Friday, January 1, 2016

Things to be Grateful for in 2015

See, who says I'm all gloom and doom? :)

Perhaps you've hear the term trope. It's often used in reference to television or some form of entertainment. It's those things which became so common as to cause eye-rolls. You know, the wacky neighbor, the cross-dressing character, delivering a baby in an unusual place, things like that. These crop up so often that everybody expects them and they even have their own names. According to TV Tropes, "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations."

Well, economists have their own collection of tropes that I've become aware of over the years. And they increasingly get hauled out in the media, especially at year-end. Here's a prime example of the specimen from economic priest Noah Smith: Four Charts Show the World Is Getting Better (Bloomberg).  Economists, in their role in peddling Neoclassical/Neoliberal dogma as a great success, need to perennial Panglossians, of course. So, let's examine some of these tropes in detail as typical of the genre. Maybe I need to start an economics tropes Web site.

1. The world is becoming more equal. I call this "The Chinese are buying toasters" argument. Sure, Middle America is bombed-out wreck of ghettos, prisons, decrepit homes, and meth labs where lifespans are actually shrinking, but, hey, the Chinese and/or Indians are doing great! Remember kids, the economy is not a zero-sum game!

2. Even the poor have indoor plumbing! The variants of this argument essentially say that because we do not see people wandering the streets in rags and starving in back alleys, that our economic system is a great success. After all, the argument goes, poor people have things that nobody had in 1750 like indoor plumbing and electricity. Note how low a bar this is. It only started appearing after the 1990's or so as incomes started to permanently decline. It's defining success down. Usually, it's coupled with a defense of the enormous fortunes of the rich, i.e. only by letting them accumulate wealth without bound will such things "trickle down" to the poorest. A perennial favorite among Libertarians.

A shocking number of Americans don't have a toilet (The Week)

Detroiters struggle to survive without city water (The Detroit News)

3. Even the poorest people in the world have cell phones! This is the famous "Let them eat cell phones" argument. Ummm, so? I guess they can now text all their relatives immediately when their children die of malaria. A related one is the Internet will save the world. Once peasant villages in Africa and Latin America have laptops and Google, then paradise will break out, or something.  Never got this one. The mechanism by which shoving a cell phone and Internet connection onto everyone's hand on the planet will solve problems seems like a lot of hand-waving techno-fetishism to me.

4. Random third-world good-news statistic. This could be increased school attendance by girls or increased vaccination rates, or decreased malaria deaths in Africa. The most popular of these are the viral videos of Swedish Doctor Feelgood Hans Rosling angrily denouncing all those people who are Debbie Downers. Take that, doomers! At the risk of being churlish, I'd point out this low-hanging fruit comes from developments that the rest of the world has enjoyed in many cases for hundreds of years, and the slow progress is more of an indictment than something to be proud of. What are those educated people in the Third World going to do for a living anyway with all that education? Most likely compete against the workers of the developed world lowing wages, if history is any guide. Plus, population growth, if not checked, will eliminate beneficial effects over time.

5. Batteries/Renewables/Elon Musk will save the word! The increase in renewables is a good thing, of course, but the media sells us the idea that we'll just put solar panels all over the desert and swap our gas-guzzling cars for electrics and go on our merry way exactly was we have been, with no changes to our energy-intensive, wasteful, 24-7 industrialized lifestyles. Um, no. We need to change the way we live. A renewable society is one that needs less people, less consumption, less travel, and less waste and less economic growth at its very core if it is to succeed. No one wants to talk about that. And do we have enough energy/raw materials to accomplish the transition?

6. The Stephen Pinker mic-drop. "This is the most peaceful time to be alive, EVAH, mothafuckers!" The statistics say so, and they don't lie. In fact, the world has been getting more chaotic and violent since 2000. But, it's true, we haven't had a war on the scale of World War two since, well, World War Two. But, as Pinker himself says, "follow the trend lines not the headlines." The Long Peace was built on raft of cheap fossil fuels and dwarf strains of plants.  Constantly hauling out Pinker's "Better Angels..." has become a yearly occurrence, like post-holiday sales, and smells of desperation to me. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks..."

