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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

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When I first heard about "Third Way" economics, consisting of communistically worker-owned companies competing in a capitalist marketplace, I was highly dubious: "What do you mean, 'everyone can be capitalists?' That's ridiculous!" But now I'm a big supporter of the concept.

When it comes to fossil fuels, there's a similar middle ground between the future described in the 2009 article "Bound to Burn" (which I first mentioned here), in which we burn all of Earth's fossil fuel reserves over the next century or two, and the future favored by environmentalists, in which we leave all the remaining coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. Oddly, the conservative author of "Bound to Burn" was largely arguing from the demand side, roughly summarized as "the developing world is demanding cheap electricity and transportation fuel, and clean alternatives can't compete." Last month, in his Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," climate activist leader Bill McKibben made a similar argument from the supply side: "Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. . . . If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet."

So where's the middle ground? In the gap between the verbs "pump" and "burn." Everyone knows there are plenty of non-fuel-related uses for oil, particularly in making plastics, lubricants, and asphalt. Likewise, natural gas is used as raw material for a number of solid and liquid products, including plastics, fabric, paint, fertilizer, etc. Finding uses for coal that don't involve burning it is trickier, but perhaps American ingenuity would be up to the task if motivated by a high tax on releasing greenhouse gases. If we could find a combination of policies that leads to a substantial increase in demand for those non-fuel products to match the decrease in demand for fossil fuels to near zero, we could potentially solve the climate crisis without destroying the fossil-fuel companies or the economies of nations that rely on them.

Of course, the extraction processes for those "non-fuel fossil resources" would continue to do plenty of environmental damage, and environmentalists won’t be too happy about incentivizing more production of plastic, asphalt, and fertilizer (which tends to promote topsoil-destroying industrial agriculture).  But maybe that's the price we have to pay for a politically feasible means of nearly halting greenhouse emissions. Needless to say, this is not my favorite idea, but I think it should at least be on the table.  Speaking of agriculture, the current mega-drought and the trend it represents is a clear warning sign that we don't have much time left to find climate solutions that work.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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We interrupt our continuing series on how much liberals and conservatives have in common (sort of), to bring you the latest in stuff you probably already know about how absurdly polarized liberals and conservatives are right now.

It seems like everyone is agreed that if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, America will effectively default on its debts and plunge the world economy into chaos.  So why are Democratic leaders so willing to listen when right-wing Republicans claim that any debt ceiling deal must include trillion-dollar cuts to hugely popular government programs?  It's simple: We're actually frightened that those Republicans might be crazy enough to tip the world economy over a cliff just to make an ideological point.

Otherwise, Democrats would be perfectly comfortable with making a few modest cuts, none of them in programs like Social Security and Medicare, and handing the deal to Republicans with a "take it or leave it" shrug, reminding them that the consequences of their refusal are frankly unthinkable.  We would sit back and relax as they yelled at us for refusing to negotiate further, right up until the day before the deadline, at which point they would of course sign the deal anyway.  Any electoral consequences would be minor, since regardless of how you spin it, the whole thing would really just be maintenance of the status quo.

But no.  The so-called Tea Party Patriots in Congress have us over a barrel because they're actually so incredibly un-patriotic that they're willing to hold a gun to our nation's credit-worthiness, and give the strong impression that they're perfectly willing to shoot to kill.  And so the deal we're likely to get will be almost as bad in some respects as a global default: huge holes ripped in the social safety nets that millions of Americans, including many of the Tea Party Movement rank and file, rely on for their health and well-being, in a time that has enough economic hardships already.

Of course, the endless growth of the national debt is a problem, similar in some respects to the endless growth in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which the more extreme environmentalists would like to tackle with similarly harsh measures.  But sudden, rapid, drastic changes in systems this large is likely to have horribly violent effects.  Consider the stopping distance of a freight train, and then consider what happens when that train hits a truck sitting on the tracks and is forced to stop all at once.  (This metaphor is brought to you courtesy of the movie Super 8, which I highly recommend if you need some entertainment to distract you from the depressing political scene.)
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The latest big round of international climate talks started yesterday in Cancun, and almost nobody seems to care much. Little overall progress is expected toward a final treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, and even the student activist movements are emphasizing a "toned-down strategy."

