Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bitcoin and other oddities

Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire (Charlie Stross)

Bitcoin, Magical Thinking, and Political Ideology (Alex Payne)

Time for a little Bitcoin discussion (Digitopoly)

In gold we trust? (MacroMania)

What's interesting to me is that you've got so many different ideas about money all floating around at the same time. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think what it indicates is a profound unease with the complexity and volatility of the system of finance that we are now all yoked to whether we want to be or not.

And what's doubly-interesting is that all of these ideas seem to be joined to certain political philosophies. That is, your preferred "alternative" to money depends on your political views.

So you've got Bitcoin embraced by the libertarian/techno-utopian set that believes that we would all just be better off if centralized governments disappeared from the earth and we built a computer-centric utopia ("all watched over by machines of loving grace"). Then, you've got the Goldbugs, who tend to be the Calvinist/Doomer set who see the nineteenth century as an idealized golden age (no pun intended) that we should return back to. Both of these groups are obsessed with "debasement" as the cause for the collapse of society. Then you've got the more pro-social policies of "community currencies" that allow people to print enough money for various enterprises at the local level without having to sell bonds or deal with the Federal Reserve or any of that stuff (i.e. Monopoly money). This is embraced by the anti-government "local solutions" crowd who believe we can build a parallel society as the old one comes apart. You've also got people recommending "demurrage" currencies, that is, currencies that are specifically designed to lose their value so that people go out and spend them instead of hoarding them (a negative interest rate is based on a similar idea). This means that people will flee from whatever currency you're proposing to use, choosing instead to hold onto other types.

The common theme here is distrust of government. Any attempt at reforming the currency we actually do use every single day - the U.S. Dollar (or whatever you use in your country of origin), is off the table. People believe that their national currencies are under control of the bankers and the bureaucrats for their own benefit and everyone else is screwed. It's sad really. All of this has gotten enough attention to be worthy of a Paul Krugman column:

Bits and Barbarism (New York Times)
[Adam] Smith is often treated as a conservative patron saint, and he did indeed make the original case for free markets. It’s less often mentioned, however, that he also argued strongly for bank regulation — and that he offered a classic paean to the virtues of paper currency. Money, he understood, was a way to facilitate commerce, not a source of national prosperity — and paper money, he argued, allowed commerce to proceed without tying up much of a nation’s wealth in a “dead stock” of silver and gold.

So why are we tearing up the highlands of Papua New Guinea to add to our dead stock of gold and, even more bizarrely, running powerful computers 24/7 to add to a dead stock of digits? 
Here's an alternative view, but it doesn't really contradict the above. There are some good comments too. This one I found especially interesting, in that you can think of money as a stand-in for time:
The value of any object or commodity is a function of its usefulness and rarity. Gold, diamonds, trade routes, waterfront, atomic bombs, dollars, cyberspace are examples of high value to different segments. Amazingly most people resist acknowledging the most truly valuable and finite commodity is time. Money is simply a method of exchanging time.

For example, I can take the time to grow a carrot (2.5 months) or I can go to a grocer and purchase a carrot (10 minutes). I could walk to the East Coast (>100 days) or I can buy an airline ticket saving 99.75 days. Money allows me to control how I spent my time of Earth.

With a finite limit of time available to everyone; how much money is appropriate or even healthy to accumulate? Obviously, that answer will elicit a bell curve of responses. Ask anyone that has suffered a debilitating or life threatening illness; they’ll tell you time healthy is vastly more valuable than any object on Earth. People that accumulate vast stores of objects such as newspapers or cats, are diagnosed as suffering from a hoarding disorder When does the accumulation of wealth tip over from mild obsession to a compulsive illness, $50 million, $100 million, $1 billion, $10 billion, 50 billion?

The dysfunctional performance of our governing bodies, the lack of infrastructure investment to support our future and the massive accumulation of wealth in the hands of so few appears crazy to many of us, maybe it really is.
And I like this statement:
"An economy is an imaginary construct. It is whatever we believe it to be. At this point in America, we are convinced that it is a winner take all game - based on survival of the fittest. And most Americans accept this definition, provided to us by the richest segment of our populace."  
I've expressed a lot of skepticism about all of these alternative currency ideas. In the past, I've recommended the ideas expressed by Chartalism (also called MMT or Functional Finance). I've also recommended a system of public banking. To me, these are the closest we can get under the current system to a resource-based economy as opposed to the clearly dysfunctional system we have now. The unfortunate thing is that for these ideas to grain traction, they need to be applied at the federal level (since only the federal government can issue currency), and the federal government is completely captured by big-money interests. These ideas might work if the United States breaks apart into smaller nations, which might be the best thing overall. But I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Personally, I think the fundamental problem with money is that the rich have too much and the rest of us not enough. People are not getting paid the value of their economic output, and the wealthy are hoarding money which just leads to expenditure cascades and rising prices for everything else in society. All of these alternative money proposals are simply reactions to that. But I don't think any one of them are going to fix that fundamental problem.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The hardening of America's heart

One might think that the deteriorating economy would produce more sympathy for the unemployed and down-on-their-luck, since more and more of us are threatening to fall into that trap. But, as it turns out, as we get poorer as a society, we become even more hostile to the poor and downtrodden. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's bearing out, especially in America's "every man for himself" culture of sociopathy and Social Darwinism.

Richard Florida says:

The ongoing economic crisis only appears to have deepened America's conservative drift - a trend which is most pronounced in its least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.

Indeed, research indicates that America is becoming more “conservative.” This is a misnomer, of course, as what they mean by "conservative" has nothing to do with preserving and maintaining existing social institutions, or suspicions of radical, sudden social change. It has nothing to do with  classical Burkean conservatism. Rather, by "conservative," what they really mean is politically reactionary and hostile to the poor.

Barry Rithotz wonders why:
The trend towards the hard right is most pronounced in the least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. 
It is a fascinating glimpse into the Human (or is it American?) Psyche — and I am very curious about it: 
• Conservative states are considerably more religious than liberal-leaning states. And, this correlation between religion is increasing. 
• Conservative states are also less educated than liberal ones; This correlation between conservative affiliation and education (percent of adults who are college graduates) is also substantially higher than before. 
• States with more conservatives are less diverse. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with the percent of the population that are immigrants or gay and lesbian. 
• There is no correlation to race or ethnicity, however, whether measured as percent white, percent black, or percent Hispanic (Fascinating). 
• Conservative political affiliation is strongly correlated with percentage of a state’s workforce in blue-collar occupations; 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with proportion of workforce engaged in knowledge-based professional and creative work. 
• States with more conservatives are considerably less affluent than those with more liberals. 
• Conservative political affiliation is highly negatively correlated with state income levels and even more so with average hourly earnings.
This article speculates that the hostility to Obamacare has less to do with the feasibility of it, but rather that Americans are becoming ever more sociopathic toward their fellow Americans:
New Gallup poll numbers show Americans increasingly dispute the idea that government has a responsibility to make sure everybody can get health insurance. It's tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks. 
What's clear is that the shifting views on health care predate the Affordable Care Act. The number of Americans who think health care is the government's responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year. 
The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn't just about health care. The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others. 
Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year. People who said the government should help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, fell from 54 percent to 43 percent over the same period. 
That increased callousness extends beyond Americans' views of helping the needy. In 2007, 60 percent of respondents agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment; by last year, that figure was 43 percent. The share who said the U.S. should "pay less attention to problems overseas" rose from 76 percent to 83 percent between 2007 and 2012. 
It's not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they're needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature.  
What's different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.
Obamacare Shows How Americans Are Becoming Jerks (Bloomberg) Indeed, Americans blowing each other away is becoming about as common as fender-benders here in sociopath nation. What do you expect in a country where Ayn Rand is a a national hero? Remember when a crowd at a Republican debate erupted into cheers of someone dying without health insurance? Because I do. Welcome to this "Christian" country.

