Monday, December 31, 2012

A Picture Is Forming

Excellent essay by Aengus Anderson over at BoingBoing:
I began thinking about disquiet as I was working on two sprawling radio projects. After recording long conversations with nearly four hundred strangers about the past and present, I began to hear a common refrain rise out of the clamor: the future was scary. Nobody could agree on the cause, but they shared a narrative structure.

Trespass. Punishment. Redemption—maybe.

The trespass could be anything from capitalist excess to withering family values, but in both cases, it resulted from hubris. Punishment always came in the form of collapse, whether environmental or economic, abrupt or incremental. If the story continued, redemption could look like a Norman Rockwell painting, Star Trek, or a massively depopulated planet of sustainable farms.

If I had been seeking our common humanity, I found it in a primal sense that we are about to enter the punishment phase.

[...] But this nagging doubt made me take the disquiet seriously. The Americans I met were level-headed, not Cassandra-like. For them, anxiety stemmed less from feeling personally stifled than from a belief that the biggest systems supporting us were cracking at the foundations. There was a consensus that the economy was rigged, money had eroded the democratic process, and, for a large minority, environmental problems were escalating. Optimism about personal lives was mirrored by pessimism about broader change.

It is easy to say that every historical moment is unique and people always feel they inhabit pivotal moments. This is true in many ways, but attributing the disquiet to biology or psychology drags our moment outside of history and prevents us from seeing fundamentally new issues when they arise. We are more interconnected than at any point in the past and our tower of seven billion is propped up by a frail scaffolding of man-made and natural systems. As individuals, we are dwarfed less by God and Nature than by the immense scale and inertia of our own civilization. The stakes are high, the responsibility is ours alone and, perhaps for the first time, we're starting to feel it.
Test Driving The Apocalypse (BoingBoing)

People know in their hearts that things arent right, that the system is out of hand and not even working for the people at the top; that things are disintegrating, and that its reaching the limits of viability. Every Ponzi scheme collapses when it runs out of new people buying in. And there are entire industries dedicated to saying "look over there!" and assuring us that everything will be all right and that there is no alternative.

If there's one common thread here at The Hipcrime Vocab, that's it, along with exploring how we got here and what alternatives there are. If you read the entire essay above, you'll see that more and more people are coming to the realization that something is very wrong, even if they cannot articulate it or  express it by acting out in irrational (and unfortunately, sometimes violent) ways.

Earlier this week I listed some ideas about the future that the more mainstream and reasonable Peak Oil commentators who are aware of resource limits and environmental damage have made over the years and that are coming to pass. I rhetorically asked how long the mainstream can ignore them. Well, I am optimistic that they cannot be ignored forever. Maybe it's misplaced optimism, but I think one community who consistently and reliably describes the future more accurately than any other community, and who articultes the real underlying causes and proposes real solutions is eventually going to gain more followers that the ones who get it wrong over and over and over and over again (recovery is just around the corner!). Mr. Anderson's finding that these ideas are now being found all across the spectrum makes me believe that there is some sort of critical mass forming, even if the resolution is still mired in confusion. Yes, it will take time, but since the Mayans took a pass, we're not going anywhere.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Roman History Roundup

 
Like Rome Before the Fall? Not Yet. Piers Brendon, The New York Times
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN complains that he is being driven crazy because so many people are betting on America’s demise. Reports of it are not just exaggerated; they are, he insists, ridiculous. Like President Obama, he will not accept “second place” for the United States. Despite the present crippling budget deficit and the crushing burden of projected debt, he denies that the country is destined to fulfill a “prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended.”

Mr. Biden was referring in particular to the influential book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy, a British historian who teaches at Yale. Published in 1988, the book argues that the ascendancy of states or empires results from the superiority of their material resources, and that the wealth on which that dominance rests is eroded by the huge military expenditures needed to sustain national or imperial power, leading inexorably to its decline and fall. The thesis seems a tad schematic, but Professor Kennedy maintains it with dazzling cogency. In any debate about the development of the United States, one would certainly tend to side with the detached historian rather than the partisan politician.
As the Romans Did. Cullen Murphy, The Atlantic Monthly
Q: How might this tolerance for second acts play into the privatization of public services that you talk so much about in the book? You argue persuasively that we’re setting the stage for a real crisis of power and accountability in government down the line. In the case of Rome, at least, that dispersal of public power and the rise of people operating primarily in their own interest eventually led to feudalism. Do you think the United States is headed toward a similar sort of corporate feudalism?

A: I do worry that America is heading toward some kind of feudal state again. The great thing that kept Rome together for so long was the fact that the people who held public power had a deeply ingrained sense of public virtue that was a great restraint. It goes back to the same sense of honor that led people to take their lives at a moment of what they perceived as public disgrace. They didn’t feel they could simply retreat to private life again.

In the United States, we created a state with a very pronounced set of public objectives and public responsibilities that were well laid out. My worry now is that we’re moving away from this great sense of government as a public calling—if you’re thinking benignly, in the interest of efficiency, or if you’re thinking malignly, in the interest of greed—and toward something very different, something market driven. In the end it amounts to getting the government that you pay for. Not just that you’ve paid for as a people, but that you’ve paid for as individuals. It’s happening all around us, usually in the guise of some deal that’s just too good to walk away from, and it’s happening in virtually every sector of public endeavor. Even if one can make the case that privatization makes sense in this instance or that instance—or even in every instance—the effect over time is going to be that there’s no government left, that all power of one sort or another is in private hands. Ultimately the result is to bring back feudalism. And we’re well on the way to it.

I don’t know how you can stop it, because the privatizing forces amount to basically everybody. Everybody has an interest in privatizing something or accepting the privatization of something. But in order to make something public, you have to get everybody on board, and you have to get everybody to agree to raise taxes and give the government more responsibility. Hardly anyone wants to make that argument any longer. It’s a ratchet that only turns one direction, and once it’s clicked toward the private sector I don’t know how you turn it back.
Is Our Republic Ending? Steven Strauss, The Huffington Post
Eight Parallels Between the Collapse of Rome's Republic and Contemporary America:
  1. Staggering Increase in the Cost of Elections, with Dubious Campaign Funding Sources
  2. Politics as the Road to Personal Wealth
  3. Continuous War
  4. Foreign Powers Lavish Money/Attention on the Republic's Leaders
  5. Profits Made Overseas Shape the Republic's Internal Policies
  6. Collapse of the Middle Class
  7. Gerrymandering
  8. Loss of the Spirit of Compromise
The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather review (The Guardian)
Tom Holland on the Fall of Rome (Telegraph)
The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham review (The Guardian)
Bryan Ward Perkins The Fall of the Roman Empire (Westminster Wisdom)
Review: 'Rome: An Empire's Story' by Greg Woolf (About.com)
Rome, Inc. by Stanley Bing review (UNRV History)

Building Materials Roundup


Concrete is a neat material. It’s strong, can be molded, and even colored. Now scientists have made concrete that heals itself using bacteria:
Bacterial spores and the nutrients they will need to feed on are added as granules into the concrete mix. But water is the missing ingredient required for the microbes to grow.

Concrete is the world's most popular building material, but cracking is a problem So the spores remain dormant until rainwater works its way into the cracks and activates them. The harmless bacteria - belonging to the Bacillus genus - then feed on the nutrients to produce limestone.The bacterial food incorporated into the healing agent is calcium lactate - a component of milk. The microbes used in the granules are able to tolerate the highly alkaline environment of the concrete.

"In the lab we have been able to show healing of cracks with a width of 0.5mm - two to three times higher than the norms state," Dr Jonkers explained.
Key test for re-healable concrete (BBC).

