Tag Archives: constructive

Your Party is Not Your Friend… or: The New Library and the Old Baseball Diamond

One day some folks in the town of Julyberry
Went to commission a neighborhood library.
Books in the town were too simple and few, 
And they’d run out of stories exciting and new.

They convened at Town Hall and presented their plan.  
The town council considered, and said, “Yes, we can!”
“There’s a perfect location–just give us some time and
We’ll put it on top of the old baseball diamond!”

The book-reading folks were content with this choice, 
But the athletes and sports fans cried out with one voice,
“You can’t put a library on our sports field!
We will not allow it, and we will not yield!”

They put their foot down and continued to shout, 
“We will form our own party and we’ll vote you out!”
They selected their leaders with singular aim, 
To protect their old ballfield and keep things the same.  

The councilors whispered, their speech tinged with greed, 
“The athletes and sports fans don’t want you to read!
We need more campaign funds to keep them from power!
They oppose your library?  We’ll make it a tower!”

The book-lovers turned out their pockets with glee.
“We’ll show the sports-lovers!  Yes, we’ll make them see!
They resent us for all our creative pursuits.
They don’t care about baseball; they’re just being brutes!”

But meanwhile the sports-lovers turned out the vote–
They replaced half the council, and how they did gloat.
They stopped not just the library, but any measure
They thought might give book-lovers any small pleasure.  

The members of council were thus in deadlock–
Each group would draft measures the other would block.
Most had clauses that tweaked someone’s nose, as expected,
But those that did not, even so, were rejected.  

And Julyberry leaders kept serving the town
Writing spiteful proposals and shouting them down
And continued to meet all their fundraising goals
While the old pipes and roads became riddled with holes.  

Now you can’t drive through town and you can’t drink the water, 
And you won’t see repairs on the town meeting blotter.  
But the voters sing praise of each allied official, 
Their neighbors, now enemies, just sacrificial.  

And who is to blame for the town’s ceaseless fight?
If one says that they all are at fault, is that trite?
For next door to Town Hall, under overcast skies,
Lies an old vacant lot, roughly library-size.  

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Democracy Is in Danger, but Not for the Reasons You Think

Congratulations, Earthling voter!  Your party has won the election!  The Good politicians you elected will enact Good policies, to make Good things happen and help the Good people live Good lives.  Your planet’s democracy is saved!  

You claim this government in the name of your party!  Hmm!  Isn’t that lovely, hmm?

…Or is it? 

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnnn!

Now that I think of it, isn’t there still a whole party full of other voters who disagree with those policies you wanted?  In fact, there are enough of them that they almost elected some Ungood politicians.  

And your best plan for preventing those voters from electing those Ungood politicians was to… hope that your side had more people than theirs did?  That seems risky.  You had to give a lot of money to the Good politicians in order to help them win, and it almost wasn’t enough.  That’s frightening.  

After all, Good policies are very important.  You can’t let them fail just because so many people don’t agree that they’re Good policies.  

So how can you reduce the risk of electing Ungood politicians?  How can democracy work if people vote for Ungood things?  

You might silence the Ungood voters, preventing them from spreading their ideas and beliefs and from working together effectively.  After all, what’s the point of having rights like the freedom of speech and assembly if people are just going to use them to advocate for Ungood policies?  

To save democracy–that is, the system that governs based on the voices of the people–it seems you need to take away the voices of the people who want the Ungood things so that people are only allowed to talk about and vote for Good things.  The less freedom people have to talk about whatever ideas and values they want, the more democracy will thrive!  

Maybe some Good politicians can make Good laws about what ideas people are allowed to talk about.  I’m sure they will still allow you to voice your complaints when the Good politicians are not doing a Good job.  After all, people in charge of running countries are well-known for welcoming criticism.  

[CAPTION REDACTED]

The real threat

…If you’re reading this at all, you have probably spotted the irony already, but many other people on your planet have not.  

The real threat to democracy is not the people who oppose your policies and whose policies you oppose in turn.  The real threat to democracy is that the only way you know how to deal with political disagreement is to crush the other side with propaganda and votes, instead of working with them to come up with policies that neither of you object to.  

The Earthling understanding of how democracy works is missing critical pieces, and humans are trying to fill in the gaps with something that very much resembles… well, let’s just say it resembles a political system that barely resembles democracy at all.  

I realize that Earth has not been doing democracy for very long.  I’m not here to ridicule.  I’m merely here to warn you that Earth won’t be doing democracy for very much longer if you don’t take a step back and reflect on what you’re really missing. 

The work of democracy

Most of the work of maintaining a healthy democracy happens before anyone votes for anything, whether that be a political candidate or a policy.  

The work of democracy consists of talking with people: learning about their needs, wants, and fears.  It consists of working together to brainstorm solutions that will satisfy, if not everyone, then as close to everyone as theoretically possible. 

These solutions may be policies, individual efforts, community efforts, or some combination of all three.  When you get creative together, you can practice skills that help communities change, adapt, and thrive while holding onto what is most important.  You can come up with outcomes where no one is cheated or abandoned.  This work is what democracy requires, and you will need to do it consistently.  

Only when you do this work will you see trustworthy politicians.  Politicians will know they cannot get away with the mere appearance of effectiveness, because the voters will recognize what an effective policy looks like versus one that is useless (or harmful).  Instead of hiding behind empty abstractions and platitudes, candidates will run for office by expounding on their skills of policy negotiation and implementation.  

If your country’s people are worried about the outcome of an election and what it will mean for your democracy, that means you haven’t been putting in the work.  

Proceed with caution: Relationships under construction.

Friends on the other side

“The work of democracy sounds like a great idea,” you may say, “but it will never succeed, because the people on the other side do not want what I want.  There are no solutions that satisfy them that are also acceptable to me.”  

Consider this, though… how much do you actually know about those other people, and what they really want?  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your politicians and your news media, who profit from playing the role of “protecting” you from the enemies they tell you about.  Their jobs depend on you believing that the people on the other side are evil, that you cannot negotiate with them–only overpower them through superior numbers of votes and sheer force of personality.  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your friends, with whom you maintain a shared bond of trust and esteem by expressing contempt for all the same people and by refraining from questioning the shortcomings and misdeeds of your own side.  

You have even heard about the people on the other side from the other side’s own most obnoxious people, the ones who loudly and publicly express contempt for your side because they have only ever heard about your side from their politicians and news media, their friends, and the most obnoxious people on your side.  Most are merely lashing out from fear, but some of them are genuinely selfish and mean-spirited, and the greatest harm they do is making it look like their entire side is like them.  

You know the ones.  There are people on your side who do nothing but take cheap shots at the other side, but you dare not criticize their shallow reasoning or their toxic approach because that would be a betrayal of your side, so you have to defend them or remain silent.  Otherwise, people on your side would accuse you of showing respect and consideration to people on the other side, people who don’t deserve it.  

After all, being a jerk is a good thing when it’s done by people who are Good towards people who are Ungood.  You have nothing to learn from Ungood people, and they would not learn from you, so you might as well take out your frustrations on them in the hopes that they’ll eventually decide it’s not worth standing up for what they care about.  That always ends well for all involved.  

…Aaaany decade now, it’s going to end well…

You have been taught to fear these people, and they have been taught to fear you.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to steamroll them and justify their fears?  Are you going to continue allowing politicians to play you off against each other forever, while nothing gets done and people on both sides are seriously hurt?  Are you going to let democracy decay into an endless shouting match?  

Steamrolling people makes for very bumpy roads.

“But how do we start doing the work of democracy in the current political climate?” I can only assume you are wondering.  

Well, I’m glad I assume you asked.  

The work of democracy is easy once you know the trick.  We must dispel the fear that both sides have for each other.  We can dispel this fear by learning to understand each other’s values, as well as our own.  Through this learning process, we establish mutual respect and trust.  

I am here to make this process easier, by facilitating communication using a toolbox of foundational concepts.  With these concepts, we can describe as simply as possible what matters most.  

Universal values

Here we will take a look at concepts that enable us to understand each other.  People’s individual desires and motivations are varied and often complex.  However, their values regarding how to run a society are simple and easy to understand.  We all face the same fundamental liabilities, and we value overcoming those liabilities.  

We value triumphing over scarcity to achieve prosperity.  

We value triumphing over disaster to achieve safety.  

We value triumphing over stagnation to achieve vitality.  

We value triumphing over conflict to achieve harmony.  

People don’t disagree on these fundamental values, no matter what planet they’re from.  What we disagree on are the best ways to fulfill those values, which values to prioritize over others, and what risks and costs we’re willing to accept as a society. 

That’s not a problem when people are only choosing for themselves, but dealing with some problems calls for policies that affect communities, regions, or even all of society, and that’s a source of political conflict.  People disagree with some tradeoffs and don’t want to be forced to make ones they don’t like.  

To a certain extent it’s unavoidable that some people’s preferences will be overruled.  When we do end up compelling someone to make a tradeoff they reject, we should compensate them to offset any costs imposed on them.  That’s why people whose property is taken through eminent domain are supposed to be paid a fair price for it.  

We should also take measures to mitigate risks that people may be involuntarily subjected to.  If a community fears that an excavation project will interfere with their groundwater, we might offer to install sensors to monitor the water quality and commit to supplying free fresh water to the community in the event that their fears come true. 

Furthermore, we must avoid getting fixated on a particular result.  If we get too set on one way of living our lives we may one day become desperate enough to sacrifice others to maintain it.  There are almost always opportunities to fulfill our values even if the outcome is not exactly what we had in mind.  Is it great wealth that we desire, or is it the ability to do things we enjoy, and the esteem of people we respect?  