But then, out of the blue, I discovered this: Over 250 investors, responsible for the management of funds the size of U.S. GDP, call for determined policy action on climate change

Some excerpts, with useful links:

"'We cannot drag our feet on the issue of global climate change,' said Barbara Krumsiek, Chair of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative and CEO of US-based investment firm Calvert Investments. 'Calvert is deeply concerned about the devastating impacts climate change - if left unaddressed - will have on the global economy. Based on the Stern Report, we know these impacts could reach global GDP cuts of an unimaginable 20% per year. . . .'

"While low-carbon global investment is increasing, especially in Asia, investors say substantially more private capital would be available for renewable energy, energy efficiency and other low-carbon technologies, if stronger policies were in place. Global clean energy investment is expected to eclipse $200 billion in 2010, up slightly from 2009 but substantially less than the roughly $500 billion that Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the World Economic Forum says is needed per year by 2020 to restrict warming to below 2 degrees. . . .

"'A basic lesson to be learned from past experience in renewable energy is that, almost without exception, private sector investment in climate solutions has been driven by consistent and sustained government policy. Experiences from countries such as Spain, Germany and China show how structured policies can bolster investor confidence and help drive renewable energy investments. These experiences also show how such policies can bring technologies down the cost curve and eventually strengthen their competitiveness,' said Ole Beier Sørensen, Chairman of the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change and chief of Research and Strategy at the Danish pension fund ATP, with EUR56 billion in assets."

So yeah, pretty interesting. Draw your own conclusions. I have to go to bed.

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Overview of first, second, and third wave environmentalism in America )
The phenomenon I've decided to call fourth wave environmentalism didn't begin with Bill McKibben, but his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet nicely sums up its goals and their justification. It's strange to discover that he was already working on this book during the run-up to the 350.org International Day of Climate Action, for which he was the lead organizer. 350 Day's premise was based on Dr. James Hansen's assertion that "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, . . . CO2 will need to be reduced . . . to at most 350 ppm." But McKibben's book assembles an impressive array of statistics to show that the planet Hansen is talking about no longer exists, that the ten-thousand-year-long climatic "sweet spot" we've inhabited is already gone and probably never coming back. On page 184, McKibben writes that getting down to 350 "is what we must do to stabilize the planet even at its current state of disruption"--that is, the world of smaller icecaps, acidified oceans, more and bigger droughts, floods, and wildfires, etc, etc.

The first three waves of environmentalism never came close to this kind of statement. They generally assumed not only that the world as we know it was still around, but that we should focus so squarely on preserving it that failure should be unthinkable. After all, to plan for how to survive and thrive after such a failure would seem to take away some of the urgency of our discourse. Most previous pictures of a world where environmentalism fails have been simplistic apocalypse scenarios where civilization collapses into chaos and almost everyone dies, painted solely for the purpose of emphasizing that "failure is not an option."

But that doesn't mean no one has been planning for at least a partial failure. The Transition movement is all about adapting to both global warming and the end of economic growth powered by cheap energy. Many of the Permaculture principles they're based on can also be seen in the new localism and voluntary simplicity movements, which include Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Cities, etc. All of these groups and movements fall under my definition of fourth wave environmentalism.

The fourth wave is opposed to the third wave's economic mainstreaming, asserting that due to peak oil and the immense cost of coping with a newly chaotic world, economic growth will end soon regardless of how "green" the economy gets. On page 52 of Eaarth, McKibben tries to maintain some ties to third-wave idealism: "I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. If I had money, I'd give it to Al Gore to invest in start-ups." But, he is forced to conclude, "it's not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don't think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion . . . We no longer possess the margin we'd require for another huge leap forward, certainly not enough to preserve the planet we used to live on."

Instead, the fourth wave proposes a new system of small, stable economies with some degree of local self-sufficiency, although "it will be a while before there's a village computer maker or a local locomotive manufacturer" in most places (p. 141), and big governments will still help in "spreading risk across a continent: New Orleans couldn't have repaired itself" after Hurricane Katrina, the kind of disaster that will soon be commonplace (p. 144). Communities will feed themselves with local organic farms that replace oil-based inputs with compost and manpower, while growing many different plants in every field for resilience to extreme weather. Power grids will be regional, not national, and most communities will have small local generators (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc) for resilience to grid power outages.

