We say “serving prison time,” which I believe is a phrase that enables us to avoid confronting the truth of what we are doing to our prisoners. I have come to believe that the idea of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all manner of transgressions against the community is a moral outrage. Next to our life itself, our freedom of action and movement is the most precious thing we have, and indeed some would say that without it life itself is worth very little. Yet we debate between locking people away for ten years or fifteen as though there were little to choose between them. We speak blithely of locking people away for the rest of their lives, with not even the remotest conception of what we are condemning them to. 

It is not simply the deprivation of freedom, though that is in my mind enough alone to condemn the practice, it is also the conditions under which prisoners are kept. They are put almost entirely at the mercy of prison staff, who are hired largely for their “tough” qualities. A kindly, empathetic prison guard will not last long at the job. We have seen from well-known experiments the effect on people of giving them power over others, even in academic laboratory settings. Imagine how bad it can get in real life situations in such places as maximum security prisons. The truth is truly horrific. 

The social purposes supposedly being served by this system are said to be fourfold: rehabilitation, segregation, deterrence and punishment. Cure them of their criminality, put them where they cannot do further harm, and apply sanctions for their criminal behavior that provide serious consequences and by their harshness discourage others from doing similar things. 

Rehabilitation is so little practiced in our prison systems that one might say that the exact reverse is taking place. There may be, it is true, places in the US where genuinely “enlightened” prison methods are being used, though the expression itself seems to me to be an oxymoron, but if so they are very much in the minority. The rest of the system can fairly be described as schools for crime. Universities, in fact. Prisons turn a large proportion of their inmates into lifetime criminals. 

Locking criminals away does indeed prevent them from committing further crimes while they are locked away, but at very great cost. The main problem is that at some point most of them will end up being released. After perhaps decades of harsh inhumane treatment they are turned loose with only whatever possessions they had with them when arrested, and a few dollars. Is it any wonder that they have difficulties readjusting to outside life, or that many of them end up back inside within a short time, sometimes preferring that life to the challenges of freedom. The only thing they know is the criminal life, and the only people they know are criminals. 

Deterrence hinges on the idea that people will avoid crime for fear of the punishment. Increasingly harsh sentences are imposed, often cemented in place by minimum sentencing laws, in pursuit of this aim. Psychological studies, however, seem to show that this is not effective. The likelihood of being caught seems to weigh much more heavily than the fear of punishment; criminals do not expect to be caught, so the severity of the punishment is immaterial to them. Furthermore such considerations do not even come into play when it comes to crimes committed in the heat of the moment, without forethought. They are also of little weight when the crime is truly one of need.

So we are left with punishment. The criminal did a bad thing, and must suffer as a consequence. This (in the absence of the other three) is perhaps the least defensible rationale. If this is indeed the only remaining justification, then the degree of punishment must bear a direct relationship with the harm done by the crime. I would argue that this is almost never the case. Instead prosecutors brag about the number of criminals they have caused to be imprisoned and for how long.  Far from carefully suiting the punishment to the crime (which would require individual examination of the circumstances of each case, and of the circumstances of the criminal) punishment is decided in most cases by a bargaining process between prosecutor and the defense counsel. The vast majority of criminal cases are decided by plea bargaining; not only is the defendant effectively denied the benefit of a jury trial, even the judge plays almost no part except rubber stamping the result.

This is done by charging the defendant with the most serious crimes that the circumstances of the case could possibly justify. The prosecutor does not imagine that he could obtain a conviction from a jury on these charges, that is not the aim. The aim is to frighten the defendant into pleading to a lesser charge that he may not even be guilty of so as not to have to run the risk (however remote) of a conviction on the harsher charges. Ironically in this situation draconian minimum sentences do act as a strong incentive, an incentive to accept a manifestly unjust punishment in order to avoid the risk of an even worse result.

There are many facets to this issue which is the great shame and crime of our society. There is the disgrace of private prisons run for profit. It outrages me that anyone should even require reasons for condemning private prisons; are they not morally unacceptable simply on the face of it? Take all of the evils I have already described, add to them the incentive to operate the entire concern as cheaply as possible and remove even the pretence of accountability imposed by a publicly run system? What could possibly go wrong?

There are the various industries that prey on the prisoners and their families. The private phone companies that charge unconscionable rates for calls. The prison run banking system that charges hefty fees for depositing money into prisoners’ accounts. The prison labor racket where prisoners are paid pennies per hour for work that is sold for regular prices, with most of the profit going to private contractors. 