Here's at least one reason - as people become poorer, their attitudes become more hostile and more intense:
Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau first manipulated subjects' perceptions of their income by inviting some to compare themselves to high incomes ($500,000 per month) and others to low incomes ($500 per month). They found that people primed to believe they had low incomes then expressed harsher judgments about violent acts than those who were primed to think themselves rich. 
This, they say, supports the idea that when people feel themselves to be poor, they feel more vulnerable to others' harmful acts, and this causes them to make harsher judgments about them. If you can afford to replace your iPod you'll be less censorious of muggers than if you can't. If you're driving your children around all the time, you'll be less hysterical about paedophiles than if your kids have to walk everywhere. And so on. 
Thanks to the work of Ben Friedman, we should know by now that economic insecurity creates intolerance. This paper provides experimental evidence of microfoundations for this. That's progress. 
Now, we should distinguish here between the extent of illiberal opinions and the intensity of them. Surveys suggest that working class folk aren't much more opposed to immigration, drug legalization or gay marriage than richer people. But this is quite consistent with them having more intense feelings. Gillian Duffy's antipathy towards immigrants is, sadly, shared by the middle class; the difference is the vehemence with which those opinions were expressed...when liberal leftists complain about working class illiberalism, they should remember that the failing here lies not (just) with the working class themselves, but in social democracy itself. This has - so far - failed to sufficiently reduce the sense of vulnerability among the poor which produces illiberal attitudes.
The economic base of illiberalism (Stumbling and Mumbling) And see this: America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy (Salon)

Well, we've got a lot of poor people in this country, and more and more every single day. And as the ranks of the poor swell, their attitudes are likely to become more hostile and intense, causing the cycle to repeat itself in a viscous downward spiral as we increasingly turn on each other while the elites watch from their penthouses and offshore havens.

The only people who can stop it is us. Turning on ourselves is exactly what they want.

And see this: Let Them Eat Cake (New York Times)


Monday, October 14, 2013

Politics of the shutdown


Due to the government shutdown, there’s been a raft of soul-searching as to how American politics got to this point. In Collapse and the Sorites Paradox, I argued that collapse was impossible to speak about unless we defined a specific event that we could call a collapse. One of the possibilities I talked about was a debt default, which we are now only days away from (another one, secession, we talked about last month). So it looks like people like Dmitry Orlov might be due for a victory lap, although this crisis is entirely artificial and caused by political dysfunction rather than anything to do with oil prices.

Although these article have different perspectives, I’m going to try and summarize their conclusions below, along with some of my own, into a coherent narrative. Hopefully it’s close to the mark.

The short version is this: Wealthy elites, alarmed at the flattening of incomes that had happened between World War 2 and the 1970's decided to wage an all-out campaign to undo those policies (unions, a social safety net, good public services, progressive taxation,  environmental regulations, etc). To do so, they allied with all of the most venal, extremist, paranoid, reactionary and authoritarian elements in American society that had always been lurking under the surface but had been marginalized and kept under control by the "adults": John Birchers, Evangelical fundamentalists, Christian Reconstructionists, Southern racists, white supremacists, Dixiecrats, Posse Comitatus, "Big Mule" politicians, corrupt politicos, "sovereign citizens," "Patriot" militia brigades, libertarian Robber Barons (Koch Brothers, et. al.), Wall Street swindlers and takeover artists, Randroids, social Darwinists, and so forth, and used these elements to take over one of America's two major political parties in the name of eliminating their taxes, curtailing regulations, and busting unions. Now, having united all of the worst elements in American society under one banner for the first time (for they seem to have little else in common), organizing it, shaping it, and giving it a powerful vehicle (the reactionary authoritarian movement that calls itself the Republican Party), the business class can no longer control it, and like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, can only watch helplessly as the forces it has unleashed for it's own short-term benefit, fueled by white rage and decreasing living standards, tear the country apart (the "Corn-pone Nazis")

Here's the longer story: After World War 2, white Americans were lured by low taxes (because receipts were driven by future growth) into separatist suburban enclaves in the former cornfields surrounding now-decrepit cities made possible by the automobile. As they fled, they took economic activity and jobs with them, creating creating a vacuum in America's once-proud urban areas which promptly fell into disrepair thanks to the shrinking tax base and became minority ghettos. Coincident with this, there was a large population shift by individuals and businesses away from the “Rust Belt” states to the low wage and nonunion “Sun Belt” states of the South and Southwest, lured once again by lower taxes fueled by continuous growth, and made livable by the widespread use of air conditioning.

Subsequently, the American economy became “financialized;” America’s industrial might which won the war was packed up and shipped wholesale to China in less than a generation, leading to low-wage service jobs replacing factory jobs as the foundation of the economy.  Americans have consequently been experiencing stagnant wages for forty years, along with skyrocketing costs for healthcare, education, transportation, etc., while at the same time the tax burden was shifted off of unearned income and onto wages, and government services became "fee-based." The American public Balkanized along income lines, with wealthy Americans effectively seceding from the wider society, a society that was becoming less white and more urban over time.

A small cabal of wealthy oligarchs who had captured all of the income gains of the past forty years used part of this money to create a vast propaganda apparatus targeted to these white separatist enclaves in the suburbs, economically depressed rural areas, and the Sun Belt with things like FOX News, talk radio, think-tanks, online Web sites, etc. creating an echo chamber designed to radicalize white America. By denigrating and delegitimizing even the very idea of popular government, they hoped to create a faux-populist movement to untax themselves and undo the social reforms of the twentieth century and return to the policies of the Gilded Age. They allied with the Evangelical movement and began using divisive social issues to play “divide-and-conquer” against the lower classes.

The core of the movement is in the old Confederacy, where there is a long-standing legacy since the Civil War of undermining the authority of the Federal Government at every turn in order to keep power in the hands of local businessmen and politicians in order to maintain the system of class privilege and repression that is the legacy of Southern slavery. The South is also the nation’s stronghold of racism, ignorance, paranoia, religious fundamentalism, violence, gun ownership, social dysfunction (e.g. higher incidents of teen pregnancy, rape, incarceration, child abuse, infant morality, drug abuse, etc.), poverty and lower economic output. If Dixieland cannot control Washington, they will shut it down completely.

The untax the wealthy movement found a new life in the anger over the government bailouts, the election of an African-American president, and the economic downturn. Whites, destined to become a minority in America due to immigration and low birth rates, went into a profound psychosis, and wealthy oligarchs took advantage of this to bankroll a “Tea Party” movement, claiming that Obama was a Marxist, an atheist, a secret Muslim, was not born in the United States, will seize people's guns, etc., and laying the blame for nation’s problems directly at the feet of the victims of the economic recession (mainly poor and minority scapegoats) and “government taxes and regulations” (and not on Wall Street, corporations, or the banking industry).

To this end, they took effective control of one of the United States’ two major political parties and created a coherent worldview centered around what has been called “the paranoid style in American Politics.” for the New Right, the declining fortunes of white America were caused by an activist government determined to levy high taxes on “productive” (mainly white) citizens to give to a lazy and shiftless (mainly black) citizens in order to buy votes. They argued that America was divided into “makers” and “takers” (or ants and grasshoppers) where half of all Americans (the “47 percent”) pay no income taxes and thus are economically unproductive and entirely dependent upon government largesse (Mitt Romney: "They will never take responsibility for their lives"). They stoked rage against these “unproductive” citizens and argued that America’s massive debt burden was caused by a social safety net that had become a “hammock” lulling Americans into indolence (and not caused by tax cuts, the economic downturn, two simultaneous wars, or rising health care costs). Deindustrialization was not caused by the race to the bottom but by “greedy unions” and the housing meltdown was caused not by deregulation but by government forcing banks to make loans to poor minorities. Any form of government assistance was ”rewarding bad behavior,” and people had to be left to the mercy of the free market to "sink or swim" in a harsh, competitive world. The free market creates an ideal meritocracy; the poor, unemployed and indebted are exactly where they are entirely through their own actions, while the rich and powerful earned every penny through superior skills and talent. The poor must be made to suffer to give them the proper "motivation" to become productive citizens. As economic conditions deteriorate for most people, the resulting social dysfunction is put forward as the very cause of negative economic outcomes for the working class.

They made obscure books like “The Road to Serfdom" (which posits that government programs inevitably lead to oppression) and the works of Ayn Rand (where all economic benefits flow entirely from the efforts a small slice of wealthy elites and altruism is depicted as evil) into virtual bibles. At the same time, their media outlets portrayed all nonaligned media as “liberal” (and therefore not to be trusted), and claimed that both sides are "equally extreme,” despite a wholesale abandonment of pro-worker policies by the Democratic party (Bill Clinton: ”The era of big government is over, we must end welfare as we know it," etc.).

They also spent millions forming think-tanks and promoting the economic ideas  of the “Austrian School,” a formerly little-known economic doctrine that preached that any government interference in the market would harm the economy, that “letting the market sort it all out” was the only valid course of action, and that rather than mitigate the worse effects of the Great Depression, the New Deal actually prolonged the Great Depression. Government debt is always bad and the government must run its finances “like a household.” The Federal Reserve and “fiat currency” should be abolished and a gold standard should be reinstated to create “sound money.” All taxation is considered to be theft or “punishing success,” and goes into the hands of a government that is always and everywhere wasteful and inefficient (except for the police, security and defense industries). The private sector is superior to government in all cases, and failures of the private sector are always caused by some sort of government interference.