And previously technicians created self-cleaning concrete that can clear the air:
The idea of adding titanium dioxide to concrete is not a new concept. In 2007, Italian company Italcementi developed a cement that was also laced with titanium dioxide, and could neutralize certain harmful pollutants. It's called TX Active, and when exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light, the titanium dioxide transforms any nitrogen oxides or sulfur oxides into harmless nitrates or sulfates which can be washed away by rainwater, much like the titanium dioxide mix that EUT researchers are testing in the Netherlands right now.
Fly ash from coal-burning power plants has been known to strengthen concrete for some time and is frequently used as an additive, diverting it from landfills. They are also experimenting with techniques to inject carbon into concrete to make the process carbon-neutral (5 percent of CO2 emissions come from concrete production):
[Atlas Block takes] CO2 supplied from local industrial sources and injects it directly into concrete masonry units (CMUs) during production using a specially designed mold. Atlas Block is using the CarbonCure system primarily to reduce the carbon footprint of its products, but injecting CO2 into CMUs during manufacture also improves their strength, reduces the amount of portland cement required, and speeds curing. Atlas Block also offers products with post-consumer recycled glass. Atlas Block / CarbonCure is the first product brought to market that sequesters CO2 without requiring a dramatic change in current manufacturing processes.
Building Green's Top Ten Green Products of the Year Are Not Sexy But They Will Make A Difference (Treehugger)

Insulated cement looks like a promising solution for building insulation:
When it comes right down to it, most insulation is simply some form of entrapped air, whether in foam or in fiberglass or in cellulose. The greenest one is going to have the fewest chemicals that can outgas, the lowest impact during manufacture, good stability so that it doesn't settle and good fire resistance. I was really surprised to find that it might also be made from cement.
Cement is not one of TreeHugger's favourite materials, given that a ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of cement produced. But materials made with it have some great attributes, including longevity and fire resistance. If you mix it with air and foam it up with special equipment, you get AirKrete, a foam-in-place insulation that looks like shaving cream and has an R value of 3.9 per inch, which is pretty good.
AirKrete: Green Insulation From Cement (Treehugger)

A lot of “natural” materials can make insulation, such as the cork boards mentioned in the previous article, the trick is making sure they don’t rot and decay and become mold farms in the presence of moisture, which is why the manufacture and chemicals used are often so toxic. It’s a paradox of green building: the insulation and waterproofing that makes such buildings possible is also toxic to manufacture. But the highest insulator is actually a vacuum. Early Warning points out, “Vacuum-insulated panels have five times the R-value per inch of conventional insulation, but are currently too expensive and hard-to-apply to see widespread use.  Inventors and entrepreneurs needed over there please!” I’ve only seen vacuum panel insulation used in very few instances on existing structures where weight is critical and conventional  insulation cannot be added for some reason. Vacuum panels are clipped on the outside. Maybe we should push this along.

Vacuum Insulated Panel (Wikipedia)
Vacuum Insulated Panel (VIP) (Toolbase)

Taking this to its logical extreme, imagine an entire house as a vacuum bottle. They did – back in 1932! Try not to snicker at the warnings of the coming Ice Age, though.

Vacuum Bottle Houses From 1932 (Treehugger)

And you can make bricks anf tiles out of just about anything nowadays: Paper Waste Can Be Made Into Eco-Friendly Bricks (Treehugger). Time for a return of Brick Expressionism? How about Timbrel Vaulting?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Defense of Rational Politics

Featuring special guests Andrew Kliman, Steve Keen and Slavoj Žižek.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time studying the Technocracy Movement that emerged during the last Great Depression, I was strongly drawn to this brilliant and concise unintentional rallying cry for its fundamental concepts by economics professor Andrew Kliman in this podcast. I have transcribed it below:
"We do have a dearth of rationality. And I'm not trying to be snide or to be disrespectful, what I'm trying to say is, we live in a day and age, and I think even in Marx's day, he lived in a day and age in which a rationalist approach to politics is not very widely accepted or practiced. And I believe that that is a huge mistake. I believe that In most realms of life when it matters, people take a very sober approach - they look at the consequences of actions, they judge various alternatives in terms of their likely consequences, they get as much information as possible, they ask for advice, and so forth. And if you say, on the left in particular, that this is the kind of thing that's needed, and I would say that, and I would say that we need to appeal to people to take destiny in their own hands not because it's gonna be cool or empowering to them, but in order for us to have a future, which is a very rationalist thing to say, people tend to look at you like you're crazy when you say this. Whereas I think it's just crazy not to act like this, 'cause in any other thing where it matters, this is the way we act. We do, for the most part, act rationally. But we tend to compartmentalize what are called religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs and political things; we put them in a different compartment, for reasons that I have no understanding of whatsoever. Why should politics be based on a different way of relating to the world than the way we construct a bridge, or the way we cure a disease?"
The host questions whether the Left should appeal to both the emotional passions of their followers as well as construct an intellectual argument in order to address their ideas to a wider public:
"...Unlike much of what we get, which is very visceral coming from parts of the left [who are] very much focused on what do we do to inspire people and those kinds of issues, that those tendencies are one sided; they're missing what is part of all of us, is the rational element, and that the problem is to break down this idea that politics and the leap about the ultimate nature of reality that we call religion, they can be put in a seperate compartment and dealt with in a very different way than we deal with everyday matters otherwise. Most people are extremely rational when it comes to other everyday matters and when it comes to building bridges and when it comes to curing illness and so forth, so why not politics? It doesn't mean that you ignore the role of emotions, but it means that you don't operate totally on the basis of that...We need a politics that does appeal to reason, that does appeal to masses of peoples' minds and says, 'Look, the leaders of world and the system, it's not working for you, its not working even for it right now, and the left parties, with rare exceptions, and the left movement with rare exceptions, isn't coming up with any solutions to this; you have to be the solution. And to be the solution you can't just act, you know, with muscle, you have to act with your brain."
Why are poltics based on emotion? Why are they more like religions? Why don't we appreach solving social problems the same way we solve technical problems? This quote from economist Steve Keen from another podcast sums it up well, and bolsters the case for technocracy, rather than two (and only two) bickering parties seeing who can best stir the passions of their followers. The host points out that politicans don't really seem to understand the crucial issues of Peak Oil that society is facing:
"That's one of the difficulties, because, you know, the people who get attracted to politics fundamentally are narcissists. I mean you get some people who are truly driven by some idea of the greater good and so on, but there's a tendency...the narcissitic side of human personality is attracted to politics, and you don't necessarily get people who are deep thinkers. They're capable of being deep talkers, you know. They can appear...they can say the right words at various times, but the depth of understanding is quite limited. And I've had some of my colleagues who work actually in peak oil and energy theory have often said that they just don't believe that our political structures are capable of dealing with the complexity of the problems we face today. I think if you go back two thousand years, having a narcissist leading an army is a good idea, you know, 'Hail Caesar' works pretty well back when the only problem is fighting off the Huns or invading Gaul. But when you get to the level of complexity of society these days, you need people who really can think in a systemic way, and our political structures select people for the capacity to promote their personalities rather than to understand the system itself, so we may actually have to evolve our political structures to be able to cope with the type kinds of crises I think we're going to face."
Indeed, we expect intelligent, capable and well-trained professionals to manage every other aspect of our modern technological society (and  in fact subject them to extensive examinations and restrictions to ensure this), but why not in the most important realm of all - governance and decision making? Here we allow only greedy, ignorant and narcissistic lawyers advised by economists who are there to defend the needs of the investor class (indeed, the term technocrat has become debased to really mean economist nowadays). You hear slurs against "professional politicans" all the time. If you needed your appendix removed, would you listen to someone constantly belittling "professional surgeons?"

The podcast concludes with some very intelligent and relevant remarks from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I was particularly struck by his pointing out that capitalism is hardly a system without values; people will gladly sacrifice their family life, health, social relationships and well-being just to accumulate profits, expand production and innovate. What drives this rejection of human happiness and values? It can only be another, very different value system in and of itself:
"Capitalism is, and this I'm almost tempted to say what is great about it, although I'm very critical of it, Capitalism is more an ethical/religious category for me. It's not true when people attack capitalists as egotists, they don't care for... no! An ideal capitalist is someone who is ready again to stake his life, to risk everything, just so that production grows, profit grows, capital circulates. His personal or her happiness is totally subordinated to this. This is what I think Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt School companion [and] thinker had in mind when he said Capitalism is a form of religion. You cannot explain, account for a figure of a person that [is] capitalist, obsessed with expanded circulation, with the rise of his company, in terms of personal happiness. I am, of course, fundamentally anticapitalist. But let's not have any illusions here, you know."
And he has some things to say about Occupy Wall Street:
"What shocks me is that most of the critics of todays capitalism feel even emrarassed, it's my experience, when you confront them with a simple question, 'Okay, we heard your story. Protest, horrible, big banks depriving us of billions, hundreds, thousands of billions of common people's money. Okay, but what do you really want? What should replace the system?' And then you get one big confusion. You get either general moralistic answers like, you know, 'people shouldn't serve money, money should serve people.' Well, Adolf Hitler would have agreed with you, especally because he would say when people serve money, money is controlled by Jews and so on, no? So either this, or some kind of a vague Keynsian social democracy, or a simple moralistic critique, and so on and so on. So, you know, its easy to be just formally anitcapitalist, but what does it really mean? It's totally open. This is why as I always repeat, with all of my sympathy for [the] Occupy Wall Street Movement, its result was, I call it a 'Bartleby lesson.' Bartleby, of course, Herman Melville's Bartleby, you know, who always answered his favorite, 'I would prefer not to.' The message of Occupy Wall Street is 'I would prefer not to play the existing game.' There is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and the existing forms of institutionalized democracy are not strong enough to deal with problems. Beyond this they don't have an answer and neither do I. For me, Occupy Wall Street is just a signal; it's like clearing the table. Time to start thinking."
He goes on to point out that people saying capitalism is decaying and on its last legs go all the way back to before the French Revolution. He also points out that the twentieth century alternatives to capitalism miserably failed. How can you abolish the market without regressing into relations of servitude and domination, as in Eastern Europe? Žižek posits that now is the time think, not necessarily act, and to be careful about what we do. He finds encouragement in things like the health care debate in the United States, because they are debates about the fundamental values of society, and that in itself is valuable, whatever the ultimate result. He concludes:
"The beauty is to select a topic which touches the fundamentals of our ideology, but at the same time we cannot be accused of promoting an impossible agenda like 'abolish all private property' or what. No, it's something that can be done, and is done relatively successfully and so on. So that would be my idea - to carefully select issues like this where we do stir up public debate but we cannot be accused of being utopians in the bad sense."
I would heartily agree with this. In fact it, and I, am fundamentally conservative in Burkean sense*. I believe in practical, incremental changes, rather than some sort of utopian posturings about abolishing money, or the gift economy, or starving the beast, or other ridiculous things. The instituions we have today are fundamentally the result of decades if not centuries of development; throwing out the baby with the bathwater does more harm than good. That's how societies evolve -they see a problem, and they develop a solution to the problem. It's always a spit and bailing wire  approach and always has been. Utopians who think they can put into place an entire ideal system from scratch and get everyone to buy in have always failed, on the left and the right, and often end up causing untold misery and death. The only way you can get these types of societal-wide buy-ins is through authoritarianism, and it is also the only way you can prevent the system from evolving out of necessity. That's why we see the massive surveillance states springing up all across the capitalist world. Times change, and previous ideas don't work anymore. Yes, sometimes previous solutions lead to bigger problems down the line (like student loans). But you always have to react to the world as you find it with the resources at hand. And the idea that doing nothing and letting the market take its course is a viable solution is idiotic. It masquerades as non ideological, but is in fact the most extreme sort of ideology. The market is not an impersonal force; it's been a government project since day one, and has been routinely failing since day one also.