All these circumstances, and many more that I do not have space for here, combine to make prisoners’ lives almost insupportable. And all of it is on top of what is already the most severe deprivation short of death, the deprivation of freedom. Even if you hold that we should lock people away, is it even good policy to make the conditions so severe? Would we not be better served by a system that really did rehabilitate people? Regardless of whether you think that this is a morally correct thing to do, surely it would be the sensible thing to do. 


Slavery has been a feature of society for as long as we have any kind of records. Generally the term slavery conjures up its most basic form, chattel slavery, which treats the slave as the personal property of his master. In some societies laws protected slaves from the worst kinds of treatment, but usually they could be put to death with impunity. Over the past two hundred years the world has come to a general agreement that this kind of slavery is criminal, and should be eliminated. This represents an important achievement in what we might term the betterment of mankind, but we need to examine some other, more subtle and unnoticed forms of slavery before we take too much satisfaction. 

How can we define slavery? The essence of slavery is involuntary servitude. I would suggest that a person is enslaved if he or she is required to work involuntarily in order to satisfy his or her basic survival needs. So called free people in our society are not truly free: always they have the burden of the monthly nut. Somehow every month they have to earn enough to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, along with the countless other expenditures needed to live a dignified life. If they are very fortunate they work at something they enjoy, something they would choose to do even if they were in fact free to choose, but most people go to work because they have to, because the alternative is crime or destitution. 

We tend to think of this situation as a force of nature. It has always been that way, it will always be that way. The rules of economics dictate it. May as well just buckle down and make the most of it.  And it is a monument to the human spirit that many, perhaps most people take pride in their work and develop true loyalty to their employers (less often, sadly, is this loyalty returned.) The fact is, though, that the so called laws of economics are just a set of rules and conditions that people have made up. They are not actual physical limitations like the law of gravity or the law of conservation of energy, they are a completely artificial construct, and we are perfectly free to come up with better ones. 

There is in fact an identifiable very small segment of society that effectively controls everybody else, and it is for the benefit of these people that the entire system is designed. Their ownership is passed on from generation to generation and I will demonstrate some of the methods that have been used over the past 150 years to constantly increase the proportion of the wealth of the world that ends up in their hands. I will suggest improvements designed to rectify this problem, and present an ethical justification for doing so. I will demonstrate that if you applied their own professed values (such as self sufficiency, and the notion that nobody should have money he had worked for taken and given to people who do no work) to them, they could not justify their own position. 


There is only one class of people who are absolutely essential to the operation of any enterprise, and that is the workers. Workers do all of the actual adding of value that is the underlying function of all businesses. All the other functions, management, sales, marketing and ownership are simply supportive of the activities of the workers, and while often useful (though in my observation less often than one might think) are not in fact essential to the process. A group of workers could get together and run a business completely by themselves. Sole proprietors do it all the time. If management is thought to be useful, the workers could hire a manager who would be their employee. As for the ownership, they are the very least useful to the orderly and profitable running of a business. In fact, far from contributing to the success of the business, they do the exact opposite, they drain it of money. Whatever your feelings about their right to do so, this is unquestionably what they do, and if they magically disappeared tomorrow, everyone else involved in the business would be better off. 

I should probably digress briefly to make the point that many owners are also managers, and in their role as managers of course they may well provide value, but in their role as owners they provide none.

If on the other hand the workers all over the world magically disappeared tomorrow, the businesses would be brought to a standstill. The owners, managers, salespeople could not function. The would have nothing to own, manage or sell. This realization terrifies those at the top. They are totally dependent upon the workers, and their whole existence depends on the workers not realizing this. They have us bamboozled into thinking that if they ceased their activities all the nice things we have would disappear. No more cars, televisions, computers or smart phones. It seems to me that this seriously underestimates the resourcefulness of the American people. First of all if they stopped making new cars people would make existing ones last much longer (look at Cuba for an example of this) and secondly people would set up small businesses building cars. These already exist and would proliferate. 

The rapid decline of the corporate system would no doubt cause widespread disruption. This is true of all large scale change. We would no doubt have to adapt to severely changed circumstances, at least in the short term, but we are a very smart people. We have just lost faith in our common power. We used to think that as a nation we could do anything, and we dared great things, like connecting two oceans together with a canal, or putting men on the moon and robots on Mars. We could debate whether or not such activities are useful, but nobody can deny that they were truly impressive feats. Yet we think that without the protective cradle of the corporate culture we would be helpless. 

The truth is that we need a certain amount of struggle to be happy. Many people who lived through World War II said later that the war years were the time they felt most alive in their life. As always it is a matter of balance. Too much struggle makes you miserable and robs you of hope, which is essential to life. But too little struggle is equally harmful, and I believe that this is one of the challenges our culture has been dealing with. 