Because of certain political ideas inherent to the American system of government, a small, determined, well-funded minority can effectively throw sand in the gears of government when they do not get their way. This stems back from compromises made to slaveholding states, and the fear that “mob rule” would allow the majority to effectively seize power from the landholding aristocracy. Lower populated rural areas have disproportionate power over densely populated rural areas, especially in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, "gerrymandering," the practice of drawing districts to take advantage of America’s racial and income balkanization to create “safe” districts free from challenges to other parties, makes one party rule all but assured. Unlimited campaign spending has made politicians in uncompetitive districts fear primary challenges, since primary voters are the radical Jacobins of the party who will “punish” what they perceive as politicians willing to compromise. Unlike a parliamentary system, the levers of power are held by different parties both of whom claim legitimacy and can sabotage government functions through parliamentary maneuvers like filibustering and preventing votes from coming to the floor.

Now business leaders have effectively lost control over the party they took over, as the elements they unleashed with the objective of lowering their taxes and regulations has become a fanatical, radicalized, reactionary, nativist, conspiratorial, authoritarian political movement, opposed to even the very concept of government or the public trust in the name of “liberty. To them, government is always too large, taxes are always too high, and any sense of common purpose is derided as “socialism.” They see the nineteenth century as a golden age worthy of returning to, and see themselves engaged in a life and death struggle for the “soul” of the nation. They regard anyone else with a different opinion as “traitors" and opponents not to be negotiated with, but as threats to be eliminated. The right has even resorted to physical intimidation and has even formed a modern version of the Freicorps of inter-war Germany.

As whites become a minority, they increasingly look to disenfranchise large poor, minority, urban and youth voting blocks in order to retain power by any means necessary. In addition to gerrymandering, they have drummed up fear of nonexistent “voter fraud” to require ID’s at the polls, and they intentionally defund and understaff districts in poorer areas to prevent voter turnout, along with more direct vote suppression tactics such as armed "citizen monitoring" of polls. Increasingly, the focus is on electing allied candidates at the state level such as governors who have implemented identical policies around the nation (mostly written by ALEC) and followed identical lock-step agendas across a wide range of states such as cutting taxes, breaking unions, privatizing government, halting public transportation initiatives, passing “stand your ground” laws, overturning limits on campaign donations, selling off public lands and facilities, defunding social programs, and so forth.

As these policies make the white working class poorer and make the wealthy ever more powerful, the cycle is sure to keep repeating itself, making America ever more dysfunctional until it finally becomes ungovernable, ending up as a corrupt third-rate banana republic and failed state of only fantastically rich and desperate poor as the rest of the world looks on in a mixture of horror and pity at what was once the most admired nation on earth.

In addition, the following concepts are necessary to explain the world-view of the American Right-Wing:

1.) Producerism: “a doctrine that champions the so-called producers in society against both “unproductive” elites and subordinate groups defined as lazy or immoral.”

2.) The Just World Fallacy “Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to ‘feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.’”

The Self-Attribution Fallacy/Horatio Alger/Fundamental Attribution Error: “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”

Calvinism/The Prosperity Gospel/New Thought Movement “God wants you to be rich.”

The Tytler Calumny: "A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship."

Social Darwinism: “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be”

Mellonism/Hooverism “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. Purge the rot from the system”

The Objectivist Movement/Ayn Rand: “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”

Nostalgia: “Didn’t need the welfare state/Everybody pulled his weight/guys like us we had it great/Those were the days.”

Christian Reconstructionism/Dominionism

On to the articles:
For years, political scientists have been talking about how the demographic changes in the United States are inexorably leading to a Democratic majority, with Hispanics and Asian-Americans joining African-Americans and liberal urban whites to erode the political domains of white conservatives and white racists. 
But those predictions have always assumed a consistent commitment to the democratic principle of one person, one vote – and a readiness of Republicans to operate within the traditional standards of democratic governance. But what should now be crystal clear is that those assumptions are faulty. 
Instead of accepting the emergence of this more diverse and multi-cultural America, the Right – through the Tea Party-controlled Republicans – has decided to alter the constitutional framework of the United States to guarantee the perpetuation of white supremacy and the acceptance of right-wing policies. 
In effect, we are seeing the implementation of a principle enunciated by conservative thinker William F. Buckley in 1957: “The white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” Except now the Buckley rule is being applied nationally.
The White Man's Last Tantrum? (Consortium News)
To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.

With polls showing Americans deeply divided over the law, conservatives believe that the public is behind them. Although the law’s opponents say that shutting down the government was not their objective, the activists anticipated that a shutdown could occur — and worked with members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress who were excited about drawing a red line against a law they despise.

A defunding “tool kit” created in early September included talking points for the question, “What happens when you shut down the government and you are blamed for it?” The suggested answer was the one House Republicans give today: “We are simply calling to fund the entire government except for the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.”
A Federal Budget Crisis Months In The Making (New York Times)
Needham was cocky and brazen, and yet Republicans — even powerful ones such as Ryan — have to take him seriously, for the same reason they must allow themselves to be pushed around by freshman Cruz: GOP lawmakers live in fear of primary challenges from tea-party candidates, so they must obey those who influence tea-party activists. Like Cruz, Needham’s group has influence. It also has a lot of cash.

The Heritage Foundation tapped Needham, a Heritage staffer, to create Heritage Action three years ago, a few months after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made such 501(c)(4) organizations a new way for the wealthy to influence politics. Needham’s operation fits well with recent moves by Heritage’s new president, former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), to politicize the old think tank, and it rivals another 501(c)(4), the Club for Growth, in its capacity to terrify Republican officeholders.
The shutdown's enforcer-in-chief (Washington Post)
In the 2012 elections, a little more than 59.6 million Americans voted for representatives from the Democratic party while 58.2 million voters supported the Republican candidate. But due to the way that congressional districts are organized, Democrats got 33 fewer seats than the GOP in the House of Representatives. So right off the bat, the House GOP represents a minority of Congressional voters.

But it gets worse.
How Less Than 5% Of The US Population Caused The Government To Shut Down (Business Insider)
Fear of a changing society is one thing that unites all three factions. The battle over Obamacare, write the study’s authors, “goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle.”

    They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.

    And while few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

    They worry that minorities, immigrants, and welfare recipients now believe it is their “right” to claim [public] benefits. Tea Party participants, in particular, were very focused on those who claim “rights” in the form of government services, without taking responsibility for themselves.

They are also unified in their belief that Obama is a usurper who has hoodwinked the public into re-electing him by hiding his true beliefs, which are essentially Marxist. They also think that Democrats have won the major political battles of our time because Republican legislators in Washington didn’t put up a fight.

But there are also deep divisions within the base, according to the analysis. Evangelicals still focus overwhelmingly on social issues. They think gay rights are the biggest threat to our society, but they also worry about the loss of what they see as an idyllic small-town culture. They feel besieged as the cultural ground shifts beneath them, and see themselves as a beleaguered, “politically incorrect” minority.

Tea partiers display a libertarian streak, and are far less concerned with social issues. They are staunchly pro-business. But there’s an easy alliance between these two groups – which make up well over half of the GOP base – because Evangelicals think the tea partiers are fighting back, and vice versa.

Both groups displayed a high level of paranoia, according to the researchers who conducted the study. They noted that this was the first time, in many years of conducting focus groups, that participants worried that their participation might trigger surveillance by the NSA or an audit by the IRS. In addition to thinking that Obama is a liar, and a covert Communist, these two groups were also more likely to express the belief that he is secretly a Muslim.
To understand the shutdown, you have to grasp the mindset of the Republican base (Raw Story)
The Tea Party right is not only disproportionately Southern but also disproportionately upscale. Its social base consists of what, in other countries, are called the “local notables”—provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class.

Even though, like the Jacksonians and Confederates of the nineteenth century, they have allies in places like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce.  These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.

For nearly a century, from the end of Reconstruction, when white Southern terrorism drove federal troops out of the conquered South, until the Civil Rights Revolution, the South’s local notables maintained their control over a region of the U.S. larger than Western Europe by means of segregation, disenfranchisement, and bloc voting and the filibuster at the federal level. Segregation created a powerless black workforce and helped the South’s notables pit poor whites against poor blacks. The local notables also used literacy tests and other tricks to disenfranchise lower-income whites as well as blacks in the South, creating a distinctly upscale electorate. Finally, by voting as a unit in Congress and presidential elections, the “Solid South” sought to thwart any federal reforms that could undermine the power of Southern notables at the state, county and city level. When the Solid South failed, Southern senators made a specialty of the filibuster, the last defense of the embattled former Confederacy.

When the post-Civil War system broke down during the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, the South’s local notable class and its Northern and Western allies unexpectedly won a temporary three-decade reprieve, thanks to the “Reagan Democrats.” From the 1970s to the 2000s, white working-class voters alienated from the Democratic Party by civil rights and cultural liberalism made possible Republican presidential dominance from Reagan to George W. Bush and Republican dominance of Congress from 1994 to 2008. Because their politicians dominated the federal government much of the time, the conservative notables were less threatened by federal power, and some of them, like the second Bush, could even imagine a “governing conservatism” which, I have argued, sought to “Southernize” the entire U.S.

