Sunday, June 30, 2013

Basic Income

Nike is to tackle rising labour costs at its Asian factories by “engineering the labour out” of its shoe and clothing production as it seeks to defend its profits.

Don Blair, Nike’s chief financial officer, said its objective was to reduce the number of people making its products as he highlighted the impact of a sharp increase in wages in Indonesia.

Here’s another heart-warmer. Bank of America  has decided it’s been paying U.S. workers too much to review mortgage and other loan documents.  So it’s off shoring those jobs.  Now workers in India will be checking off on those appraisals, etc.  It should help the “struggling” conglomerate.
What strikes me about a dirty job isn’t that it needs doing – it’s that someone has to do it to get by. There’s no other choice for them. And it’s getting more difficult to find a job to make a living off. In the midst of a (still) growing economy, 2.1m Australians are unemployed or underemployed, Ford and SPC Ardmona (to name but a few corporates) are laying off thousands of jobs, Adecco chief Patrick De Maeseneire is calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, and in the tech community there’s a raging debate about when (not if) robots will replace most jobs we know of today. For labour market entrants facing an economy with 40% of us in insecure work, the choices (for those aside from a lucky few) are largely between waiting to be notified of shifts via text message, rolling short-term contracts in the public sector, or studying for years and years to end up in the same trap anyway. And that’s all before the economy really tanks.

This shouldn’t be our legacy. Australia is one of the richest countries in a world that has never been richer. Our GDP is on track to reach AUD$73,123.05 per capita this year. That we live with poverty, insecurity and economic anxiety is a matter of political choice, not necessity. We create enough value for everyone to have a basic living income. That’s why I’d like to propose every citizen, every permanent resident, receive a basic income of AUD$30,000 per year. No exceptions. No means testing. A universal minimum income.
Why Australians deserve a universal minimum income (The Guardian)
The new inequality we are seeing has little to do with how well educated you are. It’s hard to penetrate beyond the barrier on education alone. The new inequality is about capital owners and non-capital owners. And increasingly, it’s about technology capital owners. Those who own the robots and the tech are becoming the new landlord rentier types.

This, of course, fits our counterintuitive model of the world which looks at this crisis from the point of view of efficiency and abundance jeopardising the rate of profit. In that sense, we believe this crisis really started with the dotcom collapse.

It was disrupted capital from the old-economy world which drove the subprime fiascos, as it strove to secure itself to anything so that it could preserve its diminishing value.

This is because the dotcom era created something of a self-canabalising effect for most of the capital system. The more you invested in technology, the greater the efficiencies. The greater the efficiencies, the greater the abundance. The greater the abundance the more likely capital itself would be undermined, since you can’t put a price on air, or anything else which is abundant.

What’s happening now, arguably, is that the canabalising effect is being stalled by the monopolisation effect instead. The owners of the capital — which has the potential to create abundance — are protecting their rate of profit by stalling efficiency (a la patent trolling) and by means of the monopolisation effect.

This may not go on forever if the rise of technology jumps over into the Wiki open commons world, at which point it becomes accessible to everyone irrespective of the monopolies.
But for as long as the monopolies exist and gate-keep access to the higher living standards provided by their own technology, some sort of subsidising effect is needed from the government to stop people becoming totally disenfranchised from the system.

Undoubtedly, conservatives as Krugman notes will find this sort of thinking a bitter pill to swallow. But really, it’s better to think of it more as compensation for “not working” — since more work only accelerates the abundance problem, while leading us to another commodity and natural resource constraint — than redistribution of wealth per se.
Time to take basic income seriously? (FT Alphaville)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saturday Night Music

Postcards From A Collapse

I hope there's a Dmitry Orlov somewhere chronicling the Greek collapse (Dmitrios Ourlovos?)
Constantinos Polychronopoulos makes lentils. It's not a job per se, but it's as good as it gets in these troubled times. Laid off from his marketing company three years ago, he hasn't found steady work since, so he started a mobile soup kitchen that rotates around Athens, feeding the poor and hungry. He collects donated lentils -- phakes (fah-kess) in Greek -- which he simmers with tomatoes, onions, and bay leaves in a big pot, cooking them down into a brown, filling, garlicky stew. "It's not a handout," he says, ladling it out in a Styrofoam cup. "It's like a communal supper among friends. We're all in the same boat, and we all eat together."

The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts -- of happy families toasting each other. It's not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It's not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past.

Those who still have their jobs, even if they've seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too. On TV, there has been an explosion of "cook-on-the-cheap" shows, including one in which a portly, smiling chef teaches you how to make five elaborate three-course meals for just 50 euros a week. There's also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)

A recent Kapa Research poll found that 71 percent of Greeks find it difficult to get by on their current income. In supermarkets, shoppers talk about the prices -- spending on groceries dropped 8 percent just in the first six months of last year, compared with the same period in 2011 -- and about how little money is left over to pay property taxes and electricity bills. So everyone buys lentils.

And why shouldn't they? A steal at a little more than $1.50 a pound today, lentils were born in Greece. Evidence of cultivation has been found in caves dating as far back as 11,000 B.C. They are ours, and they fueled an empire. In ancient times, a basic lentil soup was a common working-class meal; the wealthy refused to serve it. But it wasn't just the poor who ate this humble legume -- ancient texts are filled with recipes and praise for the lentil. In The Deipnosophists, the ancient rhetorician and foodie Athenaeus of Naucratis noted that many philosophers considered it a virtuous food. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who advocated a simple life to avoid sucking up to a corrupt society, subsisted on lentils. The Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium apparently made a mean stew with leeks, carrots, vinegar, honey, and coriander. Aristotle is said to have liked his lentils with saffron. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, saw other virtues: He prescribed lentils to treat ulcers and hemorrhoids. And the comic playwright Aristophanes called phakes "the sweetest of delicacies."

 "I will never understand picky eaters," says Uncle Thanassis, reaching for a piece of bread. He lived in a succession of rural orphanages during World War II, when Nazi forces plundered Athens, seizing food and fuel en masse. At least 300,000 people died of starvation -- a period that older Greeks call the Great Famine. "They had nothing in the city. There were emaciated bodies lying on the street," he says. "When I was a little girl living through the Nazi occupation," Vasso adds, "we ate wild greens with nothing -- no oil, no salt. Often with no bread."


 At least once a week, my Athenian neighbor Kyria Fani makes a pot of her peppery phakes, which I smell wafting through the halls of our building. Like my aunt, she cooks for seven people, including her son and his family, who live next door. Kyria Fani and her husband are resilient Pontic Greeks in their 70s. They have worked since they were children and saved all their lives to buy their apartment. A few weeks ago, her husband was beaten and robbed in broad daylight outside our building. He had just withdrawn money from the bank to help his son, whose employer at the shipyard hasn't paid him in nearly a year.

On the first floor, a young father recently lost his job. I hear him talking with his wife about how they can't save money, can't plan for the future. "We can at least still plan for dinner," his wife says. I run into the father and the baby one spring afternoon, when I've just returned from the grocery store. I've stocked up on lentils and have big plans to make a week's worth of dal.
Austerity Lentils: What a country cooks when it's collapsing (Foreign Policy)
Many Greeks own farmland that went fallow after their parents and grandparents moved from the countryside to cities during Greece’s post-World War II economic boom. Now, after years of crushing austerity, ever more are turning to their agrarian roots as a backup plan.

“The best thing is that if you’re at the bottom, there’s nothing worse,” said Konstantina Kardoulia, 30, a graphic artist who has been unemployed for a year and a half but has a patch of land near Athens. “We have rabbits, chickens, cabbages, carrots. Enough to cover our needs.”
The unrest barely touched a pastoral estate in northern Athens that belonged to the first queen of Greece, Amalia of Oldenburg. Students in the agriculture class were calm, saying that they had finally found a path that depended little on their leaders. With olive trees taking a prominent role in Greek myths, the advertising copy for farming here was written thousands of years of ago. Most of the 96 students have professional degrees ranging from dentistry to civil engineering. All are unemployed, and most have given up finding a job in their area of expertise any time soon. So they have turned to farming as a business. Some plan to move out of expensive Athens and into the countryside, reversing the migration their ancestors made decades ago.