So we should not fear change or even some reduction in our circumstances. We certainly lead an incredibly wasteful way of life and could reduce our consumption by a large percentage and probably find ourselves happier.  We can rediscover the joys of helping each other out, of banding together to fend for ourselves. The great heroic individual, walking alone in the world, does not exist. Yes, each of us is an individual, and we lead autonomous lives, but we live them in the context of the other individuals around us who together form something larger that we call society.  We are social creatures and we need to rediscover that too, and start acting appropriately in that capacity.

The Ownership Class

At the very top of the economic system of the capitalist world is the ownership class. These are the family fortunes that go back generations. The families that through unimaginably complex ownership structures own and control virtually all of the essential resources of the country. Land, housing, mineral rights, water rights, pharmaceuticals, food, energy and the media through which virtually all our information comes, are all effectively owned and controlled by these few. 

This class comprises everyone who is born into a family whose money is not derived from a job, profession or a business that they are personally involved in. They do not depend on their labor or their skills or their brainpower for their living, bur receive income that is theirs because of the circumstances of their birth. 

This group is itself stratified. At the very bottom are the members of the farther reaches of such families, who simply get a monthly check and take no other part in the system. Even though these people did nothing themselves to deserve their good fortune, many of them do great social good with their money. It should not be imagined that all the members of the ownership class are concerned only for their own benefit; on the contrary, most of them are charming and generous people who support all kinds of good causes. 

The income of those at or near the top is derived from passive investments that are virtually immune to economic conditions. While much of their money is in the form of stock and shares, a stock market crash is to them a golden opportunity to increase their wealth. The value of stocks is of no concern to someone who does not need to sell their holdings. People who have sufficient funds to ride out the storm can buy shares at rock bottom prices, then wait until the value climbs back again, which historically it always has. Note the qualification: the fact that something has always happened to date does not mean that it will never happen. In fact I will show that it is not only possible that this edifice will eventually fail completely, but certain. The only question is how soon and how fast.

This situation has come about because of the long term effects of two social customs: inheritance and primogeniture. Primogeniture is the custom in the modern capitalist world for the great fortunes to be passed down intact to a single individual in each generation, usually the oldest male. At different times inheritance taxes have taken a bite, but this is largely avoided at the very top level by trusts and offshore holdings and all the tricks of the financial services industry. The result has been that over the last 200 years or so the wealth of the country has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

At the same time it has become steadily more opaque. One feature of people at this level is that they are pathologically secretive about their wealth. They do not reveal the full extent of it even to their closest family members. Outside of the boardroom and private offices, money is simply never discussed. This makes it very difficult to assess the true seriousness of the issue; whatever wealth these people are known to possess, it is absolutely certain that they in fact own many times more. Part of the difficulty is that their wealth is highly diversified, and they plan for the long term. The annual yields from their holdings are so large that there is absolutely no chance that they will run short of money (as long as the system itself remains in place, that is.) They are therefore willing to simply sit on unused assets, knowing that one day they will benefit their descendants. In the case of land holdings this has dire social consequences. Vast amounts of land are owned by people who have never even set foot there, yet they have absolute control over what happens to it. In many cases it is not economically worthwhile for them to develop land, so it is kept from use by anyone at all. It cannot be used for growing food, or for meeting housing needs; it simply sits idle. The same principle applies to housing. 

There was a time when it was relatively easy to identify the ownership class; they were the ones with fine carriages and large estates and many retainers. Over the years they have used their money to insulate themselves, to the extent that they are now all but impossible to identify. Similarly over the years they have learned to conceal the size and sources of their wealth. A significant portion of their income is spent on armies of accountants and lawyers whose main purpose is to obscure the details of what they own and control. 

To the extent that they are visible at all it is in the role of philanthropists and supporters of fine things like symphonies and the ballet. Their friends and acquaintances think they are fine people. They think of themselves as virtuous and even often try to use their income in helpful and constructive ways. This simply shows that individual virtue can exist even in a corrupt system. It does not in any way justify the mechanisms by which they have the wealth to be able to be so generous with. 

If you seek actual documentary material on this level of our society, I highly recommend two movies by Jamie Johnson, a young member of the Johnson and Johnson family. They are called Born Rich and The One Percent, and both can be found complete on YouTube. He interviews and documents the lifestyles of many of his friends (who I must imagine by now must be his former friends), also the children of Old Money. The level of self entitlement of these people who had their entire life presented to them on a platter, who have had to deal nothing whatever to actually deserve their station in life, is truly astonishing.