Turning over federal programs to the states allows Southern states controlled by local conservative elites to make those programs less generous—thereby attracting investment to their states by national and global corporations seeking low wages.

Privatizing other federal programs allows affluent whites in the South and elsewhere to turn the welfare state into a private country club for those who can afford to pay the fees, with underfunded public clinics and emergency rooms for the lower orders. In the words of Mitt Romney: “We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.”

When the election of Lincoln seemed to foreshadow a future national political majority based outside of the South, the local notables of the South tried to create a smaller system they could dominate by seceding from the U.S. That effort failed, after having killed more Americans than have been killed in all our foreign wars combined. However, during Reconstruction the Southern elite snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and succeeded in turning the South into a nation-within-a-nation within U.S. borders until the 1950s and 1960s.

Today the white notables of the South increasingly live in states like Texas, which already have nonwhite majorities. They fear that Obama’s election, like Lincoln’s, foreshadows the emergence of a new national majority coalition that excludes them and will act against their interest. Having been reduced to the status of members of a minority race, they fear they will next lose their status as members of the dominant local class.
Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right” (Salon)
What is surprising and interesting is when this conflict is experienced not as a matter of interests but of identity. It’s one thing to see urbanites as fellow citizens whose policy preferences depart from one’s own; it’s quite another to argue that their policy preferences give rise to serious doubt about whether they’re really Americans. Yet exactly this is the message of all those conservative complaints about “socialistic” Democrats who ignore our constitutional traditions as they labor to install a “nanny state.” These aren’t true Americans, resolute, independent, self-reliant; they’re feckless, faux-European traitors. (Though one, in particular, may have closer connections with Africa than Europe. You know who I mean.)
To think in this way, one must identify the country with one’s own beliefs and values. Those with different preferences then become almost definitionally “un-American.” This identification has the consequence, however, that political conflicts are often experienced as personal crises; what’s at stake isn’t simply policy, but one’s own sense of self. This releases anxieties that cluster around an intensely imagined Other: liberal, conspiratorial, seditious.

A partial answer arises directly from the sociology of rural culture. Persons who live in cities learn quickly that the world is full of different kinds of people; diversity — of race, religion, outlook, speech, etc. — is a fact of life. Because of this, they tend not to connect these personal attributes with one’s ability to be a trustworthy member of the community. If they think about the conditions of citizenship, they are more likely to associate them with general qualities of character — honesty, integrity, loyalty — equally available to everyone, regardless of background.

Many rural areas, by contrast, lack this aboriginal experience of diversity; they may be characterized by high levels of uniformity in ideology, race and religion. Given this, it may be natural to assume that “everyone” believes what you believe, or worships as you worship, or looks and speaks as you look and speak. And because these attributes characterize the community as a whole, it may be equally natural to define the latter in terms of the former — to think of these qualities as necessary for responsible citizenship, for being “one of us.” Only a small step is needed to extend this logic from one’s own community to the country as a whole.

I said this answer is only partial. That’s because it explains why the identification of self with nation arises in the first place, but not why it persists. In the America of 2013, more thoroughly colonized by communications technology than any society in the history of the planet, no community is an island; each is part of the main — and The Matrix. Geographic isolation has been overwhelmed by smart phones, the internet, cable and satellite TV and Red Box. One’s own community might be an emblem of ideological orthodoxy, racial purity or religious conformity — but there is no escaping the knowledge that the country as a whole (much less the world) is not. So if we want to know why this identification endures in some environments but not others, we’ll have to add something to our account — a mechanism to explain the stubborn insistence that some people will always be outsiders. And because the South is ground zero for the paranoia that rules today’s Republicans, our explanation will have to apply with particular force and resonance to it.

I don’t think we have to look far. The explanation lies in the South’s experience with black slavery and white supremacy...This is a fraught subject, so I want to make my meaning clear. I am not arguing that all Southerners — or all conservatives — are racists or paranoids; I’m not even arguing that all Southerners are conservatives. (I myself would personally disprove that assertion.) Slavery, thankfully, disappeared long ago, and Jim Crow is now almost two generations behind us. Racism lingers on in the South as in America generally, but for the most part must now keep its head down and its voice low; it’s the vice that dare not speak its name. (This is not to deny, of course, that it retains considerable social valence.)  What I am arguing is that a certain habit of thought, powerfully shaped by the experience of slavery, survived the passage of that curse and continues to influence some Southern conservatives to this day. It no longer takes the form of a blatant assertion that only the white race is worthy of social trust; its definition of the normative community has shifted. (Though it remains associated with racialist, or at least race-conscious, themes.) It is now more likely to define that community in ideological terms — to see it as consisting of those who endorse a particular view of government and its rightful relations with traditional mores and economic power. It has, however, retained certain aspects of its earlier, darker origins. It is still obsessed with purity — ideological if not racial — and still invests those it regards as impure with a harsh, acute animus. And it continues to equate difference with illegitimacy. Those on the outside — the liberals, the Democrats, the “socialists” — cannot be trusted partners in political life; they want only to undermine our institutions and must therefore be expelled from them.

Thus we arrive at the paranoid version of politics described above, in which policy disputes signal an insidious betrayal of “our” way of life. This is surely what animates the conduct of today’s Republicans — the reflexive rejection of compromise, the flagrant violation of long-established institutional norms, the experience of diversity as an invasion by foreign, unfamiliar powers.

The Republican belief that it would be better to suspend the government (or default on the debt) than to fund “Obamacare,” for instance, can be explained only by this kind of wrathful, embattled logic. There is a sense in which the current shutdown is the culmination of the last 50 years of Republican history. Today’s GOP is the heir of Reagan’s remark that “[G]overnment is not the solution… government is the problem,” even as Reagan embodied the strident, anti-statist dogmas of Barry Goldwater. The Party’s development since 1964 has, in effect, been one long preparation for the time when it would have to argue that no government would be better than liberal government. It would make no sense to say this if liberals were simply misguided souls with some bad policy ideas. It makes perfect sense when one sees them through the prism of Tea Party doctrine: as illegitimate interlopers from the outer darkness whose intent is to exploit and subvert the normative American community.
Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie (Salon)
Four years ago, the modern Tea Party seemed to emerge from nowhere, leaving journalists bewildered and the public with few reference points to understand seemingly spontaneous rallies by middle-class people seeking lower tax rates. A search for the phrase “tea party” in connection with “politics” in major newspapers yielded fewer than 100 mentions in 2008—and when the words did appear linked together, they suggested studied formality and decorum. The next year, they appeared more than 1,500 times, often connected to “protest demonstration.”

But little was spontaneous about the new party. “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics,” Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, reminds us in his new book, Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. “Such movements shook the American polity before the Obama era, before the Reagan era, and before Barry Goldwater ran for president—before, even, the New Deal.”

With meticulous research, Martin shows how the modern Tea Party grew from decades of efforts by American oligarchs to de-tax themselves. They relied on cranks, rogues, and a few scholars to polish the most effective ideological marketing pitches. Their goal was selling the notion that if the rich bear less of the burden of government, all of us will somehow end up better off. These pitches have worked best when some newly proposed government initiative—like President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act—arrives to pose the threat of major policy change. They have depended on diverting attention from obvious questions, such as just how does a smaller tax bill for the Koch brothers benefit us?
We Shall Overwhelm (The American Prospect)
Summary: The Right wing of America is active on all fronts: shutting down abortion, disenfranchising voters, and holding America’s credit rating hostage. Now we add to that list something small, but disturbing and with the potential to grow explosively: the Oath Keepers, one of the many militia-like groups, are “going operational”. 
The Oath Keepers want to give America its own Freikorps! (Fabius Maximus)

