Fragility, Complexity and Innovation   (June 25, 2010)

Gen-Yers hoping to passively join the Central State's "Grand Projects" might be better served by looking at local, small scale innovative organizations.

Reader N.L. took my critique of the "heroic" Millennial generation (An Open Letter to the Millennials/Gen-Y: Where Are You?) to task. I would characterize his response as typical of many of the comments I received--long on hurt pride and defensiveness and short on specifics of things Millennials of his acquaintance had accomplished in the real world.

This sort of "Don't you dare criticize the poor little dears!" insecure defensiveness would have made my blood boil had it been deployed in "defense" of our actions in the early 1970s. We didn't need our elders to "defend" us against charges of do-nothingism; our actions spoke louder than empty words or bloviated criticism.

The very fact that so many felt the need to rush to the defense of Millennials suggests that what everyone fears--that Gen-Y has been coddled and over-protected to its own disadvantage--is true. Otherwise, why would they need anyone to rush to their defense? They could defend themselves with descriptions of their own actions.

Thus I was very pleased to read a comment on from one of the founders of The HUB Bicycle Repair & Education Center, a terrific new organization founded by Millennials. I admire and honor their drive, spirit, creativity, integrity, and service to their community and thus to the nation. This is the real deal, not just a bunch of excuses, and HUB's accomplishments provide a model for leadership, service and forward thinking.

From my own experience I can add the Waterside Workshops to the list of Millennial-managed and run community organizations (also bike-based).

I want to use N.L.'s response as a launching point for an exploration of fragility, complexity and innovation. Here is his commentary:

You are describing the Boomer paradigm of the rebellious Artist type, all bluster. The Gen X type is tired of the Boomers' hypocrisy and tendency toward ideological blather instead of results, and often works alone. Going forward, the Gen Y contribution will likely be under Gen X leadership, as the Boomers are shipped off to nursing homes to rant ideology at each other.

Young Gen Y will happily form into large organizations (in WWII the military, in the 1950s large corporations) to solve the problems that need to be solved. Instead of Boomer-type rebellion vs their parents ways, the classic Gen Y is very comfortable adopting their parents' lifestyle. Today, that means adopting Boomers' consumption-centric habits. However, in the future, Gen Y will likely be willing to take part in huge national projects. In other words, at the right time, Gen Y will be the ones to actually build out a national rail system, just as the previous Hero/Civic generation built out the national interstate system in the 1950s.

So the Boomers I described were rebellious Artist types, all bluster? Recall that the actions I described were all undertaken by people in their 20s.

So swimming out in a raging storm to save dolphins from slaughter in foreign waters is "all bluster"?

So joining like-minded activists and occupying a Federally owned island used for 35 years as a bombing range is "all bluster"?

So going through the scutwork of qualifying a new political party, assembling candidates, doing P.R. and getting over 10% of the vote in a congressional election is also "all bluster"?

So serving in a century-old global organization based on the non-violent principles of the Quakers is "all bluster"?

So defending yourself in Federal Court on a five-year political rap is also "all bluster"?

So getting grilled by the FBI because you resisted the Global Empire/Savior State's marching orders is also "all bluster"?

Sorry, N.L., what's all bluster is your "defense" of Gen Y. What's bluster is your accusation that my friends acted as "rebellious Artist types" when in fact all these actions, though requiring individual bravery and integrity that you are clearly incapable of even imagining, much less fulfilling, were all supported by membership in small, sometimes long-established organizations.

We started organizations as the need arose, when there was no alternative in existence. Where an organization was in place, we joined and added our energy to that cause. There was nothing remotely like the dismissive "rebellious Artist" label you so cavalierly toss out.

Being a "rebellious Artist type" is easy compared to starting and building organizations and enterprises. Your slam attempts to belittle great organizational work with essentially no Status Quo institutional support or funding.

Please recount one thing you've accomplished in life which even holds a candle to any one of the actions I described. You want to dismiss all that as "bluster"? Then please describe your own actions against overwhelming indifference and/or oppression. It's not easy. Try it and you'll see. Before you slam people who have accomplished difficult things in the face of impossible odds, danger and prison sentences for their beliefs, then "pony up" by submitting a list of your own great actions in organizations. I am all ears and ready to shower you with honor and admiration. If you have none, then confess to the childish hurt pride and callow, shallow defensiveness which so vividly colors your comments, and face up to the fact that you have done nothing that remotely measures up to the actions I described.

If you've lost your hearing to artillery fire, then please tell me. If you've done anything even faintly heroic that required courage, risk and integrity, then tell me now. If not, then don't belittle the people whose accomplishments I listed. These are not faceless "Boomers" you can dismiss; they are heroes who you should admire and respect if you had any maturity and integrity. There are no excuses; in the real world of action and responsibility, excuses mean nothing.

Your child-like faith in the Federal government would be laughable if it wasn't so ill-informed and thus dangerous. So Gen-Y will happily become willing workers in "huge national projects" like the Interstate Highway System.

The "huge national project" that is currently absorbing Millennials is the occupation of Iraq and the hot war in Afghanistan. I fear this very real and not imaginary "huge national project" is squandering the lives, minds and energy of Millennials, and it is the abject failure of all generations that we as a nation have passively allowed our government to waste the lives of our citizens and our national treasure in what amounts to either global empire or tragic hubris (or both).