The Class Structure in the US

In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith bases the amount that workers must be paid on both the cost of their living and the requirement that they must be able to afford to have children, to breed the next generation of workers. He assumes that workers breed workers, and aristocrats breed aristocrats and so forth. This attitude is somewhat reminiscent of the caste system in India, where your social position was entirely decided by the circumstances of your birth. At the time and place Smith was writing, Scotland in1776, social mobility was rare, at least in an upward direction. Today in the US we pride ourselves on being a classless society, where anyone, no matter where they are born, can succeed and grow rich. Yet the truth is that we have a class structure almost as rigid as that of Smith’s time. 

It has been observed that Americans do not see themselves as being economically oppressed, but rather as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Yet in truth there is almost no chance of a regular person becoming even moderately wealthy. This fact is obscured by the wide public attention given to a few prominent and rare exceptions. There was a brief glorious period between the end of World War II and the end of the Fifties when a blue collar American worker could live a dignified life, own a house, take regular vacations, have a non-working wife, send his children to college and retire in comfort. Since that time the plight of the American worker has grown steadily grimmer. Now it takes the combined earnings of husband and wife to barely stay afloat, and forget the pension plan, that disappeared in the last restructuring.

A useful way to look at the US class system is to divide it into five main classes: the owners, the corporate executive class, the professional and small business class, the wage slaves and the indigent. This is of course only one way of dividing the classes, and I do not mean to imply that they are separate and distinct; they are more like general categories that meld seamlessly into one another.

The owners are what is sometimes referred to as the one percent, though it is more accurately more like one tenth of one percent. These are the families whose fortunes are based on the inherited ownership of the vast majority of the resources of the world which they charge everyone else for access to. Unlike the rulers of old, who lived in castles and had followers to enforce their authority, most of these people are anonymous. They use their wealth to isolate themselves and to avoid having to come into contact with the lower classes.

Below this level is the corporate executive class. These are the hirelings of the ownership class who actually run the businesses from which the owners derive their income.  This class is very well rewarded; they are the visible wealthy. They are the CEOs and directors of major public companies and the bankers and hedge fund managers and the like. 

Next come what remains of the middle classes; professionals, small business owners. This class is still relatively free and independent. It also includes people who have made money in sports or entertainment. It is important to note, though, that this freedom is only enjoyed by those who resisted the temptation to leverage their success. During the 1980’s middle class America went on a spending orgy financed by the increasing value of their assets, notably real estate. When the inevitable crash came, or actually series of crashes in various asset categories, those who were not actually wiped out ended up hanging on by their fingernails, completely at the mercy of the bankers they owe money to.

Next comes the class of the wage slaves, which encompasses everyone below the previous levels. People in this category have little or no accumulated capital. Yet they have the constant unremitting burden of the monthly nut; all of the expenses that they must meet in order even to survive. No matter if there are no jobs for them, if they are sick or have dependents that need their time and attention, they still have to pay on time every month. They are therefore utterly dependent upon their sources of income, and therefore upon their employers.

Failure to meet this challenge, which can easily happen through some random and unavoidable setback, results in being cast into the lowest class of all, the indigent. These are the people who truly have nothing. They are commonly called the homeless, but this focuses on only one aspect of their plight. They are the outcasts who are shunned by our society. This is not the case in all cultures. In India, for instance, especially in the more rural areas, beggars have a place in the community, and are accorded a place at the table and a corner to sleep in. In the US, on the other hand, homeless people are pariahs. I recently attended a public meeting on the topic of a proposed homeless services center, and the level of vitriol towards these unfortunates was truly shocking. People who spoke in favor of the project were literally shouted down. This kind of social treatment is severely demoralizing.

Once a person falls into this last category, it is very hard indeed to climb back out. The strictures of living this way cause a cascade of self reinforcing effects. You cannot keep yourself and your clothes clean. You start to look emaciated. Your self esteem is eroded. The less you have, the harder it becomes to acquire anything. You have no place to keep tools so you have almost no way to make money except the most menial jobs. You have no transportation and the busses are so poorly scheduled that it takes all day to get to town and back. There are few public bathrooms. And all the time you have the constant necessity to be in some physical location twenty four hours a day when there is no place to are welcome to be, and someone is always moving you along. It is impossible to convey in words the full impact of homelessness on a person. They are caught in a vicious spiral. They longer they are homeless the worse they look and feel, and the harder it is to function at all, let alone have any chance of improving their circumstances.

This is the social structure in the US today. But simply listing the social classes tells only part of the story. To gain a full picture we need to delve into the relative amount of power wielded by each class, who controls whom, how the wealth is shared between the classes and which classes are growing and which shrinking. 