Ted Cruz, Leninist (The Atlantic) Critics think the Tea Party senator is being self-defeating, but his antics make sense if he's actually trying to remake the Republican Party in his image.
Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto, who teach political science at the University of Washington, recently published “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.” They contend that there are two major strands of conservatism in America: what they call “non Tea Party,” “traditional” or “real” conservatism; and what they describe as “Tea Party,” “reactionary” or “pseudo-conservatism.” 
In response to my inquiry, Parker wrote in an e-mail: 
Ultimately, a conservative — in the classical sense — wishes to preserve a stable society. Of course, this includes stable institutions and observing the rule of law. For these reasons (and several more), a conservative prefers evolutionary, more incremental change to revolutionary change: revolutionary change threatens the stability conservatives seek to conserve. Hence, conservatives reluctantly accept change — so long as it isn’t revolutionary. They do so for the sake of stability and order. Moreover, for the sake of order and stability, real conservatives are amenable to political compromise with their opponents. 
Conversely, according to Parker, reactionary conservatives are 
backwards looking, generally fearful of losing their way of life in a wave of social change. To preserve their group’s social status, they’re willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions — including the law. They see political differences as a war of good versus evil in which their opponents are their enemies. For them, compromise is commensurate with defeat — not political expediency. They believe social change is subversive to the America with which they’ve become familiar, i.e., white, mainly male, Protestant, native born, straight. “Real Americans,” in other words. 
Parker and Barreto conducted surveys to see if Tea Party conservatives differ from non-Tea Party conservatives. As the graphs in Figures 1-3 show, the two kinds of conservatives diverge significantly on key issues: immigration, civil liberties and in how they see President Obama. 
A newly published book, “Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us,” takes a different tack in exploring the contradictory ideological positions of left and right.  The author, Avi Tuschman, who earned a doctorate in evolutionary anthropology at Stanford and now works at the Inter-American Development Bank, contends that “the best cross-cultural predictor of left-right voting and party affiliation” is revealed by a 22-item test developed by Robert Altemeyer, an emeritus professor of  psychology at the University of Manitoba. You can take the test yourself on Pages 11 and 12 of this document. 
Altemeyer’s questionnaire asks respondents to estimate their agreement or disagreement with statements like these: 
  • The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just “loud mouths” showing off their ignorance. 
  • Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly. 
  • The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
  • Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else. 
  • God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished. 
Tuschman makes the case that Altemeyer’s questionnaire reveals three clusters of measurable personality traits that correlate with political conservatism or liberalism:  
1) Tribalism vs. xenophilia (an attraction to outsider groups); religiosity vs. secularism; and different levels of tolerance of “non-reproductive sexuality”;
2) opposing moral worldviews concerning inequality, one based on the principle of egalitarianism, the other based on ordered hierarchy, what people used to call “the great chain of being”; and
3) perceptions of human nature, people who see human nature as more cooperative vs. others who see it as more competitive. 
John Jost, a professor of psychology and politics at N.Y.U., uses descriptive language (language other social scientists characterize as  unflattering) to describe conservatives and flattering language to describe liberals. In “Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities,” a 2009 paper, Jost and two co-authors write: 
Specifically, death anxiety, system instability, fear of threat and loss, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and personal needs for order, structure, and closure were all positively associated with conservatism. Conversely, openness to new experiences, cognitive complexity, tolerance of uncertainty, and (to a small extent) self-esteem were all positively associated with liberalism.
James Sidanius, a professor of psychology at Harvard, working from a liberal perspective, uses a measure he calls “Social Dominance Orientation” to describe “the extent to which one desires that one’s in-group dominate and be superior to out-groups.
An individual’s social dominance orientation ranking, according to research Sidanius has conducted, derives from negative or positive responses to 16 statements. A person responding positively to the first eight (1-8) questions and negatively to the second group (9-16) would have a very high S.D.O. rating. 
First Group: 1. Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups. 2. In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups. 3. It’s O.K. if some groups have more of a chance in life than others. 4. To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups. 5. If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems. 6. It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom. 7. Inferior groups should stay in their place. 8. Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place. 
Second Group: 9. It would be good if groups could be equal. 10. Group equality should be our ideal. 11. All groups should be given an equal chance in life. 12. We should do what we can to equalize conditions for different groups. 13. Increased social equality is beneficial to society. 14. We would have fewer problems if we treated people more equally. 15. We should strive to make incomes as equal as possible. 16. No group should dominate in society. 
In their book, Parker and Barreto found a strong linkage between higher S.D.O. ranking and Tea Party conservatives (“True Believers”). They write: 
S.D.O. is a reflection of one’s “preference for inequality among social groups.” Someone who has high levels of S.D.O. is likely to buy into the hierarchy-enhancing ideologies, ones that resulting in the perpetuation of inequality. People who are low on S.D.O. are more likely to promote equality. We contend that people high in S.D.O, people who are intent on keeping subordinate groups down as a means of maintaining group-based prestige, are likely to support right-wing movements and, therefore, the Tea Party. 
The following graph (Fig. 2), provided to The Times by Parker, shows that there are more Tea Party conservatives with high measured levels of social dominance orientation (39 percent) compared with non-Tea Party conservatives (30 percent).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More monetary history - Roman edition


Since we talked about monetary history last time, I thought this would be a good time to include these fascinating posts from last year by Izabella Kaminsaka about finance in the Roman Empire. They debunk one of the most cherished libertarian beliefs- that the fall of Rome was caused by Diocletian's debasement of the currency. In reality, this was an symptom, not a cause, of an empire in the throes of decay. It could no longer expand, was wracked by migration, climate change, epidemic disease, extreme inequality, corruption, military overextension, and civil wars (sound familiar?). Simplistic explanations, especially ones that feed into a certain political agenda, are not to be taken seriously. Not that our current "default" is being driven by dysfunctional politics, not "money printing" per se.

I normally don't like to include entire posts, but this is too interesting, and I wanted to spare you the gateway on the FT site (all emphasis mine):
It’s Christmas. A time of year intrinsically linked to baby Jesus, a manger, some ancient wise men, choirs of angels and what is mostly an unflattering representation of the Roman Empire.

Roman PR has been faltering on other fronts as well, as this segment demonstrates…

The theory being pushed, of course, is that Rome’s debasement of the silver currency was somehow responsible for ultimate destruction of the Empire — making all this a highly relevant and cautionary lesson for today’s times. The moral of the story is perhaps best stated as: don’t do QE because the US Empire will be destroyed too. Or some such.

This also happens to be one of Ron Paul’s favourite fallbacks when it comes to justifying his rubbishing of the Fed and Ben Bernanke.

The theory featured prominently in a spat between Ron Paul and Paul Krugman in April this year, in which Ron Paul argued that QE would eventually lead the US to the same fate as the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, even Krugman failed to defend the Romans on the matter. In fact, he replied that he was not a defender of the economic policies of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.

Which is a shame, because Diocletian really wasn’t as bad as many people make out, historically speaking.

Since it’s Christmas, a time of year when everyone deserves a proper hearing — and since I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Romans, having been a student of Ancient History — I figured it might be useful to explain why a) Diocletian is misunderstood by modern economists and politicians, and b) why Rome did not fall because it debased its currency.*

First off, the Roman hyperinflation period — constantly referred to by debasement obsessives — post-dates actual debasement by about 60 years. Using it as a justification for the hyperinflation is like suggesting that a hypothetical debasement in the 1950s could in some way be responsible for today’s economic woes.

Secondly, the Roman debasement was not a one off affair. History tells us that the Romans were “debasing” their currency successfully for many decades with no hyperinflationary consequences. What changed ahead of the hyperinflation period of the third century, however, was that the Empire’s political stability was being threatened.

It’s as Dr. Benet Salway at UCL explained to us by email (our emphasis):

    In the case of the third century crisis it is arguable that the political instability preceded the monetary, in that debasement was used to make a finite amount of silver stretch further when pay rises and one-off payments were used to reward troops for support to a new claimant to the throne. There was a considerable timelag between debasement (starting with vengeance c. 200) and hyperinflation (which really did not kick in until the 260s). It is also notable that, despite re-establishing political stability Diocletian’s price control measures and currency revaluation both failed to curb inflation. It was only with Constantine’s shift away from debased and discredited silver coinage to the new gold solidus as the basis of the state’s monetary economy that inflation was brought under control. Ironically the success of the solidus as a stable coinage long outlasted the political existence of the empire in the west. The western empire’s collapse in the fifth century was not accompanied by financial meltdown. So, even in the Roman case the correlation between political and monetary stability is complex and varied.

As to what really caused the fall of Rome, we love the view presented by W.V. Harris at Columbia University.

In his paper “A revisionist view of Roman money” — in which he compellingly argues that Rome had a much more developed credit system than most people appreciate — he highlights amongst other things the following point:

    The purpose of this article has not been to demonstrate that per capita growth occurred in the late Republic or under the Principate (though such growth probably did occur in the second of these periods), but rather that shortage of money was not to any important extent a brake on growth. What impeded sustained economic growth in Roman antiquity was not a shortage of money, but mainly the failure to adopt technologies, especially a fuel technology, that would have allowed the Romans to escape from the Malthusian impasse. 
And as he explained further to us by telephone:

    The things that prevented the Romans from having a takeoff are basically two: One is lack of technological innovation. Lack of diffusion of productive technology and the other was not using fossil fuels. They didn’t, whereas England started having its industrial revolution (a much-debated question, as you know), in large part because of coal.