But, thinking about it, I do find reasons for hope. The thing that's funny is that much of my good news would be considered bad news by the mainstream media and the powers-that-be.

1. Population is shrinking and population growth is declining in many parts of the world. Japan is leading the way here. This is described as a crisis for the political elites and the economists. Ironically, their ministrations have brought about the dire circumstances which have caused the population drop. It remains to be seen whether the rescinding of the one-child policy in China this year will rekindle much-desired population growth in a country of empty metropolises, hunted-mile-long traffic jams, melamine-laced baby formula, exploding watermelons and air too toxic to breathe.

2. Driving is no longer "cool." Car sales are down. I've read a number of stories about how young people are coming to realize that driving is just a money black-hole and having a car puts a target on your back for police hoping to shake you down for their missing budget money. Young people are more willing to take whatever threadbare public transportation exists in their area. In response, the bought-and-paid-for Baby Boomer politicians are doing their best to defund  mass transit systems and stymie any new public transportation initiatives by either "We can't afford it!" or "That's socialism!"  arguments. More people are wising up.

3. Bikes continue to be more and more popular, especially in dense, urban Europe, where a few years ago people bought more new bikes than new cars. Dedicated bike highways are becoming more common and cities are building elevated bike lanes. These may become the main modes of daily transportation in Europe. As usual, America is behind here, but bikes are becoming more popular means of transport in urban areas here as well.

A small shift to cycling could make a big difference in CO2 (Treehugger)

4. Malls are closing down. I covered this in Malled Planet. Malls are the very symbol of American suburban consumerist  wretched excess. Seeing them slowly reclaimed by nature brings joy to my heart.

5. McDonalds is hurting. The company which gave the world the terms "clown food" and "McJob" has finally become so toxic that people are running away (if they can afford it, that is). Too bad there are still any number fast-food outlets still going. Cook at home.

6. Socialism is less and less of a dirty word. Bernie Sanders has been running the most successful campaign on a true Democratic Socialist platform in the post-Reagan era. Win or lose, this is the sign of a growing shift in attitude. As I mentioned on the C-Realm podcast, young people today grew up after the Cold War and have seen with their own  eyes the devastation wreaked by winner-take all capitalism their entire lives. They are in debt up to their eyebrows. For them, it is Capitalism that is increasingly the dirty word, not Socialism.

Of course 'socialism' was most-searched term of 2015: its ideas fit our times (Guardian)

7. It's getting harder to ignore the vanishing jobs. I've seen increasingly frank discussions about the need for alternatives among a wide variety of businessmen and economists who are not on the payroll of right-wing think tanks or Wall Street. There is growing acknowledgment that this is real and something needs to be done about it. Of course, economists not on the payroll of think-tanks or Wall Street have f*ck all effect on the actual economy, and can do little besides write academic papers and newspaper columns, but still...

8. The climate has gone crazy. Why is this good news? Because it's getting harder and harder to peddle climate denial. Of course, it's too late to realistically do anything about it, but the destruction of the natural environment will be the death-knell of eternal-growth capitalism, as millions of people will have their lives tuned upside-down by freak weather due to either weather-related deaths (heat, tornadoes, fires, floods) or being forced to relocate due to drought, rising seas and shifting climatic bands.

9. Gas is cheap. Enjoy it while it last, folks, because it won't last.

10. Minimum wage is rising. Part of a larger trend where local governments, which are closer to the people, take the reigns from the ineffective, corrupt national government which is captured by special interests. Mayors and urban dwellers who live alongside workers in these industries realize that a city of poor people is just a way of subsidizing the wealthy absentee owners while dealing with the fallout. City dwellers don't want to see their friends and  neighbors impoverished due to economic dogma. Related: as more workers wind up in the service sector, it is playing the role that factory/industrial work played at the beginning of the twentieth century--as a source of worker solidarity that crosses racial/ethnic/cultural lines.

