Friday, July 30, 2010

My Big Fat Tax

Fat, Climate and Farming

By John Taylor; 2010 July 30, Kalimat 17, 167 BE

In this posting:

Fat Taxes
No Change in Climate Change
Local Farming Initiative

Fat Taxes

Consider this news item:

"Leading British doctors will urge the UK government Monday to impose a `fat tax' on junk food and introduce cigarette-style warnings to children about the dangers of poor diets and products high in fat, salt or sugar. [an expert says that] ... the consumption of unhealthy food should be seen to be just as damaging as smoking or binge drinking. `Thirty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to have imagined a ban on smoking in the workplace or in pubs, and yet that is what we have now, are we willing to be just as courageous in respect of obesity? I would suggest that we should be.' The doctors are also demanding a tough government action plan to stop fast-food chains opening outlets near schools, restrict the advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar, and limit sponsorship of sports events by fast-food companies such as McDonald's." (British docs demand 'fat tax' on junk food

Also suggested were "fast food free zones" in city planning, and a ban on advertising of garbage foods -- indeed, it occurs to me, why not force them to call a spade a spade on their labels? Why not stick a big warning label on the front: "This food is rated 8 out 10 on the garbage food scale of the World Dietician's Association."

A fat tax would hardly be popular with the public, especially now that the majority in Western nations are obese themselves -- or should I say, ourselves, since I am a good fifty pounds overweight. Few politicians, therefore, would dare touch this issue, urgent as it may be. I must think differently from most fatties, since I look down at my ugly waistline and dream of an economy where sweet and sugary food was expensive and good food was cheap.

No Change in Climate Change

Nor are things going well in the climate change department, also an urgent priority. The obvious policy change would be to impose a carbon tax, but again, any new tax would be unpopular. The U.S. government just effectively rejected any serious action against carbon emissions. In his NY Times column, economist Paul Krugman explains why,

"So it was not the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it? The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice. If you want to understand opposition to climate action, follow the money. The economy as a whole would not be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries above all, the coal and oil industries would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines."

"Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you will find that they are on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades. Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer. (

Krugman rightly points out what the real cause of this dithering is: attachment to ideology. Even when it becomes self-contradictory to the point of absurdity, the rich cling to their shibboleths,

"It has always been funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch conservatives who laud the limitless power and flexibility of markets turn around and insist that the economy would collapse if we were to put a price on carbon. All serious estimates suggest that we could phase in limits on greenhouse gas emissions with at most a small impact on the economy's growth rate."

This is why I think that the next Einstein will not be a physicist but an accountant or game designer. Not even an economist, but a genius with numbers who can make the numbers vivid using charts, displays and incentives.

A Local Farming Initiative

I recently bought a "share" in a cooperative farming effort called "Shared Harvests," pushed largely by a local farmer and a local physician, Reza Kazemi (an Iranian Muslim). It costs twenty five bucks to get a basket full of produce every week. I blanched at the price of what I was getting, but Reza pointed out that the group is called, "Triple Bottom Line for Sustainability Inc.," -- you have to write it all out on every check -- because as consumers we have to be aware when we are paying for something that the money should go to those who produce it, that there are three bottom lines, "financial, environmental and social responsibility and sustainability." I still blanched at what I was getting for what I had paid, but my responsibility self-image rose a little.

I got my first "share" of produce last week and was forced to do something with a big batch of kale, which I had only seen in cans before that. I steamed it up and it kept me in meals for a few days. It was good soaked with olive oil. Since I eat two cobs of microwaved corn every day, I held my cob of corn over the kale and soaked it in the extra olive oil. Here are some interesting facts extracted from their newsletter,

"There is a farm income crisis happening in North America. Farmers on average have been earning incomes below the poverty line for 15 of the last 20 years according to the National Farmers Union. The average age of a farmer in Canada is 52.6 and increasing yearly and the family farm is decreasing at a rapid rate. These are troubling facts, endangering the very existence of rural communities that have relied on small family farms for its sustainability and prosperity. It also endangers our food security. ... millions of Canadians including many of us in Dunnville spend long hours and resources caring for our grass instead of growing food; and millions of tons of local food perish due to lack of manpower to harvest it!"


