On Values - Exploring the character of institutions

Lately, I’ve been spending time imagining possibilities of how our present social, political, economic, and environmental crises play out. Think about it enough, and you’ll likely acknowledge some grim possible outcomes, and yet, I remain optimistic. While a growing number of Americans understand that overcoming these challenges is possible, it seems as though we are farther away than we’ve ever been from the unifying vision that catalyzes transformation. I believe that’s because the concept we’re looking for is fundamentally different than what is and we haven’t taken the time to collectively define the new values that will characterize the institutions of the next system.

Old values for a new world

Central to this exploration is the understanding that humans are context driven beings. Our environment and circumstances define our experiences and influence our perception of the world around us.

Numerous correlations reinforce the idea. We know that if you’re born into poverty today, you’re more likely to remain poor as an adult [1]. CDC data shows us that if you’re a black mother in the United States, you’re three to four times more likely to perish than white mothers [2]. Thinking globally, we can attempt to understand the perspective of someone being born into a country in a crisis like Honduras or Syria and how radically different it would be when compared to being born in the coastal United States. In every present moment, we as individuals operate under the history of our experiences.

Consider our context driven existence more broadly from a sociological perspective, and we can extend the concept to the arrangements of society. Our institutions reflect our values, they create frameworks for us to operate within and in doing so, shape our perspectives of the world and each other. They also reinforce themselves, becoming increasingly deep and rigid over time. This calcification entrenches specific ways of living upon us and denies us our power to change.

When a structure is developed, it is tied to the values and consciousness of that moment. Over time it can be improved and updated, but in many respects, it will always carry the burdens of the past.

We can review our own history as an example. Bring yourself into the mindset of the Thirteen Colonies of 1787 when the Constitution was signed. The Colonies recently won the Revolutionary War; 90% of the American labor force consisted of farmers[3]; 20% of the American population was enslaved; and technologies that we take for granted such as easily accessible running water, plumbing infrastructure, engine-driven personal transportation, and refrigeration did not exist. It was a different time, with different people, all sharing different values that formed an entirely different collective consciousness.

As the Constitution still remains our primary reference for legal structure, it is necessary to explore the values encoded into the document. A fundamental aspect of the Constitution is the definition of laws surrounding property and contract. Here we find the quintessential meaning of freedom in the most American sense — private ownership. It created the framework for human worth to be tied to the accumulation of wealth here in the United States.

This isn’t to claim that the model is inherently wrong or evil, rather an argument about the concept of institutionally encoded values and the impacts they have. If we define freedom in a society as the private ownership and accumulation of wealth and property, we limit ourselves to an existence that orbits those values. While many of us choose to define ourselves otherwise, our central survival system is one based on transactional exchange. This impacts our perception of the world and what we need to do within it to survive.

This isn’t a wild claim, numerous data points show us that wealth has created a direct class system here in the United States where freedom and voice directly correlate to capital. One example is the American justice system, which disproportionately favors the wealthy [4]. Another would be the consistency of our elected leaders to support their corporate donors over the well being of their constituents [5].

Today we observe the value-centric institutions designed around our particular definition of freedom transforming into a vehicle of oppression for the majority, forever denying people a voice due to socioeconomic status. Competition reigns supreme, the ultimate determiner of value and power.

But competition has allowed those with the most money to purchase representation in our legislation, resulting in the further concentration of wealth that has led to the near halt of class mobility [6]. A child born in the United States today enters a system where three individuals hold the same wealth as the bottom 164,250,296. The fact is that we have a consistently decreasing chance of ever moving beyond the economic class of our parents.

When America declared independence, we stated that all people held unalienable rights, one of them is the pursuit of happiness. How does one who is born into abject poverty and likely will stay there pursue happiness? How does a person become more than their circumstance when they lack the resources to do so?

This essay is not to serve as a criticism of the value of competition and its role in our progress as a society. Despite its significant flaws, it has brought to a point where global standards of living are increasing consistently [7]. But avoiding crisis demands that we reject our dogmatic insistence on avoiding, to address the real systemic issues.

Ultimately, any social and legal institution will become obsolete. This includes anything new that we create today. Technology drives evolution in intangible human aspects such as cultural, intellectual, and moral compasses. As we expand our humanity so will we increase our needs for alternative visions of the structures we govern ourselves with.

The task now becomes to explore the values that best fit the prosperity of humanity moving forward. Before we attempt to explore a system where competition is not the central value tied to our arrangements, we must make an essential distinction between values and morality.

Values are a relative worth, that is to say, that they are what we make them to be. They are created by humans to define and support the population they serve. Morals are personal frameworks establishing right and wrong. Most Americans draw their morals from the religions of antiquity.