11. An increasing number of Americans say that the American dream is dead and that their children will be worse off than they were. Good news? Yes, it means that the "American McDream" propaganda is fading, and that the messages peddled by the media's propaganda mills are losing their effect. That's a good sign.

12. The drug war is slowly fading. It's still going strong, though, but it's better than it used to be. I'm less enthused about this than many, though. It could be that the elites realized that legal cannabis is the perfect balm to keep people quiescent as their lives fall apart so they don't cause trouble for them. Better sitting in your mom's basement getting high and watching Netflix than out protesting in the streets. Still, it's better to be able enjoy a harmless vice without being thrown in a hole in more and more states. Might make the collapse more tolerable.

13. More Americans are unplugging. Cable company subscribers are down. A lot of this is Netflix/steaming downloads, but it means less commercial advertising, which means less propaganda.

14. More people are embracing minimalism. We literally have no place to go with out stuff anymore. Our dwelling places are getting smaller as we get poorer. Hoarding junk makes less sense. More stuff can be digitalalized. The "experiences not things" message seems to be getting through to more and more people.

15. America's cities are no longer being abandoned. Urbanism is back. A double-edged sword to be sure, because they are being gentrified such that ordinary people can barely afford to live there anymore. But it beats tearing everything down for freeways and parking lots, and the flight to white-separatist exurbs that we've seen through much of the twentieth century. We need to work on the affordability issue, and I think we can.

Real estate development tip: Follow the fixies (Treehugger)

16. Small countries are the future. Costa Rica achieved 99% renewable energy this year. Renewables provide 94.5% of the Uruguay’s electricity, and prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. Highly atypical cases, of course, but the fact that there are countries like that out there means that adjusting to a new way of life is possible. I think that places like Central/Latin America are where we should look to for the future, not the United States. As Kafka said, "There is hope, but not for us..."

There are probably more, but I'll stop there. It's been a challenging year for me, and maybe for you too. Thanks to all who read and commented this year, I'm extremely grateful. Next post will be my annual year-end best of roundup


  1. Happy New Year.This blog entry and the trends to you are pointing out are reminding me to go back to the library and check out a copy of Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale. I read the book about five years ago and reading this blog post now makes me want to revisit his thesis about how societies and their cultures flourish when people can interact within a certain margin of population. Too small and people are mainly devoted to basic survival needs and too large of a population in a given geographic area and anonymity and alienation begins to fracture social bonds.

    This blog is always some good brain food. Again, Happy New Year!

    1. Yeah, Kirkpatrick Sale is definitely good reading. He should be better known than he is, but if you criticize modern industrialism, that's kind of what happens. I think the effect you're describing is diminishing returns to population growth. Our density is always running ahead of our ability to cope with it. Personally, I wish we lived in societies more convivial to primates than ants.

  2. Happy New Year! Love your blog! Might I recommend the movie "The Big Short." I thought it was very good, and has some great performances.

    1. I've heard some good things. Usually, I get movies for free from the library, so I wait awhile unless it's something that needs to be seen on the big screen and doesn't suck (like Max Max). I just saw Ex Machina this weekend.

  3. I don't have indoor plumbing and will be making $10k-$12k a year for the forseeable future. Unless I really get something going, I'll never own a car again, or own a house, or own much of anything. Not that owning a car is a good thing, I hate 'em. But you get the idea.

    1. As the Archdruid says, collapse early and avoid the rush (paraphrasing). Who knows if I'll ever have a job again?

  4. Collapse? Nah, We'll be living in a William Gibson Novel. Honestly it will be better than the rich times in many ways

    1. Dystopia with advancing technology. Seems to be accurate so far.


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