“After such a long period of unemployment, everybody understands that we have to do something,” said Dimitrios Botsos, 51, who spent decades working for large companies and a nongovernmental organization before being laid off in 2008. His wife is also jobless.

His grandparents were farmers, he said, but neither he nor his parents knew much about agriculture. Still, he said, farming is the obvious fallback for tough times. “The land is there,” he said. “All you need is your hands.” That, he said, is the best recipe for Greece’s economic comeback — not an IMF and European Union recipe that involves billions of dollars of foreign investment.

“If this machine needs lubrication, we should do it ourselves,” he said.


Many Greeks have simply adapted to getting by with less. An open-air food market in one northern Athens neighborhood was packed near closing time one recent afternoon, with shoppers swarming the stands because they know farmers will be eager to sell their merchandise for a bargain.

“Potatoes, they don’t drop in price,” said Katarina Milioni, 45, who was a carpet saleswoman until she was laid off last year. “But fish, they do.”

“People buy a lot less,” she said. “Things have gotten a lot harder.”
Greeks try farming as a backup plan (Washington Post)

In a real collapse, not the fantasy kind, there is still gas in the pumps and food on the shelves. You just can't afford to buy any of it.


These three stories—the anthrax evidence, the McCain/POW revelations, and the Sibel Edmonds charges—are the sort of major exposés that would surely be dominating the headlines of any country with a properly-functioning media. But almost no American has ever heard of them. Before the Internet broke the chokehold of our centralized flow of information, I would have remained just as ignorant myself, despite all the major newspapers and magazines I regularly read.

Am I absolutely sure that any or all of these stories are true? Certainly not, though I think they probably are, given their overwhelming weight of supporting evidence. But absent any willingness of our government or major media to properly investigate them, I cannot say more.

However, this material does conclusively establish something else, which has even greater significance. These dramatic, well-documented accounts have been ignored by our national media, rather than widely publicized. Whether this silence has been deliberate or is merely due to incompetence remains unclear, but the silence itself is proven fact.

We always ridicule the 98 percent voter support that dictatorships frequently achieve in their elections and plebiscites, yet perhaps those secret-ballot results may sometimes be approximately correct, produced by the sort of overwhelming media control that leads voters to assume there is no possible alternative to the existing regime. Is such an undemocratic situation really so different from that found in our own country, in which our two major parties agree on such a broad range of controversial issues and, being backed by total media dominance, routinely split 98 percent of the vote? A democracy may provide voters with a choice, but that choice is largely determined by the information citizens receive from their media.

Most of the Americans who elected Barack Obama in 2008 intended their vote as a total repudiation of the policies and personnel of the preceding George W. Bush administration. Yet once in office, Obama’s crucial selections—Robert Gates at Defense, Timothy Geither at Treasury, and Ben Bernake at the Federal Reserve—were all top Bush officials, and they seamlessly continued the unpopular financial bailouts and foreign wars begun by his predecessor, producing what amounted to a third Bush term.

Consider the fascinating perspective of the recently deceased Boris Berezovsky, once the most powerful of the Russian oligarchs and the puppet master behind President Boris Yeltsin during the late 1990s. After looting billions in national wealth and elevating Vladimir Putin to the presidency, he overreached himself and eventually went into exile. According to the New York Times, he had planned to transform Russia into a fake two-party state—one social-democratic and one neoconservative—in which heated public battles would be fought on divisive, symbolic issues, while behind the scenes both parties would actually be controlled by the same ruling elites. With the citizenry thus permanently divided and popular dissatisfaction safely channeled into meaningless dead-ends, Russia’s rulers could maintain unlimited wealth and power for themselves, with little threat to their reign. Given America’s history over the last couple of decades, perhaps we can guess where Berezovsky got his idea for such a clever political scheme.
Our American Pravda (The American Conservative)
The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported this week that a wing of the country’s feared intelligence and security apparatus ordered major telecommunications companies to hand over data on phone calls made by private citizens.

“The US leadership in Washington continues to erode basic human rights,” said one activist, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing that speaking out publicly could endanger his organization. “If the US government is unwilling to change course, it’s time the international community considered economic sanctions.”

Over the last decade, the United States has passed a series of emergency laws that give security forces sweeping powers to combat “terrorism.” But foreign observers say the authorities abuse those laws, using them instead to monitor ordinary Americans.

While the so-called Patriot Act passed in 2001 is perhaps the most dramatic legislation to date curbing freedoms here, numerous lesser-known laws have expanded monitoring of news outlets, email, social media platforms and even opposition groups — like the Occupy and Tea Party movements — that are critical of the regime.

US leader Barack Obama, a former liberal community organizer and the country's first black president who attracted a wave of support from young voters, rose to power in 2008 promising reform. He was greeted in the United States — a country of about 300 million people — with optimism. But he has since disappointed those supporters, ruling with a sometimes iron fist and continuing, if not expanding, the policies of the country’s former ruler, George W. Bush.

On a recent visit to the United States by GlobalPost, signs of the increased security apparatus could be found everywhere.
Inside The United States (Global Post)

As Dan Carlin pointed out, it's interesting that revelations about the NSA spying on Americans had to published by a British newspaper (access to which has now been banned on Army bases, in yet another Soviet/China style move). The American media is not an antagonistic watchdog, but one leg of the corporate/government/media stool that keeps the dysfunctional American system functioning. In the first article, note especially the description of the anthrax attacks, which as I have said demonstrates clear evidence to me of some form of government complicity with the September 11 attacks.

The reason is clear - when a economic/political system gets to a point where it is  run for a small core of elites who are getting ever wealthier and more powerful while the vast, vast majority of citizens are getting ever more desperate and impoverished, authoritarianism and mind control is the only way to keep such a system going. We saw it in the Soviet Union. But a lot of people think this is something that can happen only under socialism. Not so. In fact, it is now being implemented under capitalism worldwide - what I call authoritarian capitalism. Sham elections, wall-to-wall surveillance, monitoring citizens, constant and pervasive fear, a massive military state, a controlled and manipulated media, mass imprisonment and incarceration, suppression of dissent, out-of-touch elites whose fortunes derive from exploiting ordinary citizens; it's all a part of the new mode of capitalism that is operating more or less globally now.

Interesting to see this idea getting more attention.

The State of the (Soviet) Union
Waiting for Gorbachev
Modern Lysenkoism
Texas Goes Marxist
Authoritarian Capitalism Watch, Spring Edition

Friday, June 28, 2013

Peak Oil Misunderstandings

With all the focus surrounding our new era of energy abundance coming from hydraulic fracturing, shale oil and possible methane clathrates, we forget that oil isn't the only, or even the most important, thing that is running scarce. Let's not forget about water and topsoil.

I know there has been a lot of discussion out there about Charles Mann's piece in the Atlantic, "We Will Never Run Out of Oil," see this for example. That post makes some good points. I think confusion could have been avoided with a simple rephrasing as follows: "We Will Probably Come up with Enough Sources of Hydrocarbons to Keep Modern Industrial Society Going for Centuries." Not as punchy, I know. But it would clear up some essential points of confusion:

1.) Peak Oil typically refers to petroleum resources, (literally "rock oil"), that is, liquid trapped in underground deposits and can be extracted via wells. Neither methane hydrates, shale oil, or methane delivered through fracking is petroleum. The statements the Peak Oil community has made about petroleum stand - large fields are entering the depletion phase, the easiest-accessed sources have been used first, new sources are in difficult-to-access locations, older wells do not recharge themselves, discoveries of new fields have been on the decline, etc. The fact that these "new" sources of hydrocarbons loom so large and are getting so much attention is proof that these statements are, in fact, true.

