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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Help prevent blindness

I have learned much by being a dog owner. Today we are celebrating the birthday of our older hound who is the best dog in the world. She is 17 years old today, a remarkable feat for a chocolate lab. They are not supposed to live this long. Her mother died before age 10 and she has outlived everyone in her litter. Before the ravages of age caught up with her she was a remarkable athlete, with the best snout-eye coordination I have ever seen. Her disposition was close to perfect. I have thought about the utility of having her exome sequenced. If there is a genetic basis for such a perfect animal, then we should have this data.

However, she is now 17 years old and as far as we can tell she can still smell but she is virtually blind and completely deaf. She can sense her world only by sniffing it and running into it. Her present state of being does not allow her to see what is coming, except in very narrow circumstances. Even then she finds herself running into things and if we did not put up barriers and guide her, she would end up falling down stairs. Loss of key senses prevents her from anticipating and avoiding hazards.

It is essential for all living beings to have such an ability and to use it wisely. In the same sense, such functionality also extends to entities which are formed by the actions of groups of people. Organizations which are blind to how their actions in the present impact their group in the future are destined to do things which will result in actions which will result in bad consequences. Individuals who belong to organizations have eyes and ears, but these are no the sensory organs which directly guide these entities. These organizations receive feedback in the form of membership numbers, dues, contributions, and recognition. Like living beings these entities require food and ego gratification. Money serves as the fuel that feeds their energy needs and  recognition provides the ego gratification. In a sense, financial tools represent sensory organs for organizations. Money is like the photons which shed light on the structures which an organization has in place to make sure it is viable.

Democratically formed states represent a special form of organizational entity. Where voluntary organizations are completely dependent upon serving their membership, political states are different. If members become blind to the wants and desires of their members or those who provide financial resources, the members will leave and the donors will stop donating. Blindness is a death sentence. In contrast, political entities have the ability to compel people to continue to feed them whether they are blind to their constituent needs or not.
If a private entity cannot meet its payroll needs, the world is generally not so forgiving. The message will be sent, find a way to convince others to voluntarily provide your organization with financial resources you need or cease to exist. A public entity supported by taxes can ignore such signals, at least for a while.

This may have its merits. Government support of basic research is justified based upon the lack of support that would be forthcoming from private sources. This might be true but the issue becomes once the genie is out of the bottle how do political entities create boundaries which they do not cross? How can they say no? Absent the usual financial sensory organs which maintain discipline for private entities, once states start down a given path, how do they know where they are going to end up if they are flying blind?

When my blind dog walks around, she gets feedback whenever she walks into something. I suspect that is a painful experience and she cannot continue because something is in her way. We structure her environment such that we avoid existential threats such as falling down a flight of stairs or walking off a cliff.  How do governments, blindly operating without the usual financial vision avoid existential threats? I am not sure we have an answer to this question.  It is not impossible to deploy the same financial tools to state entities as we apply to private entities.

The barriers to deployment are political. Being or appearing to be blind to financial reality confers a short term political advantage to those running for office. That is actually a very frightening thought in that we now operate in a system that provides leadership with an incentive to be blind. I look at my old blind dog and see what blindness means to her. She has benevolent owners who keep her from walking off a cliff. When our leadership cultivates blindness, who will prevent us from walking off a similar cliff.

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