Let's examine the assumptions of your future dream-world in which the Central State "gummit" funds glorious, important projects which will employ 60 million Gen-Yers. I find the case for the sort of institutional power and wisdom you presume to be weak indeed, as are your presumptions about the labor force needed to build out infrastructure.

This isn't the 1930s, where men and women were put to work with wheelbarrows to build roads. It takes a crew of less than 100 workers to build a skyscraper. No matter how "huge" the project, it is unlikely that even 1,000,000 of the 60,000,000 Gen-Y would be directly or indirectly employed.

Even Global Empire only requires about 1.5 million service members and another million in civilian support, and that costs roughly $750 billion a year. Where will the money come from to build out the infrastructure projects you envision?

I submit that the U.S. government in which you place such faith is complex and over-reaching to the point of fragility. I direct your attention to The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization and The Collapse of Complex Societies, both of which describe how great central states collapsed when their complexity and cost structures reached for ever more marginal returns.

Right now the debt owed to non-U.S. entities and investors is roughly equal to our GDP. This is called "external debt." U.S. households save less than half of what our Central State borrows every year to fund its empire and fiefdoms. Thus the U.S. is dependent on foreign entities to fund our debt.

The U.S. government ran a $1.6 trillion deficit last year. It took in about $2.1 trillion tax revenues and thus it borrowed 76% of its entire revenues and 45% of its total expenditures of $3.5 trillion.

Despite the fantasy budgets projected by the government, it is clear that deficits will not shrink--they will rise as interest rates rise and tax revenues fall. By 2015, the U.S. government will have added $10 trillion to its own debt. That doesn't include corporate debt, municipal bonds (borrowing by state and local governments) or private debt such as mortgages.

That money will be spent just to keep the current Central State funded. So any Grand Infrastructure projects as you envision will have to be borrowed on top of that $10 trillion.

If you grabbed all the cash sitting in corporations's accounts, a staggering $1.9 trillion, that would only fund the Federal government's deficit spending for 15 months.

A lot of people probably agree with you, that what the country needs is some massive infrastructure spending to dig our way out of recession. But this is not the 1950s; back then, the U.S. had destroyed most of the industrial base of our enemies and our allies were burdened with war debt. The U.S. had unlimited borrowing capacity and an economy that was roughly 50% of total global GDP.

The cost structure of the economy was much lower and thus people had greater buying power in terms of "hours worked buys this much bread/housing," etc.

So to hope for a return to the 1950s as a model is simply not based on fact.

In terms of institutional innovation, the advantages are all on the side of smaller organizations. For evidence, look no further than the botched financial "reform" and the "reforms" to "sickcare" (healthcare) that left the corporate Oligarchies and State fiefdoms firmly in control, where they can divert ever larger shares of the national income to their own pockets under the guise of "healthcare"--nothing has changed.

Your entire conception of a well-meaning, well-funded Central State acting on behalf of the greater good of its citizenry has little evidence to support it. The assertion that the Central State is in partnership with or in thrall to corporate Elites, cartels and other fiefdoms (the Global Empire complex, etc.) is much more defensible; just examine the financial and healthcare "reforms" and the plentiful funding of bailouts, backstops and Empire.

Your faith in the Central State employing Gen-Y is naive in the extreme. I would suggest you look for resiliency, innovation and employment in smaller organizations started by people with drive, ambition and ideas, i.e. the opposite of those you glorify who are passively willing to obey the Central State's marching orders. (Since the Central State will find it increasingly unable to fund its marching orders, that is a vain hope even if you believed in the rightness and goodness of those marching orders.)

I know that working for an institution provides the comforting illusion of strength, power, continuity and security. No doubt this is the psychological underpinning of your dream of working for the Central State in some meaningful national project.

But I think the evidence is growing that all large, complex, ossified institutions controlled by high concentrations of capital and Power Elites will be faced with a stark choice within the next 10 years--either remake themselves in radical new ways or collapse/devolve to irrelevancy.

I would direct your attention to ideas along the lines of Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication as potentially positive models rather than hope the Central State will be able to innovate itself out of the grasp of monopoly capital, protected fiefdoms and various cartels, not to mention insolvency.

Here are a few of the dozens of entries I've written on these subjects:

End of Work, End of Affluence I: Cascading Job Losses (December 8, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence III: The Rise of Informal Businesses (December 10, 2008)

Retooling the Education Factory (March 5, 2009)

Demographics and the End of the Savior State (May 17, 2010)

Here are a few of the dozens of books in my recommended list on these same subjects:

The End of Work

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines

Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

Deschooling Society

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age

Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The Rise of the Creative Class Life

In summary: I would suggest you have it completely backwards: the Baby Boomer Remnant is all about organization, innovation and accepting risk to accomplish meaningful things in the face of an aggressively repressive, deeply corrupted, institutionally ossified and pervasively duplicious Central State.

The future belongs not to those Gen-Yers dreamily hoping for some future Fantasyland Grand Project organized and paid for by the Central State but by those Gen-Yers who get going on their own Grand Projects in smaller scale, resilient and innovative organizations and enterprises.

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