2.) The terms petroleum, fossil fuels and hydrocarbons, are all being mixed up, jumbled  and obfuscated in all of these "energy independence" articles, whether deliberately or due to ignorance. Hydrocarbons are the main things modern industrial society runs on, and there are other sources besides oil. While these sources are fungible to an extent - you can liquefy coal, or run a car with methanol, or burn coal or natural gas for electricity, and this is causing additional confusion. However, there are definite consequences due to declining supplies of petroleum.

3.) The "new" sources of hydrocarbons are much more difficult to extract and process into usable form. This means that the net energy available to society will be lower and the corresponding costs will be higher - much higher. Because energy is the prime mover in the economy, this presents an economic problem as well that is not being addressed.

4.) The global economy requires ever more energy in order to grow, and growth must be exponential, meaning we will use more energy in the next period then all of the previous periods combined. Increasing growth without increasing energy is an economic sleight-of-hand - growth is measured using GDP, and all GDP measures is the amount of economic transactions. Yet people in emerging economies of billions of people are trying to grow with the Western industrial model (construction sprawl, automobile dependency, tourism, throw-away consumerism, office work, etc.)

5.) Finally, the issue the Mann article does address is the fact that if all of these potential hydrocarbons are burned, an already severe climate change problem might spiral out of control. The benefits of increasing emissions will probably be offset by the negative effects of rising seas, drought, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. And worse-case scenarios envision an uninhabitable planet.

Now, as for those other shortages:
Since 1900, the U.S. has pulled enough water from underground aquifers to fill two Lake Eries. And in just the first decade of the 21st century, we've extracted underground water sufficient to raise global sea level by more than 2 percent. We suck up 25 cubic kilometers of buried water per year.

That's the message from the U.S. Geological Survey's evaluation of how the U.S. is managing its aquifers. Or mismanaging. For example: water levels in the aquifer that underlies the nation's bread basket have dropped in some places by as much as 160 feet.

The rest of the world isn't doing any better. A conference of water scientists just issued the so-called Bonn Declaration, which declares that this lack of foresight will cause the majority of people alive in 2050 to face "severe" freshwater shortages.
Water Waste May Leave Us Thirsty (Scientific American)
Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.
Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust (NYT)
Residents of Auroville, a utopian international township of 2,000 people just north of Pondicherry, are hoping to free India from the whims of the monsoon and the uncertainties of global warming by experimenting with old-fashioned agricultural techniques to develop drought-resistant crops and underground water reservoirs.

“People have been handling climate change for so long. You think it hasn’t been changing in the past?” asked Deepika Kundaji, 50, who, along with her Belgium-born husband, Bernard Declercq, grows 90 varieties of vegetables for seed conservation on a seven-acre plot she named Pebble Garden. “Ten thousand years of agriculture has given us so many ranges of crops that can easily handle drought.”

The vegetable garden in Deepika Kundaji’s Pebble Garden in Auroville.Ms. Kundaji, a trained archaeologist who grew up in Karnataka, created Pebble Garden with her husband on an extremely degraded piece of land in 1994. They started by planting trees in five acres of the plot. In 2001, they set up a vegetable garden for seed conservation by creating fertile soil beds on the degraded land using layers of wet acacia leaves, soil and urine-soaked charcoal neatly stacked in patches.

A yellow eggplant growing in Deepika Kundaji’s Pebble Garden.She pointed to 15 varieties of eggplant that they have grown and found to be drought resistant. One of the eggplant varieties is a nearly 10-inch yellow zucchini lookalike hanging on a five-foot plant in the couple’s neat two-acre vegetable garden. The plant has survived two summers without irrigation, she said.
For Farmers Fearing Drought, Auroville Offers Some Lessons (NYT)
The dirt beneath our feet is a nearly magical world filled with tiny, wondrous creatures. A mere handful of soil might contain a half million different species including ants, earthworms, fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. Soil provides nearly all of our food – only one percent of our calories come from the oceans, she said.

Soil also gives life to all of the world’s plants that supply us with much of our oxygen, another important ecosystem service. Soil cleans water, keeps contaminants out of streams and lakes, and prevents flooding. Soil can also absorb huge amounts of carbon, second only to the oceans.

“It takes half a millennia to build two centimetres of living soil and only seconds to destroy it,” Glover said.

Each year, 12 million hectares of land, where 20 million tonnes of grain could have been grown, are lost to land degradation. In the past 40 years, 30 percent of the planet’s arable (food-producing) land has become unproductive due to erosion. Unless this trend is reversed soon, feeding the world’s growing population will be impossible.
Peak Water, Peak Oil … Now, Peak Soil? (Inter Press Service)
Our changing of Earth’s climate has diminished snow cover and sea ice, intensified the water cycle, and altered patterns of rainfall and river flow.  Human actions have acidified the oceans, altered the nitrogen cycle, drained half the world’s wetlands, trapped behind dams 100 billion tons of sediment that would otherwise replenish coastlines, and diverted major rivers to the point where they no longer reach the sea.

Perhaps most importantly, biological extinction rates are now 100-1000 times background levels – due largely to habitat destruction, pollution and other human activities.
Water - and Us- in the Anthopocene (National Geographic Newswatch)
WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars in farm subsidies for irrigation equipment aimed at water conservation have led to more water use, not less, threatening vulnerable aquifers and streams.

From Wyoming to the Texas Panhandle, water tables have fallen 150 feet in some areas — ranging from 15 percent to 75 percent — since the 1950s, scientists say, because the subsidies give farmers the incentive to irrigate more acres of land. Other areas, including several Midwestern states, have also been affected.
Farm Subsidies Leading to More Water Use (NYT)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Post-Work Society In Denmark

A while back, The New York Times ran an article entitled ‘Danes rethink welfare system generous to a fault.” Since this article has a direct bearing on some of the topics we covered in The Post Work Society Is Not a Future State..., I thought I’d take a closer look.

Like many other locales, the Danes seem to be moving into a post-work society. They are doing this with considerably less chaos and social dysfunction than many other places. The article points out that Denmark is frequently listed as the happiest place on earth.  So what then, is the fault?
The Danish model of government is close to a religion here, and it has produced a population that regularly claims to be among the happiest in the world. Even the country’s conservative politicians are not suggesting getting rid of it.
Denmark has among the highest marginal income-tax rates in the world, with the top bracket of 56.5 percent kicking in on incomes of more than about $80,000. But in exchange, the Danes get a cradle-to-grave safety net that includes free health care, a free university education and hefty payouts to even the richest citizens. Parents in all income brackets, for instance, get quarterly checks from the government to help defray child-care costs. The elderly get free maid service if they need it, even if they are wealthy.
And instead of being crushed by 1 trillion worth of student debt like in the United States:
Students are next up for cutbacks, most intended to get them in the work force faster. Currently, students are entitled to six years of stipends, about $990 a month, to complete a five-year degree which, of course, is free. Many of them take even longer to finish, taking breaks to travel and for internships before and during their studies.
Sounds awful doesn’t it? Yet the article warns us,
But Denmark’s long-term outlook is troubling. The population is aging, and in many regions of the country people without jobs now outnumber those with them.
There’s that dreaded aging population again. How dare those people keep staying alive! If these geezers would just drop dead like they used to on cue, we wouldn’t have any problems apparently. I propose a moratorium on all future medical research, we’ve just got to stop inventing ways to prolong life - the economy demands it! Maybe we should set up suicide booths like in Futurama to solve this problem.
Some of that is a result of a depressed economy. But many experts say a more basic problem is the proportion of Danes who are not participating in the work force at all — be they dawdling university students, young pensioners or welfare recipients like Carina who lean on hefty government support.
So, society seems to function all right now with these people currently not in the workforce. What’s the problem? Would we rather they be unemployed or are we going to “create” jobs for them? Isn't the youth unemployment rate in most European countries something like 25 percent? Will dumping more people into the workforce magically create jobs somehow?
In 2012, a little over 2.6 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 were working in Denmark, 47 percent of the total population and 73 percent of the 15- to 64-year-olds. While only about 65 percent of working age adults are employed in the United States, comparisons are misleading, since many Danes work short hours and all enjoy perks like long vacations and lengthy paid maternity leaves, not to speak of a de facto minimum wage approaching $20 an hour. Danes would rank much lower in terms of hours worked per year. In addition, the work force has far more older people to support. About 18 percent of Denmark’s population is over 65, compared with 13 percent in the United States.
Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. There are actually more people in the workforce than in the United States? Even with humane amounts vacation and minimum wages? And this is a problem? Economist Dean Baker has done a better job of ridiculing this than I:
So in spite of the generous Danish welfare state a higher percentage of its working age population works than in the United States. (Actually Denmark ranks near the top of the world in employment to population ratios.) Yet, somehow this doesn't really count because people in Denmark get vacations, work shorter hours, and have a higher effective minimum wage.