Group rights vs individual rights

Written in response to a posting deploring the granting of “special rights” for gays, saying that they should not be singled out for special treatment.

IMO this a straw man argument. Taking gays as an example, it is not the claim of gay rights advocates that gays deserve some special form of protection not available to anyone else. They are saying not that they should be granted rights, but that the rights to which they are already entitled are being denied. Therefore they are not demanding any kind of group rights, but rather the recognition of their individual rights, which they are banding together as a group to promote. I believe this to be also the case with every other rights group I can think of.

So while the writer is correct in saying that our rights are ours as individuals, this is not a valid argument for refusing to consider the claims of gays or blacks or women (for instance) as a class of people whose individual rights are being denied because they are members of that class.


Supposedly an early attempt at using a computer to translate from English into Russian almost caused an international incident by translating “or of sight, out of mind” as “blind crazy” and “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as “the booze is good but the meat stinks.” I am pretty sure the story is apocryphal, but it does point up some of the problems we have communicating our thoughts  to one another. 

The purpose of language is communication. When we communicate we are attempting to take a concept that exists in our own mind, often not in verbal form, and recreate the exact same concept in the mind of the person(s) we are communicating with. We are bound to fail in this attempt. The very best we can hope to achieve is some very imperfect approximation of what we had in mind. First we have to find words to express our thought, then arrange those words in as comprehensible a fashion as possible. Then the recipient must interpret those words according to their own understanding of their meaning. Already we are in deep trouble. We have countless opportunities for error. We might not agree on the meaning of a word. We may have inadvertently used a word or phrase capable of multiple meanings. The recipient might mishear or misread a word that changes the meaning, or may have an emotional reaction to a particular word that has nothing to do with its present use.

This problem is compounded by social considerations. Some words are considered so “loaded” that they simply cannot be used in some contexts (though, confusingly, they may be perfectly acceptable on others) and their accidental use by one who is unaware of this can cause communication to come to a screeching halt. The popular song “My Old Kentucky Home”, written in 1851, contains the phrase “the darkies are gay.” At the time nobody remarked on this, and in fact the song, far from insulting black people, was protesting the institution of slavery. Today, of course, referring to “darkies” would be quite out of the question, and “gay” would have a completely different connotation. 

This is particularly problematic in at least two fields: science and the law. In both cases for somewhat different reasons it is essential that meanings be as clear as possible. A system of laws is useless if those bound by it cannot agree on the meaning of each law. Scientists must clearly understand each others’ ideas to be able to check them for accuracy. Because of the need for precision in these and other fields, many branches of science use “terms of art.” These are words and phrases that used in that particular field have a special meaning, almost always narrower than the commonly accepted meaning of the term. This gives rise to the accusations by laypeople that scientists deliberately use language in a confusing way, calling it jargon and claiming that its purpose is to make science seem more complex and hard to understand than it really is, so that we need “authorities” to explain it to us. 

Sometimes these accusations are justifiable. There is no doubt that some scientists are guilty of overcomplexification in order to exclude outsiders from their field; like all pursuits, science is populated with a whole range of people. There is a similar spectrum as in the general population, of dishonesty, honest delusion, unscrupulousness, criminality and the like. As in the world, these are the minority, perhaps more so in science which is devoted to the attempt to find reliable truth and has tools to weed out error. More often the topics are genuinely complex, and the need for specialized language to describe them is real. 

This is especially true when dealing with the further reaches of physics, for instance. To the layman it seems that scientists are constantly proving wrong those who went before, but this is often a mistaken impression. Einstein did not prove Newton wrong, but rather discovered that Newtonian physics no longer applied under certain circumstances, and that when examining the behavior of subatomic particles an entirety different set of rules pertained. Newton was correct as far as he went, and the calculations required to land a spaceship on Mars within minutes of the predicted time and within a few hundred feet of the projected location (an astounding feat of accuracy) relied almost entirely on Newton (though of course without Einstein we would not have electronics and therefore no computers to perform calculations that would have taken lifetimes for an unaided mathematician). 

Many scientists are impatient with the need to explain themselves and their work to the general public, and unskilled at doing so, compounding the communication problem. There is a natural human tendency to regard whatever one is familiar with as easy to understand. Because we ourselves understand something, we assume others should also understand it. One might say the definition of easy is “I can do it!” This leads to experts explaining complex topics as though they were instructing rather dense seven year olds, which naturally does not endear them to their listeners.

Human Nature

Human nature describes inherent behaviors common to all people, which seem to be built in to our very being. The so called human nature problem that is often cited as the reason that societal improvements will inevitably fail is based on a very narrow view of the subject. In this view, only our baser attributions are considered. We may think that we and our friends, and perhaps our countrymen are well meaning people, but the further away people are, and the stranger their appearances and habits, the less we are willing to trust them. Yet when we travel and actually meet these people we find that they are people just like ourselves.