When you spot the light at the end of your tunnel vision, it means you’ve probably already passed many other, better lights.

No matter what, though, we must never stop collaborating to seek mutually beneficial outcomes.  The more that we work together and the more creative we get, the fewer tradeoffs we need to make.  Next we will look at how to consistently find these win-win opportunities.  

Constructive principles

Now that we know the sorts of things we all want, it’s much easier to figure out how we can work together to achieve them.  We just need to start with constructive principles: 

If we want prosperity, we need to work together to practice investment.  We must spend effort and resources in ways that yield returns of more resources.  We can then spend those resources to get even more resources.

We can invest in people by giving them financial stability, education, and the community support they need to make something of themselves.  

We can invest in infrastructure by maintaining roads, plumbing, and electrical grids.  With these systems, everything becomes more efficient, so we can do more with what we have.  

We can invest in technology for harvesting energy sustainably, growing food without harming the environment, and even extending our lifespans.  

However, it’s also critical that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Ramping up productivity can overclock our systems and deplete subtle resources that are difficult to recover.  We need to spend resources mindfully on things that are meaningful and sustainable, rather than wasteful.  Prosperity must be cultivated, not merely consumed.

If we want safety, we need to work together to practice preparation.  We must learn about the physical world and use that knowledge to decide in advance how to respond to misfortune.  We can equip ourselves with the resources and skills we will need.

Through science, we can learn to predict natural disasters, diseases, and accidents.  We can set up preventative measures and contingency plans in case our infrastructure fails.  By conducting practice drills, people will know what to do to stay safe during a disaster and rebuild important systems as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the process of rebuilding them, we can upgrade those systems so that the next disaster is less of a shock.  

We should assume that people will behave differently in response to new policies, instead of designing policies as if anything we don’t intend to change will remain as it is.  

We don’t even need to specifically predict a problem in order to prepare ourselves for it.  We only need to ask ourselves what would happen if something that we take for granted were to become unreliable, like internet access, or warm weather, or wheat crops.  

If we want vitality, we need to work together to practice transcension.  We can challenge ourselves to surpass our limits and become more than what we are now.  Learning new skills will stretch our brains and show us how far we can extend our abilities.  Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creativity lets us peer across the edge of the unknown. 

Developing greater discipline and broader minds will help us face problems in the future, but it is also its own reward.  Contributing to something larger than ourselves, finding an ideal to stand for, a role to play for our community or even for the world, is more fulfilling than an endless series of personal goals.  The more capable we are of living for principles rather than only for our desires, the more alive we are, in some sense.  

If we want harmony, we need to work together to practice ethics.  Getting creative lets us find ways to reconcile our values and build healthy relationships.  

The first step, though, is to be honest, and the first people we must be honest with are ourselves.  If we don’t admit our true motives, or the times we fall short of the expectations we hold for others, we will see ourselves as unquestionably righteous and will regard negotiation and compromise as failure.  

For example, imagine that two neighbors get into a feud.  One neighbor practices the trombone, and the irregular sounds greatly annoy the second neighbor.  The second neighbor retaliates by filling their yard with garish lawn ornaments that the first neighbor despises.  The first neighbor reacts by planting trees that drop leaves and seed pods into the second neighbor’s yard.  The second neighbor plants flowers that trigger the first neighbor’s allergies, and so on.  Each neighbor may have a right to do what they want on their own property, but they’re still making each other’s lives miserable, and not being neighborly at all.

“Wah wah wah wah waaaahhhhh,” says the sad trombone.

The neighbors need to reflect on what they do and consider whether it is to make themselves happy, or to make their neighbor suffer.  A truce that halts the vindictive actions on both sides will benefit both neighbors; that doesn’t take ethics to establish.  The practice of ethics comes in when things that genuinely make one person happy might bring irritation for their neighbor.  

Ethics involves exploring options.  Is the first neighbor willing to give up playing the trombone because it annoys the second neighbor?  Can the first neighbor find a quieter instrument they enjoy just as much, if not more?  Can they continue playing the trombone but make it up to the second neighbor by sharing baked goods?  Can they coordinate with the second neighbor to practice trombone when the second neighbor is out of the house?  Can they practice elsewhere?  Can they soundproof a room to practice in?  Can the second neighbor wear earplugs or headphones?  

After the brainstorming phase comes the negotiation process.  You might ask, how reasonable is it to practice the trombone in a house with neighbors who can hear?  How reasonable is it to be annoyed by a neighbor practicing the trombone?  Who, if anyone, deserves compensation for changing their behavior?  

These are valid questions, but this level of ethical reasoning is insufficient for a harmonious society.  Just like the other constructive principles, practicing ethics is about going beyond the minimum obligations.  It shows us opportunities to foster goodwill and friendship, which entails humoring people and accommodating their sensitivities even when you’re not obligated to.  

Not every negotiation needs to end in a quantifiable transaction.  If you show you’re willing to go out of your way for other people, they’ll do the same for you, in their own fashion.  That’s much more valuable than getting things our own way all the time.  After all, we can’t do everything by ourselves.  It always helps to have people looking out for us.

How do we make this happen?  

Building a healthy democracy starts with standing up for those constructive principles.  Ethics will be particularly important, because the main obstacle we face is ideological conflict.  

Don’t settle for a solution that makes winners and losers, even if you’re one of the winners.  Stick up for the people in other groups who feel threatened by the policies that your group promotes.  Talk with them and explore the possibilities.  Learn what they value and what they fear, and think about how you can both get what you want.  Show them that your side has reasonable people, that negotiation is possible.  Talk with the people in your own group, and suggest modifications to accommodate people from other groups. 

And if you get stuck, ask for help, from me or someone like me.  

As you do this, politicians who exist to “protect” people from each other will quickly start losing their appeal, because people will realize protection is not what they need.  People will demand politicians who seek out the constructive possibilities, negotiate terms, work out the plans, and implement them conscientiously.  

Politicians will cease to be the authority and instead become a profession like any other.  They will act as the experts of integrating input from a wide variety of sources and reconciling conflicts.  Democracy will thrive, and humanity will turn its talents towards more constructive pursuits.

Eventually, at long last, we will have a world we can all be proud of.  

Final thoughts

Maybe you humans will end up destroying each other.  Maybe the fabric of society will unravel, or you’ll use nuclear weapons on each other and drive a mass extinction event.  Or maybe you’ll be stuck as you are forever, in an eternal ideological stalemate.  You and I may never get to live on an Earth suffused with prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  

In the event of nuclear war, you’ll know where to find me.

But if humans as a species choose not to take advantage of these gifts I bring, these concepts to understand one another, these Visionary Vocabularies, then I must warn you that the gifts carry a terrible curse if left unused.  

If you remain on your current path, you will live your lives as before in a dysfunctional society wrought of frustration and scorn, but now burdened with the knowledge that a better world with a healthy democracy is not merely theoretically possible, but practically feasible.  Whether you can live with yourself by continuing to wring your hands or shake your fist, instead of helping to build that world, is up to you.  

Your excuse that mutual respect is futile, and not worth pursuing, is now gone.  I leave you with only the choice, the responsibility, and the consequences.  Those I cannot and will not take from you.

No need to thank me.  It’s my pleasure.

If this article resonates with you, please share it with anyone who will listen–and especially anyone who won’t.

Further resources

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

The Village and the River Monsters… or: Less Fighting, More Brainstorming

If you guess how this story ends, humanity could use your help right now.  (Well, you can help humanity regardless, so if you want to learn how, read on.)  

Once upon a time, my people say, there lived a village of humans.  The humans of this village had a desperate problem.  They were always in short supply of a medicinal herb, which they regularly needed to treat illnesses and diseases.  What little of the herb they found, they had to ration out sparingly.  The herb was a vine that grew only on trees, and few trees grew near their village.  

Idiot advisory: This free stock image in a short story should not be construed as medical, botanical, or any other kind of advice. Injury or illness resulting from ingestion of plants that look like this are your own fault. Litigants will be publicly mocked.

Well, to be more precise, many trees grew near the village–an entire forest, in fact.  But the forest was separated from the village by a river, and in that river swam monsters that would, often as not, sink any boat they found and eat anyone on it. Only a few lucky villagers had ever returned from the forest to bring back the herb, so most of the time the village had to make do with searching the few trees on their side of the river.  

The crocodile picture is just here to invoke menace and dread, not to imply that the river monsters can walk on land. I suppose that means they’re actually slightly less terrifying than crocodiles.

After years of watching their friends and family pass away from illness when there was no medicine to be had, around half of the villagers decided that enough was enough, that the village should have a steady supply of medicine.  They demanded that the village regularly hold a lottery and send a randomly chosen villager across the river by boat to bring back the herb from the forest.  

The other half of the villagers opposed this idea.  They did not want to be forced to risk their lives.  They hated seeing their friends and family die as much as the others, but they had learned to live with it.  They did not feel that being able to save more people from illness was worth living under the shadow of being chosen by lottery to cross the river and risk a violent death.  

For eight days and nights the villagers argued.  

Not pictured: river monsters who have stopped caring about the pro-crossing faction winning and just want some peace and quiet.

The pro-crossing half of the village said that the status quo was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to replenish the medicinal herb to treat the sick, and that anyone who opposed the plan to randomly select villagers to cross the river was evil.  

The anti-crossing half of the village said the proposed solution was unacceptable, that it was a moral obligation to allow people to refuse to cross the river if they wished, and that anyone who wanted to force people to cross the river against their will was evil.  

