Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

Over the weekend I read the following two news items:

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is practically alone on the job, working night and day to cope with the worst economic downturn in decades.

Barack Obama’s offhand approach to Gordon Brown’s Washington visit last week came about because the president was facing exhaustion over America’s economic crisis and is unable to focus on foreign affairs. Sources close to the White House say Mr. Obama and his staff have been “overwhelmed” by the economic meltdown and have voiced concerns that the new president is not getting enough rest.

Yes, but what are they doing when they work hard? Do the literally trillions of transactions that take place every day in the United States have to come across their desks for approval? Are they falling behind in their paperwork, and the trains have stopped running? Of course, they are not doing any of that. If they went to bed earlier, the supermarket shelves would still be stocked tomorrow; and we would have more money in our pocketbook.

It is still winter up North; and last night, sitting by the woodstove, I reread Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching. Lao-tzu had much to say about governing:

When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.

The Master does his job, and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.

Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.

Perhaps Geithner and Obama have never heard of the Tao, or perhaps they think Lao-tzu’s venerable words are just ancient Chinese nonsense—not applicable to those with Ivy League educations? Perhaps they might be more impressed by the words of Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel laureate in economics:

To the naive mind that conceives of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order and adaptation to the unknown can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions.

In other words, let the multitude of market participants by their independent decisions resolve the questions of which automakers will survive, which loans will be restructured, and which consumers and businesses will get new credit. Hayek instructs us that spontaneous orders, like the free-market, have a “degree of complexity (that) is not limited to what the human mind can master.” In other words, no matter how many sleepless nights they endure, no matter how many more staffers Obama and Geithner hire, the problems they’re trying to solve cannot be solved by their “superior” minds.

In his book Dialogues in Metapsychiatry the late psychiatrist Thomas Hora relates this story:

Last week I asked a physician: “Where do your intelligent ideas come from?” And he promptly answered: “From my forebrain.” So I asked him: “Where does your forebrain get it from?” He didn’t know. Then I asked him: “Have you ever heard of God?” He said: “I am not religious.”

Hora goes on to explain that as human beings, we have the quality of consciousness which allows us to be aware of ideas. We can be aware of creative and intelligent ideas, but Hora tells us these ideas do not come from the brain:

This brain cannot produce an intelligent idea. Consciousness does not produce ideas, just as a radio does not produce music, it receives the music. Man receives ideas. The flower receives the sunbeam directly from the sun. The sun is the source of that vital energy, which makes the flower blossom. There is a direct connection between the sun and the flower. Similarly, there is a direct connection between God and that consciousness which man is. Man cannot reach up to God, man is connected with God and inseparable from God as consciousness. Another name for God is Cosmic Consciousness.

Man cannot demand inspired ideas; man is capable of receiving inspired ideas. Staying up late or trying to do what no man can do will not produce inspired ideas. For all of their “efforts” Geithner and Obama have become open channels for what Hora calls the Sea of Mental Garbage—this is the sea where our ego lives; the place we go when we think we can control what is forever uncontrollable.

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11 Responses to Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

  1. Mike says:

    “Hayek instructs us that spontaneous orders, like the free-market, have a “degree of complexity (that) is not limited to what the human mind can master.” In other words, no matter how many sleepless nights they endure, no matter how many more staffers Obama and Geithner hire, the problems they’re trying to solve cannot be solved by their “superior” minds.”

    The term cybernetics stems from the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as government).

    “Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals, and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.” The Free market is man made and is controlled by the human brain just not a single human brain.

    “Man cannot demand inspired ideas; man is capable of receiving inspired ideas. Staying up late or trying to do what no man can do will not produce inspired ideas.” so who has the right inspired idea? basically all idea’s come from God since mankind can not create their own idea?

    Last week I asked a physician: “Where do your intelligent ideas come from?” And he promptly answered: “From my forebrain.” So I asked him: “Where does your forebrain get it from?” He didn’t know. Then I asked him: “Have you ever heard of God?” He said: “I am not religious.”
    Could be simple genetic code we were instilled with at birth, but then again a person could argue thats also what God created.