This ranks pretty high in the non sequitur category, apparently when you want to bash the welfare state, the rules of logic apparently do not apply. Danes, like most Europeans, have opted to take much of the gains in productivity growth over the last three decades in the form of shorter work years rather than higher income. (One interesting result of this practice is that we have some hope to save the planet from global warming -- greenhouse gas emissions are highly correlated with income.) Of course Danes still work about 8 percent more hours on average than hard-working Germans, according to the OECD. If there is a problem in this picture, the NYT might want to devote a few paragraphs to telling readers what it is.

As far as the $20 an hour effective minimum wage, isn't the problem of a high minimum wage supposed to be that it creates unemployment. But the NYT just told us that Denmark has higher employment... (My brain hurts.)
Surely, then, this is ruining the economy for everyone, right? But the article informs us:
While much of southern Europe has been racked by strikes and protests as its creditors force austerity measures, Denmark still has a coveted AAA bond rating.
And Dean Baker points out:
According to the IMF, Denmark had a ratio of net debt to GDP at the end of 2012 of 7.6 percent. This compared to 87.8 percent in the United States. Its deficit in 2012 was 4.3 percent of GDP, but almost all of this was do the downturn. The IMF estimated its structural deficit (the deficit the country would face if the economy was at full employment) at just 1.1 percent of GDP. Furthermore, the country had a huge current account surplus of 5.3 percent of GDP in 2012... This means that Denmark is buying up foreign assets at a rapid rate. ...
And that's even by using the standard Neoliberal econometric models to measure the 'success' of a society. By the standards of, say, Gross National Happiness, the Danes would surely rank pretty high. All their levels of social dysfunction are pretty low too (remind me again how many mass shooting incidents happen in Denmark - here they happen every few weeks).

The article digs deep to show just how lazy the Danes are, and how government has sapped their moral fiber:
One study, by the municipal policy research group Kora, recently found that only 3 of Denmark’s 98 municipalities will have a majority of residents working in 2013. This is a significant reduction from 2009, when 59 municipalities could boast that a majority of residents had jobs. (Everyone, including children, was counted in the comparison.)
Officials have also begun to question the large number of people who are receiving lifetime disability checks. About 240,000 people — roughly 9 percent of the potential work force — have lifetime disability status; about 33,500 of them are under 40. The government has proposed ending that status for those under 40, unless they have a mental or physical condition that is so severe that it keeps them from working.
Wait a minute, did they say, everyone including children? How many jobs are done by children? And didn't they just say that Denmark's population is older than most? Now they're calling alarm that they have people on disability? And quick math says that the amount of people under 40 on disability is only 14 percent. Get to work, gramps! Maybe they need Danish Wal-Mart greeters.

 As a commenter points out:
So a large proportion of the population is too young or too old to work? Who couldaknown?!?

In 2011 the US employment to population ratio was 45.3%. By way of comparison it was 49.7% in Denmark:

In fact in all of US history a majority of Americans have never been employed. The highest rate ever was 49.0% in 2000:
It's interesting to note that in addition to Denmark, other hotbeds of European welfare state socialism like Austria, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden also had a higher proportion of their population working than the US in 2011. Does this mean anything? Not particularly. It's about the most useless statistic anyone can imagine
I’m sure the article will provide plenty of ammunition to say that the “welfare state” or “Eurosocialism” or whatever derogatory term you want to use, doesn’t work. But to me it argues the opposite. I don’t see why this “welfare state” isn’t working, especially when you compare it to the United States, where there are actually less people in the workforce, three-quarters of all workers are living paycheck to paycheck, two-thirds of all workers are in low-paid McJobs, our educational achievement is atrocious, our inner cities look like third-world slums, crime and drugs are rampant, and on and on. As someone posted in the comments section, half of the residents of New York City are poor or near poor. And yet, the article claims that Denmark has a problem? WTF? As the Twitter comment at the beginning of the EV post says, "As @DeanBaker13 points out, that NYT story on Danish welfare didn't really make the case that Danes aren't working."

A similar attitude is expressed in this BBC article:
The city [Paris] remains as delightful as ever. The restaurants are just as good, and if they are more expensive that simply makes it easier to get tables. The health service is probably the finest in the world. Public transport is excellent, though taxi drivers are a miserable lot.

After the Socialist Francois Mitterrand's famous victory in 1981, at a time when Britain under Margaret Thatcher was cutting back fiercely on government expenditure, the French instinct was always to spend more. Hospitals, transport, culture - money was lavished and the results were sensational. Pensions and state benefits were among the best in Europe. The streets were beautifully clean. To come here from depressed, dirty London was to feel a cloud lifting.
But, once again, there's no way the French can continue to "afford" this high quality of life:
Everyone knows that the combination of a short working week, early retirement, big pensions and excellent health benefits does not add up. But when do the cuts start? The waiting is becoming intolerable.
That's right, "everybody knows" that these things "don't add up." What does add up, apparently, is working sixty hours a week until you drop dead for minimum wage and going deeply into debt for basic education and health care. Exactly why can’t the French “afford” any of this? Food shortages? Fuel shortages? Lack of technical knowledge? Or is it really just to pay off the bankers? The article doesn’t say, yet everybody apparently "knows" it. As a commenter put it, "Shorter NYT: 'The fact that Denmark's people aren't working themselves to death for peanuts is clear evidence that the country isn't running as well as it could be, based on the critical 'how much wealth gets hoovered up by the 0.1%' metric.'"

Isn’t it amazing how simultaneously every country on earth can no longer “afford” to give people the quality of life that they managed to do for the past fifty years or so? And, by the way, that's after fifty years of exponential growth. But why? And don’t say energy, because if energy were the problem, as Dean Baker pointed out, the European way would be far superior. Denmark has implemented some of the strictest renewable energy standards in the world. Besides, there are no shortages, and the wealthy keep capturing more of the income, meaning the wealth of society overall is not shrinking. As another commenter asks, "Grant for the sake of argument that Danes are underemployed, shouldn't we be asking how they still manage to provide for their citizens so well?"

Let’s come to the real reason the article was written – jealousy and spite. What they can’t prove through facts, they prove through anecdote, by spending the lion share of the article describing Denmark’s very own Cadillac (Audi?) Driving Welfare Queens:
It began as a stunt intended to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country, but it backfired badly. Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament goaded a skeptical political opponent, see for yourself how hard it is.

It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

Carina was not the only welfare recipient to fuel the sense that Denmark’s system has somehow gotten out of kilter. Robert Nielsen, 45, made headlines last September when he was interviewed on television, admitting that he had basically been on welfare since 2001.

Mr. Nielsen said he was able-bodied but had no intention of taking a demeaning job, like working at a fast-food restaurant. He made do quite well on welfare, he said. He even owns his own co-op apartment.

Unlike Carina, who will no longer give interviews, Mr. Nielsen, called “Lazy Robert” by the news media, seems to be enjoying the attention. He says that he is greeted warmly on the street all the time. “Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life,” he said.
So that's two people in a nation of over five million. Face it, the only real purpose to the article is to mine our resentment and get us to become angry at those “lazy” Europeans who enjoy vacations and childcare and free education and so on. It’s to play on our crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, which is the tool that is always yielded by the wealthy to play us against each other and make sure that things like this are not implemented. Or, where they are implemented, that they are promptly dismantled for tax cuts to the wealthy, corporations, and the investor class.

