Sunday, December 1, 2013

Butterfly Community

Before the normal back to work week starts up, it feels appropriate to "wander" a bit and do some dreaming. Therefore this post also includes "what would be nice for the long run" or a wish list writ large. What might butterfly communities include? Concepts that run along these lines of course include "pay it forward", where for instance, someone may pull up to a fast food window, only to find that the person ahead has already paid their tab. And unlike the careful missions of  non profits, these impulses can apply to anyone from any walk of life.

There's also "random acts of kindness": a movement of sorts which started up some years ago. People decided to be kind to others for no good reason at all, with some interesting results. Once I had a book by that name, but I just found this website. And back in high school, some of the choirs sang this song, "Let There Be Peace on Earth" which includes the line about peace, "and let it begin with me". Oftentimes I'm too much a grouch for that, but I've always been a sucker for the holiday season, just the same.

How might one create a true synthesis of such ideas, so that we would not wind up with the daily news I see in those Foreign Policy links - most of which are way too depressing to even link to. Local and national television news have long since tried to include positive stories in their broadcasts, but they've got a long way to go before they ever have 30 minutes of positive news. Many people are trying to do their own small part in what the world might become, but a lot of efforts still get drowned out in the cacophony of disillusionment and yes, despair.

Even though it's readily apparent that many societal problems have economic underpinnings, it's just not easy to present economic arguments so as to capture the heartstrings of the public. If policy makers and economists are really having sleepless nights over current economic woes, that is still going over the head of much of the public.

As a result, much of the job of societal encouragement still goes to spiritual leaders, but I'd wager right now that they need a bit of help. In the U.S. lots of self help now comes from the pulpit, for what it's worth. And to the surprise of many, Pope Francis thinks that a certain conservative U.S. mindset is a big economic problem (shall we say), which didn't make Greg Mankiw very happy. Perhaps Pope Francis is not as down on capitalism as Mankiw thinks, at least one would hope.

Even though I regret that Pope Francis reacted the way he did, he should not be the one having sleepless nights over the pressing economic issues of the world. Plenty of us have a lot more time than he does, to be thinking how one might spread the idea, over time, of butterfly communities.

For years I liked "snowflake community" and the uniqueness that each community implied, yet all with a recognizable structure. But something was missing. For one thing, not everyone gets snowflakes. And even the concept of uniqueness wasn't exactly new, because there was a time when many a town and region was indeed quite unique, one from the other. So when I returned to the Wikipedia page for the Butterfly effect, the initial description felt right. Certain initial conditions in a nonlinear system could create large differences in a later state. And that's what the daydreaming of this post is about.

Some things just deserve to be said as simply as possible. For instance, whenever I hear tirades against neoliberalism: for the life of me, I can't make any sense out of what the people who are leveling the charges actually want, other than perhaps just feeling better that they are getting something off their chest. Power to the laborer? Solidarity? How about some community solidarity for a change, and some local economic support for the individuals who feel so alone and cut off from the world.

Take a drive in countless towns in the U.S. They are barren economic wastelands, devastated by the loss of local production, let alone the random city densities of services which leave service deserts in their wake. For many communities, practically the only local "production" to be had is housing, served with a slice of agriculture or some other commodity. These days, the idea of laborer in local work scenarios is mostly an abstract notion where in the reality of small towns everywhere, there is hardly any work to be had. In its absence is a growing drug world that mirrors that of some developing nations. Think about it. There is an unbelievable economic vacuum waiting to be filled in the nation I inhabit. And while someone may in fact be doing something about it, I have not yet heard the stories. Let alone, felt the results.

So it gets left to bums like me with no college degree, to dream about butterfly communities. The odd part is that the world around me has more patience when I "smile" and explain myself, no matter how silly or laughable the explanation seems. I fought the idea for years of always being "nice". I wanted to argue! An old friend used to tell me, when he wanted me to lighten up, "You're prettier when you smile". Society will usually allow everyone a bit of rant space, but it depends on how much sense we already make to others. If others struggle to understand where we are coming from, rants don't accomplish as much.

Don't get me wrong, the word "community" is by no means completely appropriate. One cringes when it gets used for local banking advertisements, and others might say, "when I hear the word community I reach for my gun..." I get that. However, there is not another word that really works well for the needed context. Where the word does presently work well is in the context of like preferences and associations. By extension it could also apply to structure diverse preferences and associations in more cohesive and understandable patterns. In particular, hourly services arbitrage could allow for greater density optimization in small towns, than some cities make possible now, through older patterns of services use.

Importantly, city and town already carry very separate connotations, which has not been helpful in recent centuries in economic terms. Too many people continue to believe that survival means escaping the limited places where they begin. Unfortunately, many places of economic hope are busily putting up no vacancy signs in the present, in relative terms.

Therefore a big part of the battle ahead, is to overcome the separateness which exists between city and town. That's particularly true, in light of what is expected on the part of citizens who choose to remain in their environments. In other words, people have to feel that growth and stability is possible wherever one is, instead of always through escape. People from my generation learned the hard way, that escape did not always mean greener grass at the next landing. Before any of us can fly, we need economic environments which allow us to thrive, before we even take on our wings.

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