So, in light of Zizek's statement above, here are just a few ideas for the debates:
  • Public Banks - North Dakota already has one.
  • Universal Health Care - we already have it for people over sixty that delivers health care for a fraction of the cost of for profit systems (which is why it's trying to be killed). Medicare for all solves the problem overnight.
  • Univeral Basic Income - the Alaska Permannt Fund distributes the profits from the states' natural resources to every citizen. Some people even live on it.
  • Modern Monetary Theory has an extensive theoretical formation which can be accessed at New Economic Perspectives.
  • Free Higher Education is already provided throughout Northern Europe. We've already expanded access to free education many times before.
  • Shortened work weeks and work sharing would solve many unemployment and other problems. These are already being experimented with in Northern Europe.
  • Germany does a far better job of matching people with the real demands of the industrial job force, rather than tossing them overboard into the water after an arbitrary point to sink or swim and expect skills to magically line up with what the economy needs by osmosis.
  • Traditional Neighborhood Development is an alternative to sprawl and express busses and bike lanes provide solutions to transportation problems in various cities around the world.
  • Worker owned cooperatives already exist, for example, Gar Alperovitz has written a book about them. The Mondragon Company in Spain and Organic Valley in Wisconsin are but two examples. 
  • Believe it or not, most transactions still take place outside of the money economy (mostly through relatives and families). The gift economy never went away.
  • The open source movement provides a model for software development, and a model for development of other collaborative tasks.
  • Collaborative consumption businesses like ZipCar and AirBnB are flourishing.
All of these ideas function now, including some already within the United States itself. This is why we should focus our efforts on getting the word out about these ideas before trying to change things from the top down, which will not work.

Finally, from the Steve Keen interview cited above, this exchange is very revealing about the problem with economics as it is traditionally practiced, once again providing a justification for technocracy based on rational scientific values and production for necessity, rather than running governments centered around speculative money/debt financial relations:
SK: "Again, one of the enduring myths of neoclassical economics is that you can explain output as the product of labor and capital input plus technological change, and they don't have energy in their thinking whatsoever."

KMO: "So not only does neoclassical economics not include banks, money and debt..."

SK: "They don't include energy either. And I had this classic experience just in the United Nations meeting in Bangkok just recently where I was working with ...one of our research groups in Austrialia and making the case that you have to include energy as an independant input, because ultimately that's where profit comes from; we're exploiting the energy of the sun, the energy of the entire universe that's nascent in nuclear power and hydrocarbons and biomass and so on. That's where we're really managing to do production from. And this neoclassical economist came back at me and said, 'look, you know, we produce energy by combining labor and capital.' And I said, no we don't, we exploit what is already there. If you believe you can produce energy by using labor and capital, you believe in a perpetual motion machine."

KMO: "We access..."

SK: "We access what is already there; we cannot make it. That's the law of conservation of energy and matter. That realism that comes from an energy aware thermodynamic perspective is completely lacking in neoclassical economics, which is why again they can't see any problems about peak oil and global climate change."

KMO: "The oil industry and the energy sector generally...defines the act of accessing those energy resources underground as production. They call that producing energy, rather than extraction."

SK: "Yeah, it's extraction of energy. If we had that realism then we'd...again a large part of why we make mistakes as we do in economic policy and energy policy and so on, we don't actually have a realistic model of what's going on. So if you actually get people to see it from a realistic, thermodynamical point of view, then we know that we're extracting free energy. That's the source of production and the source of growth. We're necessarily creating more waste. We completely circumvent this whole, you know, global warming, global skeptic argument. By saying necessarily, if you're going to have production, you're going to be generating more waste than you generate refined goods out of production, so that is a necessary element of the real world. And then you say, in that case, looking at it, the most important thing is to get that energy out as efficiently as possible; what's our current efficiency levels? You change your whole focus away from denying the problems you create and say, 'okay, if we must be choosing them how do minimize them,' but that mindset is just not a part of political thinking. And I don't think it will be until after such time as we hit crisis levels and then reverse engineer where we should have been in the first place."

* The best short description I have ever read of this comes from J.M. Greer, who writes:
"In the Anglo-American world, conservatism had its genesis in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who argued for an organic concept of society, and saw social and political structures as phenomena evolving over time in response to the needs and possibilities of the real world. Burke objected, not to social change—he was a passionate supporter of the American Revolution, for instance—but to the notion, popular among revolutionary ideologues of his time (and of course since then as well), that it was possible to construct a perfect society according to somebody’s abstract plan, and existing social structures should therefore be overthrown so that this could be done."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Is It Time To Admit - The Peak Oil Community Was Right?

Before we move on to predictions for the new year, it's worth noting just how many of the predictions that the peak oil community has made over the years are coming true even as we speak. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it's the one group that's been most consistently right about the world we're living in.

Americans driving less? Check.

High energy prices constraining economic activity? Check.

Climate change derived superstorms devastating entire regions? Check.

Weird weather all over the world? Check.

Resource scarcity? Check.

Agricultural output peaking? Check.

Wildfires and drought crippling the Western United States? Check.

Tropical diseases returning to first world countries and spreading north? Check.

The global economy in shambles and attempts to restart economic growth around the world failing? Check

Debt repayments destroying national economies? Check

Unemployment and underemployment rising? Check

Food riots? Check.

Dust bowls and expanding deserts? Check.

Gasoline riots? Check.

Rise of right-wing populism and hostility to immigrants around the world? Check.

Mainstream economists seriously discussing the end of growth? Check.

People having less children and household formation down? Check.

Sail transport making a comeback? Check.

Economies turning to increasingly desperate measures such as tight oil, shale oil, fracking, horizontal drilling, deep offshore drilling and tar sands? Definitely yes.

What is going to take for the mainstream media, the political class, pundits, economists and others to admit that the Peak Oil community called it, and their predictions about the fate of humanity are squaring pretty tightly with events? How much longer can they sweep stuff under the rug and pretend that we're going to have business as usual?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Evolution of Inequality


One anthropologist is trying to understand the evolution of a class system in pre-agricultural societies. He's studying a fish-forager society at Keatley Creek, British Columbia. This, in turn, tells us, something about how agricultural societies must have evolved all around the world:
Nomadic hunter-gatherers were essentially egalitarian. They lived at a subsistence level, with starvation only the next drought away. Resources were shared, because sharing maximizes the chances of survival for the group as a whole. Hoarding—co-opting resources for private use—was socially unacceptable. Individual ambition was suppressed, because it would disrupt the group cohesion necessary for survival. Economic competition didn’t exist.

The combination of the Fraser River’s abundant salmon and consistent warm winds to dry caught fish made the Keatley Creek location a key fishing location for thousands of years and into the present. 
About 40,000 years ago humans began developing more complex tools and behaviors, and about 10,000 years ago, agriculture and animal domestication. For a long time researchers believed that these latter innovations, by greatly increasing the volume, reliability, and storability of food resources, were prerequisites for the development of socioeconomic inequality. However, the people of Keatley Creek still made their living by hunting, foraging, and most importantly for this story, fishing. They didn’t have agriculture or domesticated animals, except for dogs. What spurred the rise of inequality in that setting?