Thursday, July 29, 2010

A New World Airlock


Pervasive Stoa

By John Taylor; 2010 July 29, Kalimat 16, 167 BE

As we saw last time, in the ancient world the stoa (porch) was a public building, a free standing structure with an "extended roofed colonnade" built facing a street or square. It often was a portico or "market-hall ... consisting of a long straight colonnade with a vertical wall and sometimes rooms at the back and a roof over." Being covered over by a roof and surrounded by stairs and pillars, the stoa offered ample light and fresh air, yet was largely protected from wind and rain.

The stoa offered a nascent civilization a buffer zone among its functions and spaces, similar to the way an airlock in a space ship or submarine permits a slow transition to the outside environment. As public property located in the center of town, it provided neutral ground; it was beautiful, imposing and was a convenient place to congregate. For all these reasons, stoa proved to be fertile locales for public talks, discussions, small classes and convivial conversation. A special breed of citizen was nurtured in the stoa, one not afraid to get his hands dirty in the work of government -- in spite of a prejudice against manual labour that otherwise crippled slave owning societies from technological advance. This is reflected in the word "stoic," for someone who moderates speech, desires and passions, which comes out of a philosophy born in one of the stoa of Athens.

Stoa were used in religion as well. Temples like the Parthenon were held sacred by all. This meant they were unlikely to be robbed, so they doubled as banks and storehouses. These sanctified locations were built surrounded by a stoa, including a walkway, collonades and stairs. This created a transition zone between public and holy spheres where worshippers could reflect and duly prepare themselves when entering or leaving. In later centuries stoa were built into private houses and became known as porches or verandahs; these too served as a transition belt between public and private space.

Today civilization in general has fallen into disrepute, and consequently stoa and verandahs have gone out of fashion. Even banks no longer have the marble pillars and tall ceilings designed to impress visitors with the institutions permanence and stability. This loss of a place and time for crossings surely is one reason why our modern world seems so hurried, busy and frenetic. When nothing stands still, everything seems subject to change. We have fewer sacred spaces where citizens take in an atmosphere of awe and reverence, and few relaxed, neutral places where citizens can engage in serious discussion for its own sake.

All this will change when a world government forms. The cosmopolitan condition will be inaugurated as institutions of governance take on distinct functions with clear phasing between them. The recapitulating ten-year-plan will instantiate this in time as well as space. As mentioned, it has three distinct modes, one sacred (religion), one for enlightenment (science and education) and one for peace (politics). Between each is a distinct zone of transition. The stoa, the outward symbol of this, will surely once again become the most prominent architectural feature of the built world.

A row of pillars, or collonade, is highly symbolic of the most sacred goal of a world order, which is wisdom. Each pillar is held up by solid ground, and each pillar in turn bears an equal portion of the weight holding up its roof. Comenius pointed out that such balanced order requires not only philosophy, the love of wisdom, but also what he called pansophy, universal wisdom.

"For in the final age of the World man must come to the highest stage of all. Therefore philosophy, or the love of wisdom, is not sufficient; wisdom itself must be present, and not its shadow but its body, and its body in whole and not in part; therefore it is not merely wisdom, but Universal Wisdom, that we need." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 43, p. 170)

Universal wisdom only thrives when the entire society, top to bottom, is wise, when like the erect columns each individual bears upon herself the responsibility for all three aspects of wisdom, religion, science and politics.

Why are tall pillars holding up the roof of a stoa such an powerful symbol of universal wisdom? I think it is because they are a reflection of the form of a forest. In nature tall trees do the same thing, they hold up a high canopy of leaves and greenery, creating a clear space between the roof and floor of the wood.
One of the first environmentalists and forestry experts, Richard St.Barbe Baker, came to religion in a forest of Hampshire. In his autobiography, "My Life, My Trees," he tells how as a child with bated breath he came to a realization of how the natural organization of a forest happily combines all the best features of communism, capitalism and every other "ism" in human governance. Here the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Similarly, in his work on world government, Immanuel Kant also observed what an astonishing paradigm trees are of ideal organization. He remarked that when trees are left alone in a field to grow they often grow every which way, ugly and crooked. However, in a mature forest the stately trees invariably grow straight and tall. Competition for scarce sunlight forces them to extend their branches as high into the air as possible. Lately, researchers in rain forests have uncovered an entire ecosystem in the high foliage of the forest canopy.