In imagining alternative values of structure, we must avoid the trap of morality: trying to force personal beliefs into structure and system. When we explore value-based arrangements, we enter the ideation with the understanding that our objective is to maximize the potential of every individual. To do that we need to question what values are necessary to succeed today.

Seven Dignities

The myth of the United States is designed around the concept of shared greatness. The coalescence of different perspectives working together to expand the potential and opportunity of every individual. While it is certain that today, this story is not an accurate reflection of our circumstances, there is still hope to revive the dream our nation was founded on.

Transcendence begins with a rejection of the past and an embracing of the new. For Americans, that translates to the desire to choose cooperation over competition as the core value infused into our economic, political, and legal structures.

My argument now turns to what it means to be human in 2019 and beyond. Humanity expresses itself most fully when individuals can pursue their passions in varying directions. Our diversity is our strength and historically has always been.

As previously argued, structure reinforces the values that were designed into it at conception. Collaboration is a value that raises the floor for every individual. By enhancing the baseline, we create a space where citizens have the opportunity to fully explore their innovative potential in the direction of their choice. The result is a net benefit for every American, all of whom will benefit from multi-directional innovation that comes with raising up a people.

Each of the following institutional values outlines reasons why they are necessary to allow individuals to self-actualize to a point where they can begin to reach their true potential. I will avoid in-depth structural suggestions but will provide aims to be accomplished to ensure the increasing access and agency for all Americans.

You can imagine each of these concepts as new human rights that we will democratically choose for ourselves. These suggestions challenge some of our most deeply held institutions but are necessary to move beyond what is. I want to reinforce again the objective of the transformation is to maximize our total human potential within society. The current competition dominant structure has become so unequal that we squander our bigness for the benefit of a tiny minority.

Food and Water: Food and water are absolute necessities to succeed and survive. We should codify into law, process and procedure that guarantees public ownership of, and access to, food and water.

Climate crisis is on the horizon, and it is going to disrupt food and water access significantly. These shortages will immediately impact the impoverished, but as it continues, the impacts will creep up the socioeconomic ladder. We could write an entire essay on the effects severe food and water shortages would have on American society, needless to say, it would be awful for the vast majority.

In reimagining the structures surrounding food and water, we want to focus on deepening public ownership and governance of these resources. This includes codifying corporate responsibility and transparency into the laws of property and contract impacting these organizations. Deepening federal cooperation with states to modernize water infrastructure and identifying areas in severe risk of dramatic availability shifts would allow us to address communities that will lose viable water sources proactively.

Housing: A place of residence is essential for any individual seeking stability in their lives. Stability and security, however one might define it, is a precursor to self-actualization.

Housing in the United States is currently a speculative industry focused on profit. The alternative is a more access focused approach to housing. We can imagine a world where people have the option of choosing to accept a publicly owned residence that, while they occupy it, acts as their private home.

We could imagine publicly owned units that are efficient with space, private but not remote, and typically associated with specific industries nearby. If someone wanted to move, say to pursue a new opportunity, they apply for new housing space in their new area and forfeit their existing unit to a new tenant. Access based housing would best coincide with promoted regional industries.

The argument is not to socialize all housing, instead a push to create a new version of housing that is accessible to people who do not wish to own. This type of permanence on demand would also help to deepen community engagement as residents would turn from renters to owners, helping build better grassroots civic engagement. Beginning the work towards housing as a right helps to solidify our commitment to a cooperative core value structure further.

Healthcare: Healthcare as a right is a political battle being waged by the vast majority of Americans versus corporations, special interest groups, and the political agents they fund. Every human being deserves quality healthcare, regardless of socioeconomic status. Medicare for all is the ideal economic and moral solution.

Education: Education is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. If we want to prosper as a nation and as individuals, we must codify our right to education into the laws that govern us.

When we talk about education, we aren’t just talking about primary schooling (K-12). We must begin to view training as a lifelong journey for every individual, the changing nature of our economy demands it. Our objective is to provide every person with the highest quality education possible at no personal cost outside of taxes.

The first step is to decouple primary education funding from municipality taxes. Our current system is creating generational disadvantage for so many Americans and leading to some of our deepest ideological divides.

The alternative is a system where the federal government increases funding and participation in the process. Federal, state, and local governments cooperate in the process of education, both in finance and program management. Integrating in-depth communication among institutions to disseminate best practices and experimental methods.

Our innovation economy leads us to understand that economic disruption will become a genuine and consistent part of the human experience. Given the inevitability of this future, adult retraining and learning must be incorporated into a suite of rights designed to allow any individual the ability to change the direction of their life as seamlessly as possible.

This can be accomplished by legislating deeper corporate responsibility. To quote Roberto Mangabeira Unger, “The best firms become the best schools.” After a corporation hits a threshold, they are mandated to develop and facilitate training for the general public in a class-like structure. This method allows us to be training continually and learning from the best people, using the best procedures, and the best technologies in a version we’re passionate about.