Of course, there are a chorus of standard objections to the idea of eliminating growth and reversing globalization. The resulting society would be "stagnant and hierarchical and no fun to live in," as [livejournal.com profile] bdunbar summarized in a reply to this entry. McKibben's answer to this is simply to keep the Internet running. He argues that this would a) help maintain an open society that resists local tendencies to stratify, eliminate women's rights, etc, b) provide lots of virtual fun to offset the boredom of small-town life, and c) serve other useful purposes like helping people learn farming skills. (This suggests an interesting sci-fi scenario: what if both the Permaculture people and their arch-nemeses, the Singularitarians, turn out to be right? A superhuman AI emerging in the Internet on a world locked in permanent climate crisis would have an interesting time of it.)

I'm not sure how I feel about all this myself. McKibben leaves no room for space travel in his new world, dismissing the idea that it will remain a national project in future America: "Theoretically we've committed to sending a man to Mars, but I know very few people who either believe we will or care" (p. 120). But what if he's wrong about how bad things will get? Most crucially, what if he's not pessimistic enough? Space colonization is worthwhile partly because it provides a means of persistence for both societies and ecosystems even if Earth plunges into a true apocalypse scenario. Even in the face of so many other demands on our perhaps-soon-to-be-shrinking economy, that plan for survival should not be lightly abandoned.
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"I normally don't pat myself on the back, but today global warming is an issue that has the concern of 30 percent of the American people, and years ago it was over 50 percent. That's because somebody spoke up day in and day out and said, 'This is a hoax. This is BS.' That somebody was me."
       -Rush Limbaugh, May 11, 2009 (quoted by Environmental Defense Action Fund)

If you're like me, your first thought on reading the above quote was "Oh crap! What if that's right? What if the success of An Inconvenient Truth and all the ubiquitous 'go green' sentiment of the past few years was all a mirage, and we've really been losing ground all this time, thanks to Rush's evil plan to prevent us from saving the world?"

On reflection, I realized there are two things wrong with that statement. The first is that we know global warming deniers can't do stats. The above statement, without even a definition of what "years ago" means, is even less meaningful that claims like "2008 was about as hot as 2001 and cooler than 2005, so the entire multi-decade warming trend must be reversing itself." Two or three data points simply don't make any kind of valid statistical case. If only the average American (or humans in general) were better at this kind of thinking...

The second problem is that in all likelihood, Rush doesn't have an "evil plan," he's just genuinely deluded into believing the story his own cherry-picked numbers tell. From the other side of the hurdle it can be easy to forget this, but in the face of impending global catastrophe, denial is extremely hard to resist -- especially when getting over it would mean accepting that the only plan to save the world is a strategic initiative for the Democratic Party. )

Which brings me to the real topic of this post. Conservatives claim that a greenhouse-reduction policy would harm the economy. This is their answer to a lot of policies they don't like. Why? Because as it happens, conservatives are in love with progress.

That line was mostly just to get your attention. The definition of progress here is narrowed to economic progress, defined as unlimited growth in numbers like the Dow Jones and especially the Gross Domestic Product. And our entire economic system does indeed seem to be built on this concept. Everyone knows economic shrinkage is bad, but even a leveling off or "stagnation" can hurt living standards, so we have a Red Queen paradox: we have to keep running up those numbers as fast as we can just to stay in the same place.

Now, you might think that with the standard conservative lines about innovation in business that's somehow "stifled by government," they would count technological progress as a good thing too. This isn't as true as you'd think. Just ask Citizens for Coal... )

"I'm not the guy who sings the hymns, no bleeding hearts to mend,
But I like the part where Icarus hijacks the Little Red Hen."
       -Lyrics to "Last Plane Out" by Toy Matinee

There are two main progressive objections to the doctrine of economic progress to the exclusion of all other goals: we claim it's detrimental to both social progress and progress toward a sustainable civilization. Of course by 'social' I mean 'socialIST'...not )

