active, they will be able to support themselves, their family, have a better life and a decent income. In turn, the young population when it turns into active population returns the favour by paying for the pension of the former active population, which has now turned into a retired population. This scheme has sometimes been called – a loan between generations.

The private system

Your pension contribution is largely invested in government bonds, since they’re the safest bet for maintaining the value of your contribution. Also, a small percentage of your contribution is used for financial investments. These investments can take many forms, but it’s not uncommon to be gambles on the stock market. The result is that your contribution is kept at a relatively fair value so that when you retire, you can get a good pension. The downside is that the company that invested your pension may go bankrupt and you are left with no pension or have your pension drastically reduced. This has actually happened in Argentine (2001) or with some pension schemes in the US and UK: example.

The mixed system

Throughout your life the state takes a certain percentage of your monthly salary and uses it for long term investments. These investments maintain the value of your initial contribution over long periods of time. After you retire, your contribution is returned to you in the form of pension. The value of your pension is calculated depending on the overall value of your contribution.

So what’s the problem?

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 The problem is related to how the overall social and economic system works. The above pyramids highlight the 3 areas of the population: the young, the active and the retired.

 In the developed countries, up to the 1970s, the distribution of the population was similar to the one in Angola: a small peak representing the retired population, a large middle section representing the active population and a large base representing the young population. Today, in the EU and in the US, the peak is becoming larger and larger, while the middle and bottom sections are gradually becoming smaller. As a consequence, the middle section is having a hard time coping with the (financial and economic) pressure exerted by the upper section.

One of the long term solutions is to de-couple the retired population from the active one by developing pensions schemes (be they private or public), which act like saving accounts for the population. Unfortunately, in the large scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter how you package the pension, since the economic and financial needs of the retired population still need to be fulfilled one way or another by the active population. The retired population is (in theory) a pure consumer, it doesn’t generate wealth and thus the state still needs to support itself from the active population (which is becoming smaller and smaller). In the same way, the interest generated by private pension funds is also highly depended on how well the active population is doing. The private pension funds generate their income and profit by investing in the activities of the active population and thus are depended on it for maintaining the value of your pension.

As a consequence, regardless of how you look at the problem, the current pension system is in difficulty, because the active population is unable to generate the economic wealth and financial resources needed to support the retired population at current levels. The short-term solution is to adjust these levels, either by reducing the value of pensions or by increasing the retirement age, thus reducing the number of people retiring every year.

Another quick way out of this situation is to increase the pool of the active population through immigration. Additionally, in developed countries, immigrants have the tendency of making far more kids than the local population (source), further strengthening the bottom sections of the population pyramid. This is a fair and decent solution for the survivability of the country, but it also marks a turning point in its society, because basically what is happening is that the local population is slowly being replaced by a new, foreign population.

The ideal solution?

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The ideal long-term solution is when the population remains stable over-time. This means that every year, the number of people who die must be almost equal to the number of new-borns. Thus, the population doesn’t change fundamentally over-time and it’s able to sustain itself. To have a stable population, a country requires that the local population has a fertility rate of 2 (basically each woman has to have 2 kids in her life-time). By comparison, in most developed countries fertility rates are very low, in Japan for instance, the fertility rate is 1.39. There is no indication that fertility rates will increase in the foreseeable future, and most of the current increase in fertility rates is the result of immigration, since immigrants usually have a fertility rate between 2.25 and 2.5.

P.S. Another (but far-fetched) solution is to discover means to increase the life-span of the population and maintain its youth for much longer periods of time. Sci-fi as it may seem, it does make the entire argument regarding pensions and population distribution entirely mute, since in world where everyone is young and eternal, such an argument is meaningless.

Evelyn Waugh wrote in his book ‘Robbery Under Law’ in 1938 just before WWII:

‘Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.’

In stark contrast to the “civilisation” of the developed world, there are some places in Central Africa where people, living in stricken poverty, kill each other with untold savagery, where rape is common and cannibalism is still on the menu. Our tendency here, in the so called “West”, is to sweep these things away, feeling compassionate about the people living in those conditions, but at the same time distancing ourselves from them. We tend to think… we are not like them. But five hundred years ago, us, the same peoples of Europe who are now the pinnacle of social evolution, developed some of the most horrifying means of torture, regularly conducted public executions, and developed means of human exploitation which formed the basis of an entire economic system. To some this has the sound of a bad dream, but it was all very real.

Going back in time a few more millennia, we can find that the same people of Europe used to kill each other with fascinating savagery, conducted human sacrifices and partook in cannibalism.

Thus, the difference between Central Africa and our “Civilised” World is not space, but time.

The greatest danger right now is it to think that our savagery has been defeated and it will never re-emerge again. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the past few centuries we’ve managed to cage our savagery in the basement of our mind, under hard locks and steel doors. But, without vigilance, without a constant reminder of how we got to our present state, the danger of spiralling back into anarchy is very real. Paradoxically, it is our thirst for more and more freedom that weakens our self-imposed chains.

I cannot help to think that something is terribly wrong with our world. I cannot pin-point it, I cannot say for certain what it is, but it is there, like a splinter in my mind which gives no rest.

I know for certain that this feeling is not something which is specific to myself, but it is something shared by many people.