The other point worth stressing is that Rome’s credit system really was awash with private credit transactions (and debts). People like to focus on the coinage, but actually — if you follow Harris’ research — the primary mode of exchange for high value transactions, such as property, was credit. And that goes back to the days of the Republic. Coinage, meanwhile, was much more commonly associated with smaller daily purchases. When it comes to large gold payments, meanwhile, these were mostly dedicated to the settlement of international transactions. That is, for transacting with entities outside of the Roman credit system, and with people whose credit profiles were unfamiliar or not trusted by the Romans.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Living standards before 1870

This week we've been highlighting economic history showing that before the year 1870, things for the majority of people outside a tiny elite really didn't get much better, and, in fact, sometimes got worse throughout thousands of years of history. This is important in understanding the shape of societies today, and the shape of what sorts of social changes may take place in the future. Invention, discovery, social change and innovation all combined in miasma of circumstances that are hard to untangle. Some argue that declining energy sources will mean the future will be a tape run in reverse. Others argue that innovation is limitless and will always rescue us from hard limits imposed by nature. But a hard look at economic history means that it's unlikely either of these two scenarios is in the offing.

Here's another good article from The Economist considering whether living standards at all changed that much before 1870.
AS WE showed in a previous blog post, Europe went through a period of astonishing growth after about 1760. The level of income that Europe has today could not have been reached without the Industrial Revolution.

In fact, people often refer to two revolutions (though historians bicker about terminology). The First Industrial Revolution was about the introduction of machines, often powered with water or steam. It lasted from roughly 1760 to 1850. The Second Industrial Revolution used more advanced technologies, such as the internal combustion engine and electricity. It lasted from roughly 1850 to 1910.

We know that the Industrial Revolution made Europe rich. But what was it like to live through it? Britain has the most complete historical records when it comes to this kind of thing, so this post will focus on that country.

The question boils down to how you measure living standards. Historians are divided over what happened to wages during the Industrial Revolution. Everyone agrees that they did increase; the question is, when...Research focuses on real wages—wages that are adjusted for inflation. Getting data on wages is tricky. But accounting for inflation is even harder. (For example, workers often paid rent informally, meaning that there are few records around)... It’s a bit of an academic mess.

Most people agree that after about 1840, real wages did better. Nicholas Crafts and Terence Mills shows that from 1840 to 1910, real wages more than doubled. Their findings are mirrored by other researchers (see below right). Improvements may be due to technological innovation, which led to big increases in labour productivity and hence higher wages. Others reckon it is because the cost of living did not increase so fast. And the massive economic impact of the Napoleonic Wars—where, due to naval warfare, exporters suffered and imports were more expensive—gradually wore off.

So, while the Industrial Revolution ultimately led to big increases in wealth, progress was unsteady. For much of the period, the average person was not reaping the benefits of economic change.

So much for wages. Other measures of standard of living should be considered.

There is increased enthusiasm for biological measures of standard of living, such as people’s height. Height is a useful measure for a number of reasons. It indicates how well someone is nourished. And people who do less manual labour, or who are less afflicted by disease, are likely to be taller. A person’s height is not perfectly correlated with their standard of living...but 20-40% of the difference in height between individuals is determined by environmental factors. And so at an aggregate level, height data are pretty helpful.

Some research presents a rather alarming picture. Below is a graph which shows the height of English soldiers from 1730 to 1850—a period which captures the First Industrial Revolution.

There are many different explanations for height declines during this period. Some people reckon that diseases in cities exploded. Other people think that unsteady economic growth led to increases in the frequency of unemployment, which had an impact on nutrition. And growth of agriculture may have lagged behind economic growth—which meant that the relative price of nutrients increased at a time when transportation was poor and food preservation was primitive.

Other research has shown that city dwellers tended to be shorter than rural folk, even though the urbanites were generally richer. Access to food was easier for those living in rural areas, and so they were better insulated from the effects of harvest failure.

Another paper suggests that it was only in the latter part of the 19th century that growth in heights took off. Wages rose and advances were made in food safety and public health. And for the last 150 years, Britain has been on a steady upward path (see below).

You can tell a similar story about life expectancy. The “expectation of life at birth” (its official name) is calculated by looking at death registrars. If you know the distribution of ages at which people die, you can work out the most likely age to which people will live.

Once again, the picture is not rosy. For instance, in almost all British cities, mortality conditions in the 1860s were no better—and were often worse—than in the 1850s. In Liverpool in the 1860s, the life expectancy fell to an astonishing 25 years. It was not until the two subsequent decades that rises in life expectancy were found (see below right).

Economic history now has very advanced ways of measuring quality of life. But quantitative wizardry does not capture the experience of living through such rapid change. Less maths-y history is needed too. EP Thompson, an English historian, was not a great fan of numbers. He was more interested in getting inside people’s minds. One of his most famous papers, published in 1967, tries to understand what it was like for people living through rapid economic change. As Britain shifted to fully-fledged capitalism, Thompson reckons that people felt under more pressure to work hard:

    Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent.

The English worker in the throes of industrial capitalism was marked by

    his regularity, his methodical paying-out of energy, and perhaps also…a repression, not of enjoyments, but of the capacity to relax in the old, uninhibited ways.

Hard-nosed economic historians (sometimes known as cliometricians) sneer at Thompson’s style of history. For them, using poems as source material, and writing lyrical sentences—as Thompson is prone to do—is not good scholarship.

But we need both the number-crunchers and the artsy types if we want to understand the consequences of economic growth. That is as true today as it was during the industrial revolution. Wages might be rising, but other social indicators might be doing awfully. This was highlighted in a recent book, written by Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, which looks at India. Economic history is not just about hard economics, but also about how people experience economic change.
Did living standards improve during the Industrial Revolution? (The Economist)

I particularly like that last part, and it's an opinion you very rarely see in economic writing. Facts and numbers can only tell so much; what was actual life really like? Were people happier? What were their social relationships like? What was the nature of their work? How much leisure time did they have? Were their jobs repetitive and stressful? Sometimes "hard" work can be more fun and more rewarding than "easy" work - people today spend their leisure time doing things that our ancestors would have considered "work." Also, people didn't have "jobs" the way we think of them today, and their economic well-being was less dependent upon wages and more on reciprocity, barter, and the household economy.

All of this is ignored in the pure abstract-numbers approach of the econometrics that dominates analysis today. This is why people like me tend to focus on broader measures of social well-being, and why our analysis tends to be dismissed by economists looking only at things like wages and consumption. For example, happiness has plateaued or declined while mental illness is epidemic, even as America continues its mad rush for economic growth. Forty years ago we were much  "poorer" - we had no internet or iPhones, smaller houses, and not as many options for 'home entertainment' (only a few television channels). But were we so much less happy in those days before cyberbullying, reality television, extreme inequality, anorexia, metal detectors in schools and 24-hour TV news?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Why Are So Many Choosing Death?

A lot of people argue that modern technological society is making us psychotic. I can think no better evidence for this than the epidemic of suicide that is now sweeping the globe, especially in the United States. It seems everywhere I look this week there are more stories of suicide. It seems to cut across all classes:

Bollywood actress Jiah Khan hung herself this week.
Michael Jackson’s daughter attempted suicide this week.
Stephen Fry has discussed his suicide attempt in 2012.
A couple that hosted a motivational and self-help radio show in New York City committed suicide together.
There was an attempted suicide attempt outside the Today Show

Where modern society goes, suicide follows. I wonder how much of it there is among "primitive" societies. Someone call Jared Diamond.

And just think, that’s over and above all of our mass shootings, the latest of which occurred this week in Santa Monica. In America, we're doubling-down on killing ourselves and/or each other.

But seriously, it is worth noting that this is at the same time as antidepressant use in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Imagine how much there would be even if those didn't exist. In fact, according to some sources, antidepressants are the most prescribed medication in the United States, ahead of even antibiotics and blood pressure medication.
The use of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs -- those that affect brain chemistry -- has skyrocketed over the last decade.

Adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2000.

Between 1995 and 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the use of these drugs rose 48 percent, the CDC reported.
CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drugs in U.S. (CNN)
According to a report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% between 1988–1994 and 2005–2008.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.
Astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans (Harvard Medical School)

My question is, if modern life, with all our interactive screens and creature comforts, is supposedly so great, why are people ending their own lives in such great numbers? And the numbers are truly staggering, as this article points out:
Forget the days of whispering about suicide—it’s become a national epidemic, and is only likely to get worse over the years unless the country starts addressing the problem, writes Tony Dokoupil in this week’s Newsweek. Self-harm is likely to take 40,000 American lives this year; in 2010 suicide took more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. It’s not the depressed teen who is taking his or her own life, but rather it’s the baby boomers, who currently have the highest suicide rate in the world. According to data exclusively obtained by Newsweek, there has been a 37 percent increase in the years of life lost to clinical depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and other mental disorders. 
Suicide Likely to Take 40,000 American Lives (Daily Beast)
Newly released and striking figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that from 1999 to 2010 the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2010 more people in the U.S. died from suicide than from car crashes—a statistic that alone seems to stand as troubling testament to desperate times. As the New York Times notes, the CDC and other experts believe the suicide figures to be on the low side.