Not only are we humans possessed of a deep seated “better nature” but these empathy based reactions seem to be the very first instincts of new born infants. Fear is activated as a result of experience; before fear there is empathy. Better yet, we are one of the rare species that can modify our basic instinctual behavior as a result of thinking about it and deciding to behave differently.

All of the variants of human nature are present in similar proportions at all levels of society in all populations. Some conditions of life tend to foster particular kinds of pathology; the lower reaches of society experience more personal violence, while the upper reaches prefer more cerebral forms of crime, but the proportion of criminality is about the same at all levels, and it is not very high. The vast majority of people just want to have a happy life and enjoy their families and their hobbies. 

So why does it seem otherwise? Why do we think we are surrounded by criminals and live in a violent world and that people cannot be trusted? One important influence is the study of history. History is the story of the past, and it is one of never ending violence. All of the worst elements of human behavior crowd its pages. Did this then mean that this was the everyday experience of the ordinary people? Far from it. True, personal violence was an everyday occurrence, but wars and the doings of the mighty, which are what history is about, barely impinged on the population as a whole.

History tells us little about the common people, and much about the doings of a small number of people who could fairly be termed psychopaths. There is nothing natural about wars and invasions and the exploitation of the inhabitants of other lands. No other animal behaves like this towards its own kind. The vast majority of people would not behave this way. Yet the activities of this tiny class of people so dominate the information stream that we think they are the norm. We do not see them for what they are, parasites upon humanity; diseases that attack the mind of society. They do not represent human nature as a whole.

So rather than accepting that human nature is defined by the worst in us and will bring us down no matter what we try, let us activate the better angels of our nature and stop electing psychopaths to lead us.


I hate waste. Yet I live in perhaps the most wasteful culture that has ever existed. We produce so much waste that disposal of that waste is a major environmental problem. Packaging alone, which adds nothing to the usefulness of a product, accounts for a truly staggering quantity of waste. To produce something that is potentially useful, and then have it never actually be used is one level of waste. To produce something that is not even useful in the first place is doubly wasteful. Manufacturers claim that they are simply responding to customer demand. If this were true there would be no need for persuasive advertising. All that would be needed would be to make it known that the product was available. It is not generally customer demand that drives manufacturing, it is the desire to find a way to make money.

The wasteful manufacture of items that are not actually useful is only part of the story. Many items that are useful and needed are used in a wasteful manner. Most tools such as electric drills and power saws are used for a minuscule amount of time in their entire lives. I have heard that the average drill is used for eight minutes total. Automobiles spend around 85% of their time not simply sitting idle, but actually being in the way! Everybody finds it necessary to own a complete set of what we consider essential to a proper life: appliances, tools, vehicles, recreational items, that spend most of their time being a storage problem. We keep things because we might need them some day, and then even if that day does in fact come when we need something we have been saving for just that moment, we cannot find it, or we find it and discover that in the meantime it has deteriorated to the point of uselessness. 

We rent storage lockers and pay over the years thousands of dollars to store things that are maybe worth hundreds, even if that. I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of everything stored in such places goes directly from there to the dump. (Full disclosure: I have just such a locker. I wish I could live up to my beliefs.)

Nature is a wonderful reuser of materials. Almost all living organisms produce waste that feeds some other organism or natural process. I know of no other organism except we humans in all of creation that takes useful materials and turns them into something that benefits no other life form. Worse; by our activities we have wiped out countless other species; not even for our comfort or safety or other benefit, mostly, but just as a casual byproduct of our lifestyle. Actions that harm others without benefiting yourself are truly perverse. Indeed, often the harm we do harms us right back. Remember the childhood game “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” (As I am sure most of us who either had or were older siblings do) We spend much of our energy hitting ourselves.

And then there is the fact we are using up the raw materials of the earth. One of the prime tenets of our current religion, capitalism, is that you do not spend your capital. What else are irreplaceable raw materials than capital? if we consume them in such a way that they are not reusable, we have spent a portion of our capital, and we should only do that if we gain more by doing so than we are spending.  Clearly we do not. We burn gasoline for entirely frivolous reasons. We give little or no consideration to the depletion of the original resources, the harm to other life forms or the accumulation of waste product caused by our way of living.

So do we have to reduce our lives to a level of deprivation to save the earth? Not at all. We just have to eliminate the waste. Sure, there are some activities we should not engage in at all, and maybe we could all examine honestly how many of our activities really do add to our happiness, but we could still enjoy a high standard of living (and even spread it to more of the world’s population) without harm if we could use no more than the absolutely necessary resources to do so. 