A key factor seems to have been salmon, which are abundant in the Fraser River. They are readily preserved by drying, and warm winds during the fishing season provide an ideal natural dehydrator. Salmon provided a reliable surplus of storable food that enabled the people of Keatley Creek to settle, eventually building a village where they could hunker down for the cold, dark winter of the British Columbia interior and still have enough to eat.

Brian’s work led him to a theory of how the people of Keatley Creek evolved strategies for sharing this bounty, and in the conclusion, we investigate its implications for the challenges of inequality today.
The Evolution of Fairness (Pacific Standard) See also: The Roots of Social Inequality (University of Montana) And:

The Gospel of Wealth Fails the Inequality Test in Primates (Scientific American)

But I'm not sure looking at chimpanzees and orangutangs tells you anything. Neither do hunter-gatherers. Once humans were able to store surpluses, it became survival of the richest - those on the top survived, as did those who obeyed those at the top. Egalitarianism was probably slowly bred out of the human genome during the course of agriculture (similar to the introduction of lactose tolerance and oxygen processing at high altitudes). Greed became optimal for evolutionary fitness, and those who didn't like it were slowly culled.

Crystal Ball Gazing

A few weeks ago the National Intelligence Council released it's Global Trends report for 2030:
By the year 2030, for the first time in history, a majority of the world's population will be out of poverty. Middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector. Asia will enjoy the global power status it last had in the Middle Ages, while the 350-year rise of the West will be largely reversed. Global leadership may be shared, and the world is likely to be democratizing.

But the planet may also be racked by wars over food and water, with the environment threatened by climate change. Individuals, equipped with new lethal and disruptive technologies, will be capable of causing widespread harm. Global economic crises could well be recurring.

It all depends on how events develop over the next decade, according to a new report, Global Trends 2030, prepared by the National Intelligence Council, comprising the 17 U.S. government intelligence agencies.

"We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures," writes Christopher Kojm, the NIC chairman, in his introduction to the report.
The World In 2030: Asia Rises, The West Declines (NPR)
U.S. intelligence sees Asia's global power rising by 2030 (Reuters)

Jeremy Grantham adds his two cents:
Grantham believes the world has undergone a permanent "paradigm shift" in which the number of people on Earth has finally and permanently outstripped the planet's ability to support us.

The phenomenon of ever-more humans using a finite supply of natural resources cannot continue forever, Grantham says--and the prices of metals, hydrocarbons (oil), and food are now beginning to reflect that.

Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion). For all of history except the last 200 years, the human population has been controlled via the limits of the food supply. Grantham thinks that, eventually, the same force will come into play again.
Grantham: We're Headed For A Disaster of Biblical Proportions (Business Insider) See also:

Is America on the road to zero growth? (Fabius Maximus)

And Robert Gordon, who we've covered before, points out that the great wave of innovation can only happen once:
The profound boost that these innovations gave to economic growth would be difficult to repeat. Only once could transport speed be increased from the horse (6 miles per hour) to the Boeing 707 (550 mph). Only once could outhouses be replaced by running water and indoor plumbing. Only once could indoor temperatures, thanks to central heating and air conditioning, be converted from cold in winter and hot in summer to a uniform year-round climate of 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the impact of the late-19th-century inventions faded away around 1970, the computer revolution took over and allowed the economy to remain on our historic path of 2% annual growth. Computers replaced human labor and thus contributed to productivity, but the bulk of these benefits came early in the Electronics Era. In the 1960s, mainframe computers churned out bank statements and telephone bills, reducing clerical labor. In the 1970s, memory typewriters replaced repetitive retyping by armies of legal clerks. In the 1980s, PCs with word-wrap were introduced, as were ATMs that replaced bank tellers and bar-code scanning that replaced retail workers.

The climax was the marriage of communications to the computer as the Internet arose in the 1990s. Amazon.com was founded in 1994, Google in 1998 and Wikipedia in 2001. Since 2002, though, most computer-related inventions have resulted not in fundamental transformation but in miniaturization, as with hand-held devices like the iPhone, which combines the pre-2002 functions of laptops and early cellphones.
After demolishing the so-called techno solutions (biotech, fracking, 3D printing, driverless cars),  he concludes:
In setting out the case for pessimism, I have been accused by some of a failure of imagination. New inventions always introduce new modes of growth, and history provides many examples of doubters who questioned future benefits. But I am not forecasting an end to innovation, just a decline in the usefulness of future inventions in comparison with the great inventions of the past.

Even if we assume that innovation produces a cornucopia of wonders beyond my expectations, the economy still faces formidable headwinds. The retirement of the baby boomers and the continuing exodus of prime-age males from the labor force, sometimes called the "missing fifth," are reducing hours worked per member of the population. American educational attainment continues to slide ever-downward in the international league tables, due to cost inflation at our universities, $1 trillion in student loans, abysmal test scores and large numbers of high-school dropouts.

And inequality in America will continue to grow, driven by poor educational outcomes at the bottom and the rewards of globalization at the top, as American CEOs reap the benefits of multinational sales to emerging markets. From 1993 to 2008, income growth among the bottom 99% of earners was 0.5 points slower than the economy's overall growth rate. If future output grows, as I expect, at a rate of just 1% a year, that means the overwhelming majority of Americans will see their incomes grow just 0.5% annually.

The future of American economic growth is dismal, and policy solutions are elusive. Skeptics need to come up with a better rebuttal. 
Why Innovation Won't Save Us (Wall Street Journal)

UPDATE: On the innovations front, Charles Hugh Smith is saying much the same thing as Robert Gordon:
"The usual suspects" for the next engine of growth include nanotechnology, biotechnology, unconventional energy and Digital Fabrication, i.e. 3-D printing and desktop foundries. But are any of these capable of not just replacing jobs and revenues in existing industries, but creating more jobs and expanding revenues and profits?

The Status Quo dares not even entertain this question because the only way to service the fast-rising mountain of debt that is sustaining the Status Quo is to "grow our way out of debt," i.e. expand the real economy faster than debt.

The past 250 years has been one long "proof" that we can indeed "grow our way out of debt" because the low-hanging fruit of industrialization and cheap, abundant energy enabled wealth to be created at a faster pace than debt.

Clueless Keynesians mock those questioning the possibility that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked by noting that doomsdayers were actively decrying the ballooning debt of the British Empire in the mid-1700s. We all know how that story ended: what looked like crushingly massive debt in 1780 was reduced to a trivial sum by the rapid expansion of industrialization.

But suppose the end of cheap, abundant energy (replaced by abundant, costly energy) and the Internet spells the end of centralized models of growth? What if all the innovation currently bubbling away only produces marginal returns?

Take biotechnology for example. Those with little actual knowledge of biotech are quick to latch onto the potential for genetic engineered medications, biofuels, etc. What they don't ask is if these technologies can scale up while costs decline, i.e. the computer technology model where everything progressively gets cheaper and more powerful.

Healthcare spending is clearly in terminal marginal return: our collective health continues to decline in key metrics even as spending doubles, triples and quadruples. The same can be said of defense, education and many other industries.

Sectors such as agriculture have already seen employment decline by 98% even as production rose; there are still improvements in agriculture (robotic milking machine, for example) but the low-hanging fruit in agriculture as well as in medicine, education, etc. have all been picked.

The next wave of innovation will destroy protected profit centers and employment; even the Armed Forces are not immune, as the "ships of the future" will have relatively small crews and robotic drones will replace high-cost, high-employment weapons systems.

The semi-magical belief that technological innovation will create wealth in such quantities that all other problems become solvable may well be false. We may have entered an era of marginal returns, where innovations destroy jobs, wealth, assets and debt--the very foundations of "growth."



Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Gift Ideas!

Unfortunately, coal is far too rare and valuable for Santa to put in my stocking this year. But just because Santa wasn't kind to me doesn't mean that you can't buy that special little boy or girl in your life a present that he or she will enjoy for years to come. After extensive research, I have found the best-selling toy items from this year, and have included the descriptions below. Enjoy!

Lil' Fracker Fracking Kit - Just add water! Freeze blocks and break them apart using the included squeeze box and the secret proprietary blend of included fracking fluids (please don't drink, and careful, they're flammable!). When you're done, just pour the liquid down the drain. Is that legal? Who cares, that's someone else's problem! Oil will not work in cars or small engines, just like the stuff that comes out of real fracking. Only $7,999 with $7,900 mail-in rebate. Also get the horizontal drilling kit.

Mayan Calendar 2013 - The Mayans have realized their mistake and released a new calendar completely revised and updated for the the next b'ak'tun. Lovely pictures of pyramids and the rain forest. Never miss an appointment - keep track of all your important dates for the next 5,125 years. Please don't panic when it runs out, though.

Build your own drone kit: Sure to be the best-selling item every Christmas from now on! Why should the government have all the fun? Assemble the parts to make a remote control drone of various sizes and configurations, then use your Web browser to surveil your parents, next-door neighbors, the mailman, or anyone at school you don't like. Soon the Bug Splat™ add-on will make sure your little sister's Ken and Barbie weddings are a thing of the past. Don't be surprised if a military recruiter contacts you if you buy one, though.