    I read a book ” opening to god” it had similar ideas that mankind is not capable of reaching across to god to demand we are only able to fine tune our receiver (hearts and mind) and listen to god’s will.

  2. Mike,

    You ask “so who has the right inspired idea?” One way to discern this is by the “fruits” of our thinking. If our thinking and actions sow poverty, discord, unhappiness etc. then our ideas are probably not inspired.

  3. Tesh says:

    “Ye shall know them by their fruits” indeed. Funny how quickly people forget that when some pretty rhetoric or flowery oratory gets in the way.

    Watch what people do, and carefully balance that against what they say.

  4. James D. says:

    Its funny that politicians believe they can control much of anything in a system inherently designed not to be controlled, as the Founding Fathers envisioned America. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be deeply amusing to watch someone try to get elected quoting Lao Tzu on governance? Reading Jefferson’s view of government, one would almost think he’d been reading Lao Tzu as well.
    Our ego driven society has most of us convinced that everything is controllable, so it follows that the politician who manages to convince us that he or she can best control things will get elected. It may not be the truth, but it makes the masses feel better.
    Geithner and Obama can go back to bed. They don’t seem to be willing to realize that the world didn’t start turning when they got into office, and it won’t stop if they screw up or when they leave. The rest of us still have to feed our families and take care of our lives, no matter who’s in office. Historically, when President Grover Cleveland got shot, it took him almost 2 months to die, and he was basically incapacitated for most of the time. Chester Arthur hadn’t been sworn in to take over (since most thought the President would recover). Congress was in recess for those 2 months. No Commander in Chief, no Congress, and yet the country ran smoothly and didn’t miss a beat. Hmmm, maybe we should take note.

  5. H says:

    Professor B,

    You raise awareness to an issue that most are trying to deliberately avoid. “Survey finds an increase in number of people expressing no religious affiliation” as reported on http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/03/09/us.religion.less.christian/. One would have to question what are the consequences of individuals leaving a religious group? While one does not have to be religiously grounded to live by the “golden rule” or find connectedness to God, it would be interesting to see in another study/survey how many when leaving a religious order are also throwing out all of the moral and ethical values tied to a denomination’s recommended way of life principles? What are these individuals replacing the Divine with and what are they now using for guidance to determine the difference between right and wrong.

    I can’t help but see a correlation between individuals leaving a religious affiliation, change in society and shift in values as many may be throwing out the “baby with the bathwater”. This also may explain the state of the economy because many are functioning without grounding principles to guide every day decisions. With hope, faith or love gone what else is there but just the empty feeling of greed and the collection of material goods that fueled the inflated economy. This became even more apparent after hearing the newly released song “The Fear” by Lily Allen which further substantiates my previous posts about ills of consumption and consumerism as well as operating out of fear as opposed to love as Lily sings “ And I am a weapon of massive consumption and its not my fault it’s how I’m programmed… don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore And when do you think it will all become clear? ‘Cuz I’m being taken over by the Fear.”

    I by no means am preaching that everyone needs a religion, nor am I an overly religious person and I take issue with many of the teachings of my current church. That said there are timeless principles that I utilize from my religion and tie back to my Spirituality which as defined by Encarta Dictionary describes it as “relating to the soul or spirit, usually in contrast to material things”. As you write about “spontaneous orders” and “complexity” and the “Cosmic Consciousness” this means that one has to have some sort of connectedness with a higher power, energy, and for some God and also admit to the mortality and weakness of mankind. For some it takes a religion to make this connection and for others it requires alternative methodologies like meditation. At the end of the day, the individual needs to stop and take the time to reflect on life principles to determine what daily thoughts and actions support the founding principles of our nation “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as well as the golden rule – “do unto others as you would have done to you.”