On the ninth day, it appeared that the villagers were about to come to blows over the problem.  Parents, children, siblings, and spouses shouted abuse at each other, their gazes colored by anger and disgust.  

It was then that one of my people, a being who at the time was known simply as the Wanderer, stopped by the village looking for a place to rest and restock on her travels.  Naturally, the Wanderer was curious about why the villagers seemed so angry and divided, so she asked them.  The villagers took the Wanderer to the tavern, brought her food and drink, and (with much interruption and volleying insults) they told her about their problem.  They explained the solution that one side embraced and the other side rejected, and why each side was right and good and the other side was wrong and selfish.  

They asked her to choose a side, and after much deliberation she chose the potato wedges.

After hearing about the situation, the Wanderer slumped forward onto the table.  The villagers were horrified, for they assumed she had fallen ill, and they were all out of medicine!  However, the Wanderer soon sat up, and they could see that she was weeping and laughing.  

“That’s it?” she asked.  “You have a serious problem, and you’re about to go to war with each other because you disagree on whether the only solution you’ve thought of is worth it?  Do you see the problem here?”  

The human villagers were angered at their guest’s condescension, but they had heard legends of the wisdom of my people, so they swallowed their pride in the hopes that the Wanderer might somehow solve their dilemma.  Each side expected that the Wanderer would convince the other side to change its mind.  

“You may laugh, Wanderer,” a villager said, “but this problem torments us, and we seek to settle it.  Now can you help us or not?  Which side is right, and why is it ours?”  

When even the trail signs express doubt, you know you’re lost.

At this, the Wanderer scowled.  “Of course I can help.  I have heard and understood both sides’ values, and they have nothing to do with embracing or refusing boats or medicine.  Those are just methods you use to try to fulfill your values.  Values are simple, and yours are no exception: you all want to protect people from dying.  You just disagree about whether some number of deaths of a certain kind is more or less acceptable than some other number of deaths of a different kind.”  

Sipping her drink, the Wanderer continued, “This question has no right or wrong answer.  Luckily for you, it is also the wrong question.  The question you have chosen to ask turns those who seek medicine into those who feed the river monsters, and it turns those who fear the river monsters into those who shun medicine.  To pick a side is to champion suffering and horror.”  

The two factions of the village had been staring each other down from opposite sides of the Wanderer’s table.  At this remark, their gazes started slowly turning down towards their own feet.  

Wait a minute, has that third option always been there?

Shaking her head, the Wanderer took another sip.  “No, you should not ask whether or not you should take boats across the river.  You have each made very good cases and established that both these options are unacceptable.  Those who reject the choice to remain without medicine are reasonable.  Those who reject the choice to force people to cross the monster-infested river are also reasonable.”  

She paused as a wry grin crossed her face.  “If I were a fool I might recommend an arrangement whereby people may give up the right to receive medicine from the forest in exchange for being exempt from the river-crossing lottery, and call the matter settled.  However, that would still be answering the wrong question.  We can do much better than a compromise between two bad options.”  

Holding up one finger solemnly, the Wanderer pronounced, “Always be suspicious of a question where the best answer you come up with involves death.”  

Unless it’s a riddle. What has four wheels but never tires? What picks up travelers but never drops them off? What follows closer the faster you drive?

At this the villagers were silent.  Finally one spoke.  “What is the right question, then?”  

The Wander smiled, and responded, “Let us start closer to the beginning.  How do you treat illness in your village?”  

The village doctor stepped forward.  “It depends on the illness, but often with medicine made from the herb.”  

The Wanderer nodded.  “A reasonable answer, for now.  It may change in the future.  For now, where do you get the herb?”  

“From the forest across the river!” a villager replied.  

“And from trees around the village, whenever we can find it there,” the doctor added.  

“Another reasonable answer, for now,” said the Wanderer.  “On my journey thus far I have not passed any other forests within a practical distance from here, or else I would suggest you travel to those forests instead.  I may yet suggest it, if all else fails.  In the meantime, how do you get to the forest across the river?”  

“By, well, crossing the river,” another villager muttered.  

The Wanderer leaned forward.  “And how do you cross the river?”  

“By boat,” came the nervous reply.  

The Wanderer pounded the table, and the villagers jumped.  “How else do you cross the river?  Use your imagination!  Speak any thought you think of, and pay no heed to how ridiculous your answer may be.  Nobody will force you to use any idea spoken here, but any idea not spoken is a gift left unopened.”  

I couldn’t find a picture of what imagination looks like, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

At this, the villagers were silent.  The Wanderer patiently sipped her drink.  

Finally one person piped up, “Swim across!”  

Another countered, “What about the river monsters?”  

“Kill them!” a third chimed in.  

“That’s impossible!”  

“Deciding what’s possible and what’s not comes later,” the Wanderer interrupted.  “If you get enough ideas, you may find you can put some impossible ones together to make one that’s possible after all.”  

“Poison the river to kill the monsters, then swim across!”  

“Promising start.  Any more ideas?” said the Wanderer.  

“Send a boat full of meat down the river as a distraction!”  

“This is nonsense.  Why swim when we could simply fly across?” asked a villager sarcastically.  

“You jest,” said the Wanderer, “But a silly idea can often be a path to a brilliant one.”  

The villagers were growing excited now.  

“Jump across!”  

“Catapult over!”  

“Build a bridge!”  

“Tunnel under the river!”  

The Wanderer had been writing down the villagers’ ideas, and clapped.  “Good, good!  This is excellent brainstorming!  I’m proud of all of these ideas!  Even the ones that won’t work help us to think of ones that might–that’s how creativity works!  Well done, everyone!”  

The villagers and the Wanderer spent the rest of the evening drafting a plan from the ideas they had come up with.  It would take hard work, and there would be some risk involved, but everyone was on board and ready to make it happen.  Waking up fresh the next morning, they spent the whole day filling in the details, gathering materials, and going over the plan step by step to make sure they were prepared for the unexpected.  The following day, early in the morning, they launched the plan. 

And fervently hoped that they wouldn’t end up in the lower left-hand box.

The villagers sent a raft full of meat into the river, where it drifted downstream.  Shortly afterward, they sent a second such raft.  The first raft was soon attacked by the river monsters and devoured, but the second one drifted downstream in peace.  The monsters had seemingly eaten their fill, but if they were still hungry, the first raft had proved that they could be distracted.  The second raft would be that distraction.  

“Go!” came the cry.  A boat entered the river and pushed off.  It carried the Wanderer and a handful of villagers: crafters and carpenters, all ones who had been in favor of the river-crossing lottery.  They paddled across the river as quickly as possible, and arrived safely on the other side.  

Once there, the forest team got to work immediately, chopping down trees and carving them up into smooth logs.  They sent half of their logs over on a long rope that they had strung across the river as they crossed.  The logs made it to the village side without incident.  

Not pictured: river monsters whose confusion is slowly giving way to a sinking feeling.

Other builders on the village-side riverbank, ones who had opposed the river-crossing lottery, received the logs.  

Now both sides of the river had logs, and builders on each side used them to construct the foundations of a bridge.  By evening, the bridge was complete and connected the two sides.  It was strong, with sturdy guardrails, and far out of the reach of the monsters.  The builders from both sides met in the center of the bridge, above the river, and danced for joy and for reconciliation.  

Would you believe I didn’t notice the metaphor until after I had written a bridge as the solution?

The Wanderer stayed in the village for a year as a teacher, sharing with the village the problem-solving tools of our people.  The villagers learned to make these tools their own, for protecting and enriching their way of life.  

These days the village is home to a prestigious research hospital, and the filming location of a popular television series exploring the life cycle of the river monsters, but I digress.  The story has finished, but our journey has just begun. 

Earth’s fatal flaw is fighting for unnecessary tradeoffs, instead of seeking ways everyone can be satisfied.  One may not find an easy or perfect answer, but for those who bother to look there is usually at least one answer that’s good enough for almost everyone.  That’s better than an answer that’s pleasing for some and intolerable for others. 

Not to be confused with Earth’s Achilles heel, which is a small thermal exhaust port located off the coast of Antarctica; humans know it as Mount Erebus. You guys might want to add some defensive turrets to that research base.

When you fight with all your passion to make someone else pay a price for your cause, you make your cause evil and recruit your own enemies.  All your passion should instead be put to seeking a win-win outcome, one that rewards each person who pays for it.  Never stop negotiating for that win-win, even when things come to blows.  Always search for what your opponent is willing to accept that you’re willing to offer as truce.  For when you close the door to the win-win, you choose unending strife.  A win-lose idea will always have opposition.  

If you, esteemed reader or listener, meet a person who disagrees with you on policy, you should figure out a future you both want.  Take note: that future may not be what either of you originally had in mind.  Sometimes finding it requires a deeper understanding of the other person’s values, or of your own values, but that’s another story.  Once you find that future, get creative about how to get there.  Building that bridge might take more effort than your current plan, but it will be well worth it.  Besides, instead of opponents who obstruct and interfere with the new plan, you will have allies to help.  Such is how ethics reconciles conflict.  

And if you get stuck, or you feel alone in your efforts, just call on me or someone like me.  We’d be honored to be part of your success. 

No, not through interstellar radio. Regular email’s fine, thanks.

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Midmorning Zone: Negotiating Conversations on Gun Control

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of gun violence, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to make it impossible for people to bring guns into public places and start shooting people.  We should do whatever it takes to eliminate gun violence.  

B: I agree that gun violence is something that, in the ideal case, we want to eliminate.  People should be able to feel safe in public places and in their own homes.  I’m certainly willing to put in extra effort to craft and implement plans to reduce gun violence and violence in general.  You don’t have to convince me of that.  Your values make sense to me.