We care a great deal about owning things, and the concept of what has been called a sharing economy can be challenging for us to accept. It has uncomfortable connotations of socialism. We have visions of having one electric drill for the whole block to share, and having to put our name on a waiting list to use it. But it does not have to be like that. Imagine rather that when you needed a drill you would simply order it on your computer, and it would arrive at your door within an hour, maybe sooner. You could specify exactly what kind if drill you needed for the specific job, rather than having to use the one you owned whether it was suitable or not. Obviously some people really do have enough use for tools such as drills to justify owning one, and they could still do so, but this would still be a small selection of items for any one person, and if any tool at all were available on call, everyone would have access to tools that they could only dream of owning. Certain tools would need some kind of certification to order, and other rules and restrictions would apply, just as in any other field, but the technology to make such a system possible either exists or is in the process of being developed. Amazon provides a model for accessing tools; it facilitates purchase, but could be adapted for rental, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, providing a delivery mechanism.  But this touches on what a non wasteful transportation system might look like, and that is a topic for another night.

Impressions of Singapore

My preconception of Singapore was of a very orderly, clean, rather boring place, very structured and controlled. I had heard that there were severe penalties for littering and chewing gum, and I expected to see watchful police on every corner making sure everyone behaved themselves. What I found surprised me. Getting off the plane was like being enfolded in a warm, wet blanket. Late November is in the middle of the monsoon season, and the weather is extremely hot and humid. Never have I been so thankful for air conditioning, which is in operation everywhere, including taxis and busses. Moving about the city is like alternating between a sauna and a refrigerator. Needless to say the refrigerator is the preferable state! During the four days I have been here it has rained twice, both times in the late afternoon, neither time very hard. Not at all what I expect of a monsoon. Actually since spending any time outdoors means going around soaking with sweat, the addition of rain made very little difference, so it was not much of a problem to get caught in it. People seem to use umbrellas mostly to protect against the sun rather than the rain. 

Apart from the two rainy spells the weather has been mainly bright overcast with occasional sunshine. I arrived late at night and very jetlagged (Singapore is 16 hours ahead of California) and took a cab to the hotel I had picked out pretty much at random from the list on the Singapore Tourist Board website. I was immediately struck by the excellently maintained road leading into town, The cab was clean and comfortable, and the driver very friendly. My room was very small, hardly bigger than the bed that filled it, with a small but clean bathroom attached. 

The next morning I took to the streets to find breakfast. I was in the neighborhood called Geylang, which turned out to be primarily Malayan in flavor. I found eating establishments on every corner, swarming with people, eating dishes that looked like nothing I had ever seen. This was not he somewhat antiseptic Singapore I had been expecting. There were people of every Asian ethnicity imaginable, and the smells were quite varied, but dominated by what I deduced was durian, a curious fruit that has the reputation (which I did not have the courage to test) of being quite delicious, but smells quite foul. So much so that it is illegal to take it on any form of public transportation, and there are signs in all the hotels forbidding it too. I was despairing of finding anything even remotely familiar for breakfast, when I s potted a menu featuring porridge! Finally something I recognized, and breakfast food at that. Pretty close to the oatmeal I am used to eating for breakfast, and something I have not eaten since I was a child, but I used to like it then. I was not sure of the protocol for ordering, but sat down hopefully at a table. Eventually I was able to attract the attention of someone willing to take my order, and asked for porridge. To my dismay she asked me whether I wanted fish porridge or pork porridge! By this time I was too hungry to want to resume my search, so I resignedly chose the pork, as I thought that sounded a little more breakfast-like than fish; after all, sausages are commonly made from pork, and bacon is closely related. But I found it hard to imagine what porridge with pork would be like. Well, it turns out that porridge means something quite different here. It was oatmeal-like in consistency, but made from some other, rather more slippery substance, and had lumps of meat in it. The taste was rather salty, flavored perhaps with soy sauce. It was, however, not unpleasant to eat, but definitely not my idea of a breakfast food. It did satisfy my hunger, but my stomach was evidently a little puzzled as to what to do with it, as I could feel it sitting there for some time afterward! No digestive harm ensued, but I determined to look for my breakfast in another neighborhood the following day. 