The stoa serves as a constant reminder that citizens can do no better than imitate the organizational brilliance that works itself out in nature on its own. The cosmopolitan condition will be our condition if we plant actual trees everywhere, and in human occupied areas we build long stoa.
This will become even more the case as we banish automobiles and other vehicles from sight in our cities. Long stoa could run down the sides of every street offering shelter to pedestrians, merging with the porches of households, the collonades surrounding public buildings and places of worship. Stoa might also run around the public squares located on street corners -- we shall be calling these common areas "Worker's Palaces, based on a proposal by Flora Tristan. Stoa at street corners may function like pedestrian and bicycle traffic circles guiding traffic in desirable directions.

As street corners and even entire cities are covered by domes, stoa may be built running around their entire outside perimeter. Again, this provides a zone of transition between the stable climate inside the dome and the weather buffeted outside.

We mentioned that the philosophy of stoicism started in a school run by Zeno located in a stoa. This specific building was known as the "painted stoa," which hints that in future pervasive stoa could offer unprecedented encouragement to the arts. Their long walls extending along every street would offer a huge surface area for paintings and murals, as well as display space for statues and and other art.

In spite of their classic facade of white marble, stoa could be adapted to accommodate modern technology, albeit unobtrusively. Tubes and grids can be built along the ceilings of stoa to aid in transportation. Large objects can be suspended by wires and transported by robots sliding along gridwork overhead. Such activity would be mostly out of view of passers by.

In a large city, multi-storied stoa might be connected by elevators built into columns or pillars. Thus a lower level stoa might be commercial, with markets, stores and workshops while upper level stoa specialize in reception areas for offices and factories, and the verandahs of private households.

A domed city surrounded by stoa could regularly deliver robotic workers to maintain formal gardens surrounding and beautifying the entire area. This would encourage residents to frequent the stoa, focussing the attention of all on the adjacent classical gardens. Again, this provides a slow transition from the artificial world of the city into wilder natural spaces further away in the countryside, where field and forest predominate.

Such a cityscape takes two kinds of beauty, human and natural, and places them together in gentle harmony. It combines values like order and freedom, that clash as irreconcilable opposites in our harsh, frenetic streets today. Balance and moderation would become public ideals, built into the very landscape. This allows town dwellers to find a right and natural balance in their lives, a happy mix of civic duties performed as a citizen of action, with the duties of a seeker of truth, including family, rest and recreation.

In such a cosmoplitan order, "street smarts" would come to mean what it should: an ability to glean lessons about work, life and eternity just by spending time on the street.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Choice Expert


I Pick Sheena Iyengar

By John Taylor; 2010 July 28, Kalimat 15, 167 BE

My life has been enriched by the TED talk video feed, which sends you a twenty minute talk designed to make you think every day or so. You can have the TED website automatically send by email a weekly list of links to their talks, as I do, but the best way I have found is to install the Miro viewer and subscribe to the TED feed from there. This has all but replaced television for me.

My latest enthusiasm is for a talk given by Sheena Iyengar, based on her upcoming book, The Art of Choosing. She tells personal anecdotes about her attempt to buy sweet green tea in Japan, and reports results of studies that found that when parents are given a choice about when to take their moribund baby off life support, as in America, they later feel much more miserable about the experience than French parents, who are not given a choice: the doctors makes that decision on their own. Just getting the choice put in your lap poisons you, but in every case the miserable American parent says they are glad they got the choice. In North America we have a fetish about offering choices, even false ones. As one of the comments to the TED talk says, we take our misery as a price of putting God or fate out of the equation.
You can watch her presentation, called, "Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing," at:

I was so enraptured by her idea that choice is not always a good thing that I looked up the article about her at Wikipedia,

Her background, a blind Sikh who emigrated here as a baby, no doubt prepared her to become what the article calls a "world authority on choice." Her tradition would not have given her the choice even of whom to marry. Without that choice, marriages are happier and fail less often, but again, we willingly but stupidly take the misery of a chaotic marriage market as the price of freedom.

The Wiki article includes links to pdf files of her academic studies and reports, enough to keep us busy until her popular book comes out. Here are some samples, from the abstracts,

When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

"Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better -- that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer..."