Bushmaster assault rifle - Because absolutely anyone, anywhere, of any age and mental capability, can have any weapon whatsoever, no matter how lethal. All your friends already have one, so you'd better get yours quick while supplies last (and before Obama takes them away!) High capacity magazines and armor piercing rounds sold separately.

Tiny Tykes™ body armor - Sized especially for children. See above.

Betty Bedpan doll - Don't forget that special little girl! Betty Bedpan comes with a timer and organizer for her 50 daily medications. Spoon feed her, and she'll randomly empty her bowels into the included bedpan - be sure to change it or things might get smelly! Also comes with catheter, breathing tube, defibrillator, and blood draw kit. Betty Bedpan will keep girls (and boys) plenty busy as she needs round-the-clock care. Certified by the Department of Labor as a legitimate job training program (along with the EZ-Broil Deep Fryer Kit).

Monsanto™ Old MacDonald Starter Kit - Comes with everything you need to get started on your micro-farm: Monsanto™ brand genetically modified Roundup Ready™ seeds, Monsanto™ brand fertilizer, and Monsanto™ brand herbicides. Even 24 hour on-line and phone support from Monsanto! Only $19.95. Unfortunately, you have to buy Monsanto™ brand seeds and fertilizer forever after to use it more than once, at $1000 a pop. Use any other products in conjunction with this kit and Monsanto will see you in court (remember, your neighbor has a drone kit). Related is the High Times Cannibis Indoor Grow Kit, only available in Washington state.

Splice-A-Gene Genetic Modification Kit - Why should agribusiness have all the fun? Create your own mutant strains of all your favorite foods - wheat, vegetables, corn, soy, even animals, in the comfort of your own home. Glow in the dark broccoli? Sure! Plants that secrete insecticide? Why not? Chickens with four legs? Have at it, Frankenstein! You're limited only by your imagination! What will the results be? Who knows? Who cares?

Wall Street Monopoly - Expanded addition lets you bribe regulators, change rules on the fly, get unlimited money anytime (not just by passing "Go") and there is no "Go To Jail." Buy up the entire board and charge whatever you want forever - the game never ends!

RoboFactory from Japan - Fully automated factory turns out products by the hundred, just add raw materials. Absolutely no effort or labor is needed to run your factory, just plug it in an go, and watch the profits roll in!

High speed rail line - A best-seller in Europe and Asia and this year's must-have. Construct rail lines around your house or property by linking rails up to hundreds of yards long. Then put the train on the rails and watch it go up to two hundred miles an hour! Next year they will release the magnetic levitation version for even faster speeds! High-tech! Solar powered! This is my favorite toy of the year, but it's totally unavailable in the United States for some reason.

Happy Holidays all!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Useless Giving

Americans weren't always lobotomized, drooling consumers:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2012/12/the_war_on_christmas_it_started_100_years_ago_with_the_spugs.single.html

http://www.treehugger.com/culture/lets-have-real-war-christmas-excess-and-revive-spug-society-prevention-useless-gifts.html

http://www.treehugger.com/culture/brief-history-society-prevention-useless-giving.html
In 1911, faced with a surmounting culture of buying cheap, throwaway presents to give for Christmas, philanthropist August Belmont announced before a crowd of low-paid working woman at an event in New York City the formation of a new club: The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

The objective of SPUG, said Belmont, was to "eliminate, by co-operative effort, the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas, and to further in every way the true Christian spirit of unselfishness and independent thought, good-will, and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others."

Though it might have been a radical idea to shun the cheap trinkets and easy mindlessly popular gifts beckoning from behind store windows, by December of 1912 thousands of 'Spugs' had joined the Society. Membership was so strong, that SPUG's 10 cent dues helped fund America's first community Christmas Tree ceremony in New York's Madison Square Park.

New York City alone already had 82 Spug Squads, covering department stores across the city, and within a week of Teddy Roosevelt joining, the city squads boasted more than 2,000 women members—and 500 men. It was becoming hard for store owners to avoid the issue. "They are the ne plus ultra of the progressives in the United States," one newspaper proclaimed, and at meetings you could hear more than just Christmas being discussed—one rally speaker even proposed "an anti-marriage strike of all single working girls until a universal eight-hour labor law should be passed."

The great challenge for a Christmas movement is to keep it going after the holiday, though—and as the first glimmers of the next holiday season arrived in November 1913, the Times announced that "The Spugs are on the warpath again."
Useless consumption has become ever more crazy, and ever more tragic since then. Here's George Monbiot:
Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.
The Gift Of Death (Monbiot.com)

How did a holiday dedicated to some of the noblest elements in the human spirit turn into this? I've often wondered what the world would be like if our Christmas "tradition" were to give to charity instead of each other. Imagine if all of those billions spent at Best Buy and Wal Mart went instead to the needy. Poverty might be eliminated overnight. Too bad society's priorities are determined by TV and the media.

Aged Cheese

 
Traces of dairy fat in ancient ceramic fragments suggest that people have been making cheese in Europe for up to 7,500 years. In the tough days before refrigerators, early dairy farmers probably devised cheese-making as a way to preserve, and get the best use out of, milk from the cattle that they had begun to herd.

Peter Bogucki, an archaeologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, was in the 1980s among the first to suspect that cheese-making might have been afoot in Europe as early as 5,500 bc. He noticed that archaeologists working at ancient cattle-rearing sites in what is now Poland had found pieces of ceramic vessels riddled with holes, reminiscent of cheese strainers. Bogucki reasoned that Neolithic farmers had found a way to use their herds for more than milk or meat.

In a paper published in Nature2, Bogucki and his collaborators now confirm that theory, with biochemical proof that the strainers were used to separate dairy fats. Mélanie Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol, UK, used gas chromatography and carbon-isotope ratios to analyse molecules preserved in the pores of the ancient clay, and confirmed that they came from milk fats. “This research provides the smoking gun that cheese manufacture was practiced by Neolithic people 7,000 years ago,” says Bogucki

Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old (Nature blogs)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Apocalypse!

The uptick of extreme weather events – Sandy was the northeast’s second hurricane in two years running – presents us with a “new normal” for which we’re not quite prepared. It is neither unreasonable, nor a side effect from too many apocalyptic-themed cable TV documentaries, for people to question whether industrialized civilization is like an inverted pyramid, balancing on a tip, with too many of our priorities and resources loaded at the wrong end. Some observers claim that we sublimate and vent these fears through our diet of zombie TV shows, apocalyptic video games, and day-after novels and movies. But look again. The screen entertainment that best captures our current mood consists of movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Groundhog Day. Each of these films suggests that we not living the lives we think we are: that we are not making independent, thoughtful choices, but rather are following a conformist pattern of consumption and unawareness.

And that aspect of human nature exposes the real impetus behind our childlike fascination with end times. People everywhere yearn for inner change – for a way to detach from the cycle of routine daily existence, with its conflicts, habits, addictions, worries, and boredoms. We’re surrounded by therapeutic and religious ideas – yet the wish for change and personal fulfillment is almost always unfulfilled. So, in our frustration, we look without. We hope that some kind of seismic shift will rescue us from the inability to alter ourselves. Scary as it may be, the end of what we know promises to rupture old patterns and push us toward something new.

Consider the much-hyped Y2K, when the calendar turnover to the new millennium was supposed to wreak havoc on our computer systems. A highly accomplished parenting author told me at the time that his wife insisted on their purchasing a gas-powered generator. As he related the story I detected no fear at all in him; rather he sounded like a guy planning for a vacation. The same attitude appeared in other adults: they sounded like kids who were hoping for a “snow day” to get out of school. The routine of work, the obligations to family, the anxieties of day-in-day-out existence – all of it can seem to grow lighter for people when they think, as some do every few years, that the end is near. Many people indulge in a semi-believable image of a future that, if nothing else, represents a radical departure from the present.

But neither fantasy nor denial will work anymore. We need to better understand what it is in ourselves that is so bored or disaffected with the present that we enjoy musing over imagined disasters – even while we as a society fail to sensibly prepare for altogether real and predictable ones. In the coming year – and there will be one – we must trade “The End Is Near” for an older and more productive principle: “Know Thyself.”
Mitch Horowitz: Once More Awaiting “The End” (BoingBoing)

Monopoly!

Today, we have monopoly under consideration, the game and the real thing. First up, Monopoly Is Theft - a history of the world's most popular contemporary board game. The basics - it was dreamed up as a way to demonstrate the evils of rent seeking. Then someone decided to copyright it and get rich off of what had been a collaborative effort. The irony is, of course, that the history of the game itself tells us a lot about capitalism as well.