Another striking symptom is high levels of stress that lead to drug use, abuse and addiction. Research  concludes that stress can render people susceptible to serious illness, and that chronic stress can play a role in the progression of cancer. It is hard to believe, but 11 percent of all Americans aged 12 and older, which is well over 30 million people, are currently taking antidepressants despite the danger of suicide for some users.

And a stunning 23 percent of women in their 40s and 50s are now taking antidepressants according to a major study by the CDC.
The 4 Plagues: Getting a Handle on the Coming Apocalypse (Alternet)

It's not just the United States: UK Suicide rate rises 'significantly' in 2011 (BBC) and 'Suicidal' man causes Chinese bus fire (BBC) and Hidden Cost of Greece, Euro Crisis: Suicides (Naked Capitalism)

Here are some thoughtful articles on the subject: Why Suicide Has become Epidemic and What We Can Do To Help (Daily Beast) and  Baby boomers are killing themselves at an alarming rate, raising question: Why? (Washington Post)

I would argue that if you were to devise a system intentionally designed to drive a primate to psychosis, you would come up with essentially the system we have today. You would downgrade and de-emphasize human social relationships. You would pit people against each other. You would institutionalize children from birth. You would make people live with pervasive fear and uncertainty. You would force them to work at cruel, demeaning jobs with little time off to relax. You would show them unrealistic and unattainable images of physical perfection to make them ashamed of their own bodies. You would constantly show goals that are unattainable for the vast majority of people. You would encourage dissatisfaction with one’s life.

No doubt the technophilia crowd believes that more technology will somehow solve all these problems. When we upload our brains into computers all our depression will disappear. That, or we can all medicate it out of us even more than we do already. Forgive me if my eyes are rolling at this.

I am at a high risk myself. I don't know what will happen. All I know is that we're going to lose a lot of good people, and if anything good comes out of something so awful, maybe we'll start to question the kind of society we've made for ourselves.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Gift of Poverty

Someone asked me recently what actions I have taken based on the types of things I write about here. To answer that, first I'd like to digress a bit.

Back when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, there was one phrase he used that struck me at the time, and I have remembered it ever since. He thanked his parents for "the gift of poverty."

The gift of poverty?

Now the reason that phrase struck me so hard is that I could not believe anyone could see poverty as a gift. For me it has been a curse. All my life I have lived with people who have more than me. Sure, many people have less, and I know that intellectually, but the way our minds work, we judge ourselves by our peer group and our immediate surroundings. The fact that people in Africa or Central America live without running water does not register if you live in a city in the American Midwest.

Poverty put me in debt from an early age. Poverty meant that I was bullied and abused in school. Poverty meant that I grew up in rentals with loud downstairs neighbors across from a housing project and next to a cement factory (seriously, I could write a good Blues song about it). Poverty meant I had no dates in high school. Poverty meant I had little choice in choosing a college. Poverty meant my car would break down before it was paid off, and I had to drive without insurance to drive at all. Poverty meant I could not travel the world as a young man they way I wanted, for fear of debt collectors. Poverty meant I could not quit jobs I didn't like, or get decent vacations or benefits.

Poverty meant that I could not get an advanced degree, and my career would suffer. Even in the professional world, you work twice as hard for half as much as the people around you. They live lifestyles you could only dream about. They give their kids every advantage you can imagine. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in. I often say that I feel like I'm behind enemy lines in the class war. The principal I work for, a true class warrior and fanatical Republican, promotes only those who know the "secret handshake" of casual privilege - the loud and boastful self-promoters who have that easy air of confidence that comes from a family background of money and connections. The rest are little more than galley slaves. And let's not even talk about my personal life, which is isolating and lonely. Yes, it's true, women don't like to marry outside of their class, either.

So to me, poverty took my life away from me. I'm never going to get those years back (I'll be 40 this year). So that phrase struck me as so profoundly opposite of my experience, that I could not even wrap my head around it.

You won't hear things like this in the mainstream media. People like me are not in the mainstream media, so you need to keep in mind what the background is of those people when you listen to their pronouncements. That's why they talk about things like the improving jobs report and rising stock prices, and obsess about things like gay marriage and guns in schools.  They live in a bubble of privilege, and always have. To them, we're just an anonymous mass in flyover country. I recommend tuning them out entirely. I hope that bloggers like me, ordinary people who actually live among you - can provide a useful corrective. I think we have  a better idea of what's going on.

But as I got older, I began to understand a little bit what he meant. You see, when you start with very little, it has a couple of effects. One, and it's a cliche but it's true, is that you have to work hard for literally everything you have. You have to be smart, because you can't be stupid. There is no safety net for people like me, no rich parent to bail you out of your mistakes, just the hard hammer coming down on you in a society with no other ultimate purpose than for hard men to make as much money as possible by breaking workers at the wheel. You quickly develop an awfully dark view of human society, one that I still carry with me.

And you don't have the sense of entitlement that you see in so many people around you. People of my grandparents' era had much nicer living standards than people today (even without iPods), but they never felt it was something they deserved. Their grandchildren, however, feel entitled to a comfortable middle-class life. They feel they deserve a comfortable office job with fancy benefits, and that they need a big house in a good school district with a nice lawyer foyer, a new minivan to chauffeur their children to their copious extracurricular activities, Netflix, cable TV, ski vacations, and the like; and they feel they deserve all this because they work harder or are somehow better than the Mexicans tearing up sod in front of the building or cooking their omelettes. I can tell you that many coworkers refuse to really spend the time learning new skills or new software because they have risen up the ladder by virtue of their status, so really, why should they bother? By contrast, people like me have to learn these things just to have a job at all. Getting ahead is not really a concern; your entire life is lived in survival mode.

But mostly, you realize there really is nothing to lose. Because only when you think there's something to lose do you act to preserve it. When you're poor, everything is a gift, so you feel no particular desire to hold onto it. All you have, in the end, is yourself and your relationships. This is the message of spiritual disciplines worldwide. This is why religious people give everything away. Put another way, it's all gravy, or as Scarface put it, "every day above ground is a good day."

I've often been struck by how much of the Peak Oil scene is an upper middle class phenomenon. The Mexicans in the aisles of MiSuper Foods or rolling ice cream trucks down my street probably have no concept of Peak Oil or collapse and don't care. And people have often noted the lack of African-Americans in the Peak Oil movement. In many places like Detroit, the collapse happened a long time ago and is old news. Peak oil just doesn't register. When they grow urban gardens, it's because they need jobs even more than they need oil. I think there is a lesson in that. As I often say, if you want to know America's future, look at Detroit.

When I lost my job after September 11 (I was a Web programmer) and had to sell all my possessions and move home, I realized how totally useless all this "stuff" was, and I permanently lost any desire to buy or accumulate anything. After all, that stuff didn't save me, did it? Besides, one fire could destroy everything you own in an hour, anyway. When you talk to people who have lost everything in a fire, often times they express the realization that their stuff didn't matter, and they often do not repurchase what they had before. If you realize this without a fire or job loss, you will be very much ahead of the game. I still buy things, of course, but I think really long and hard about it. And I don't buy anything I am not prepared to lose or have stolen tomorrow.

So the simple answer to the reader's question is: nothing. Why should I? Why am I so different than the other 315 million Americans, or 7 billion inhabitants of the planet that I need saving? I live my life from day to day, that's all. I don't worry. What happens, happens. This is that attitude the ancients cultivated, and hunter-gatherers for that matter. And I recommend it to anyone. You'll be much happier. As Steve Jobs put it in his famous speech, the knowledge that you're going to die someday should disabuse you of the notion that you have anything to lose.

It’s like death. Admitting your own mortality can take a huge load off your chest. It helps you focus on what you, personally, can and cannot do, with what you really want to do with your life. Any fighter knows that no matter how tough the opposition, you can't spend all your time in a defensive crouch. You miss out on life that way. Yes, I see what's going on, and I write about it. But I am not afraid or worried at all.