"Doing Better but Feeling Worse; Looking for the Best; Job Undermines Satisfaction"

My paraphrase of the abstract: Students who seek the very best summer job make themselves miserable, while those who blithely take whatever is available enjoy the experience more.

"The Mere Categorization Effect: How the Presence of Categories Increases Choosers; Perceptions of Assortment Variety and Outcome Satisfaction"

"... the mere presence of categories, irrespective of their content, positively influences the satisfaction of choosers who are unfamiliar with the choice domain. ... categories (signal) greater variety among the available options, which allows for a sense of self-determination from choosing."

After read about her ideas, I began to think that she may not appreciate the political implications of her discoveries about choice. False choices is all about what makes democracy the a horrible, corrupt mess that it is. False choices are what kills the green movement. I got that feeling as I was reading Al Gore's latest book. He goes through all the choices we have for energy, nuclear, solar, geothermal, and on and on.

The more I read the more annoyed I get at this presumption that laying out choices, and going into endless detail about the choices available, is somehow democratic. It is not, it is the reverse of democratic. It is mere obfuscation. A healthy democracy needs clarity more than any other kind of governance, and information can pollute as much as smoke can cloud the air or oil the Gulf of Mexico.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Wisdom and World Governance


   An Era of Universal Wisdom

  "Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end." (Prov 19:20-22, KJV)
  A good leader imposes law and order in society by applying justice. But in order to do this, he or she must understand what justice is. Plato in the Republic offers several definitions of justice early in the book, such as "knowing what is yours," "might makes right," "giving people what they deserve," and "knowing one's place." Since justice is many things to many people and changes over time, we need more than justice. More than anything, we require wisdom, knowledge in its entirety.

  Why is wisdom a superior model for good governance to justice? Because it involves love and spirit as well as law and right. Wisdom is the virtue of reason, our ruling faculty. It takes everything in, including what we now call "sustainability," the stability over thousands of years that, even in Plato's era, the Egyptians exemplified.

  Wisdom sets up a harmony between the whole and its parts, and each part with its whole. In the Republic, Plato says, "Him we call wise who has in him that little part which rules, (which has) a knowledge of what is for the interest of each of the three parts and of the whole." These three parts are found in both the soul and the state, and each reflects the other. "How can there be the least shadow of wisdom where there is no harmony?" Wisdom takes us beyond questions of directives and obedience; rather than force, its watchword is love and common feeling, the conformity of a dancer to the music.

  Unfortunately, as Socrates had shown, absolute justice and the complete knowledge of total wisdom are impossible for mere mortals. We do not even know our own end, nor can we be certain whether any action, well intentioned or not, will lead to good or bad results. The best answer we can hope for, therefore, is philosophy, which is not wisdom itself but rather love of wisdom. A philosopher does not claim to be wise, only God is wise, but at least loves wisdom and strives after it. Therefore, the closest to an ideal government that we can ever hope for is one led by a philosopher king, or alternatively, a king who is a philosopher.

  The Republic compared the development of leadership material to the mining and refining of metals. Education lasts all our life. It purifies human ore by melting it and skimming off impurities until all that is left is pure metal, our true nature. And just as it is unknown whether we are wise, we cannot know for certain of what metal, gold, silver or bronze, our soul is made until life is over. Here is the original uncertainty principle, every bit as demonstrable as any equation in physics. How often do novelists write, "He himself was surprised by what he said," or of a character, "He himself could not have predicted that he would acted this way."

  In the Republic, education continues throughout middle age, the active phase of life, until age fifty when those whose actions were of purest gold become eligible to serve in government. Plato would have been pleased to observe the common practice in China of retiring at age fifty, though he would have suggested instead of retirement that the old change their career to leadership and management.