As one of the EV commenters pointed out, this article is lifted almost verbatim from one published by a right-wing Danish newspaper, the Copenhagen Post. The media has been involved in campaigns to smear the "welfare state" ever since it was bought up by the wealthy decades ago, especially by publishing hack pieces like this to play on working people's jealously and anger. As this commenter says, "In any large-scale government spending program, there will be some who take advantage of the situation; I understand a defense contractor may have engaged in this once or twice (!). But the austerity-minded like to use such loafer examples as a way to push through wholesale changes, rather than small reforms that address the abuses." The phrase "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face," was invented for situations like this.

It always amazes me that the people who constantly tout our "frictionless" capitalism via the Internet, our automated factories, artificial intelligence like Watson, advances in robotics and biotechnology, efficiency improvements and the like, turn around and say in the same breath that the things like providing for retirees or universal health care and education are "beyond our means." Really? Are you kidding me?

And what exactly does "beyond our means" even mean in this context, anyway? Who determines that? When you ask it, you get nonsensical responses. Either they say we don't have enough money, which makes no sense, because money is created by the government, or that we somehow owe China a bunch of money for some reason, so we need to close schools and libraries. It usually goes something like this, "we get all our stuff from China, and all they get is our useless paper." Well, whose idea was that? Certainly not that of all the people laid off from good-paying factory jobs over the past 40 years. No, it was the idea of the same people who are demanding that welfare be dismantled now. Besides, if that were the problem, the solution would just be to reactivate those factories and start producing all our stuff domestically. I'm all for it, who's in? But, we're told, if we manufactured stuff domestically in American factories, Americans wouldn't be able to afford to buy any of it. Who came up with this crazy system?

It's a nice morality play that appeals to our inner Calvinist, but it has no real meaning. The next time someone gives a line about our "debt" and how we "lived beyond our means," you might want to politely take the questioning a little further and ask them what the heck they mean (or ask, "who's 'we,' kimo sabe?"). Typically when the media tells you that "everybody knows" something, it's complete and utter bullshit.

It would be a shame if the Danes decided to dismantle a system that's given their people the highest quality of life in the world. The same is true for France. The only "fault" here lies in the fact that the one percent cannot crush the citizenry like they can here. So when you hear about how this "doesn't work," ask yourself where the message is coming from. As Stephen Jay Gould used to say, "don't you believe it!"

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Elite Citadels

The great global cities – notably New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Paris – are unprecedentedly desirable. At last week’s fascinating New Cities Summit in São Paulo, the architect Daniel Libeskind said: “We live in a time of renaissance … cities are coming back to life, after a long neglect.” Edward Luce chronicled the urban revival in last Saturday’s FT Magazine. However, there’s an iron law of 21st-century life: when something is desirable, the “one per cent” grabs it. The great cities are becoming elite citadels. This is terrifying for everyone else.

At the New Cities Summit I had a coffee with Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, leading thinker on cities. That took some doing: Sassen arrived from Bogotá that morning, and was flying to Zurich hours later. “Cities were poor,” she told me, in between. “In the 1970s London was broke, New York was broke, Tokyo was broke, Paris was much poorer than now. And the built environment was a bit run down.”

But from the 1980s, these cities recovered. An increasingly complex financial sector needed more sophisticated networks of lawyers and accountants. Corporate mergers and takeovers meant global headquarters got concentrated in fewer places. Crime declined, making cities less scary. And so great cities grew richer. Fancy architects put up lovely buildings. House prices rose.

First, the working classes and bohemians were priced out. Nowadays the only ribald proletarian banter you hear inside Paris is from the market sellers, who don’t live there anymore.

That was gentrification. Now comes plutocratisation: the middle classes and small companies are falling victim to class-cleansing. Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos. In 2009, says Sassen, the top 1 per cent of New York City’s earners got 44 per cent of the compensation paid to its workers. The “super-prime housing market” keeps rising even when the national economy collapses. After Manhattan, New York’s upper-middle classes are being priced out of Brooklyn. Sassen diagnoses “gradual destruction”.

Global cities are turning into vast gated communities where the one per cent reproduces itself. Elite members don’t live there for their jobs. They work virtually anyway. Rather, global cities are where they network with each other, and put their kids through their country’s best schools. The elite talks about its cities in ostensibly innocent language, says Sassen: “a good education for my child,” “my neighbourhood and its shops”. But the truth is exclusion.
When one-per-centers travel, they meet peers from other global cities. A triangular elite circuit now links London, Paris and Brussels, notes Michael Keith, anthropology professor at Oxford. Elite New Yorkers visit London, not Buffalo. Sassen says: “These new geographies of centrality cut across many older divides – north-south, east-west, democracies versus dictator regimes. So top-level corporate and professional sectors of São Paulo begin to have more in common with peers in Paris, Hong Kong et cetera than with the rest of their own societies.
Priced out of Paris. Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself. Simon Kuper, Financial Times. Earlier in the year, we saw this phenomenon in London: How the global hyper-rich have turned central London into a lights-out ghost-town (BoingBoing)
Without any such efforts, it's indeed likely that these citadels will become unsustainable. Cities where only the super-rich can live will cease to function like cities are supposed to. Much of what we understand about what makes urban clusters of people so powerful is tied directly to their inherent diversity, to people of varying skills and incomes and ideas bumping into each other. That is the theoretical view. The reality is also this: Rich hedge fund managers will always need people to pour them coffee.
Are Global Cities Really Doomed to Become 'Citadels' for the Rich? (Atlantic Cities)
BEIJING — China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen years — a transformative event that could set off a new wave of growth or saddle the country with problems for generations to come.

The government, often by fiat, is replacing small rural homes with high-rises, paving over vast swaths of farmland and drastically altering the lives of rural dwellers. So large is the scale that the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban population of the United States — in a country already bursting with megacities.

This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.

The shift is occurring so quickly, and the potential costs are so high, that some fear rural China is once again the site of radical social engineering. Over the past decades, the Communist Party has flip-flopped on peasants’ rights to use land: giving small plots to farm during 1950s land reform, collectivizing a few years later, restoring rights at the start of the reform era and now trying to obliterate small landholders.

Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties. Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and verdant hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but often at the expense of the torn-down temples and open-air theaters of the countryside.

“It’s a new world for us in the city,” said Tian Wei, 43, a former wheat farmer in the northern province of Hebei, who now works as a night watchman at a factory. “All my life I’ve worked with my hands in the fields; do I have the educational level to keep up with the city people?
China's Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities (New York Times) Stuart Staniford comments, "It sounds like farmers are being forced off their land wholesale and into cities at an enormous pace.  Makes enclosure sound positively humane." James Howard Kunstler comments, "Such are the tragic sorrows of late-blooming techno-industrialism that China is doing exactly the opposite of what the future requires — namely, destroying the basis for small-scale local food production. But, not to put too fine a point on it, China is fucked. They are simply in the hopeless zone of population overshoot and resource scarcity." I'm not sure what to think. But one thing I am sure of is that David Harvey's right - underlying mass urbanization is a push to keep capitalism and consumerism going at all costs. From the article:
The primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce. “If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,” said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. “Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.”

Skeptics say the government’s headlong rush to urbanize is driven by a vision of modernity that has failed elsewhere. In Brazil and Mexico, urbanization was also seen as a way to bolster economic growth. But among the results were the expansion of slums and of a stubborn unemployed underclass, according to experts.