I think some people's minds are overly attuned to danger and threats. It has to do with an overactive amygdala, something that was probably beneficial on the ancestral environment. I recognize this tendency in myself. It's the opposite of the complacency and blind optimism so many people live with. but of course, neither extreme is good. I suspect a lot of my readers might have the same tendency. But of course, like the optimist, it's easy to take it too far. So if you , like me, recognize this tendency in yourself, it might be a good idea to observe your own thoughts, and gain a measure of control over them. Perhaps you are overreacting, after all. Meditation is helpful for this. Maybe take some time away from it all (even from here - I won't mind ;), go for a walk, garden, play with your kids, pick up dames, whatever. Look out your window. Right now as I write this, it's a nice spring day and the sun is shining. There is something to be said for that. As Buddhists point out, this is the only true way to experience life. Worrying is just paying for a bill that hasn't come due.

There is a good part in this in interview with Noah Raford about the attitude his colleague from Africa had, which sums up my views pretty well:
Back before Y2K I was really freaking out a bit and had a year’s supply of food all stored up, gas cached away, etc. I was telling people to buy gold, learn to hunt, whatever. I thought that could be the end. And mind you, it might have been if we hadn’t figured it out before hand and poured billions of dollars into fixing it. A lot of people like to dismiss it because we fixed it. But that wasn’t like the UFO story. This was a documented, observable bug that really could have caused some serious damage if we didn’t fix it in time. But thankfully we did.

Anyway, while I was preparing for this, I was talking to a Ghanaian friend of mind, from Ghana in West Africa. He grew up with power outages, civil wars, water shortages, etc.

His responds was, “Ah, worst case scenario I starve to death. So what?”

I’ll never forget that. It sounds crass or fatalistic or something, but there is a wisdom in that statement. It’s not like he was giving up and volunteering to die. Quite the opposite. He had life experiences that taught him what he could and could not control, what he should and shouldn’t worry about. And this acceptance gave him a sense of realism that is really quite liberating.
So what? Cultivate a "so what" attitude. That's the attitude of people who are, or have been, poor. Be prepared to lose it all. That doesn't mean you should seek out that outcome, of course, but you must make peace with it.

That, then, is the final gift of poverty.

We're all caught in something larger than ourselves. It’s not like any of us can prevent collapse from happening. Not you, not me, not Barack Obama, not Bill Gates, not Ben Bernanke, not the Pope. No one is charge anymore. It’s just too big, too fast, and too complex. The best we can do is to live though it, the way so many of our ancestors have done. One of the reasons I like history so much is that it puts everything in perspective. People  throughout history have made enormous contributions, and lived valuable, meaningful lives with just a fraction of what you and I possess. People in the nineteenth century often had no heat or running water. They lived in a world full of pollution and injustices like debtors' prisons, robber barons and slavery. Yet look at what they did. Look at what people do every day across this planet with so much less than us. Get some perspective.

The French have a word debroullier. It's the art of always landing on one's feet, of surviving by the skin of your teeth, of overcoming odds by breaking the rules and slipping between the cracks. The French call this "System D." We should take note. System D ought to be in the toolkit of every Peak Oil aware person. I also recall the advice the Sokka Gakkai Buddhists give to their followers: be prepared to do the things that others don't want to do. if that is your attitude you will do well in whatever society we end up living in.

Philosophically, I would also recommend reading the Stoic philosophers. It seems to be that Stoicism, born of an earlier civilization undergoing collapse, is the ideal philosophy for the Peak Oil era. Try starting with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Enchiridion (the 'manual') by Epictetus (it's practically a pamphlet). I'd also recommend "Man's Search for Meaning," by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Having said all that, I'll include a few more practical and prosaic things I have done. Really, it's nothing more than what everyone else has been saying. When I first read Ran Prieur's famous essay, How to Drop Out (like everyone else, it's how I found his site), I realized that I had independently arrived at many of his conclusions. You don't need to completely drop out; just live on the margins and depend on mainstream society as little as possible. Artists have been experts at this - make friends with some if you can. Buy a bicycle and learn to fix it. Learn to cook good food at home, including beans and rice. Invest in a grill and slow cooker if you're a meat-eater like me. Try and get a skill where you can paid on the side. Keep out of debt. Make friends with people who can help you. Reciprocity is fundamental to our species, and it will work when the big systems fail. Like I said, nothing you won't read on the Archdruid Report or Club Orlov.

I'm fanatically allergic to anything I cannot walk away from. I don't like long-term contracts, and for a long time it kept me from having a cell phone (I now have a no-contract phone). I don't have Netflix. I obviously have Internet service (reluctantly). Everything I do for entertainment is via the Web or the local library. I don't play computer games - I'd rather spend my time creating a blog post, reading a good book, or architectural design.

I buy most things second-hand or at rummage sales except clothes. My entire house is furnished with flea market items. This does two things - not only is it cheaper, but it keeps stuff out of a landfill and prevents the need to add new stuff to the world. 99 percent of the stuff the human race needs has already been manufactured, let's use the last of the oil wisely, eh? Plus, old stuff is often of superior quality.

I shop at farmer's markets, ethnic groceries, and buy directly from local farms. Yes, I pay more, but that accomplishes two things - it gives you better health, and it gives money to people who are farming the earth responsibly. The more money people like that earn, the more people will be doing it. Paying more for good, sustainable food is better than any charity - it is actually shifting the way we do things via the free market. And that's a good thing. If it helps, think of the extra money as charitable donations to promote things like organic agriculture and responsible husbandry.

Unemployment pays one-third of your previous income, so it stands to reason that you need to live on one-third of your income, whatever that is. I studiously do so, and bank the rest.

Last year, I did something I never thought I would do. I bought a house. My savings weren't earning anything in the bank, so I put it as down-payment on a house because I was tired of being a rent mule. I thought of buying a house outright, but I still couldn't find an acceptable one in my price range. But my large down payment (40 percent) means that my house is cheaper than even the cheapest one bedroom rental in my city. I pay as much of the mortgage as I can to build equity in the house. And the repairs I make are all with an eye to energy efficiency - I put in a new furnace to take advantage of the credits being offered (it was a very old furnace). Luckily, I'm well insulated, but if you're not, insulate and weatherize first. Then think about energy independence - wood stoves, solar hot water, photovoltaics, etc.

The way I see it, you're always going to need a roof over your head. And say what you will about gold, but the value of a house truly never goes to zero. I'm lucky I live in a very affordable rust-belt city, where housing prices are reasonable and have stabilized. And my house is comfortable but humble - even with this year's increased assessment, it is still assessed at under six figures by the city. The best part - I can literally walk to everything I need and bike or bus everywhere else. I realize not everyone is this lucky, though, as jobs change, etc. But often house location is a valuable tradeoff for price.

I've set up my life so that I can purchase food and shelter even while working for minimum wage, since this will be what most of the wonderful new jobs our leaders are creating will pay. That includes my mortgage payment. I highly recommend this for everyone. Anything above that you can bank or invest.

The stuff in Mr. Money Moustache also sums up a lot of my advice. I don't think you need to be afraid of investments or stick your money in a mattress. I think banks will remain solvent and some investments will still increase in value. Again, as always, don't gamble with what you can't afford to lose. I have not invested my savings, because I want them liquid in case of job loss (the house being the exception). My money is in my credit union, and I went through them to finance my house. Keep you money out of the big banks. I think savings in credit unions are safe, so that would be my primary method, with investments being above and beyond that. I don't think FDIC will fail, remember, we can always print money - we're doing enough of it already.

And definitely get involved in your community. Kompost Kids and Victory Garden Initiative are two I've been involved with in the past, but certainly your town is looking for help and volunteers, whether they are "officially" for peak oil or not. Homeless shelters and food banks are worth more in the coming collapse than cob ovens and windmills (not there's anything wrong with those). I roll my eyes at Transition Towns a little, because it seems like more of a networking group for upper class green liberals. What we really need are ways to get homeless people into foreclosed houses and jobs rather than solar panels or biodeisel at this point. As I've said, fossil fuels are still around; it's their cost that's going to kill us, along with their environmental impact. I think one of the benefits of gardening is that you realize how much of human life is dependent on the climate. Anyone who doesn't get that is not worth listening to.

Say what you will about religion, and I'm the harshest critic there is, but it often motivates people to help others. But you don't need religion for that. If Peak Oil aware people really rolled up their sleeves and got involved, rather than just endlessly pontificated about the apocalypse, we would really make a difference, and that is how movements are born, not blogs (yes, I'm damning myself here a bit too). Christianity took over the Western world not through its nonsensical theology, but because it gave people a helping hand in tough times. The Peak Oil movement needs to take a page from that. By doing so, people will start listening to us instead of the corporate media. Occupy is good start, but it's just a start.

I've said enough, I think. It seems as though poverty is a gift that more and more of us are going to receive, whether we want it or not. Seeing it, no making it, a gift is something that we can and should cultivate. And finally, I would close with the words of that great American sage, Kurt Vonnegut: "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind."

Twenty-First Century Stoic -- From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic (BoingBoing)

Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America (Post Swag Poetics). I recognize a lot of my own story in this terrific essay.