Meanwhile, the dogma of limitless growth in the physical economy, of "conserving the way things are" by consuming progressively more of the planet's resources, looks to progressives like a good way to guarantee our doom as a civilization. Although recycling has begun to replace needless extraction of natural resources, this would probably never have happened without government mandates. And as population growth and urban sprawl continue apace, along with the clearing of vast tracts of land to use for things like tar sands mining, we have to wonder if a system based on untrammeled economic growth is like Icarus, flying higher and higher without regard to the approaching danger of burning to death.
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"So, in order to protect the populace from their own governors, the law must be universal.  More, it must require transparent and consistent behaviour from those appointed to rule.  Hence, the rulers must function, not as individuals, but as applicators of perfect justice, the willing part (and here I use the term 'willing' meaning intending and asserting rather than merely accepting) of a machine for good government."
        - The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, p. 125

In computer science we have a data structure called a search tree, where you can quickly find your way from the "root" data item to any of the "branch" or "leaf" items by following simple rules.  But whenever this structure is diagrammed in textbooks or on whiteboards, the root is always drawn at the top, with all the leaves below it:



A similar thing happens with any large organization: the org chart shows the boss at the top (whether that's a CEO, a governor, or the Pope), and like a search tree, the organization often becomes machinelike, blindly following rules and executing orders that come down from the "top."  In a natural tree, by contrast, the roots are of course at the bottom, and their purpose is to "serve" the branches and leaves by collecting water and nutrients and sending them up the trunk.  In both cases something is flowing outward from the root, but in the former case, accountability only runs one way: all those below are held accountable for their work by those above them.  In a tree it runs both ways: both the roots and the leaves provide nutrition without which the tree could not survive.

Is there a way to apply the natural tree model to human organizations?  Well, in the case of democratic government, there is a tradition of referring to elected officials as "public servants," accountable to those who elected them.  This is the definition of "accountability" favored by progressives, in George Lakoff's interpretation, while conservatives prefer to focus on citizens' accountability to the laws -- hence their greater tendency to make "I'll be tough on crime!" a major campaign promise.

The problem is that "downward" accountability -- Senator to constituents, or CEO to employees -- never seems to be nearly as strong as the "upward" kind (using the directionality of the org chart here).  In the case of most religions, I'm not sure "downward" accountability exists at all.  Is there any way to flip this tendency upside-down?

In the case of corporations, employee ownership is the obvious answer -- the CEO is always accountable to the shareholders, so if the employees are the shareholders, one can expect a much more balanced relationship.  So yeah -- corporate democracy now!

In the case of religions, at least religions "of the book," immutable top-down rules are inevitable -- but their interpretation is far from set in stone.  It would be interesting to know how many pastors, rabbis, etc. have tried involving their congregations in theological debates.

In the case of government, the problems are many: how to get citizens more interested in holding their leaders/servants accountable, how to keep politicians from acting more accountable to their biggest campaign financiers than to their constituents, how to give all interest groups the same level of access that high-powered lobbyists currently have.  Public financing of elections is probably a big part of the answer to problem 2.  The others I'll leave for later posts.

Through all of these issues runs the question: is there any way to consistently choose leaders who aren't power-hungry, who are honestly willing to think of themselves as servants?  And if not, does that mean we have no choice but to try to build machinelike structures with rules so inhumanly rigid that it doesn't matter how corrupt the leaders are?
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Yup, those high-profile executive orders banning torture, stopping the unconstitutional military commissions, and closing the secret C.I.A. prisons and Gitmo (sometime this year) sure looked great, didn't they?  But if you look a bit closer...

"In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.'s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

"The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees [who say they were victims of extraordinary rendition and torture] should be shut down based on the 'state secrets' doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

"And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government 'for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.'”

And of course, since such a tiny fraction of Americans actually keep track of any of this, there won't be any meaningful political backlash just from a few news articles about it, probably buried in the back pages.  Sigh.  Time to start moving the ol' American Fascism Clock back toward midnight again.