I've wanted to write about some alternative economic ideas that once thrived in the nineteenth century before the division into "Capitalism" and "Communism" sucked all the air out of any alternatives. This means people like Henry George, Peter Kropotkin, Sylvio Gessell, and C.H. Douglas, among others. Dmitry Orlov already beat me to Kropotkin, and this article gives a good history of the ideas of Henry George which led to the formation of the game:
A few weeks before the tournament, I’d had a conversation with Richard Marinaccio, the 2009 U.S. national Monopoly champion. “Monopoly players around the kitchen table”—which is to say, most people—“think the game is all about accumulation,” he said. “You know, making a lot of money. But the real object is to bankrupt your opponents as quickly as possible. To have just enough so that everybody else has nothing.” In this view, Monopoly is not about unleashing creativity and innovation among many competing parties, nor is it about opening markets and expanding trade or creating wealth through hard work and enlightened self-interest, the virtues Adam Smith thought of as the invisible hands that would produce a dynamic and prosperous society. It’s about shutting down the marketplace. All the players have to do is sit on their land and wait for the suckers to roll the dice.

Smith described such monopolist rent-seekers, who in his day were typified by the landed gentry of England, as the great parasites in the capitalist order. They avoided productive labor, innovated nothing, created nothing—the land was already there—and made a great deal of money while bleeding those who had to pay rent. The initial phase of competition in Monopoly, the free-trade phase that happens to be the most exciting part of the game to watch, is really about ending free trade and nixing competition in order to replace it with rent-seeking.

Henry George was not formally trained in economics. At age sixteen, he shipped out of his native Philadelphia as a mast boy on the freighter Hindoo, bound for Australia and India, where he watched the crew threaten mutiny over their miserable working conditions. By the age of twenty, transplanted to California, he was working as a printer’s apprentice, a rice weigher, and a tramp farmworker. George was soon married and broke, caught up in a wave of unemployment on the West Coast, and by the winter of 1865 his pregnant wife was starving. “Don’t stop to wash the child,” the doctor told George upon the birth of a son that January. “Feed him.” Poverty turned his mind to economics, to the question of why poverty proliferated in a land of plentiful resources. Economics turned him to newspapers, where he imagined he might get paid for his ideas. Eventually, journalism brought him to live in New York City.

What puzzled George was that wherever he saw advanced means of production arise in the United States—wherever industry was built up and capital accumulated—more poor people could be found, and in more desperate conditions. It was for him a stunning paradox. “It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed,” wrote George. “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes . . . progress is not real and cannot be permanent.” In 1879, he published the book that made him famous, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth—The Remedy, which provided a sweeping answer to the riddle: land monopoly was the reason progress brought greater poverty. As American civilization advanced, as populations grew and aggregated in and around cities, land became scarce, prices soared, and the majority who had to live and work on the land paid those prices to the minority who owned it. For the laboring classes, rent slavery was the result. “To see human beings in the most abject, the most helpless and hopeless condition,” George wrote, “you must go, not to the unfenced prairies and the log cabins of new clearings in the backwoods, where man singlehanded is commencing the struggle with nature, and land is yet worth nothing, but to the great cities where the ownership of a little patch of ground is a fortune.”

George noted that many premodern tribes recognized no right of land ownership; the tribesman’s property was the bow and arrow he built with his hands, not the land he hunted on. Nor was such a right recognized under the laws of the Old Testament, in which land was “treated as the gift of the Creator to his common creatures.” Moses had, after all, instituted the jubilee, under which land was redistributed every fifty years, and the debts incurred against land were canceled—a tradition ended by Roman rule. Everywhere George reviewed the annals of the precapitalist world, he saw the “struggle between this idea of equal rights to the soil and the tendency to monopolize it in individual possession.”

Rent was the key. In line with classical economics from the time of Adam Smith, George defined rent as the unearned income owners derived from the rising value of land, meaning it was distinct from the labor that went into property in the form of improvements, the construction of homes and offices and factories, and the cultivation of fields. A community’s productivity was the invisible hand that caused land values to increase. The cabin in the woods became a prize when a mine opened up across the field, a road linked the cabin to the mine, a country store opened to supply the miners, more homes were built, a railroad came in, a town was born. The land under the cabin derived its worth from what society built around it. Its increase in value therefore belonged to society, and George said this value was to be assessed and taxed at market rates. This “single tax” on land and natural resources offered a reform of capitalism—whose self-destruction George believed it was his task to prevent—that “open[ed] the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism.”
Read the whole thing here:  Monopoly Is Theft. Christopher Ketcham, Harper's Magazine. As I like to remind people, an economy without some sort of redistribution mechanism ends exactly like a game of Monopoly - with wealth so concentrated that economic transactions cannot continue (or at least not an a appropriate level). Sounds and awful lot like today, doesn't it?

And the money we use is a lot like Monopoly money, too. A lot of people denounce fiat currencies as "monopoly money", but that's what makes it work! Really, everything that's considered valuable, including gold, is only valuable because someone else thinks it is (gold isn't much more useful than a piece of paper.) This article uses the game of Monopoly to explain the concepts of what is often called Modern Monetary Theory, or functional finance.

I hesitated to include this article for a long time, because nothing sends people into paroxysms of emotion, including on the left, than the subject of debt (except maybe guns). I'm sure to get the usual criticisms, and will not respond to them here, except to state that I believe a government without the artificial constraints imposed by debt is one of our most important tools to manage contraction. It does no good to burn down the real world for an accounting fiction called debt. Note that monetary constraints are already waived by elites when it comes to the military and police state. Note also that it is axiomatic that we cannot mobilize resources we do not actually possess, but relying on the private sector to allocate them reasonably instead of taking them all for themselves is not a good strategy. Finally, note that this need not be national governments were talking about here. Finally, to the hairshirt ecologists say we need budget slashing and austerity to bring down living standards in line with ecological limits, to me this is sociopathic and sure to lead to the opposite result - the demonization of the ecological movement. We will get there one way or another. But tell the people who are dying for lack of medicine or killing themselves because they cannot find work in Greece and Spain that debt repayment is the most important thing right now.

I'm not at all surprised the author is an architect; I can tell you that it's always money - not ideas, talent, resources, know-how, skill, or anything else that gets in the way of what we could design. It's always money that gets in the way and leads to sub-optimal outcomes. And for those who argue that restraints are what's needed, keep in mind that also keeps us from mass transit, urban farms, housing for the homeless, Permaculture farms, ecological sanitation systems, free health clinics including birth control, efficiency measures like insulation for homes, and a million things that could help us manage contraction. Design isn't always more or bigger, it's about solutions to problems, whether it is the problem of a building or a society.
Why does it seem like there isn’t enough money to pay for the things we really need? The headlines are filled with stories about our nation’s “debt problem” and dire warnings about our impending “bankruptcy.” As an architect who fills his waking hours thinking up all kinds of wonderful things we could be building, I’m alarmed by the idea there isn’t enough money to pay for any of them. Before wasting more time dreaming, I had to find out: Is it really true? Are we really too poor to put America back to work making and building the things we need to maintain a prosperous nation?

Searching for an answer, I discovered a small (but growing) group of economists who represent an emerging school of thought known as “modern monetary theory” (MMT). These men and women are valiantly trying to make us all understand a paradigm shift that occurred some forty years ago, when the world abandoned the gold standard. Their key insight shocked me: A sovereign government is never revenue constrained when it is the Monopoly issuer of its own pure fiat currency; it has all the money that’s needed to put its citizens to work building anything—and providing any service—that is desired by the public (provided the real resources are available). Even more remarkable, sovereign “deficits” in the fiat currency are just the accounting record of the surpluses that have been injected into the private economy. Eliminating the sovereign currency deficit by imposing austerity will not make the economy healthier; it will, in effect, bankrupt the citizens!

If this seems to defy logic, stay with me for just a few minutes. I’m going to propose a simple exercise that will help you “see” this reality for yourself. The exercise is simply that everyone join me in a familiar game of Monopoly. By the end of the game, I hope to convince you that MMT is correct and that we could be doing better, much better – for ourselves and future generations—if we just understood and took ad vantage of our modern monetary system.
J. D. Alt: Playing Monopolis Monopoly: An Inquiry Into Why We Are Making Ourselves So Miserable (Naked Capitalism)

Finally, let's talk about some real monopolies. If you read the article on automation by Paul Krugman last week, you know he also links to an article by Barry Lynn (author of Cornered) and Philip Longman (who we encountered before here) about the extent to which our entire economic system is centrally controlled by massive monopolies and the effects this has on employment, or the lack thereof. The article is worth reading in full:
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to take a quick walk around a typical grocery or big-box store, and look more closely at what has taken place in these citadels of consumer choice in the generation since we stopped enforcing our antitrust laws.

The first proof is found in the store itself. If you are stocking up on basic goods, there’s a good chance you are wandering the aisles of a Wal-Mart. After all, the company is legendarily dominant in retail, controlling, for instance, 25 percent of groceries sales in some states and 40 percent of DVD sales nationwide.

