Archive for January, 2009

Oh, to be able to place our World in a Retrofuture.

January 30, 2009

The retrofuturist impulse may vary between different thinkers and writers, but the overall attraction is to conceive of a world without the backlog of errors that make it so difficult to put ours on a better course. Not to say we couldn’t change our world, but the lack of clarity and will makes that unlikely. My hope is that we will see an appetite develop for some significant changes in society before the current depression ends, but I fear that conditions will have to become more than simply painful for most of us before that can happen.

Few people would balk at restoring a more equitable distribution of wealth – except of course those who enjoy the current huge disparity. This is not to take away the incentives that prompt capable people from exerting themselves in ways that benefit all society, but to return to socially acceptable standards. According to an article by Bill Bonner in “The Daily Reckoning”, the income spread between the average wage and the CEO’s salary in 1970 was 39 to one; now, with the average CEO remuneration at $37.5 million annually, the disparity is 1000 to one.

What was wrong with 39 to one? Nothing except the phony computations of “performance based compensation” that grew out of a US Congress attempt to tax extreme payouts. One has to wonder why they didn’t know enough to revisit the legislation when it failed so massively.

Another quote from the article says – “Retired CEO of DuPont, Edgar S. Woolard, Jr., did. In 2005, he was chairman of the NYSE’s executive compensation committee. As to the need to pay such high compensation in order to get good talent, he replied with a single word: “bull.” But did not the super-paid super-CEOs create super wealth? It was a “joke,” said he. He blew the whistle. But no one came a running.”

There is one other word appropriate to use in this situation – fraud. This diversion of wealth is another burden placed on our society by the same lack of adult oversight that allowed billions of phantom dollars to blow the financial system apart with the mortgage bubble and the derivatives bubble. We are in a fix now because the gullible investors finally realized that the leverage they thought was such a clever tool to make them rich was nothing but illusion and scam.

In the Gaian world I portray in the Iskander series, the investment of capital in enterprises that advance society and produce products of real value can lead to the accumulation of wealth, wealth held to be respectable. The wealth accumulated in our world by those who merely trade paper warrants and occupy an obstructive place between the producers of necessary items and the customers who need them is not respectable, and is a form of robbery from the Commons. The price of a barrel of oil went from $147 to less than $47 within a matter of days in 2008 – not because of a lessening of demand, or because it was of a lesser value, but because the credit upon which the financial bubble had been formed to speculate in it collapsed. I’m still looking for consumer groups to begin the civil suits to recover some of that $100 disparity – the fakery – for the people, ourselves, the consumers – who were robbed. The lack of that recompense would only be acceptable if the organized criminals who speculated in oil all went bankrupt when the easy money dried up.

Does writing fiction help create the conditions for a better future? Inasmuch as we become the people in the stories we tell about ourselves, yes. It does not produce rapid results, nor perfect ones, but Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is credited with playing a vital part in the ending of slavery in the US. The Wikipedia article says “the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the United States, so much in the latter case that the novel intensified the sectional conflict leading to the American Civil War.” I’m not looking to start a civil war, and I’m not Harriet, but I’d like to think the Iskander series novels will point out the ways societies take shape and generate the interest in readers to investigate the places where our world went wrong. More on the philosophies and outlines of developments on Gaia next time.

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How to Pick Future Leaders.

January 25, 2009

The lines of technical development in the Iskander stories naturally follows some directions different to those considered normal in North American society. Being few in number, the Iskanders recruit almost everyone who expresses an interest in their affairs in order to build up their workforce and train the technical staff needed for the future.

My writing here owes quite a lot to my four and a half years spent working in the Libyan oilfields in the mid-sixties. We hired almost all our Libyan workers straight out of the nearest oasis to where we worked in the desert – it made sense to bring them in on the same trucks that went there to load up with water. When ever we shifted to a different area, we laid off the first crew and hired more from our new area – which also made good political sense, in that we weren’t creating trouble by bringing strangers from afar but were spreading the jobs and money around to the new locals.

We always kept a few of our better qualified cadre, who joined our city workforce’s tent and provided some continuity. My survey driver, Ali, was one of those I kept on. He’d never been to school, but was not completely uneducated because a brother was a school teacher. He was also really sharp and picked up new things quicker than many of our city imports. With every new intake we would find some complete ‘innocents’, meeting western ideas and technology for the first time, who would develop into capable workers and prove that lack of formal education was no mark of incompetence.

In fact, the rest of the workers, who did not distinguish themselves in any way acted that way out of a refusal to accept new ideas – not because they were incapable of learning new ideas. The majority worked as little as they had to and had no interest beyond making a few Libyan pounds to take home on their time off. They also saved a portion of their rations, mostly canned goods – sardines in particular – that they hauled home to feed their families. The departure of the loaded ‘rest leave’ truck was always something of an event. We had a mutual compact that allowed them to tolerate our foreign ways as long as we didn’t require them to change theirs.