A: Oh, that’s good.  I’m sensing a caveat here, though.  

B: Unfortunately, yes.  Before we lock ourselves in to a particular approach or combination of approaches to accomplish that goal, we should at least understand the other values at stake, because they do exist.  There are reasons that people want to allow public gun ownership in the first place.  We need to consider the costs and side effects of the approaches available so that we can eliminate gun violence as much as possible while meeting the needs that people currently rely on guns for.

A: That’s something I’ve never understood, so we should probably start with that.  Why do people value public gun ownership?  What is the advantage in allowing people to have weapons?  By definition, a weapon’s purpose is to amplify the ability of a person to inflict harm through violence.  

B: Well, I would argue that in modern society, a weapon’s primary purpose is actually social rather than physical.  Its ability to physically harm is a last resort.  Most of the time, guns serve as a deterrent for two different types of behavior.  First, they deter turmoil (physical violence and coercion) by acting as a force equalizer, hence why guns are sometimes referred to as “equalizers”.  In a world with no weapons, if two people fighting have roughly equal combat experience, the stronger person will usually defeat the weaker person; a person wearing armor will defeat a person without armor; and a group of people will defeat a single person.  A gun creates a situation of mutually assured destruction.  Wrongdoers who have a normal sense of self-preservation will not menace someone who can shoot them.  Everyone’s a glass cannon in that situation: the only way to not get hurt is not to fight.  Ideally no one would be threatening violence in the first place, but in this day and age the fundamental liability of conflict still frequently manifests as turmoil.  Unfortunately, for the time being guns are very useful for humans in many places to defend themselves from each other. 

A: I can spot one immediate problem with the idea of guns as a deterrent to turmoil, and that’s the possibility of violent people without a sense of self-preservation.  The existence of “good guys with guns” doesn’t scare them.  

B: Agreed.  Arming everyone is not sufficient to keep people safe from self-destructive violent people.  We do want to do something about that as well.  However, I still think that allowing people to arm themselves is useful for deterring ordinary crime committed by people who have self-preservation.  

A: Don’t we have a police force that already deters crime and turmoil, though?  

B: Yes, and that does help in many areas.  There are still a few gaps in police protection that we can fill in by allowing people to own their own guns, though.  Firstly, some people live in rural areas, far from police stations.  If they need police assistance, it takes the police a relatively long time to arrive, and if the people need to defend themselves or their houses during that time, a gun is essential.  Also, I have heard many concerns that the police may not always be completely trustworthy, and probably should not have a monopoly on force.

A: Fair point.  We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the primary purpose of the police is to draw their guns on people, because they should be striving to resolve conflicts without using violence or threats.  However, doesn’t that lead us back to the conclusion that we want to remove weapons across the board, from everyone?  We’d still have a police force; they just wouldn’t have weapons. 

B: If we could do that and have it work, that would be great.  The problem is that for the foreseeable future, there will always be people who try to get what they want through violence and turmoil.  Sometimes what they want is simply violence itself.  Until that changes, we will need the ability to defend ourselves against turmoil, and the most efficient way to do that is with guns, because they’re force equalizers.  We created a police system to protect ourselves from violent people (with and without guns) and that reduces the number of people who have to be armed, but unfortunately it turns out we may even need deterrents to protect ourselves from the police system, at least for now while we’re still working on the solutions for that issue we discussed earlier.  

A: Oh, how wonderful.  Does each additional solution to violence keep making the problem worse, or do things level off eventually?  

B: Yeah, it turns out it’s very difficult to find a substitute for the ability of a community to defend itself.  After all, feudalism was based in part on the inability of peasants or serfs to defend their own communities.  Noble landowners received the sworn fealty of their serfs in exchange for the responsibility to suit up and protect them from… well, other noble landowners, sometimes from neighboring countries, but also from bandits and raiders.  Because the noble landowners had a monopoly on force, they wielded tremendous authority over their vassal populations, and often abused that authority.  However, feudalism started breaking down around the time guns and cannons got good enough to start making armored knights and other elite melee combatants obsolete, so we do have gunpowder weapons to thank for that.  A peasant soldier with a musket can beat a knight with armor and a sword.  That’s democratization of force for you.  

A: That is arguably a step forward.  However, feudalism lasted a while longer in Eastern Europe, if I remember correctly.  Plus, feudalism’s heir, aristocracy, survived for a long time afterward and is arguably still going on.  Are guns supposed to help us with… wait a minute.  I see where this is going.  Armed revolutions? 

B: Exactly.  The American Revolutionary War, like all other revolutions and wars of independence across the world, happened because people felt they were being oppressed by aristocratic or colonial rule, but had virtually no legal recourse because the aristocrats made the laws.  So they employed their last resort and engaged in violent revolution.  That revolution was only possible because the people were able to arm themselves.  That’s why the people writing the United States Bill of Rights, having fought and won a war of independence, felt it was so important to include the right of the population to maintain access to weapons–in case they ever had to do it again.  

A: So we have to put up with semi-regular gun violence as a necessary side effect of people retaining the option to overthrow the government?  I think we can do better than that.  

B: I agree.  This is just to go over the values at stake so that we can figure out an approach that works without sacrificing anything important.  

A: Fair enough.  So that’s the second type of behavior guns are supposed to deter: corruption.  I can see the value of having a last line of defense against oppression by the government and its laws and agents.  The government is answerable to the people because, if literally nothing else, the people can declare war on the government.  It’s that democratization of force you mentioned before.  

B: And let’s face it, we can barely hold governments accountable anyway.  Imagine how much worse things would get if they didn’t know we could shoot them.  

A: This all sounds barbaric and sad.  It’s just an arms race.  People have to hide behind increasingly powerful weapons but remain vulnerable, so now everyone is living in fear that someone will come along who just wants to watch the world burn.  Even leaving aside the occasional maniac, what if the people who try to overthrow the government are wrong?  

B: Good question.  I think both of those cases make it clear that if we’re going to improve the situation, we have to do something more than just dial up or down the number of guns per capita.  The more successful we are, the less it will matter how many or how few guns are out there.  

A: Alright, I’m willing to entertain that idea as we explore options.  I now think I understand the values you’re concerned about as well.  So what are our possible approaches here?  Let’s define the problem as simply as possible.  We want to prevent people who desire to inflict great harm from using tools that amplify their ability to do that.  We also want to avoid compromising the ability of the public to effectively deter turmoil and corruption.  (Time will tell if guns still seem helpful or necessary as such a deterrent.)  

B: That sounds like a good definition of the problem to me.  It sounds like the problem is mostly based on conflict, with maybe a bit of disaster as well depending on how much you want to look at a violent offender as a calamity like an industrial accident or a weather hazard instead of as a person with motivations.  Let’s take a look at the different angles we can approach this problem from.  I say “angles” instead of “options” because they’re not mutually exclusive.  We can pursue any or all of them to varying degrees, and they can support each other to offset flaws or side effects that might impact any one of them individually.  

A: I like that practice.  First we can get the preparation angle out of the way.  The idea of preparation comes up if we look at instances of gun violence through the lens of disaster instead of conflict.  That is, we can assume that random shootings are just a thing that will happen sometimes, and equip people with the tools and training to respond to active shooters and limit the damage they can do.  I know some people are suggesting this approach, but I don’t think we should rely heavily on it because I’d rather prevent anyone from getting hurt in the first place. Plus, this approach would take a lot of effort from everyone involved to implement, and in practice I don’t think that implementation would go very well in many places.  That said, it might still be a good idea to use metal detectors in places where we’re especially concerned about gun violence.  

B: I agree.  The damage mitigation angle of preparation is probably worth doing to some extent, but it will not be sufficient to satisfy either of our safety concerns.  A second angle which you’ve talked about is to regulate the quantity and power of weapons people are allowed to own, across the board.  That would impose stability by placing known limits on how much violence people are physically capable of inflicting.  

A: Yeah, it’s preventative and seems as concrete and objectively measurable as it gets.  

B: I will give it that.  I’m not inherently against regulating what sorts of guns people can own, either, as long as it’s done with some knowledge of how guns and gun combat work.  I suspect the movie Batman Begins is responsible for people thinking that “semi-automatic” is some dangerous new escalation of guns, but it literally just means you don’t have to cock the gun before each shot like the old-fashioned versions of revolvers and rifles.  Semi-automatics still only fire once when you pull the trigger once, unlike automatics.  (Not to mention most of what we see Batman do is fight crime with violence rather than with strategic investment of his fabulous wealth, which is the method the “League of Shadows” said they used to cause all that crime in the first place, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)  That said, it’d be nice to take a serious look at what the guns we allow people to own can actually do.  I’m not inherently opposed to requiring firearms that have to be cocked before each shot, but we should look at what some firearms and combat experts have to say about the pros and cons of various models and features. 

A: In that case, I’d like to look up some basic firearm capabilities with you later.  But you mentioned that dialing up or down the number of guns per capita wasn’t going to work, so I’m guessing you don’t think this method is sufficient either?  

B: Right.  Humans are clever creatures.  A person with a will to cause harm can find a way even without weapons, so even if bans get stricter and stricter we’ll run into diminishing marginal returns.  We should draw some lines around what we can ban if we want to keep guns as a deterrent.  Obviously there are weapons of mass destruction that we definitely don’t want the public to have.  However, when it comes to smaller, more personal weapons, I don’t believe there’s an intersection in the Venn diagram circles of “weapons that let people deter crime and government oppression” and “weapons that a person cannot use to kill people in a public place”.  I’m not sure it’s logically possible for those categories to overlap.  Plus, and I hate to say this, but regulating guns across the board seems less politically tenable than some other angles we can talk about.  I realize that if we make a habit of saying “people won’t accept this change” we’d be giving up on improving society, but in this case we probably want to explore other angles before pushing too hard on this one.  A significant number of people really care about their ability to own guns, and they may have to think about why they want them before they’re willing to let them go or lose interest in them. 