But at least the plethora of different brands vying for your attention on the store shelves suggests a healthy, competitive marketplace, right? Well, let’s take a closer look.

In the health aisle, the vast array of toothpaste options on display is mostly the work of two companies: Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, which split nearly 70 percent of the U.S. market and control even such seemingly independent brands as Tom’s of Maine. And in many stores the competition between most brands is mostly choreographed anyway. Under a system known as "category management," retailers like Wal-Mart and their largest suppliers openly cooperate in determining everything from price to product placement.

Over in the cold case we find an even greater array of beer options, designed to satisfy almost any taste. We can choose among the old standbys like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller Lite. Or from a cornucopia of smaller brands, imports and specialty brews like Stella Artois, Redbridge, Rolling Rock, Beck’s, Blue Moon, and Stone Mill Pale Ale. But all these brands—indeed more than 80 percent of all beers in America—are controlled by two companies, Anheuser-Busch Inbev and MillerCoors.

Need milk? In many parts of the country, the choices you see in the Wal-Mart dairy section are almost entirely an illusion. In many stores, for instance, you can pick among jugs labeled with the names PET Dairy, Mayfield, or Horizon. But don’t waste too much time deciding: all three brands are owned by Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, and Wal-Mart’s own Great Value brand containers are sometimes filled by Dean as well. Indeed, around 70 percent of milk sold in New England—and up to 80 percent of milk peddled in some other parts of the country—comes from Dean plants. Besides dominating the retail dairy market, Dean has been accused of collaborating with Dairy Farmers of America, another giant company that buys milk from independent farmers and provides it to Dean for processing and distribution, to drive down the price farmers are paid while inflating its own profits.

The food on offer outside of the refrigerator aisle isn’t much better. The boxes on the shelves are largely filled with the corn-derived products that are the basic building block of most modern processed food; about 80 percent of all the corn seed in America and 95 percent of soybean seeds contain patented genes produced by a single company: Monsanto. And things are just as bad farther down the ingredients list—take an additive like ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), produced by a Chinese cartel that holds more than 85 percent of the U.S. market.

How about pet food? There sure seems to be a bewildering array of options. But if you paid close attention to coverage of the massive pet food recall of 2007, you will remember that five of the top six independent brands—including those marketed by Colgate-Palmolive, Mars, and Procter & Gamble—relied on a single contract manufacturer, Menu Foods, as did seventeen of the top twenty food retailers in the United States that sell "private-label" wet pet foods under their store brands, including Safeway, Kroger, and Wal-Mart. The Menu Foods recall covered products that had been retailed under a phenomenal 150 different product names.

Heading out to the parking lot should give us some respite from all of this—surely the vehicles here reflect a last bastion of American-style competition, no? After all, more than a dozen big carmakers sell hundreds of different models in America. But it’s a funny kind of competition, one that’s not nearly as competitive as it looks. To begin with, more than two-thirds of the iron ore used to make the steel in all those cars is likely provided by just three firms (two of which are trying to merge). And it doesn’t stop there. A decade ago, all the big carmakers were for the most part vertically integrated, and they kept their supply systems largely separate from one another. Today, however, the outsourcing revolution, combined with monopolization within the supply base, means the big companies increasingly rely on the same outside suppliers—even the same factories—for components like piston rings and windshield-wiper blades and door handles. Ever wonder why Toyota came out so strongly in favor of a bailout for General Motors last year? One reason is they knew if that giant fell suddenly, it would knock over many of the suppliers that they themselves—as well as Nissan and Honda—depend on to make their own cars.

And don’t fool yourself that this process of monopolization affects only America’s working classes. What’s happened to down-market retail has happened to department stores as well. Think Macy’s competes with Bloomingdale’s? Think again. Both are units of a holding company called Macy’s Inc., which, under its old name, Federated, spent the last two decades rolling up control of such department store brand names as Marshall Field’s, Hecht’s, Broadway, and Bon Marché. A generation ago, even most midsized cities in America could boast of multiple independent department stores. Today a single company controls roughly 800 outlets, in a chain that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Who Broke America's Jobs Machine? (Washington Monthly) It's just as bad in agriculture (if not worse):
As we’ve noted in our coverage of the recent Food and Water Watch report on the consolidation of our food system, “The Cost of Monopolies”:

    According to a 2007 study from the University of Missouri, the four largest companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing. In fact, so much consolidation has taken place throughout the food chain that it can be difficult for any one person to fathom the true effects.

The negative effects of this consolidation — on the environment, jobs, and income — in rural communities are tremendous. Yet for the last few decades, the government actively encouraged consolidation so that food production and distribution could benefit from economies of scale. Farmers complained about growing abuses from the handful of large companies that came to dominate food processing and distribution (and retailing) — but never seemed to make headway with government regulators.

And that’s because low prices at the supermarket became the Holy Grail of federal policy. Nothing else mattered. We have a system designed to generate huge amounts of cheap food, no matter the collateral damage to the communities where this food is grown or processed.

This approach conveniently ignores the other side of the equation: food producers, who often can’t reach consumers directly and have a desperately hard time getting a fair price for their products when there are only one or two buyers. And those suffering producers are Americans, too, trying to make a living (so they can buy other Americans’ products and services).

Consumers have been pitted against producers. As a consequence, rising prices aren’t greeted as a sustainable development for producers, they’re treated as a symptom of a market that’s not “working.”

But in 2009, farmers finally caught the attention of the federal government when the Obama administration sent representatives from the Departments of Agriculture and Justice — including Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack themselves — out into rural communities to register farmers’ complaints. The blog Civil Eats described the struggles they voiced:

    Across the country, the stories have been the same: grain prices so low they don’t cover the cost of [fertilizer and pesticides]. Milk prices so low they don’t cover feed costs. Non-genetically modified seed harder and harder for organic farmers to find. Families forced to sell their farms after generations on the land. Former farmers struggling with debt and unable to find work because they have no off-farm skills. Low-income consumers — urban and rural — with no access to fresh food.

But as Lina Khan documents in her must-read article in Washington Monthly, the federal attempt to create fair markets ultimately stalled out in 2010. In the face of corporate lobbying and the strident opposition of the House GOP majority, the process was defunded, and, in response to corporate and Tea Party outrage, the White House itself watered down the proposed fixes.
This holiday season, consider the farmers — and the corporations that control them (Grist)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

America Is A Violent Country

First, some cold, hard facts. America is an extremely violent country. See the above for proof. Here's a paraphrase from the West Wing in 2001:

“If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you get a population roughly the size of the United States, where, last year, there were 32,000 gun death. Those other countries, which all have a form of gun control, had a total of 112."

That article also points out the connection between gun violence and dopamine, which pairs nicely with my recent post on the neurochemistry of Americans. Combine that with antisocial dog-eat-dog behavior and widespread mental illness, and you're off to the races:
Two things make this even more alarming. First, because the human brain evolved in an era of immediacy—when threats and rewards were of the lions, tigers and food variety—the dopamine circuitry has an inborn timing mechanism. If the reward follows the stimulus by roughly 100-200 milliseconds, it’s sitting in dopamine’s sweet spot. Firing a muzzle loader—for example—would certainly release dopamine, but it takes too long between multiple firings for a significant reward loop to be created. Firing an automatic weapon, though, sits close to the sweet spot—an assault weapon can fire a round every 100 milliseconds. Meaning not only are guns addictive, but automatic weaponry is far more addictive than most.

Unfortunately, there’s a more frightening downside to consider. As Nora Volkow and her colleagues at the National Institute of Drug Abuse have well documented, the first true taste of a dopamine rush is always the best. After that, there are always diminishing returns. What this means in drug addicts is that the first time someone inhales cocaine feel so outrageously good compared to all the following times and, as a result, a junky will keep escalating their use patterns to try to get back to that original high. The same goes for guns. This suggests that for addicts, the desire to do more damage, cause more harm, and generally unleash holy terror will only increase over time.
Mass shootings are on the rise. 24 of the last 62 worst mass shootings have taken place in the past seven years alone. See this link for more. And Matt Yglesias points out the real reason gun fatalities are dropping is not because there are less of them, but because we're better at patching people up so they don't die. And I've often said that gun deaths will be as common as auto crashes. Well, according to the CDC, gun deaths will outstrip car crashes by 2015. Americans are driving less and shooting more. And the following is a snapshot of headlines all of which took place since the Sandy Hook Massacre:

Gunman shoots 1 in Texas movie theater parking lot (Yahoo!)
Argument Over Sandy Hook Shooting Ends in Gunfire (Gawker)
Police: Man cooperative after firing shots at mall (Yahoo!)
Colorado Mother Arrested for Driving to Her Daughter’s School and Threatening Her Bullies with a Semi-Automatic Weapon (Gawker)
Indiana Man With 47 Guns Arrested After Threatening to Attack Nearby Elementary School (Gawker)
6th-grader brings gun to school to protect against ‘Connecticut-style’ attack (Yahoo!)
911 caller among four dead in Colo murder-suicide (Yahoo!)
After Newtown, Sales Boom for Kids' Body Armor (Mother Jones)
Florida Man Shoots Pizza Restaurant Patron for Complaining About Slow Service, Tells Police He Was Standing His Ground (Gawker)

Have armed citizens ever brought down a mass shooter? Yes, but it's pretty rare (Slate). And here is a good post about some of the rationalizations behind gun violence in the United States (The Global Sociology Blog). It also contains my favorite chart connecting religious belief and societal wealth, but we'll explore that another time (praise the Lord and pass the ammunition).