    As you have previously taught about the ego this can be a rather difficult process to realize the fragility of the individual in comparison to an omnipresence of the collective as well as admitting that an individual does not have control or the answers. Once this realization occurs, it can appear that years of education and career experience are useless. And for Geithner and Obama could be devastating if they are functioning out of ego and not loving principles – going back to your previous blog. As James D writes “Our ego driven society has most of us convinced that everything is controllable, so it follows that the politician who manages to convince us that he or she can best control things will get elected. It may not be the truth, but it makes the masses feel better. Geithner and Obama can go back to bed. They don’t seem to be willing to realize that the world didn’t start turning when they got into office, and it won’t stop if they screw up or when they leave. The rest of us still have to feed our families and take care of our lives, no matter who’s in office.”

    If Geithner and Obama can find a way to “give up control” and relate back to cosmic consciousness, what years of education and experience has offered them is a way to connect with other individual spirits in the human form to attempt to recognize the collective power in a tangible state. Until that occurs, the collective individuals and families need to take responsibility and identify thoughts and actions that are supportive of both prosperity and spiritual connectedness which is in alignment with the “golden rule”. I believe this trend is already starting, at least with me and my employer for every decision made relates back to a single question that is continually being asked, “How is this socially responsible?” Those that stick by this principle will prosper and the government will find they will not need to introduce additional policy. Those that appear extravagant and over indulgent will not be tolerated as individuals collectively decide to forgo product purchases and not utilize services from these entities that are myopically focused on wealth. There will not be a need for additional regulation or redistribution of wealth.

    For in the end, this is how the economy will correct itself, free market, supported by new innovations and advancements as a result of inspiration by those undeterred by the current economic conditions as well as those adversely impacted with a desire to get back on track. In a time, when the press continues to publish stories about greed and immorality it is easy to forget that there are still moral and ethically responsible individuals with great resiliency, still ambitious and driven to succeed regardless of circumstances. It is these individuals that will answer the call to address the demands placed by the new socially responsible consumer. It will be based on the fundamental economic principle of supply and demand and having a spiritual connectedness and/or cosmic consciousness to recognize the demands and support the decentralized decision making to determine what will be supplied.

  6. Tesh says:

    Those who humbly press on, contributing more than consuming, will always be the backbone of a culture. They just get outnumbered sometimes, and when that happens, the natural equilibrium has to shift until stability returns. You can no more control that process than you can control the tides, since it’s based on fundamental realities, not market alchemy.

    I just hope we’re not Icarus, making completely catastrophic and irreversible mistakes. I suspect that we may be, though, which is the alarming aspect of this whole mess.

  7. Tesh, Jim and H,

    I appreciate your astute points.

    I just watched a few minutes of the President in front of the Business Roundtable. The assumptions of those assembled and those of the President were still very much rooted in a command and control world, where the illusion of predictability is the norm. In spite of the suffering of so many already their smugness seems to be unshakable. I shudder to think how bad things need to get before we begin to collectively question our beliefs.

  8. From: “Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know It All:”

    David H. Wolpert a physics-trained computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, has chimed in with his version of a knowledge limit. Because of it, he concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful, that could exist within the universe. Specifically, during the past two years, he has been refining a proof that no matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation. Philippe M. Binder, a physicist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, suggests that the theory implies researchers seeking unified laws cannot hope for anything better than a “theory of almost everything.”

  9. e says:

    Give them some slack. When you manage any organization, big or small, there are things that have to be directed and managed. If you’ve ever managed a corporate division, most of your 12 hour day is taken up by conference calls, meetings, and other “non-production” events (reports, presentations, coordination, etc.). It’s not a philosophical thing, regardless of ivy league education. It’s how things get done in the real world.

  10. E,

    On an organizational level I call what you describe “firefighting” and there are ways to lead other than that exhausting way. My book on leadership, that I’m just finishing is about those other ways.

  11. Tesh says:

    e, making the assumption that the economy is one of those things that “needs” to be managed is the crux of the issue. What it “needs” is merely to be honest, and based on integrity, then it manages itself. When the folks in charge seek not to bring transparency and honesty, but to obfuscate and sell hyperbole, they aren’t even “managing” correctly.

    Beyond that, there’s the reality that it *can’t* be completely managed, and trying to do so is an exercise in diminishing returns. Confusing the vectors of causality leads to erroneous “treatment” of the very real problems.

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