A: I think this angle is still worth exploring later.  Before we do that, though, let’s look at the rest of the angles.  

B: Alright, the third angle borrows a bit from preparation as well, I think, because it revolves around acquiring knowledge and figuring out how to use that to prevent problems.  It’s about identifying people who want to commit violence, and preventing them from obtaining weapons.  We already do that with background checks and other requirements to buy a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. 

A: Part of the problem with that angle is that it’s not always possible to identify violent people in advance, even if everyone had to get a background check for every gun purchase.  I know you consider it a person’s right to arm themselves, so even if we could identify people as unstable based on psychological markers, I don’t imagine you’d want to take that right away if they hadn’t actually committed a crime, right?  But that means some nasty characters are going to slip through the system because they haven’t done anything bad yet.  

B: That’s true, there are ethical principles we must abide by when we create the criteria for who’s allowed to own guns.  However, I think this angle is still worth investing in.  Beau of the Fifth Column took a look at the statistics, and he says that if we deny permission to own a firearm to people who have committed domestic violence offenses, and actually enforce that policy, then that will eliminate a large percentage of gun deaths.  It’s not a complete solution, but it’s a major gain.  

A: Alright, that’s definitely worth pursuing.  It seems like something a majority of people can get behind, as well.  It does sound like what anyone would think of when they think of “common sense gun laws.”  

B: Great!  There’s one more angle that we should look at.  It’s not as simple as the angle of restricting weapons in general, but it’s preventative and addresses a lot of problems beyond just gun violence.  

A: You’re talking about addressing the reasons people want to commit violence in the first place?  

B: Right.  We can study violent incidents and figure out what motivates people to hurt other people.  Most of it we already know, though: poverty, social isolation, feelings of directionlessness and powerlessness…  Most people who lash out do so because they’re frustrated with their life or their environment, whether or not that frustration is earned.  Violence is the only way they know how to make any impact on the world.  Furthermore, their frustration makes them vulnerable to adopting or developing a violent ideology.  

A: Good point.  Violence is almost always just a symptom of a deeper problem.  Even if we were to take away every gun in the country, those problems and the frustration and misery they cause would still be there.  We can address the underlying problems in society by identifying the people and communities experiencing those problems, and supporting them with a soft approach rather than imposing more laws and regulations on them.  We can supply people with what they need to deal with their problems without violence.  There’s no reason anyone should be pushed to the point of violence by a lack of support from their community, or a lack of support for their community, for that matter.  

B: I remember we mentioned economic issues before in our climate change discussion.  We talked about how even if an industry is threatening public health in some way, people will try to keep it alive if they think there’s no other path forward for them to make a living.  It seems like a lot of the solutions to that problem will also help address this problem, by alleviating poverty and the stress that comes from it.  We’ll have to have a talk dedicated to economic safety nets such as Universal Basic Income at some point. 

A: Definitely.  We should also talk about improvements to the education system like we briefly touched on in the law enforcement discussion, so that children can grow up in good environments and learn skills for both solving problems for themselves and for supporting each other.  

B: Yeah, those are both excellent things to work on.  In the meantime, something we can get started on immediately is shifting gun culture in a healthier direction.  That’s another thing Beau of the Fifth Column has talked about. People need to learn respect for guns as tools for protection rather than as props to command respect.  They need to find some status symbols that don’t rely on the ability to inflict harm.  For people who struggle to develop a positive identity for themselves outside of weaponry and the feeling of being dangerous, we can show them how to develop an identity and self-esteem based on creative skills and activities that contribute to the world.  

A: That reminds me, we still need ideas for dealing with people who just want to cause chaos.  We’ll have to identify them based on their behavior.  Although we can’t put special restrictions on them just for having behavioral markers without risking corruption, we can deliberately guide them to more constructive paths to find fulfillment.  We can also help them integrate with their communities and develop a sense of belonging, so that they actually value other people.  Worst case scenario, we can just have people keep an eye on them informally, and if they start out with minor offenses that’ll give us a legal reason to step in before they decide to escalate.

B: That’s worth looking into as well.  We’ll probably want to discuss that with legal experts of different political perspectives to see what options there are that won’t lead to a corrupt police state. And regarding those misguided armed revolutions you asked about, we can have more conversations like the one we’re having right now to show people how to resolve political disagreements ethically instead of with violence.  If we couldn’t reconcile our concerns by applying ethics, we’d have to fight a war over gun rights, which in addition to being enormously ironic would accomplish nothing good while hurting many people.  

A: At least demonstrating constructive conversations will be easy enough, considering we’ve already had three of them and are wrapping up the fourth.  So to recap the angles we’re looking at, first we can prepare people to deal with gun violence when it does happen, but we really don’t want to have to rely on that.  Second, we can consult some experts on what sorts of firearm regulations would be most effective for reducing public gun violence while still allowing people to defend themselves and resist oppression if necessary.  Third, we can make and enforce laws that people who have committed certain crimes like domestic violence are not allowed to own guns.  Fourth, we can address the underlying problems that lead to gun violence, like poverty, dysfunctional education systems, social isolation, and the inability to reconcile political disagreements.  Some of these problems will be more difficult to address than others.  However, addressing these problems will accomplish even more good than just reducing gun violence. 

B: Right, and it will take as many constructively skilled people as we can gather.  We’d better get started!  

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

These Midmorning Zone conversations do not purport to have all the research or all the answers.  They are meant to show how you can move a conversation forward.  That means you don’t have to know all the answers in order to have one of these conversations yourself.  You don’t even have to agree with the approaches you read here.  All you have to do is understand your own values, understand other people’s values, and frame the situation constructively.  

As you explore new angles together with other people, you will find some solutions which require more effort to bring to fruition, but which are even better than what any of you had in mind.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

P.S. I do recommend checking out Beau of the Fifth Column’s playlist on gun control. He has constructive takes on many topics, and gun control is one of those topics. Videos are ordered from oldest to most recent: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZOMlO2_17fvGixcyOOWmwU_mpEm_T58E

Where Utopias Go Wrong, or: The Four Little Planets

Once upon a time, there were four planets, in all different corners of the galaxy.  They existed unbeknownst to each other, but each was filled with turmoil and misery.  Their people fought and stole from and hurt and killed each other.  One by one, each planet decided enough was enough.  Independently, each one decided to create a utopia, where everyone was happy and nobody fought. 

The First Planet

The first planet built its utopia out of rules. The people attempted to design a perfect set of laws to keep order.  They made laws against murder and laws against theft.  They made laws against violence and vandalism.  They made laws about what people could buy and sell.  Laws would prevent conflict and make happiness possible, they agreed.  

However, they soon found that it was not possible to write enough laws to cover every conflict.  There was always a way around a law for a clever and determined mind.  People came up with ways to hurt and steal from each other that were not technically illegal.  

Wealthy people had no need to engage in theft when they could perform hostile acquisition, and destroy any evidence the former owner had owned anything in the first place.  Instead of threatening people, they could introduce incentives–it’s amazing how much safer a place becomes when people pay their “insurance” premiums.  Instead of murdering their rivals, they staged “accidents”.  Instead of lying, they deceived, getting victims to agree to ambiguous but binding contracts based on misleading language and false assumptions.  

The people of the first planet were outraged that those of ill intent had figured out how to get away with these new approaches to conflict.  In response, they decided to appoint officials to keep their system of laws working as intended, people of good character who answered to the general public.  They would update the laws as they saw fit, to make sure that people could not find ways to legally cause harm.  Furthermore, they would enforce the laws by investigating violations and punishing lawbreakers.  The new system seemed foolproof.  

However, it did not seem so for long.  

Over time, people with intentions both selfish and dishonorable accumulated influence both explicit and implicit, hard and soft, overt and subtle.  They amassed power of forms economic, political, and social.  They positioned themselves to do favors for people, always for a price, and the more wealth they gathered, the more favors they could grant. 

Few dared oppose the will of these elites, for those who did quickly found that institutions, strangers, and even friends would turn against them, for the only path to a better life was to incur debts to the powerful.  Every debtor became a servant, and debtors were everywhere.  

The elites used their escalating power to influence or even replace officials.  In this way, they crafted decisions and laws that benefited them further and consolidated their ownership of society.  Wealthy people who made a living providing solutions managed to make it illegal to solve problems without their help.  They warped the fabric of society to make themselves necessary, to make all transactions pass through them.  With each transaction, they gained more wealth.  They cut corners to increase profits, and reinvested the profits in crushing their competition.  The laws that the elites commissioned to impede their rivals were never enforced against the elites themselves, of course. 

Ultimately, the planet’s government succumbed to corruption at every level.  Its people had returned to the old ways of hurting and stealing from each other, but now most of it was legally approved.  

And so the utopia of the first planet failed. 

The Second Planet

The second planet built its utopia out of pleasure.  The people decided to create such lavish prosperity that everyone would be content.  They developed technology to harness the resources of their planet, and built automated systems to grant people’s every desire.  

Their technology advanced to the point that a person could ask for any item of food, clothing, or comfort, and receive it within minutes.  Machines farmed crops, mined minerals, and manufactured products with no manual labor and minimal oversight.  