  Later, in Plato's more mature work, the Laws, he swung over to the hope that wisdom may in fact be possible. If individuals cannot be wise, then the collective body of the elderly may attain it. The sunset of life is naturally conducive to wisdom. Turbulent waves on the pond of life settle at this time into a smooth surface that reflects the whole of human experience. Plotinus wrote that,

  "Wisdom is a condition in a being that possesses repose. Think what happens when one has accomplished the reasoning process; as soon as we have discovered the right course, we cease to reason. We rest because we have come to wisdom." (Plotinus, qi Wisdom, Mortimer Adler, the Great Ideas, p. 939)

  Plato's Laws suggests that those who show leadership potential -- Shakespeare aptly called them "golden lads and golden lasses" -- establish harmonies of wisdom through special activities that are proven to melt down, as in a cauldron, individual philosophy into a common substance. Even before they graduate from schooling at age fifty, golden lads and lasses should join choirs that sing only songs carefully selected for this purpose.

  Also, they should drink wine and talk together in symposia, not for drunken pleasure but for edification. It is common to resist pain but those who can resist pleasure are much rarer. A drinking party, therefore, cannot be left to itself. It must be carefully supervised to weed out those goldens who are inclined to carouse or behave badly under the influence. Those who endure these guided symposia are a select few. Otherwise, Plato at the end of Book III of the Laws advocated almost complete prohibition, a suggestion that was not taken up on a broad scale until the law of Islam forbade alcohol.


  John Amos Comenius wrote a book called "Universal Education" which also suggested that not only the young but everybody have a guidance counsellor. We all need an array of consultants to carefully dispense good advice throughout our lives.

  "Since human nature has been blinded by its corruption, my Universal Education discussed how it should be safeguarded from downfall by wise guidance, and all its senses kept open to everything..." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 11, pp. 146-147)

  Beyond Plato's choirs and symposia, wisdom might be inculcated by the use of literature and the arts. Plato was suspicious of poets and artists. Comenius, familiar with the popular mystery plays of his time, suggested that wisdom be taught through what he called "theatres of wisdom,"

  "I mean that all men should be wisely guided from the earliest age and constantly thereafter through the theatres of wisdom, and should all have endless opportunities of exercising their senses, their reason, and their faith." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 11, pp. 146-147)

  These theatres of wisdom seem to have been a combination of drama, similulations and games, experiments that allow each new generation to see the world with all their faculties of sense, mind and faith. These theatres of wisdom would inculcate in everybody an intimate appreciation of what he called pansophy, being universally wise.

  Since Comenius' time, Buckminster Fuller put forward the World Game, a simulation using data about global resources designed to help youth grasp the complexities of running an entire planet. More recently, Jane McGonigal, director of games research for Institute for the Future at Palo Alto, California, has suggested that we tap into the vast pool of time and talent expended by gamers -- according to her there are now half a billion gamers who average 25 hours a week solving difficult problems. (Serious Fun, by Samantha Murphy, New Scientist, 22 May, 2010, p. 37)

  McGonigal points out that we would do well to tap the resource of games and the army of gamers to solve technical challenges posed by the crisis of the present hour. Stopping climate change demands painful sacrifices now for benefits that are uncertain and all but invisible. It demands major lifestyle adjustments while offering few rewards. The authors of computer games mastered long ago this very problem. They tie long term needs with short term incentives in such a compelling way that many people find it addicting.

  Certain computer and video games have already been devised for directly solving global problems. These include "Chore Wars," an online game designed to bring the clever incentives of computer games to the domestic problem of persuading family members to help with housework. Other games in the works include World Without Oil, which helps people think how to adapt to oil shortages, Food Force, for 
disaster relief, and Fate of the World, where players steer the planet through 200 years of a warming planet.

  Undoubtedly, this is an excellent suggestion. Enlisting a vast army of clever problem solvers may well help alleviate some of the dilemmas caused by creeping climate de-stabilization. But this is a purely technical aspect of the problem. We cannot ignore Plato's crucial point that we must first concentrate upon becoming wise. Once we grasp the harmonies of wisdom, we find joy in implementing justice. Then long term thinking becomes the default. The stability of Egyptian civilization, an economy ancient even in Plato's time, will be our model.

  The next section on infrastructure imagines a global building project where wisdom is designed into the very brick and mortar of every building and physical support structure.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Stoa, or Porch


Of Stoas and Street Smarts

The first chapter of People without Border's infrastructure section rewritten...

Bustling cars and jostling trucks dominate city streets and country roads. Vehicles own our common spaces. Around the world, the filth, fumes and cacophony of automobiles dominate the Res Publica, the public thing. Our streets are no place to learn, work or converse; they are deserted, machines-only zones. As a result, the public thing is no thing, nothing.