After this culinary treat I returned to my hotel to plan the rest of my day. I had heard that there was an area called Little India, so I asked directions to get there at the reception desk. They said that it was easily reached by bus, so I took to the street once more to catch one. The public transportation system in Singapore is absolutely excellent. Everywhere I wanted to go was accessible either by bus or by Metro, and both systems and point up one aspect of the country that I had not expected, which is that technology is extremely well implemented here. Everyone carries a card that is good on both systems, and almost nobody (except, of course, visitors such as myself) pays cash. On the bus the way it works is that on boarding they simply wave the card over a reader, which beeps and records where they got on. On alighting they do the same, recording where they got off. The fare is deducted from the card. There are several ways to replenish the value of the card, including putting it an ATM machine and transferring money directly from your bank account to the card. For cash paying riders you just drop the fare into a hopper, and it issues a paper ticket. I never had to wait more than five or ten minutes for a bus. The Metro is equally high tech; the same cards work for both, and here to pay cash you go to a machine and feed it money, telling it where you want to go to, and the machine issues a ticket and change. There are screens on all the platforms giving information about when the next train is coming, and where it is going. A pleasant voice announces each stop. The trains are clean and smooth running. 

Speaking of clean, the whole place is almost completely devoid of trash and graffiti. The importation and sale of chewing gum is prohibited (though you can bring in your own for personal use, but not sell it). There used to be heavy fines for littering, but it was found that many offenders could not afford to pay them, so instead litterers are sentenced to work cleaning up the parks and public places; they have to wear special uniforms with signs indicating that they are working off their offense, which is very shameful, which is a strong disincentive to breaking the law. For more serious offenses caning is used as a punishment. In spite of these restrictive laws I saw very few policemen, and people did not seem to be overly controlled. There are no laws against jaywalking, and traffic police were not very evident. Nonetheless the traffic moves pretty well, and I saw no incidents of road rage, and no accidents. Most horn blowing was legitimate warning signals, usually aimed at overadventurous pedestrians. People were generally very polite and helpful. 

Singapore is very racially diverse; you see all shades of color on the streets. English is the official language, and everyone speaks it (more or less!), but most people seem to speak other languages for theor everyday communication. The main ethnic groups seem to be Malays, Chinese and Indians. There are several neighborhoods that are predominately monoracial; Geylang, where my hotel was situated, is mostly Malay, and Little India and Chinatown are, as their names suggest, Indian and Chinese. These areas are quite visually and culturally distinct, with their own kinds of restaurants and stores, but large areas are simply mixed. Nothing I saw or read lead me to think that there is any significant degree of racial tension. Almost everyone carries a cell phone, and nobody seems to resent people talking on them. I found their constant ringing somewhat offensive to my musical sensibilities, but otherwise quite harmless. 

But to return to my wanderings: I found Little India quite charming, and found an excellent restaurant that I adopted as my main dinner destination each day, which I chose because the served Kheer, one of my favorite desserts. Breakfast I ended up eating the other days at an American style luxury hotel because I could get a reasonable imitation of an American style breakfast there. I could not bring myself to eat at Burger King, MacDonaldÕs or Starbucks, though I saw several of each. There are also several American-style shopping malls, very noisy and absolutely packed with swarms of young people; most of the girls are extremely thin and giggly with no discernable hips at all, dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts and have cell phones permanently at their ears. 

The standard of physical beauty, both male and female, is very high among the young, but people seem to age very quickly, and even the middle aged end to look quite careworn. Not to say that they seem generally unhappy, but there is a marked contrast between the seemingly carefree and exuberant youth and the much more subdued and seemingly inward-looking people of working age, with not much between. 

I also visited the Botanical Gardens, a huge and very serene park that contains a rain forest, a large orchid garden and a huge collection of ginger plants. I had no idea of the variety of gingers that exist; unfortunately the season is not right to find many of them in bloom, which is reputedly a magnificent sight, but I took many pictures of orchids of many sizes and colors. 

I should mention that Singapore Airlines is by far he best airline I have ever traveled on; the service is impeccable and the food superb. Even in tourist class you feel utterly pampered, with everything from hot towels (handed out as soon as you are settled in your seat, even before takeoff and again just before landing) to little packages containing a toothbrush and a pair of knitted socks! Each seat has its own video screen with a selection of 10 or so recent movies as well as a large variety of TV fare that you can watch at any time and start and stop at will. I was fortunate in that the flight was not by any means crowded, so I could stretch out across three seats, and felt quite luxurious. 

Being somewhat disoriented by the time change I miscalculated the number of days I was staying in Singapore, and arrived at the airport for my fight to India a day early! Since I had already checked out of my hotel I asked at the hotel reservations desk for a hotel near the airport for one night, and ended up at the Roxy Century Plaza, a fairly luxurious place but not much more per night than where I was, so for one night I have a comparatively huge room. Tomorrow I fly to India.