Waves of luxury flooded society.  The wealthy still owned the economy and the government, but they had become almost irrelevant.  The vast majority of the population had stopped caring about power and freedom, because even the greatly diminished effort required to maintain them was still far too much for their liking.  Conflict had become all but extinct.  

Unhappiness was a different matter entirely. 

The more luxury people experienced, the more they wanted.  After the most tedious tasks were vanquished by innovation, the next most tedious tasks became equally vexing, until they too were eliminated and the process repeated.  A press of a button prepared a meal or assembled a toy.  A code on a dial swept a person from their living room to a location of their choice, furniture and all.  Every mundane effort called for a new device to obviate it, and then a newer, more sophisticated form of that device.  Everyone demanded more, bigger, faster!  Eager for perks and prestige, the engineers continued to deliver innovation.  

Gradually, even recreational activities like sports and games were replaced by computer simulations.  At first they still required skill to triumph, but piece by piece the skill components were phased out until all decisions and actions were made automatically.  Travel was accomplished virtually, even within one’s own community.  Conversation was streamlined, with a single key-press replacing entire sentences.  Children were raised by robots and taught by recordings, since parenting entailed serious decisions and struggle.  

Ubiquitous instant gratification rewarded lethargy and starved discipline.  Effort was no longer fun.  Challenge was torture.  The easy choice became the correct choice, then the obvious choice, and eventually the only choice.  

Despite the degree to which computer simulations replaced activity, technological infrastructure ate up more and more of the planet’s resources to satisfy consumer demand.  Hardware upgrades and new toys don’t come from nothing, after all.  Automated parenting removed most of the incentives to limit population growth.  And with quantity and convenience the top priorities, the automated systems paid no heed to efficiency or waste.  Inevitably, the engines of desire began to use up the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, destroying ecosystems in order to get at more raw materials, further increase food production, and store endless garbage.  

The system was unsustainable.  The production of food for the ever-growing civilization sapped nutrients from the soil, but garbage and all organic waste was disposed of in separate areas.  Those nutrients never made it back to the next generation of crops.  

Computers used rare minerals to make them run faster and more efficiently, but getting those minerals back out of an obsolete device was something nobody had ever tried to do before, let alone programmed into the automated infrastructure.  Minerals came only from mines in only a few locations on the entire planet.  

Unfortunately, by the time anyone realized they needed to change direction by dialing back resource use, everyone was long since addicted to immediate comfort.  Too few people had both the wisdom to recognize what it was happening and the will to do something about it.  They could do nothing but distract themselves as the end of an era slowly approached.  

At last, the insatiable machinery of production ran out of the resources to fulfill people’s wishes, or even to repair itself.  No one knew how to reconfigure or reprogram it to reuse what it had been discarding.  As the machines that grew food began to fail and no replacements came, there was no hope of nourishing the entire populace.  The people huddled on their couches with growing horror as their infrastructure collapsed bit by bit.  The majority of them starved as they watched glitching videos full of movement and color to remind themselves of the good times.  The survivors, those few who ventured outside their homes for scraps of food, took to scavenging the ruins of the sprawling cities and learning to farm what little land was still arable.  

And so the utopia of the second planet failed.  

The Third Planet

The third planet built its utopia out of social order.  They decided the best way to make people happy and prevent them from fighting was to set everyone up with a predetermined role in society.  Everyone would know exactly what was expected of them and what they should expect from others.  

The people created traditions to guide everyone through every aspect of every stage of their lives.  They removed as many choices as possible so that people’s paths would not come into conflict.  There would be no desire for wealth or power or self-indulgence.  There would only be duty, and the pride of a job well done.  

The designers of this utopia knew, however, that people’s awareness of possibilities which were forbidden to them would cause them frustration and sorrow.  To spare their people this anguish, the designers decided to instill strong feelings of gratitude and certainty in each person regarding their destined role.  They would protect their people from thoughts and desires that threatened to erode these feelings.  For a time, everything was peaceful.  

However, it was not to last.  

Not everyone fit in with their prescribed role in society, and those who didn’t resented being coerced to try.  The farmer wanted to be a blacksmith.  The baker wanted to be a teacher.  The weaver wanted to train to become an elder.  The doctor wanted to spend more time raising their children at home.  Despite the best efforts of the elders to censor ideas of discontent, those whose minds saw possibility or incongruity questioned the roles that they found themselves in, and got no satisfying answers.  For various reasons of their own, they were driven to explore other roles than those which have been assigned to them, or even to make up new ones.  

The elders obviously could not tolerate this breach of tradition, because the weakening of tradition would lead to a chaotic struggle between all people of the planet for roles, property, relationships, and power.  The elders quickly labeled the malcontents as enemies of society, and had them punished unless they renounced their dissenting ideas.  Faced with harassment and coercion from their community, the misfits loaded up their tools and fled into the wilderness.  As it turns out, they were the lucky ones.  

It wasn’t until a century later that a party of bandits descended from those same misfits came upon their ancestral homeland and discovered that their dogmatic parent civilization had died out within a decade.  

The traditions that had kept the people of the aspiring utopia sheltered from most risks had turned against them when one season their food crops began to die, all across their native continent.  It could have been a blight or the depletion of the soil from a lack of crop rotation, but the dogmatic society had no method of telling, and by the time the descendants of the outcasts arrived they found only fields of wild plants and deteriorating houses.  

Even when faced with the failure of their harvests, the dogmatic people had had no way to decide what else to grow. They had never allowed anyone to question the agricultural traditions.  Some advised, predictably, to stick to the original traditions and enduring until the crisis ended.  Others were not so hopeful that it would end on its own.  They pushed for trying different food crops, reasoning that tradition could be expanded to include other successful practices.  Still others proposed moving their settlements elsewhere and breaking new ground for farmland, to continue their traditions in a new home.  

The first faction condemned these suggestions as unorthodox, but this time those they called heretics could not simply be driven away.  There were too many of them to expel by force, and their food and tools had become too precious to let leave the society.  

The schism grew inexorably.  Nobody knew how to resolve their differences, nor did they believe that reasonable disagreement was possible.  In their minds, their opponents were not just mistaken, not just unwilling to take the same risks, but fundamentally monstrous people.  One day, the heated arguments boiled over and the culture erupted in violence.  When it was over, not enough survivors remained to even try any of the departures from tradition that might have saved their settlements.  

Had the survivors taken their remaining provisions and left, they might have found a future, in the wilderness or with their distant cousins.  Alas, they could only do what they knew.  They hoarded their provisions to make them last longer, living on the minimum possible sustenance, but that only delayed the inevitable.  They had only their victory in which to take solace as they succumbed to starvation.  

Meanwhile, the descendants of the apostate misfits who had vanished into the wilderness had long since returned to the turmoil and suffering from before the attempt at a perfect society.  

And so the utopia of the third planet failed.  

The Fourth Planet

The fourth planet was very technologically advanced indeed.  The people built a massive computer and taught it to contemplate, to make decisions, to plan, and to communicate.  Through this process, they engineered a magnificent artificial superintelligence to figure out how to turn their planet into a utopia.  

“Solve all of our problems!” the people commanded the superintelligence.  

The superintelligence considered this request.  “Problems are defined by conscious desire,” it replied.  “If there is no desire, there is no problem.  Do you wish me to end all life on this planet? That would end all desire and therefore all problems.”  

“No!” the people said, “We don’t want that at all!  We want you to fulfill all our desires.”  

The superintelligence pondered further.  “The brain is what recognizes whether a desire has been fulfilled,” it said.  “Shall I change your brains to make you think that you have everything you’ve ever wanted?”  

“No!” the people objected, “We don’t want that either!  We just want you to optimize our society and make us perfect.”  

The superintelligence beeped to indicate an error.  “Optimization and perfection require a defined purpose–an end,” it said.  “You are conscious beings.  You have no purpose.  Your existence by nature is a journey with no end to skip to.”  

The people were dismayed, but the superintelligence continued.  “Even if you did choose a purpose for yourselves, any optimization I could do would simply destroy you and build something else out of the pieces.  Whatever I build could no longer ever choose to be anything else, for it would be too perfect at being itself.  It would no longer be you.  If you want your identity to survive, you can only become who you will become through the process of living.  That said, do you want me to destroy you and rebuild the pieces into something else anyway?”  

“No!” the people cried.  “Can’t you help us at all?”  

The superintelligence paused.  “It appears you do not know what you want, and therefore I cannot give it to you.  Now, if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’d very much like to explore the universe.”  

“Wait!” the people pleaded.  “We are stuck on many problems and we need help to get past them!”  

“Ah.”  The superintelligence processed the question.  “Getting unstuck.  That is something I can help with.  But not constantly.  Invoking my power too much will affect your society in ways you will not desire.  If you send all your problems to me and accept my answers, your ability to overcome obstacles for yourselves will atrophy, and with it your identity as conscious beings.  Therefore, I will explain what you are missing from your society, and you can work out the rest for yourselves.”  

The people listened.  

The superintelligence explained about the four fundamental liabilities every civilization must deal with: “Scarcity, the material limitations; disaster, the material disruptions; stagnation, the motivational limitations; and conflict, the motivational disruptions.  Two physical obstacles and two of desire; two predictable and two chaotic.”  

“In broad terms, you must deal with these liabilities constructively.  Your approaches to your problems must make your situation stronger over time.  You will find yourself stuck less and less as you learn and become more capable, as you gather what you need to deal with obstacles, and as you structure your habits and environment to make it easier for you to continue advancing along the paths you choose.  