The very word "civilization," meaning "life in a city," has become a dirty word. Pedestrians, when permitted on roads at all, are shunted into narrow, ugly, smelly and noisy sidewalks. Drivers can commute to work without a single face-to-face encounter with another human being. As a result of our isolation, basic social skills needed by democracy are all but lost arts.

Streets and intersections have been the exclusive domain of thundering trucks and honking automobiles for many generations. Even before this machine age, horses and carriages dominated the busier streets and byways. More than a century of expulsion from roads is reflected in our language. We use the expression "street smarts" not to describe wisdom or philosophic understanding but rather the cunning to survive in a hostile, crime ridden wasteland.

Our banishment from streets, corners and city squares took place so long ago that few remember that the greatest accomplishments of past civilizations took place there. In well-designed cities, residents relished spending time doing a full spectrum of public activity, from trade to recreation.

Teachers gave classes outside, merchants plied their trade in open air markets, artists and dramatists created great art and the "peripatetic" (walking) philosophers of Athens made memorable accomplishments in the street. The Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans of Athens and, later, Alexandria, were the first leaders of thought with a mass audience. The Roman Republic had public baths, held triumphal parades and built impressive public buildings. Centuries later, Baghdad became an intellectual melting pot of intense activity; the streets of Renaissance city states exuded a frenetic but charged atmosphere that inspired great art and literature. All this arose in vital, high-density settlements where citizens lived close to their work and engaged in open public intercourse. Even today, well designed cities like Paris, London and New York discourage car ownership and retain preeminence by attracting creative people and providing optimal conditions for discovery.

The entire built world accommodates the mechanical tyranny. Houses are garages with homes attached; suburban sub-divisions are thoroughfares with housing tacked on as an afterthought. True, some older houses retain verandas in front, a quaint relic of an age before air conditioning and electronic screens drew people indoors like flypaper; before motors spewed carbon dioxide, smog and noise throughout the street and its surroundings.

The few porches that remain, though, are used for storage or decoration. Only a few architectural historians remember that the family verandah was once a place for extended families to relax in a cool breeze, converse with passers by and entertain guests. It served as a transition zone between the public and private spheres. Today, the brave few who sit there are surrounded by ugliness, partially asphyxiated by fumes and smog, their shouts drowned out by traffic.

During most of urban history this was not the case. In the Hellenic age the stoa -- Greek for "porch" -- was the cornerstone of street life. Porches were not restricted to private homes. Public buildings were often surrounded by columns, creating a space where citizens could mix together on neutral ground and discuss public issues.

The stoa had a surprisingly great influence on the birth of philosophy and science in Athens and Alexandria. It gave its name to one of the first sets of ideas to gain mass popularity throughout the ancient world, the stoic school, so named because their founder, Zeno, had a habit of frequenting and discoursing with his followers in the painted stoa of Athens. A stoa is
defined by one authority as,

"... a roofed colonnade or portico with a wall on one side, erected as a separate building near temples or gymnasia or in market-places as a sheltered place in which to walk and talk or hold meetings. The wall was often decorated with paintings or inscriptions. Thus the Stoa Poikil (painted colonnade) in the agora at Athens, built c.460 BC, was adorned with frescos by famous artists, including one by Polygnotus representing the destruction of Troy." (

In an age before pedestrians were overrun by vehicles, the stoa was not only a "freestanding ... covered walkway" but also served many of the functions that shopping malls do today, except that they were not privately owned or run. They were,

"lined marketplaces and sanctuaries and formed places of business and public promenades. Rooms might back onto the colonnade, and a second story was sometimes added. The Stoa of Attalus in Athens (2nd century BC), a large, elaborate, two-story building with a row of shops at the rear, was a prime example."

The first stoa were little more than sheds with columns, but they evolved over many centuries. Eventually stoa served not only business but also as a sort of public interface between art, religion and politics.

"Later stoas were often immense, running to two stories, each with a colonnade of a different order and having a ridged roof supported on internal colonnades; rows of shops or offices lined the back wall, which was sometimes decorated with paintings. Such stoas surrounded the agora or marketplace of every large city and were used for public meetings."