P.S. Hooray for the stimulus package.  Guess what though--if it doesn't actually start creating jobs ASAP, the Democrats are going to be in deep trouble.
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Within his first week as President, Barack Obama has made serious steps on what I see as the two most critical issues our nation faces: the challenge of turning the threat of climate catastrophe into a driver for a new green economy, and the thorny issue of reversing the frightening erosions of our democratic values made by the Bush Administration in the name of national security.

Here's Obama in his own words from yesterday on the green recovery strategy, including a commitment to keep raising fuel economy standards and an instruction to the EPA to hurry up and let California tighten its own emissions standards, "or else we'll sic the Governator on you."  But seriously, it's good rhetoric tied to an actual plan of action, so I'm happy.  However, I should warn you not to get too mesmerized* by the finely-crafted prose.

As an aid to that, you can watch Obama sign four of his first executive orders last Wednesday, banning "enhanced interrogation techniques" outside the scope of the Army Field Manual, shutting down the probably-still-unconstitutional military commissions currently in progress, and committing to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, which may be how long it will take to figure out what to do with all the detainees.  The new President looks rather small and uncertain sitting behind the giant Oval Office desk, with important military officials standing around him and camera shutters constantly clicking.  He really does say "uh" too much when not making a well-prepared speech.  But then, he'll probably get better at this with practice.


*Dave Barry's Year in Review is particularly brilliant this year, or maybe it just seems that way because if I weren't laughing hysterically I would have been sobbing.  Among the best lines: "The federal government is finally forced to take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after they are caught selling crack at a middle school. But that is not enough, as major financial institutions, having lost hundreds of billions of dollars thanks to years of engaging in practices ranging from questionable to moronic, begin failing, which gives the federal government an idea: Why not give these institutions MORE hundreds of billions of dollars, generously provided by taxpayers?"
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"I want you to assemble teams of engineers and Marines and have them board each of those ships.  We're gonna take everything we need . . ."

-Admiral Helena Cain of the Colonial Fleet, on encountering a fleet of civilian spaceships fleeing from the Twelve Colonies shortly after their destruction by the Cylons, in Battlestar Galactica: Razor

 
In the harsh universe of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television show, maintaining humanity's few remaining military vessels could be worth almost any cost.  Without them, there would be nothing to stop the Cylons from completing the destruction of humanity.  Does this horrible scenario tell us anything about the real militaries of Earth?

Here's my theory.  In Freud's basic model of the mind, there are three stacked elements: the id, repressed seat of animal desires and instincts (the survival instinct, of course, being the most important); the ego, center of rational thought, holding the id in check most of the time; and the superego, the overlay of internalized pressure to live up to society's expectations for moral behavior.  But war turns this structure on its head.  In a military society, the soldier's ego is put in service of a sort of collective id: an entity that will do anything to protect itself and get the resources it needs to survive.  The superego, at least as ordinarily constituted in polite society, must be repressed, because it would never stand for the brutal actions deemed necessary to meet the needs of this "super-id."

For instance, modern industrialized nations, if considered as organisms, appear to be obligate petrovores--needing to consume fossil fuels in order to survive as politiconomic entities.  This appearance grows increasingly deceptive as new means of powering our industrial base and transporting people and goods become more scalable and competitive--but for the past century and a half, oil and coal have been the lifeblood of our civilization.  So if you believe that a) they must remain so for decades to come, and b) the war in Iraq was the only way to ensure the maintenance of our massive annual oil consumption, then that war becomes explicable as a form of self-preservation--one that has nothing to do with the specter of nuclear terrorism or global jihad, and everything to do with a nightmare vision of the nation's roads, its metaphorical blood vessels, permanently empty and still.
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Conservatives hate it because it involves the government spending vast amounts of taxpayer money (or at least, money borrowed from other parts of the global financial system on the theory that they can eventually use tax money to pay it back), some of which has been used to essentially nationalize major corporations. Progressives hate it because, on top of all that, most of the money has gone straight to the same kinds of huge financial institutions that got us into this mess in the first place. We would prefer that more of it go to more direct assistance for the American people, whether as a simple stimulus payout or, more likely, just as help with refinancing all those adjustable-rate mortgages and such.