The difference is that for each us it manifests in a different way. We feel something is wrong and we try to blame it on something, like the stupidity of others, or the government, or the capitalist system, or inequality, or whatever else you can think of… but never ourselves.

Remarkably, all these issues we try to blame are social in nature, and far-reaching, indicating some sort of social connection between ourselves, our problems and our social world. Yet this is somewhat puzzling in a world where each of us thinks in a highly individualistic fashion. Basically, what happens to others shouldn’t affect us. Problem is, this works both ways, if we don’t care about others, then so will others not care about us.

My impression is that somehow we have lost ourselves along the way to modernity, we no longer identify with anything and we try to fill in that void with all sort of issues which, in our view are of concern for everyone. Basically we want to do something that matters and it is noticeable. We search for these issues which are social in nature because we want to be part of something larger, something that gives meaning to what we do. I am fairly certain that while this will patch up our need for social importance and consequently for identity (since our identity is constructed in relation to others) , it will not solve it. We are still making a mess of our planet, we are still trying to live on the back of others without even realising it, and we are stuck with the same social and political issues for decades. We may solve one or two minor problems with our social activism but the big issues are still there, pressing on us, while the average less-social-minded individual dreams of getting a well-paid job and a fancy car. Unfortunately, the more we dream of these material things, the less common they will become since they will not solve our real problems and not make our world better, in fact they lead to the opposite result.

Part of this problem is also because for many years the need for social identification and meaning was filled by religion, but with religion adapting or disappearing in our modern society, now there is a void that needs to be filled with something.

While I cannot give a clear argument for why our modern society has somehow stripped us of ourselves, (in short) my impression is that our modern way of life is at odds with what we are supposed to do; with our fundamental thoughts, feelings or instincts. Maybe the world we create is not compatible with the world we are made to live in. Sometimes, what we think is better, is not necessarily what is better. Maybe this is the splinter that we feel but cannot understand. In in the end, it’s easier to bury our heads in small things that give short-term pleasure, just like a chubby girl eating chocolate when she is upset because her friends told her she is fat, instead of facing the harsh reality.

Time will tell if what we do today is right or wrong. As evolution will continue to shape us both physically and socially, the social systems and personal philosophies that are inefficient will die out. If our world fails, there will be others to take its place. My only concern is that we could have achieved so much and yet we achieved so little.

The funny bit is that, we are not even certain any more who this “we” I just mentioned is. Our problems may run deeper than anyone can imagine.

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There is a long lasting debate in philosophy which reverberates throughout social sciences and can be found at the root at many on-going theoretical debates. I am referring here to the idea that we can never truly know the world as it is.

The problem goes like this: Everything we know or we think we know is known through our sense. However, what we sense is not exactly something real, it is rather a set of electrical signals that travel through our brain based more or less on some external stimuli. Therefore what we believe we see, hear or feel is not necessary what exists in reality, it is rather what our brain makes of it. Thus, what we believe is reality is in fact what we imagine it to be. As a result, we never truly know “reality” and we cannot perceive the world with a 100% objectivity.

This creates a back-door in the way we conceive the world and ourselves through which it can be argued that in fact we do not know anything and the world is the illusion of the mind, a lucid dream. The only thing that remains certain in all this line of argument is “I think, therefore I am!”. This is because, in order for me to question things, I have to exist in the first place. The very fact that I can question my-self proves that something exists, that I exist (have no idea about the rest). I may not exist in the way I see myself, I may be a computer program, I may be an illusion, I may be a ghost, but regardless of this “I am” because I think of these things.

So what’s the point of all this? The point is exactly asking this question! In truth it does not really matter how or what we think of the world, because in the end we still have to do the same things in order to exist. One can try to challenge them, but may  very well end up losing the only  certainty that is known to him or her – the certainty of his/hers existence.

Throughout the past few years I have constantly found myself in conflict with the self-centered, present-focused attitude that dominates our society. It is pointless to discuss the divide between the individual and society, between private and public, between agent and structure, between liberalism and utilitarianism which all fundamentally deal with the same problem: Which matters more, the individual or the group as a whole? The obvious answer is both, but the less obvious answer is in what way.

Regardless, this is not what I wanted to discuss. Rather the issue that I wanted to discuss is the lack of perspective in modern day people (in developed countries). By perspective I mean a wider conceptualisation of the world in terms of time. Most of us strive towards short-term benefits like having a nice car, a successful career, social recognition or in less fortunate cases, towards having cloths and food for the next few days. While for some this perspective exists because social and material constraints force the adoption of such a view, there is also a large number of people for whom poverty is no longer an issue and thus they can focus on more complex achievements. Unfortunately, a present-focused view of the world limits the scope of achievements to only those that can happen short-term, forgoing more complex ones that require more time and show benefits later in the future – in some cases well after we are dead. To present my dilemma more clearly: How many would be willing to dedicate their time for future achievements, thus sacrificing some of their well-being today so that future generations would enjoy a better life?

My guess is that very few.

It is as if almost everyone adopted the Keynesian view of “in the long run we are all dead”. The future no longer matters and it remains only in the dreams of Sci-Fi writers and movies.

But has it not occur to anyone that if we no longer care about our future, we may no longer have one?

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