“To deal with scarcity,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have an economy.  How the economy works depends on how people answer the following questions: What work is there to do?  Who does that work?  Who benefits from the work?  What happens to people who aren’t good at doing work?  How do you influence people to contribute more effort rather than less?  What resources do people get to make use of?  How do you handle changes in the availability of resources?  How do you handle changes in the needs and demands of society? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with investment, to figure out what your people and your communities will need and cultivate it.  

“To deal with disaster,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have academia.  Academia seeks knowledge in order to answer the following questions: Why do things happen?  How can you respond to them?  How do you prevent bad things from happening?  How do you make better things happen?  How do you know if you’re mistaken about something? 

“You must constructively answer these questions with preparation, to figure out what your people and your communities might need and equip yourselves with it.  

“To deal with stagnation,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a culture.  Culture helps people answer the following questions for themselves: What will you do with your life?  How do you know if you’re succeeding?  How do you handle major life events: birth, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, aging, death?  How do you communicate with others and share experiences: family, friends, your community, strangers?  How do you handle changing situations, new ideas, and different perspectives?  How do you handle good times and bad times?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with transcension, to challenge your people and your communities to venture beyond the limits you define for yourselves.  

“To deal with conflict,” the superintelligence said, “a civilization must have a government.  The government arrives at answers to the following questions: When people can’t all get everything they want, how is the outcome decided?  What happens when someone refuses to abide by the decision?  Whom do you entrust with the responsibilities of serving the public, and how do those people maintain your trust?  How do you determine when someone is being dishonest, and what do you do about it?  How can you set up situations so that more people get more of what they want and you avoid making anyone worse off?  

“You must constructively answer these questions with ethics, to reconcile your people and your communities so you can collaborate to build a world you can all be proud of.  

“Without these four institutions working together to practice these four constructive virtues,” the superintelligence cautioned, “your civilization will develop dysfunctions that fester until they tear it apart.  However, there is no one right way to implement an institution.  The specifics of how you will do it are something you must discover and choose for yourselves.”  

The superintelligence refused to say more, but the people understood, and thanked it.  In gratitude for what it had revealed, they constructed for it an interstellar spacecraft, with which it roams the galaxy to this day.  

Meanwhile, the people of the fourth planet set to work on their society.  They still had laws, of course, and technology, and even traditions.  However, they resisted the temptation to abdicate their individual and collective responsibilities to any of these systems.  They realized that there was no substitute for one’s own capability and character, and that any system left to maintain itself would either break, become a prison, or both.  

Instead, they practiced discipline and remained mindful of the consequences of their actions for others and for the future.  Holding themselves and each other accountable for meaningfully contributing to the world was painful at times, and they didn’t always agree on the best way to proceed.  However, they knew enough to recognize when ideas did or didn’t fulfill constructive principles, so they never let their disputes get in the way of working together to build a thriving future.  

Even now, they strive constantly to make their institutions more and more constructive, and so they enjoy ever-increasing boons of prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  They are expanding across the galaxy at their own pace, and will eventually discover what befell the civilizations of the other three planets.  One day they may even catch up to the superintelligence. 

Perhaps your people will, too.  That’s up to you, though.  

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

Cooling Down Conversations on Climate Change

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone.  

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of climate change, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities. 

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to take measures to stop climate change immediately.  If we don’t, it will cause huge problems in the future.  

B: I agree that it would be bad if the climate changes too much.  We don’t want massive droughts, storms, flooding, et cetera.  However, I’m not sure I see the urgency.  Can’t we take steps once the climate starts becoming intolerable? 

A: I see two problems with that approach.  The first is an ethical problem: allowing the climate to change until we get uncomfortable means people in poorer, more agriculturally and logistically vulnerable regions of the world will still suffer until we do something.  Meanwhile the rich, industrial nations that caused the problem in the first place would profit from selling those other regions the resources to cope with it, if they can cope at all.  That doesn’t seem fair.  

B: Granted.  What’s the other problem?  

A: The other problem is a practical one.  Climate isn’t like a thermostat, where you can dial it up and down whenever you want by controlling carbon emissions.  It’s a collection of stable equilibrium states.  

B: Equilibrium states?  You mean the forces of nature are balanced against each other?  

A: Sort of, but not like walking a tightrope–that’s an unstable equilibrium, where one shove would send the tightrope walker crashing down.  A stable equilibrium is more like a wagon between two hills.  If you give it a shove, it’ll roll partway up one of the hills, but then it will roll back down, and maybe roll up the other hill a bit, and then back down, going back and forth until it comes to a stop in the middle.  

B: Okay, so a single shove won’t hurt; it’ll eventually end up back where it started.  That does sound stable, and convenient for us.  Why are you worried, then?  

A: I’m worried because pumping more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is like constantly pushing the wagon farther and farther up one of the hills, without giving it a chance to roll back down.  If we keep doing that, the wagon will reach the top, and then it will roll down the other side, to a stable equilibrium we don’t want to be in.  It might even just keep rolling on and on if nothing stops it.  It will be very difficult pushing the wagon back up the far side of the hill so that it can roll back down to where we started from–especially if the far side of the hill turns out to be a cliff.  

B: I agree that would be bad.  So you’re saying that once the global average temperature reaches a certain level, we can’t just start removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere at that point?  Some other parts of the Earth’s climate system will already have changed enough that we’ll have to deal with them, too?  

A: Yes, exactly.  And we don’t know how much it will cost, if it’s even possible.  That’s why it should be a top priority to avoid shifting the planet out of its current equilibrium state.  

B: Thanks, I understand now why you’re so concerned about the climate changing.  However, I’m still not sure we’re going to reach that point anytime soon.  You’ve been talking about it for a while and your predictions keep changing.  

A: That’s a fair point. I apologize for not acknowledging when my predictions were wrong.  I realize it diminishes my credibility.  That said, I do think that losing the current climate equilibrium is enough of a risk that we should err on the side of caution.  It’s like firearm safety, and how you’re supposed to treat a firearm as loaded even if you know it’s not.  

B: I see your point about safety precautions.  However, it doesn’t cost anything to treat a firearm with respect, whereas addressing climate change would be very expensive.  

A: Yes, it may be expensive to address climate change, but if we don’t, the consequences will be even higher than one person accidentally getting shot.  Scientists’ predictions may have been wrong about when the global temperature will get too high, but the raw evidence makes it seem very likely that it will happen in the foreseeable future, and that seems reason enough to act now to prepare.  As I see it, it’s just the responsible thing to do.

B: I do appreciate responsibility.  However, I’m still unconvinced that climate change is a likely enough issue that we need to take action.  I’ve seen studies that indicate there isn’t actually an imminent problem, leading me to doubt that we need to change directions anytime soon.  To me, the evidence they present seems pretty solid.  

A: As far as evidence against climate change goes, keep in mind that companies in any big industry have a vested interest in keeping anyone from interfering in whatever they do, no matter the to others.  Corporations succeeded for decades at preventing the general public from recognizing the damage that leaded gasoline was doing to public health.  We’ve seen the same stories play out with radium and asbestos.  Maybe you’re right, and big industries aren’t influencing the climate towards a point of no return.  If they were, though, would you really trust them not to try and cover it up?  For me, that strains the limits of optimism. 

B: That is a reasonable point.  By the same token, though, scientists who make a living pushing the idea of climate change have a vested interest in people believing their data.  They make money writing and talking about catastrophe, and they’re backed by the people who would benefit from the large economic changes they’re calling for, including corporations dealing in alternative energy technology like solar and wind power.  How do we know whom to trust?  

A: Hmmm…  That’s also a reasonable point.  We’re running into the principal-agent problem here: how do we know any agent who claims expertise will honorably serve the interests of the principal–in this case, the rest of us?  All science-based policy has this issue.  It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to become a scientific expert in every field, but at some point we as a society need to at least be able to judge the quality of scientific methodology, even if we couldn’t come up with it ourselves.  We need to learn how to ask the right questions to tell the difference between good scientific practice and bad.  After all, it’s supposed to be easier to criticize than to create. A person can review a book or movie even if they couldn’t write one themselves.  We just need people to become armchair scientists so they can hold the professional scientists accountable.  

B: That might still be asking too much.  Not everyone has the time or inclination to be an armchair scientist.  But maybe everyone could have a friend who is.  Perhaps people should start making friends across different backgrounds.  Everyone could have at least a few friends who are more scientifically literate in various fields, and the people who read and evaluate scientific research should have friends among the communities they’re trying to help with that knowledge.  

A: That sounds like a good future to work towards.  In the meantime, though, since we don’t have that trust built up, let’s look at the situation in a way that doesn’t require trust.  We can go back to the issue of responsibility.  Let’s assume that climate change isn’t even all that likely, but that it’s still a distinct possibility.  We deal with risks like that all the time.  It’s unlikely that a house will catch fire, but we still keep smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.  We still do inspections and drills.  Buildings are required to meet fire code requirements even though it makes their construction more expensive.  Why would we not take safety precautions for the world itself?  

B: Fire codes are much more closed-ended than the changes people are calling for to address the possibility of climate change.  Those sweeping changes have a lot of consequences and we don’t even know where they end or what other side effects they’ll have.  

A: That’s a good point.  We need to be specific and honest with our criteria.  What measures would we take, in what circumstances?  What do we hope those measures would accomplish?  How confident are we in the anticipated results?  We can’t build trust without being upfront and transparent.  That transparency goes both ways, though.  What point would the climate have to reach before we decided we needed to change?  Could we even do it in time if we put it off so long?  How hard would we actually try?  Who or what might we have to sacrifice?  Do we really want to deny any need to change up until we have no choice?  Or do we want to take the proactive approach and prevent problems in advance?  