“There’s this feeling that we have to modernize, we have to urbanize and this is our national-development strategy,” said Gao Yu, China country director for the Landesa Rural Development Institute, based in Seattle. Referring to the disastrous Maoist campaign to industrialize overnight, he added, “It’s almost like another Great Leap Forward.” 
See Urban Class Warfare: Are Cities Built for the Rich? (Der Spiegel) Today's class struggles are increasingly taking place in cities, says Marxist and social theorist David Harvey. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he discusses how urbanization will play a key role in social conflicts to come.  
Harvey : Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class. It is a powerful process that newly defines what cities are about, as well as who can live there and who can't. And it determines the quality of life in cities according to the stipulations of capital rather than those of people.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Medieval America

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take a road trip of sorts up to Appleton to take a look at a project. It was one of those picture-perfect Midwestern sunny summer days, and we took the scenic route up to the north of Lake Winnebago. During the course of our journey we saw abandoned stone and wood water mills on river dams, Amish children baling hay and selling strawberries (I bought some – fantastic), old Victorian houses with wraparound porches for hot summer nights, unused bandhsells, and picturesque small town main streets so beloved of James Howard Kunstler. We stopped for ice cream at a tiny white-picket fenced stand, with some cows lying in a pasture in the rear. On the way back I stopped at the cheese factory to buy some locally produced artisanal cheese and meats. I wish I had some photos.

Anyway, I think that combined with my current viewing of the second season of Game of Thrones, my recent trip to Europe, and my musings on Neofeudalism, to get me to thinking about what a “medieval” North America would be like. What will all this look like in a thousand years? After all, who would suspect that a small fishing village built on a series of islands by refugees fleeing the barbarian invasions during the decaying Roman Empire would eventually become Venice?

After all, in some ways, places in North America are probably more similar to Europe of a thousand years ago than Europe is today. In that time, Europe was much less built up, much more sparse and open, and most of Europe’s peasant population relocated over here in the nineteenth century bringing a lot of their culture with them (including, unfortunately, the violence, superstition and religiosity). Imagine the regions of America as their own individual fiefdoms. The sheer size of the continent makes it a fascinating prospect.

I was also reminded of these links on Ran’s site:

Daily Kos review of Henry's Quest

Related: an unfinished page on future Medieval America.

It looks like the author of the latter site kind of got bored with it, which is too bad. It seems like a good start. I’d like to run with it, but I don’t want to copy the author’s work. If anybody knows him, maybe they could ask him if he wants somebody to take it over.

It’s a fascinating thought. I wonder if a fictional future medieval North America might make a good setting for a Game of Thrones like series set in a future north America, say, 1000 years from now. What would that scenario look like?

North America’s environment has been largely ruined in the last great push for hydrocarbons. Coastal cities are flooded, aquifers are depleted, topsoil has eroded, groundwater has been polluted from hydraulic fracturing, moutaintops have been removed for coal, and certain regions are off limits due to radioactive waste. At the same time, animal species are returning, road systems have fallen into disrepair, dams have broken and forests are expanding across the continent. Buffalo once again roam the prairie. Shifting climate patterns have altered the population distribution of North America. Yet it is a different North America, transformed by invasive species, GMO crops, and even ill-advised species resuscitation.

Washington is a shrunken city of decrepit monuments on a fetid swamp where the National Mall has been converted to cow pasture, the Washington Monument having been carted off long ago by China. New York is the nation's most populous city and cultural capital, a virtual nation unto itself, even with much of lower Manhattan permanently flooded. Regional capitals have supplanted the national one. San Francisco is once again a busy port with a bustling Chinatown. Los Angles is the capital of the West and a center of entertainment. New Orleans is a modern-Day Venice built to escape rising seas. Much of Detroit has returned to prairie. Las Vegas and Phoenix are abandoned. Portland is a town of market faires and music. Squatters live in homesteads among the ruins of the Rust Belt where packs of wild dogs roam the streets at night. Cities in the heartland are self-sufficient manors ruled by hereditary "job creator" overlords.

States have broken apart in favor of bioregions. Whites are a minority, especially in cities. Cities are outposts of culture, technology, and relative safety in a rural wilderness dominated by nomadic motorcycle gangs, narco cartels, meth labs, and roaming bands of brigands and scavengers. They are ruled by major families and/or corporations who form trading alliances with distant regions, field private armies, and adopt sports emblems as heraldic banners. Universities are like monasteries in a sea of ignorance, preserving what science they can, including the remaining computers and measuring instruments in a culture overwhelmed by fear and superstition.

Hemp and cannabis are major cash crops. Goods move by river. People move by flywheel-powered trains between cities and bicycles and bicycle taxis within them. Technology is still there, of course, but mostly irrelevant to people’s lives. Automobiles run on corn ethanol and biodiesel. Barons communicate with one another in their concrete citadels by means of radio. Knights ride motorcycles, wield guns made from plumbing pipes and practice mixed martial arts. Waterwheels generate electricity in remote areas. Factories and forges harness the sun. Cottage industries return. Skyscrapers, suburbs and landfills become above-ground mines for raw materials. Back roads have retruned to gravel, and what’s left of interstate highways are traversed on foot or horseback, because vehicles would break an axle.

Amish and Mennonite numbers increase, with Amish farms and craftsmen prospering in the heartland, and the Navajo once again raise sheep in the desert. The Deep South is a benighted feudal theocracy, complete with segregation and brutal lynchings. Texas is a libertarian every-man-for himself frontier of rich and poor awash in guns. The Southwest is a hybrid Mexican/American culture with Spanglish as its lingua franca.  Nevada is a Mormon theocracy where ploygamy is legal.

Around campfires people tell stories of how man walked on the moon, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, of the triad of Kirk, Spock and McCoy (Intuition, logic and command consciousness). The folk songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon are sung. The Burning Man ritual is celebrated every year across the high desert, its origin unknown. Religions such as Singularitarianism ('The Singularity is Near'), Scientology, Entheogenic religions ('Find the Others'), Cosmism ('We are star stuff'), atheism, cults, and cafeteria religions vie for people's hearts and minds.

It’s all fascinating speculation, of course, but it seems rife with possibilities. I had been mulling for a long time the idea of doing a peak oil story set in the far future based around the crew of a ship that transports goods. The beauty of this is that since the ship can go anywhere, you are not wedded to one locale. Thus you can show a range of responses based on local cultures and resources.

Any good science fiction speculation about the future is actually about the present. I tend to overthink what a “realistic” future scenario might look like, but I really just need to pick and choose what would make a compelling story.

In truth, I’ve got a large number of ideas for fiction books, and I was considering putting a post out to my readership asking what they would most like to read. Do those ideas sound compelling? Does the ship one or the medieval one sound more appealing?

For some ideas about what a salvage/medieval future might look like, see the following links:

The DIY Weapons of the Syrian Civil War

Afghanistan Builds DIY Internet Out of Trash

The Most Unusual Metro in the World

Welcome to Sarajevo's Designs for Survival
Many of the objects have a disarming charm. There's a vacuum flask made from a glass bottle coated with insulating foam and enclosed in a cardboard box wrapped in bright orange packing tape marked "fragile". It's about as un-Thermos-like as you can get, which is why discovering its use as one is such a delight. One of the most inventive devices here is a torch crafted out of a bicycle lamp and a miniature dynamo. To power it, you crank a handle from a coffee or meat grinder. It's a positively steampunk contraption, a Victorian projection of how a portable electric light might work.

Let's avoid the temptation to present this as an authentic design culture of Sarajevo, which for hundreds of years was one of Europe's most diverse and tolerant cities. It is far from that. Instead, it is the design culture of an aberration, a temporary phenomenon within a historical blip. We are used to praising this kind of ad hoc ingenuity – often rather patronisingly – when we see it in Africa or India, but this was Europe, less than 20 years ago, and these people were not poor. Their money was simply no use to them, just as a Mercedes in a garage is no good without petrol to run it. The rote responses we apply to the developing world don't work in this instance.