Okay, so facts out of the way. Feel free to leave. Rant follows.

So I see the following article on BBC Future: Will we ever have cyborg brains? This seems to be something of an obsession with the techno-optimist/singularlty progress crowd.

And I can't help but think in light of recent events that maybe we should do more ensure the proper development and healthy functioning of the brains we’ve already got! We can’t stop a deranged killer like Adam Lanza from murdering a schoolroom full of children. We can’t stop a Jared Loughner from shooting a senator or a Seung-Hui Cho from shooting up a university. We have no idea what goes on in the minds of people like this. Maybe we should devote some resources to finding this out before trying to wire our brains into computers, huh? Maybe we should devote some resources to healing our damaged people with the knowledge we already possess before trying to build artificial intelligence. Just a thought.

We’ve already speny decades stubbornly and resolutely  ignoring what social science already on the books tell us: that we are not acquisition machines and worker bots: that we are social creatures conditioned to a specific environment in which we evolved, and that we need tight-knit social groups, stability, belonging, and meaning in our lives; that we don’t want to acquire, we want to love and be loved; that we want to engage in activities that give us meaning; that we don’t like to be coerced; that we want stable, healthy communities; that we need relaxation and leisure time; and that our brains are not fully developed until teenagers and we need stable nurturing environments and good nutrition to develop into healthy, functioning adults. We ignore all of this in our productivist fantasies of wealth as the measure of a good society. Nancy Lanza’s 1.4 million dollar house and $289,000 a year in child support didn’t stop the Newton massacre, did it? Pawning these murders off on mental illness is no excuse – either we have more mentally ill people than in other countries, or they are much more deadly than other countries. Both raise serious questions about the nature of our society. A heavily armed populace walking around just waiting to blow each other away is not the society I want to live in, but it seems to be the direction we’re heading.

 And now we learn that the shooter's mom was stockpiling food and guns for an economic collapse. This is just another facet of the intensely anti-social nature of American society. The idea that we’re atomized individuals engaged in a Darwinian war of all against all every minute of our lives is uniquely American perception, and the notion that we can break ourselves off from society and remain safe while the wider culture goes to hell in a handbasket is another primarily American conceit. Why do we hate each other so? Why do we seek to profit even from decline? Stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold, food and water, rather than dialogue, constructive engagement, socially useful activity, mutual aid, and taking time to get informed is the order of the day. Note that America, with resources far in advance of most other nations, is the epicenter of this.


“Soccer moms” in oversized McMansions in the “safest community in the country” stockpile weapons and food in case hungry mobs stream out of cities in economic collapse. Survivalists are afraid the government is coming for their guns, and insurrectionists fantasize about overthrowing the government and seceding from the union. Suburbanites are convinced the United Nations is going to confiscate their houses, ration their water, ban their automobiles and move them into urban high rises. "Tea Partiers" believe the President is a foreign Born Muslim Luo tribesman determined to impose socialism on the United States. Politicians spend their time passing laws condemning  Sharia Law and Agenda 21, while ignoring the fact that they no longer have money to keep streets paved or fund fire departments. Trains are denounced as social engineering schemes but interstate highways are presumed to spring up magically like dandelions in the springtime. We’re told we enough shale oil and natural gas to be energy independent and that it will last for centuries, forget about the growing economies of China and India. People believe global warming is a vast scientific conspiracy to get funding but believe everything they hear on Fox News without question. Schools have become chain linked fortresses with metal detectors, processed foods, demoralized teachers, rampant bullying and a Lord of the Flies style pecking order that would put a baboon troop to shame. For profit prisons house a quarter of the world’s prisoners and correction corporations dragoon schools for drugs while their prisoners provide free labor for major U.S. conglomerates. U.S. drone attacks target children. Creationist museums teach that the world was made in seven days and Christian churches preach the prosperity gospel, propose the death penalty for homosexuality and legitimize rape and torture.

This is a nation in the grip of madness. And our descent is only just beginning.

Religious thinking dominates every area of this country.  That’s why I don’t bother arguing with gun enthusiasts (or libertarians or goldbugs or...). They have what amounts to a religious belief, and nothing I say will change their minds. It’s the same with just about every subject in this country. People are dead certain, and you can’t change anyone’s mind about anything. And that’s the problem. There’s no “debate” in religious-type thinking, just the black-and-white need to defeat the other side. When we say everything has been politicized, what we really mean is that everything has been turned into a religious belief: party politics, economic systems, the environment, transportation, etc. It’s been said that minds are like parachutes, they only function when open. Well, we’re nearing terminal velocity and our ripcords are permanently stuck. And the ground is rushing up awfully fast. Is the only away Americans can relate to each other through a target sight?


People stumble through the aisles of WalMart with the thousand-yard stare of the walking wounded. There’s a deadness, a hollowness in their eyes. It’s no wonder people are compared to cattle, for the U.S. resembles one giant feedlot from coast to coast, with a totally manufactured environment of office parks, strip malls, big box stores, freeways, muzak, reality TV, 24 hour sports channels, talk radio, billboards and casinos, all designed by the corporate machine to keep the cattle fat and happy until the slaughter. Humans weren't meant to live in this manufactured theme park environment.

This country was born in violence, and it chews out men and spits them out. It has never been, in any way, civilized if by civilized we mean any other purpose than for a small minority to exploit people and natural resources to get filthy, stinking rich. What can we expect where every person is no more than a productivist hamster running in a wheel to make someone else's fortune, and you are broken and discarded the minute you no longer serve that purpose? Where the wealthy are free to do anything to the wider society - anything- to increase profits. Where we are constantly pitted against one another in a desperate battle for status and what little wealth trickles down from above. We must work, we are told, or we do not eat, with the lash of financial ruin and utter destitution always at our backs. It is a civilization only in the way that a casino is a business.

When the annals of the fossil fuel era are finally written centuries, or perhaps millennia from now, what they will find most remarkable, I think is how unhappy we were. How having resources at our beck and call that, as we are constantly reminded, the kings of old Europe could not command, we were desperate and miserable. How sick a society with the power of gods was. That, I think, is what they will find most remarkable. It will be a permanent reminder ot the utter uselessness of running a society around nothing more than raw power, continuous acquisition, rampant overwork, constant competition and naked ambition, and the idea that creature comforts are all that is needed for a high quality life.

Finally, I'll leave the last word to these blogger commentaries, which I think capture my feelings well:

 And here's what I have to say—after the news on Friday, it really hit home to me in a overwhelming, visceral way just how intolerable life in this miserable hellhole called the United States has become. This is not a society; it's a loony bin. There is clearly a difference in kind between mass killings and foreclosure robo-signings, predatory "subprime" loans, usurious interest rates and a million other abominable practices I could name, but all these things are of a piece. Violence is violence, whether it's carried out by some deranged kid or some money-crazed banker in lower Manhattan.

I have likened America to a giant game of Survivor, and that's a good analogy, but it's good to remember that crazy is crazy, whether it's a "game" on TV or a typical day in the life of an American citizen. Oh, did that Big Corporation just ship your job overseas? I guess you've just been kicked off the island! Too fucking bad, hey?
...It has to do with empathy, which came up in the comments section of my post The President's Remarks At Newtown. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Doomers have no empathy, or very little, kind of like Wall Street bankers. If empathy is absent, what happens to others doesn't matter. The suffering of others doesn't matter.
Adam Lanza's Mother Was A Doomer and The President's Remarks At Newtown (Decline of the Empire)
And that, really, is the problem. Gun manufacturers have successfully exploited a current of paranoia, anxious masculinity, and aggrieved privilege to sell their marks lots and lots of guns that don't actually do anything to fix their problems. In fact, Nancy Lanza is far from the only person who will die this year at the end of a gun she presumably bought to make herself feel powerful. It's time, as Drew Magary at Gawker argued, to shift focus from gun owners and toward the people who are making a fortune selling products that have no other purpose but to kill. We should see gun owners like we've come around to seeing smokers: people who were successfully ensnared by clever marketing into a lifestyle that does them, and others, way more harm than good. By making gun owners the enemy—something I've done myself, and now regret—and not gun manufacturers, we will remain locked in this go-nowhere debate. Shifting focus is the only hope we have of change.
Sympathy For Nancy Lanza (Slate)

That's all for that. Back to our regularly scheduled programming...