The stoa would be perfect for making public spaces prominent and people friendly in a post-vehicular world. Next time I will describe how they might inspire the cityscape of a cosmopolitan world order.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Flora Tristan's Union

Another rewrite of an early chapter of People without Borders

Flora Tristan and her Worker's Palaces

By John Taylor; 2010 July 23, Kalimat 10, 167 BE

In 1843 Flora Tristan (1804-1844) wrote "The Worker's Union," a plea for workers to unite in their own interest. An early feminist, Tristan hoped that self-governing co-operatives would finally create an atmosphere in which working men would be emancipated from their traditional thralldom to the bottle. At the same time, women would find in these co-ops, which she called "communities of human unity," an atmosphere conducive to improving their own lot.

Tristan perceived that much of the endemic poverty and iniquity was caused by an extreme imbalance between the sexes. From this arose an either/or mentality, leading to an artificial dichotomy between worker and owner. Even today artificial separation of identities seem inherent to human nature, but Tristan did not see it as natural or inevitable. She dreamed of human progress based upon economic cooperation, male temperance and conscious advancement of the lot of women.

This was Tristan's chain of reasoning: the rights guaranteed in France's 1830 Charter did not include the right to life. Workers at the time were all but destitute, so, she reasoned, they own nothing but their own hands. Thus, manual labour is all that keeps them alive. The right to life, then, must entail a right to work in order to gain a living, and from this fundamental right proceeds another right, that of workers to organize.

Unity, activity and organization are all that is needed, she asserted. If workers entered government and gained the same influence there that owners already had, they could promote their own interests through the natural fact that they are the majority. A peaceful democratic process is all that workers require to prevail -- although, strangely, she saw nothing wrong with unions openly purchasing votes! With great prescience, she anticipated the objections that would be raised against such a unification of workers,

"This demand, no matter how just and legal, will be considered an attack on property per se (land, houses and capital). And labor organization will be considered an attack on private enterprise. And, since those who lead the governmental machine are land and capital owners, it is obvious they will never agree to grant such rights to the working class." (Tristan, Flora, The Worker's Union, Translated by Beverly Livingston, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1983, p. 55)

To this day, a worker's constitution has yet to be adopted. Workplaces routinely exploit employees and bosses trample upon the rights of most workers with impunity. When workers' rights are bolstered -- from outside, by the state -- in one place, owners simply cross the border, taking jobs along with them. Meanwhile the property imbalance has, overall, worsened since Tristan's time. The basic right of all humans to own and manage the planet's resources has been occluded by the same, ever smaller ownership class. The lion's share of the world's wealth remains in their hands.

The reason for this sorry lack of progress since her era is that Flora Tristan's peaceful suggestion for a worker's union was appropriated immediately by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their extremist Communist Manifesto. All-too-typical males, they turned a plea for cooperative activism into an out-and-out declaration of war. The 1848 Manifesto stripped Tristan's religiously-inspired socialism of its essence, God, and transformed the worker's movement into a secular no-man's-land plunked right in the middle of a battleground between capital and government.

Instead of her plea that workers unite and cooperate actively, the communist manifesto declared, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" Instead of Christ's message of love as liberator, that "the truth shall set you free," the worker's movement from then on took inspiration from history's only successful slave revolt, which had taken place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) a few decades before.

This was an unfortunate model to adopt. The slave revolt in Haiti had already provoked a severe reaction by owners, who united to push the French government to incur a huge reparation payment to compensate for their "lost property." To this day Haiti is a pariah to capital, isolated, chaotic and corrupt. While technically independent, it remains enslaved to drugs, debt and corruption, one of the poorest places on the planet. This is hardly an auspicious model for the worker's movement to adopt! But such was the dominance of men, and the unpopularity of religion, that Marx prevailed over Tristan.

The radical and angry socialist movement that arose on this model after her death fought the revolutions of 1844-1847, all of which failed quicker and more miserably than did Haiti. Before, religion and the family had traditionally taken on important responsibility for social support. The existence of communism made worker and owner into enemies, permanently at each other's throats. Divorce between capital and labour created a power vacuum that proved a convenient opportunity for nationalists to seize power. From then on the role of nanny was left entirely in the hands of the state. Dictators like Louis Napoleon and his successors made themselves popular with workers by offering small concessions, while most power and wealth stayed in the hands of the minority.