We think of design as one of the planes on which civilisation charts its course, measuring ourselves by our technological achievements and our talent for pleasing forms. But when civilisation breaks down, we resort to a cunning DIY culture with the resultant Mad Max mechanics and none of the Hollywood styling. Naive though some of these objects appear, their worth was weighed in how effective they were. In that sense, they represent a rare thing: a non-consumerist design culture. That's not to say there was not a market for it – one of those pot-stoves would set you back seven packs of cigarettes if you couldn't make your own – but this was an alternative economy that had nothing to do with novelty, desire or retail therapy. It was about staying alive.
And of course, the always excellent Low Tech Magazine. For the visuals see Rust Belt Road Trip: 75 Urban Decay Images (Urban Ghosts) and post-hurricane Sandy photos of NYC. If we move the action to England, see 16 Eerie Visions Of Post-Apocalyptic Britain (Buzzfeed)

Note: The photo at the top is of Holy Hill, a popular pilgrimage site situated at the top of the tallest hill in the Kettle Moraine state forest and close to the Ice Age trail. Just right for the medieval future. If you’re ever in Wisconsin, I advise a visit, especially in the fall when the leaves change color and you can pick up some locally grown apples and cider.

This was my first foray into fiction on this site: Blue Eyes.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Technology Old And New

India's state-owned telecom company is planning to shut down what is considered the world's last telegraph service, citing losses of over $23 million a year. The world's last telegram will be sent on July 14.

We in the media kill things off so readily these days that it's easy to forget how long it actually takes a once-prevalent technology to vanish altogether. The telegram should serve as a reminder: It often takes a really, really long time. Had there been a TechCrunch or a a century ago, some scribe would have no doubt declared the telegram defunct even then, done in by the rise of the landline telephone (itself the frequent subject of exaggerated death reports these days). In fact, though, the telegraph's use in India peaked as recently as 1985, and it continues even now to play a role in the lives of some portion of the 74 percent of Indians who do not have mobile phones.

Asked how he manages to make such accurate predictions in his books, the novelist William Gibson once explained, "The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed." The fact that telegraph service still exists in at least one corner of the Earth as of June 17, 2013, suggests a corrollary to Gibson's axiom: The past is still here, it's just not evenly distributed.
Here's What It Looks Like When a Technology Actually Dies (Slate)

The telegraph itself replaced an earlier technology:
Before the web, before the computer, before the phone, even before Morse code, there was le systeme Chappe. Not for the first time or for the last, at the end of the 18th Century France made an important technological advance - only to see it overtaken by newer science. In this case, it was the world's first ever system of telegraphy.

According to most accounts, the very word "telegraph" - distance writing, in Greek - was coined to describe Claude Chappe's nationwide network of semaphore. At its most extensive, it comprised 534 stations covering more than 5,000km (3,106 miles). Messages sent from Paris could reach the outer fringes of the country in a matter of three or four hours. Before, it had taken despatch riders on horseback a similar number of days.

But then it ended almost quickly as it began. In the 1840s and 50s, electronic telegraphy - with stations set up along the new railway lines - began to take over. The Chappe stations disappeared into obscurity, plundered for materials and buried in vegetation. Only in recent years has a resurgence of amateur interest permitted a handful of sites to be rescued from oblivion.
How Napoleon's semaphore telegraph changed the world (BBC) See also Email in the 18th century: the optical telegraph (Low Tech Magazine)

But sometimes, technolgy comes back:
The researchers now know why ancient Roman concrete is so superior. They extracted from the floor of Italy’s Pozzuoili Bay, in the northern tip of the Bay of Naples, a sample of concrete breakwater that dates back to 37 B.C. and analyzed its mineral components at research labs in Europe and the U.S., including at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The analysis, the scientists believe, reveals the lost recipe of Roman concrete, and it also points to how much more stable and less environmentally damaging it is than today’s blend.

That’s why the findings, which were published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society and American Mineralogist, are considered so important for today’s industrial engineers and the future of the world’s cities and ports. “The building industry has been searching for a way to make more durable concretes,” Jackson points out.

Another remarkable quality of Roman concrete is that its production was exceptionally green, a far cry from modern techniques. “It’s not that modern concrete isn’t good—it’s so good we use 19 billion tons of it a year,” says Paulo Monteiro, a research collaborator and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “The problem is that manufacturing Portland cement accounts for 7 percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air.”

The secret to Roman concrete lies in its unique mineral formulation and production technique. As the researchers explain in a press release outlining their findings, “The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated—incorporating water molecules into its structure—and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.”

The Portland cement formula crucially lacks the lyme and volcanic ash mixture. As a result, it doesn’t bind quite as well when compared with the Roman concrete, researchers found. It is this inferior binding property that explains why structures made of Portland cement tend to weaken and crack after a few decades of use, Jackson says.

Adopting the materials (more volcanic ash) and production techniques of ancient Roman could revolutionize today’s building industry with a sturdier, less CO2-intensive concrete. “The question remains, can we translate the principles from ancient Rome to the production of modern concrete? I think that is what is so exciting about this new area of research,” Jackson says.
Ancient Roman Concrete Is About to Revolutionize Modern Architecture (Bloomberg)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Our Economic System Turns Solutions Into Crises

I had a thought today about how our economic system  has a tendency to turn beneficial things into crises.

Take people living longer. Now, normally, you would think of this as a great success. In fact, it’s touted as a major success of the industrial regime – our longer lifespans, and the fact that we don’t die as quickly from diseases that would have caused this to happen even a century ago.

Good right? Not according to the economy. Instead, we’re told that this is a major crisis, because there are now not enough workers to support retirees. So that means that even in a society as wealthy as ours, we need to cut back entitlements, and raise retirement ages, make people work longer, bring in new immigrants (even in conditions of high unemployment), and raise eligibility ages for health care to make it all work.

So we have more than enough technology to keep people alive longer, just no way to pay for it. This article illustrates it well:
The graph shows the U.S. death rate for infectious diseases between 1900 and 1996. The line starts all the way at the top. In 1900, 800 of every 100,000 Americans died from infectious diseases. The top killers were pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea. But the line quickly begins falling. By 1920, fewer than 400 of every 100,000 Americans died from infectious diseases. By 1940, it was less than 200. By 1960, it’s below 100. When’s the last time you heard of an American dying from diarrhea?

“For all the millennia before this in human history,” Coburn says, “it was all about tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases and all the other infectious disease. The idea that anybody lived long enough to be confronting chronic diseases is a new invention. Average life expectancy was 45 years old at the turn of the century. You didn’t have 85-year-olds with chronic diseases.”

With chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease you don’t get better, or at least not quickly. They don’t require cures so much as management. Their existence is often proof of medicine’s successes. Three decades ago, cancer typically killed you. Today, many cancers can be fought off for years or even indefinitely. The same is true for AIDS, and acute heart failure and so much else. This, to Coburn, is the core truth, and core problem, of today’s medical system: Its successes have changed the problems, but the health-care system hasn’t kept up.
No, our health-care system hasn’t kept up, because our “system” is a ridiculous kludge. Our economy is structured with the expectation that people will pretty much drop dead shortly after retirement. So we’ve invented ways to keep people with chronic diseases alive longer, something that should be regarded as good, yet our economic system turns it into a crisis because it can’t handle it. Does anyone else see the absurdity in this? In other words, the good things our technology brings are short-circuited by an economy designed to deal with scarcity and based around growth-based Ponzi dynamics.

A related “problem” is the shrinking population. I’ve written about this at length before. Several commentators say we need to grow our population, otherwise our economy will shrink. So, why shouldn’t it shrink if there are less people? An economy only needs to be big enough to give people decent lives under it. Why must it always grow? Yet the shrinking population is turned to a crisis because our economy needs to grow, and once again, we need enough workers to support retirees. And isn’t it ridiculous to assume that there will always be more workers than retirees, meaning a growing population in perpetuity?

Or consider this fact: US carbon emission have fallen to their lowest levels since 1994. Miles driven has declined too. Good news, right? Well, it would be if we weren’t dealing with conditions of mass unemployment, recession, and mountains of debt.
I got the sense from the call that Baxandall doesn’t think it’s temporary, which isn’t a bad thing depending on where you sit. “It’s going to mean less pollution and oil consumption, less stress on our existing roadways, and less need for new and wider highways,” he said. But there’s bad news for some. There will be more risk for public-private toll ventures, shrinking North American auto sales, and the amount of federal tax revenue collected through gasoline sales is going to fall significantly — a combination of more efficient vehicles, electric vehicles and reduced driving. “We can no longer continue to believe there will be an increase in driving,” he added. “Policy in our country has yet to catch up to these trends and still reflect old driving assumptions.”