The lesson I gained for this was that everyone could do a good job if they wished, and their limitations often depended only upon the degree to which they could be motivated. The old joke from the USSR comes to mind about the workers there. “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” How many workplaces do we see here, where the same attitude prevails?

What my Iskanders offer to their recruits is a world beyond the dreams of most lower class people in 17th century Gaian society. Motivation is a given. Similarly the willingness of the Iskanders to reward effort by bonuses and further education keeps their workers, who may be right out of the ‘sticks’ or recruited from the slums of the cities, both loyal and hard working. Everyone must learn to read and write, which would be unheard of in native Gaian society. The factory workers all start at the bottom, but can advance as far as they are able with the free night school courses designed to produce a better educated workforce capable of undertaking new, more advanced projects. Soldiers might start out as raw recruits, unless they’ve served before – even as mercenaries – but the route to promotion lies in their learning their jobs well, and always developing the skills of the men they serve with. The best old soldiers develop from many years experience in the ranks.

I have always been a strong believer that any nation’s greatest wealth lies in its people, not its resources or its finances. True capital comes from the energy of the people. Financial wealth is only so much decoration unless put to work, and anything expended on show, fads, and pomposity is wasted. One of the most valuable tasks riches can facilitate is the increase of skill and knowledge. The workforce, the electorate, the home makers, the middle classes, and the leaders should all be encouraged to fulfill themselves by developing their understanding. The idea, prevalent in our society, that a higher education should be bought by the students and paid for over many years as they settle large student loans strikes me as the most foolish excess in a society of many excesses.

Would one send an army to war and expect the soldiers to buy their own ammunition? Then why expect the society’s brightest to saddle themselves with huge liabilities when they should be free to expend their energies on furthering their crafts and professions? There should be only one way into further education, and that is by proven ability and the degree of application gained from self discipline. Only scholarships should open the door to advancement, and they should be gained by competitive examinations and careful character evaluations. China, where the brightest took such exams to enter the mandarin class, ran this way successfully for thousands of years. Predicating education on ability to pay leads only to the kinds of mediocrity and incompetence our financial ‘wizards’ have demonstrated.

It’s a pity I can only institute such policies on my own world within my novels.

New Iskander Series novels.

January 17, 2009

I believe I mentioned the latest novel about Gisel Matah and the Iskanders. It is almost complete except for fine tuning and final editing, but I found myself starting yet another the other day. I told myself that I would only write a chapter to fix the scenario and theme of the plot, but I’m now halfway through chapter six. It must be some kind of therapy, because every time I sit glowering at the computer and look to avoid the chores I have, I write some more to cheer myself up.

The themes in the series are coming to focus on a few specifics in the scenario of grafting modern ideas on an earlier society. The stories are coming to say more about the ugliness of geopolitics. Gisel finds it necessary to follow plans and give orders that she hates – such duties come with her role of governor. While she may readily work for the interests of the poor and downtrodden, some of the measures she takes to thwart enemies also harm those same people. If it seems to parallel events in our own world it is only because I have no voice in what happens here, but the last word over what happens on Gaia – well, mostly. Sometimes the characters back me into a corner.

The lines of development also turn out to be an exposition of the way steel and steam shaped our own 19th century. I don’t have to write political pamphlets protesting against withholding the rights of workers to fair wages and decent working conditions – I just have to show the contrasts between the Iskander methods and those of greedy 19th century industrialists in nations outside their influence. The reason our nations became rich and powerful was because they unleashed the energies of their people, through education, technology, and (eventually) democratic reforms.

But in “Arrival” I don’t try to hide the unpleasant truth that industrialization got its start from outright theft. In order to develop a technological infrastructure one must have capital to invest, and that capital must be used to make more capital goods – in this case the hardware of steelworks, factories, ships, railroads, public health systems, safe water, sewers etc etc. In the 17th century world of Gaia there are no investment banks, no equity markets, no venture capitalists, and no systems of credit, and so the Iskanders do what the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French. Dutch and most others did – they stole the accumulated wealth of others.

Spain looted the Americas for its own wealth, and then the English, French and Dutch privateers robbed them of their loot. The empires that European nations founded went on looting their possessions to enhance the ‘motherland’ right up to the middle of the last century. Eventually those colonies were able to evict the looters, as had the 13 states of North America in 1776. Unfortunately the first nations of the Americas were never able to evict the looters who stole their patrimonies, but little by little their descendants are scraping something back.

Which comes back to a story idea for a future Iskander novel. How old will Gisel be when the financial system Iskander sets up creates its first bubble economy and its first financial crash? Will Iskander in that time have a wiser economic counselor than Bernanke, Paulson, and the rest who are set on bailing out the bubble economy even if they have to destroy the underpinnings of the real economic system that fuels it? I hate to end on a down note, but a political and economic novel with the power and influence of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” seems sorely needed today. Something that can consign all of Ayn Rand’s writings to the recycling bin.