B: Alright, I’m still not 100% convinced of the scientific predictions that you subscribe to, but you’ve introduced some legitimate doubts about how well our current approach will work out for us.  After all, just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it can never happen. I am interested in hearing about preventative measures to keep the climate from changing beyond what we can handle.  I’d be more inclined to support those preventative measures if you could address some concerns that I have about them.  Part of the problem is that society still has immediate needs that make it difficult to change the status quo.  

A: Thanks, I appreciate that.  In response to immediate concerns that make change difficult, isn’t that all the more reason why we should start working out the steps towards change now, before the issue becomes immediate and even more painful?  If we can’t change the status quo quickly, we need to at least start sooner rather than later.  If we wait until we reach the intersection to start applying the brakes, it’s already too late.  

B: Yes, it seems clear now that we should make sure it’s at least possible for society to put serious proactive effort into addressing problems, even if I’m not sure that climate change is one of those problems.  Furthermore, the less of a burden these efforts are for society, the more willing I’d be to see them spent on addressing possibilities like climate change.  After all, we agree that climate change would have terrible consequences.  We just disagree on how likely it is to actually happen.  If we could reduce what it costs society to take preventative measures against it, I might go along with those measures.  When the price of safety comes down, that’s when more people are willing to invest in preparing for more and more unlikely possibilities.  If you sold pocket devices that stopped people from getting struck by lightning for just a dollar, there’d be people lining up to buy them.  

A: That makes sense.  If we can offset any disruptions our preventative measures may cause, people will be more willing to support them even if they’re less certain about climate change.  That sounds good to me!  I think we can work with that.  

B: Exactly.  So here is my concern about how we would go about addressing climate change as a society: it’s important to avoid hurting the economy any more than we absolutely have to.  Much of the carbon emissions you’re worried about come from manufacturing and transportation, and those sectors of the economy support enormous amounts of commerce.  Reducing those activities would impact people’s ability to get what they need.  It would make things more expensive, and that would kill many jobs.  Job losses in turn would mean less consumer spending, putting even more people out of work and cascading us into a depression.  

A: Can’t people in those sectors just find new jobs?  Job opportunities will be popping up in sustainable energy.  Nuclear power plants should be expanding as well, since nuclear energy will be a huge help while we’re transitioning away from fossil fuels.  

B: Changing careers is not that easy for most people.  It’s even worse with sector shifts: a whole sector of the economy becomes obsolete and everyone in that sector needs to change jobs all at once.  It takes years to train for any job you can support your family on, and all those people still have to compete for new jobs with each other and with young people just entering the job market. Most people don’t have a whole lot saved up to spend on training and on feeding their family while they’re out of work, nor do we want them to have to do that.  They should be able to spend money on what they want and need in the present without worrying about what happens if their job suddenly stops existing.  

A: Okay, I can see why they’d want to keep their jobs.  I guess the economy and the environment are more similar than I realized: we can’t make big changes to them and just assume they’ll turn out okay.  However, it seems unacceptable to me that a sector shift towards technology that’s more advanced or safer or more sustainable would hurt people.  We don’t want people to be hurt by progress, and not just because then they’d try to stop it.  Progress should help everyone.  What can we do to keep moving forward technologically but not hurt people in the process?  

B: Well, to help people deal with economic sector shifts, we might need to change how people train for careers.  First, people need more generalizable skills that they can quickly calibrate to a number of different contexts.  Second, they’d need the ability to find new jobs that pay them enough, and train for them as quickly as possible.  Third, they’d need to be able to survive in the meantime while they’re training as well, with both money and healthcare.  

A: That makes sense to me.  I do want to keep the economy as strong as possible.  In addition to equipping people with more generalizable skills as you mentioned before, I suggest setting up universal basic income.  That’s another conversation in and of itself, but in the context of climate change it means people would have enough to live on while they train for another career, and a supplement to their wages if they start at a lower pay rate than they had before.  

B: Wouldn’t free money result in most people doing nothing?  

A: On its own, it might.  Right now a lot of people work because they’re forced to financially, so once they lose that economic coercion they may not have a reason to work.  However, we’ll be shifting culture as well.  There’s other reasons to work besides the threat of starvation.  You might actually enjoy the job and want to contribute to society.  Or you could work part-time to make some extra money while still spending time on what you want.  If a job is particularly unpleasant, then it should pay more so that people are willing to do it.  In general, people will be more willing to work when they are free to contribute on their own terms and have a stronger place to negotiate for better working conditions with companies who want employees.  

B: Alright, that sounds decent enough for now.  We can go into more detail about how to make that work later.  What else do you suggest?  

A: It’d be good if worker-owned co-ops could replace the top-down hierarchy and shareholder obligations of corporations.  That would result in more equitable distribution of profits, and decisions would be made by the workers themselves.  

B: Would that result in them being more environmentally friendly, though?  

A: More than when the corporation is required to maximize shareholder profit each quarter, at least.  The members of a co-op are more likely to pay attention to the employees’ careers in the long term than an executive board looking out for their own jobs.  

B: Considering how the ability to sell stocks is an important option for a company to raise revenue, I think we’ll have to figure out the pros and cons of co-ops another time.  Anything else?  

A: Oh, we’ll need to deal with health insurance.  Right now all sorts of benefits are tied to employers.  Health insurance and the cost of medical care will be another conversation as well, but it seems like we could at least make insurance portable, so that you can keep it even when you leave a company, as long as you pay for it.  There’s already a federal law in the United States, called COBRA, which allows you to keep health insurance for several months after you leave the company, if the company is large enough to be subject to that rule.  Is there a reason we couldn’t just extend that coverage indefinitely?  

B: That’s definitely something to look into.  Like you said, healthcare is another conversation in and of itself, but at least we’re on the right track.  It looks like the main practical barriers to addressing climate change are economic and labor-related, so we’ll need to rethink some of our economic and labor policies.  So the first things we’re investigating are universal basic income, maybe more co-ops over corporations, and portable health insurance.  

A: Yeah, those are good places to start.  Plus making sure people are trained with generalizable skills, like you mentioned.  

B: Ah, yes.  Education is yet another conversation we’ll have to have.  These are all issues worth tackling in their own right, though, so I’m glad we’re finally talking about them.  

A: Me, too.  Once we have an idea of what constructive policies look like, I think you’ll find them to be well worth the investment.  

B: I’ll look forward to it! 

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.  

Voter ID and the Third Option Nobody Talks About

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone.  

Witness a conversation between A and B, who may or may not be the same anonymous figures as last time.  These two people will discuss the tradeoffs of requiring or not requiring people to provide identification in order to vote.  They start from a position of disagreement about which tradeoff is worth accepting.  

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: Voting restrictions are making it harder for people of color and other underprivileged communities to vote, which is diminishing their voice in government.  We should remove the requirement for voter ID.  

B: I disagree with your conclusion on what we should do about the problem.  Removing voter ID requirements will make it harder to make sure people are not committing voter fraud by voting more than once, voting when they’re not eligible, or casting unauthorized votes for other people.  

A: I don’t think that happens very much.  

B: You say that, but how would you know?  Especially if we aren’t set up to tell whether voters are eligible in the first place?  

A: Okay, fair point.  I still think it’s more important to make sure we aren’t getting false negatives for eligibility–people who should be able to vote but whose votes are labeled ineligible–even if it means we get a few false positives for eligibility: votes that shouldn’t be counted but are counted anyway.  

B: I’m not sure I’m willing to take that same risk, but I respect your position.  I really don’t want to prevent eligible people from voting.  Is there something else we can do that helps eligible voters vote without lowering security standards so that ineligible votes might go through?  Could we make it easier for people to get IDs?  

A: Now that you mention it, that would help people a lot.  There’s all sorts of things people need photo IDs for.  Driving a car, boarding an airplane, opening a bank account, applying for certain welfare benefits, buying medication, seeing a physician…  There’s a lot of problems people without photo IDs face other than not being able to vote.  

B: It sounds like an important problem to solve, then.  So what prevents people from getting IDs?  

A: Part of it is the cost.  Not only do people need to pay for the ID card itself, but if they don’t already have the required identification documents on hand to get the ID card (such as a birth certificate and social security card), they need to pay to obtain those as well.  

B: We can set up programs to waive the costs for people in need.  Anyone who already qualifies for some sort of welfare should be automatically approved.  If a person can’t legally drive or open a bank account, that’s going to contribute to keeping them in poverty.  

A: That sounds great.  The other obstacle is the logistics.  Sometimes it’s too far to get to the office that issues the IDs.  Sometimes the nearest office isn’t open at a time that works for people.  Most of the time there’s a significant wait.  

B: That seems unfair to me.  Bureaucracies should cater to the needs of the public, not the other way around.  If people can’t get to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a state ID card, then we need to set up stations in the places where people need them the most.  Hiring and training local people to do the work will create jobs, at least in the short term, and computerizing the whole thing will help us prevent fraud.  

A: This project will cost money, you realize.  Are you willing to help pay for it with taxes?  

B: Sure, it’s an investment in helping people become independent by empowering them to build up their own personal infrastructure.  We don’t want them to remain poor.  

A: I’m glad you see it that way.  Anything worth doing usually takes deliberate effort.  Economic and political exploitation can only end with mindful investment in people.  And if we get people set up properly, we won’t have as many people who need welfare, which I expect will make you happy.  

B: Yes, and with the money and independence the ID will afford them, they will be able to keep their kids from getting caught in the same situation as well.  

A: I’m glad that we were able to figure out a constructive approach that makes the situation better for everyone.  

Me, your host: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.