Transportation: Today, transportation is vitally important to the majority of Americans. I argue that transit should be considered a new human right under the umbrella of cooperative values.

Access to cheap, reliable, green transportation opens up several new aspects of our humanity. It allows any individual to escape better the circumstances they find themselves in, it provides states with the ability to argue for the deepening of their particular ways of living and enables people to have more agency in the direction of their lives.

This would translate into mobilized public projects involving federal and state cooperation to build modern transportation methods that leverage emerging technologies to reduce the need for vehicle ownership. For example, we can look towards China’s aspirations of 5G powered automated car networks [11] as a model of mobilized efforts towards a vision of opening transportation access. Here in the United States, we could take the best aspects of this plan while omitting their dominion agenda.

Information: Every individual requires access to open and free knowledge to expand their opportunities for success in the present world. Our economy is shifting to a knowledge-based economy where the most valuable human talent is the creative, succeeding manufacturing as the most advanced form of production. It is unreasonable to classify access to high-speed internet as a luxury or an amenity.

A world where we embrace the collaborative power of information as a right to all citizens is one where both internet infrastructure and service is publicly owned. Investment and maintenance become continuous and support existing efforts to connect rural residents to the internet.

In addition to access, we should invest in media literacy training and programs for our population. The age of deep fakes is upon us and will only become worse as technology evolves. A proactive approach towards addressing this issue would help to avoid the headaches we are destined to have.

Communication: People living in a collaborative society thrive through their ability to connect with one another. The present circumstances remind us that in times of strife, communication is our vehicle to resist. By codifying communication into our laws and structure, we ensure that Americans will always be able to challenge and change their circumstances.

Communication aligns with information in terms of a publicly owned and expanded high-speed internet access program. It goes farther in ensuring that our most disenfranchised residents have access to the means of instantaneous communication through group centers or individual access devices. We could imagine the Obama phone program, but with smartphones instead of standard phones.

Tying two institutional values together, we can ensure that information coming from local organizers and government are easily accessible and available to a broad audience. For-profit news organizations can be mandated to dedicate blocks of time to local, non-partisan news such as information about upcoming events, local government meetings, etc.

Part of the Progressive future is raising the temperature of Democracy, allowing self-organization to drive change in multiple directions. Designing communication into our laws helps facilitate deep transparency of our institutions easily and conveniently for citizens. By valuing communication, we recognize our history for what it is, collaborative efforts focused on addressing needs.

The arguments made are not a demand for dramatic and immediate change, instead for a reorientation of our existing priorities and the willingness to challenge our most entrenched institutions. They’re an ask to slaughter the sacred cows, to reject the past’s grasp on our future potential. By reevaluating the values we encode into our arrangements, we enhance our ability to live in multiple ways.

Unity and progress can never be achieved without security. People need to feel safe and secure to self-actualize. American freedom is not some natural law that we are bound to, it is a flexible ideal that we can alter.

Opening ourselves up to new ideas about our driving values directly impact the maximization of our collective potential. It’s about the imagination of the possible. The only limitation to our transcendence is our choice to remain stagnant and resist the inevitable change. Technology is allowing more and more of us to recognize the infinite capacity of our being. Now is the time to begin the work towards realigning society to encourage our latent greatness.

[1] Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences by Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan The Urban Institute https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32926/412126-childhood-poverty-persistence-facts-and-consequences.pdf

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Freproductivehealth%2Fmaternalinfanthealth%2Fpmss.html

[3] Historical Timeline — Farmers & the Land Growing a Nation — The story of American Agriculture https://agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farmers_land.htm

[4] Two in one: differences in the US justice system for the rich and the poor by Maarten Rikken 2016 Research Gate https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/two-in-one-differences-in-the-us-justice-system-for-the-rich-and-the-poor

[5] New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Bill to Extend Corporate Tax Incentives By Joseph De Avila Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-jersey-lawmakers-pass-bill-to-extend-corporate-tax-incentives-11561058669

[6] Poor at 20, Poor for Life by Alana Semuels The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/social-mobility-america/491240/

[7] Global Extreme Poverty by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina Our World in Data 2017 https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty

[8] Food Security Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_security#United_States

[9] By using surplus food, U.S. cities could tackle hunger, waste problems by Sophie Hares Rueters https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-food-waste-environment/by-using-dumped-food-u-s-cities-could-tackle-hunger-waste-problems-idUSKBN1CU0Z1

[10] Water Scarcity World Wildlife Foundation https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity

[11] AUTONOMOUS DRIVING & THE NEXT GENERATION OF TRANSPORT IN CHINA The Swedish Trade & Invest Council https://www.business-sweden.se/contentassets/dfd94f9060af4d499f98de5237bae251/industry-insight—autonomous-driving.pdf

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