Or the classic example – productivity, another thing I’ve written about extensively. Look at the paradox – we have made massive investments in IT, mechanization, automation, and robotics that allow us to do things faster, and cheaper, and to access all the information and goods we need for ourselves at our fingertips. We can manufacture goods with hardly any labor at all. We have “lean” systems that operate with very little waste.

Yet, rather than the good results, we get mass unemployment, declining tax revenues, makework schemes, etc. Those with jobs work ever longer and more brutal hours while the loss of jobs has turned major American cities into benighted dystopian ghost towns.

We can’t deal with abundance, even when we create it. Our economic system requires things to be scarce. Even in situations where things are abundant, it enforces artificial scarcity. Look at all the increasingly ridiculous copyright controls on the Internet. Software is now going to "subscription services" just to keep the money rolling in. And how many times have you heard about a great idea on the Internet, with the catch being’ how do we pay for it?’ Lots of people like Facebook, but it has to come up with ever-more insidious ways to hawk our data and shove ads down our throats because it has to make money. How many wonderful podcasts and blogs are out there, but the creators struggle to make them pay?

By the logic of the economic system, we must always have a greater number of workers working longer hours and living shorter lives. Once this treadmill stops, society falls apart.

If we increase efficiency and automation, then we don’t have enough jobs. And if there is too much abundance, the market crashes. Our economic system says it’s cheaper to use polluting energy than clean energy. It says it’s better to have chronically sick people than healthy ones. WTF? From the article cited above:
Brenner puts it more vividly. “There is a bias in medicine against talking to people and for cutting, scanning and chopping into them. If this was a pill or or a machine with these results it would be front-page news in the Wall Street Journal. If we could get these results for your grandmother, you’d say, ‘Of course I want that.’ But then you’d say, what are the risks? Does she need to have chemotherapy? Does she need to be put in a scanner? Is it a surgery? And you’d say, no, you just have to have a nurse come visit her every week.”
There are all sorts of wonderful ideas out there about how to make a better world. All that we lack is the money. So when people say money facilitates things, I hang my head. Money seems to be the main barrier to progress today, not its facilitator. Every good idea, from high-speed trains to aquaponics to conservation schemes to local food cooperatives just can’t seem to pass the ruthless culling of “the market.” Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the market determine absolutely everything. We got of rid of famines only to ensure that the artificial booms and busts of the market system will cause concomitant levels of misery and hardship for people even in the midst of food and material abundance. Again I ask, WTF?

We have an economic system that turns beneficial things – lower carbon emissions, shrinking populations, longer lifespans, increased automation, greater productivity, greater efficiency, digital communications – into emergencies. How can an economic system be said to be beneficial if it turns the benefits of human ingenuity into permanent crises that it cannot solve?

May I make a moderate proposal – how about we put our heads together and come up with an economic system that allows us to enjoy of all the benefits of human ingenuity that we’ve invented without causing massive crises. Our economic system is an archaic system predicated on sickness, scarcity and drudgery. We need another model. And we need it soon, otherwise sickness, scarcity and drudgery will be all we have left.

Are the Elites Getting Worried?

The elites in their palaces are starting to look out and see peasants with torches and pitchforks:
EDINBURGH — Here’s one sign the global elite is starting to get worried that capitalism isn’t working for the Western middle class. At the TED Global gathering in Scotland’s elegant capital city this week, much of the spotlight was on what’s going wrong with the 21st-century economy.

That matters because the TED conferences (TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and is a not-for-profit global conference organization) are one of the obligatory stops on the itinerary of any self-regarding plutocrat, and in the past that constituency has often preferred its vision of the economic future served sunny-side up.

The gloom started with former Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece. In a remarkably candid and introspective talk, Mr. Papandreou offered a mea culpa for his own mistakes and those of the European political elite. He admitted that hardship had been imposed on people who were “in the main, not to blame for the crisis” and accused the European establishment of uncritically, and at great cost, clinging to “the orthodoxy of austerity.”

Small Greece, he argued, had been made the scapegoat for a larger political and economic failure. As Mr. Papandreou mockingly put it, Europe chose to point the finger at “those profligate, idle, ouzo-swilling, Zorba-dancing Greeks.” Instead of addressing the harder, underlying issues, the impulse was to say: “They are the problem! Punish them!”

Mr. Papandreou is a son of privilege — both his father and grandfather were prime ministers of Greece — but, in a sign of the times, he inveighed against “plutocrats hiding their assets in tax havens” and “powerful lobbies protecting the powerful few.” His comments made an impact partly because he was so open in declaring his own shortcomings. Nor did he shy away from how angry a lot of people are about them.
“It’s no wonder many political leaders, and I don’t exclude myself, have lost the trust of our people,” Mr. Papandreou said, in the most affecting passage of his talk. “When riot police have to protect parliaments, a scene that is increasingly common around the world, there is something wrong with our democracies.”
Eye Opener for the Elite on Inequality Christia Freedland, The New York Times

And this remarkable statement by one of the governors of the Federal Reserve (!!!), Sarah Bloom Raskin (three names – definitely upper class) was posted on The Big Picture:
I became interested in this question of quality somewhat by accident. I did something atypical one day. I decided on my way into work I would stop at a jobs fair. There was a jobs fair at a local community college close to my home and I thought, I’m going to, you know, instead of pounding through all this heavy data that we typically look at at the board of governors, let me just go into this job fair. It turned out to be a really interesting morning, I have to say.

I should preface this by saying – purely anecdotal here, this is not something that is going to count as hard science or pass much muster in terms of statistical significant. But it was really interesting to me.

I went in and I have to say the kinds of jobs that were being offered surprised me. There were a number of restaurant jobs, some jobs from the military. There was one job from a community bank. Then there were a slew of jobs from, of all places, swimming pool companies. I thought that was kind of interesting. When I inquired about what these jobs were, they were lifeguard jobs, which I thought also was quite telling because back in the day to be a lifeguard I didn’t think quite required an advanced degree. These were the kinds of jobs we got in high school summers, I thought.

I was about to leave when I did see a sign that actually said IT jobs. So I thought, ‘here we go, here is going to be something pretty significant.’

So I went up to the person behind the both and they said, ‘we’ve got two kinds of IT jobs here: we’ve got armed security jobs, and we’ve got cyber security.’

So I thought, well, I’m probably not the armed security type, so tell me about the cyber security jobs.
This is how you go about getting it. You take your resume and you put it into a database. And this firm essentially collects resumes and then they kind of troll for government contracts. And when they find a government contract that might use your resume then they call you. Then you might actually get a job.

‘So what I need to do is put in my resume and then I’ll be able to get this job?’ And she said ‘yes.’
And I said: ‘while I’m waiting can I go to some other firms and throw my resume into their databases as well?’

And she said ‘oh no, you can’t do that, because you’re going to sign a letter of intent.’ And that letter of intent is basically an exclusivity agreement that says that by putting your resume in here you agree to not put your resume anywhere else.

I said ‘well, gosh, that’s going to be kind of rough. But tell me: what are the percentage chances that I’ll get a job?’

‘You know, we’re doing pretty well. Maybe a 25 percent chance.’

‘How do these jobs pay?’

‘They pay by the hour.’

‘Do they pay benefits?’

‘No benefits, it’s a straight hourly job. And it’s temporary so it’s going to be until the government contract is completed.’

This was really eye-opening for me.
Job Fair Shocks Fed Governor Raskin. Imagine some of the elites, you know, actually venturing out among the hoi polloi to see what their lives are like instead of reading The Wall Street Journal and watching MSNBC! Surely no good can come of it.