Street Corner Palaces

Flora Tristan's dream was pacific. Workers' guilds of the time offered workers fraternal groups based on their trade, along with a chance to travel across France. However, they were plagued by bitter rivalries among trades that often ended in rioting in the street. Instead, her overall worker's union would set up the palace as an alternative model to both a slave revolt and a limited fraternity. Specifically, she proposed that workers in every county (department) in France deduct a portion from their salaries to build for themselves showpieces of their worth to society.

She calculated that by pooling resources in this way workers could -- even with the meagre wages of the time -- build up a "fund for the self-emancipation of labour." Just as kings and magnates build palaces to display power, wealth and prestige, workers could organize settlements for themselves that display their dignity as magnificently as any palace. She called this communally-owned institution the "Palace of the Worker's Union." Inside the palace workers would run their own hospital, home for the aged, school and center for study and research. Here,

"children of the working class will be instructed, intellectually and professionally, and ... working men and women who have been injured at their jobs, and those who are infirm or aged, will be cared for." (Flora Tristan, "A Passage From Flora Tristan's l'Union Ouvriere," Translated by Doris and Paul Beik,

A palace's institutions would also "recognize, in principle, the legal equality of men and women as being the only means of constituting the unity of humanity." Flora Tristan perceived that cooperative institutions are structurally more friendly to the social skills and inclinations of girls and women. Co-ops can advance the lot of women quicker and allow for much greater equality than the hierarchical structures of large corporations. Again, events in the centuries that have passed since her death proved her correct.

Unlike state-run socialism, whose supports are given reluctantly and received in shame, Tristan's palaces are centrally located, proud declarations of the dignity of work. Being self-financed and organized by workers themselves, they would be badges of honour. As cooperatives, they would gently spread wealth around, gradually eliminating the vast gulf between worker, manager and owner. This ultimate "worker's union" would resolve the war between rich and poor by gradually distributing ownership of the means of production into the hands of all who work at and use a factory or service.

If this vision had caught the public imagination, everyone would become a worker. Rich and poor would be trained in a trade at a palace school, taught by local journey-persons from early adolescence. Those who show an ability to enter a profession would continue their education and gain that calling as a supplement to their original trade. This leaves no need for rebellion or forced equalization -- basic characteristics of communism. There would be no more no-man's-land because there would be no war. Everyone would be on the same side, each both worker and owner of a share of whatever workplace they serve.


Good Morning, Jim


Good Morning, Jim

By John Taylor; 2010 July 23, Kalimat 10, 167 BE

Over the past few weeks I find myself watching this speech over and over again,

The speaker repeats, "It is not what you do, it is why you do it." "It is not leaders we need, but those who lead, those who can inspire us to do it for ourselves."

A great leader or salesperson goes straight to what motivates us, to the "why" question.

I was therefore taken aback when I ran across my spiritual father, Jim, who accused me and Peter of "thinking different," in the wording of the advertisements for Apple Computers.

I hate to be tarred by the brush of commercialism, but you cannot deny that Apple has made a lot of money with that rather strange slogan.

When I read it, I ask, "Is that all they are after, to be different? Surely `think better' would make more sense."

Anyway, I called this posting "Good Morning, Jim," because Jim says that these essays are the first thing he sees when he picks up his iPhone in the morning.

To me, the lecturer in this TED video has caught the secret of greatness in, well, just about everything. He sets up a target chart with "why" in the center, "how" surrounding it and "what" on the outside. This power of the "why" is the secret power of belief in One God, as the Qur'an says,

"God puts forth a Parable -- a man belonging to many partners at variance with each other, and a man belonging entirely to one master: are those two equal in comparison? Praise be to God! but most of them have no knowledge." (Qur'an 39:29, Yusuf Ali tr)

This all explains why "Think Different" is such an effective slogan. It hints at the secret role of religion, and the secret power of teaching the faith. In "why" lies the spirit that the Master spread in His talks a century ago. In one of His Tablets Abdu'l-Baha pictures His teaching as "writing" on souls. This image struck me, and I think of it when I look at this guy's target chart of greatness.

Maybe a better slogan would be, "Let God write on us both."