Of course, some conservatives argue that the blame for this whole crisis can be placed at the feet of millions of borrowers who were too dumb to realize that they would be unable to make the payments on those ARMs when the rates went up. Others say that this is nobody's fault, just the natural ebb of the business cycle, and because the market always knows best, we should all just grit our teeth and wait it out. (This kind of rhetoric has been applied to other areas of global finance, and it tends to infuriate us progressives when "greedy irresponsible rich folks screw up again" always gets transformed into "nobody's fault.")

As for the most recent addition to the bailout "package," most conservatives would prefer to let the Big 3 automakers go bankrupt and get bought up by foreign automakers who actually know how to run a business, regardless of the massive layoffs that would likely result. Progressives prefer to somehow force these companies into a new shape, perhaps getting them to work on building more buses and trains to cope with the recent sharp increase in demand, or even gutting the factories and setting them up to stamp out wind turbines, regardless of how difficult and unlikely such a transition would be. (For those who see these as nice ideas but would prefer to keep our tax dollars out of it, Keith Knight has a great idea: use our gas dollars instead!)

All in all, the situation is just too miserable for me to have any clue what path is best, based solely on my dim recollection of a single semester of Global Political Economy. But as shown above, I'm far from alone in thinking that the current raft of "solutions" generally sucks.
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Al Gore's group and others have definitely been heeding the lesson of that essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Rather than incessantly giving the “I have a nightmare” speech, they've been relentlessly upbeat lately about the potential for a new green economy that will make life better, rather than requiring any real sacrifice. All we have to do is use energy more efficiently, take the bus or bike when we can, buy local and organic (which, okay, does cost somewhat more), and oh yeah, demand that our leaders “save us from this climate crisis.” I'm hoping what they really meant there was “provide the necessary incentives to motivate industry and job seekers, so we can save ourselves.”

But then along comes someone like Sharon Astyk to upset the applecart. Sharon is the sort of environmentalist I used to think conservatives just made up as a straw man argument; she actually thinks we need to shrink the economy, raise unemployment (to reduce the number of commuters on the roads), and become a nation of “poorer but happier greenies,” an ideal that's deeply unattractive to the vast majority of Americans. And her argument against Gore's rosy scenario is concise and disturbingly obvious: Building all that new renewable infrastructure, most of it in rural areas that don't currently have the necessary population of workers, will itself be responsible for huge amounts of CO2 production, perhaps enough to push the world over a tipping point and precipitate the very catastrophe it's trying to prevent.

The obvious alternative is to focus on conservation and efficency and develop renewables at a slower, more realistic pace. To be honest, few if any highly-placed people are paying attention to Gore's ten-year timeline anyway; Obama's plan calls for a mere 25% transition in our electricity supply by seven years after Gore's deadline. But how far do we need to go here? Astyk actually claims that some efficiency measures, like building retrofits that add insulation to the walls to lower heating and cooling costs, are also worrisomely carbon-intensive themselves.

In the abstract, I have to admit that there is no a priori reason why we should be able to solve the climate crisis without reducing our quality of life. To claim otherwise is to work from the cornucopian assumption that there will always be a quick, cheap technical fix. But then, we do have a number of hopeful signs that the sacrifice Obama will need to ask us to make won't necessarily involve making the recession worse.
  • The massive power of the Internet: America's CO2 emissions have increased by about 20% since 1990. The SMART 2020 study seems to show that Obama's goal* of getting us back to 1990 levels by 2020 could be mostly accomplished just by using information technology to make our electric grid, transportation networks, and buildings “smarter” and enable more “virtual commuters.”
  • Biomimicry: Nature makes complex structures using nontoxic, room-temperature chemistry, in stark contrast to our current industrial practices, and those structures themselves are exquisitely adapted to make the most of whatever energy is available. Already, companies are looking into ways to make products that accomplish their goals the same way organisms do. One thing we've learned already, particularly from biomineralizing corals and other shelled critters, is that the right way of sequestering carbon is to solidify it rather than burying it still in gaseous form.
  • Pointless energy use: I'm not even talking about Las Vegas casinos here. In his book, Van Jones quotes Anuradha Mittal as saying that for example, “20 percent of California table grapes go to China, while China is the world's largest producer of table grapes. Half of all California's processed tomatoes go to Canada, and the U.S. imports $36 million worth of Canadian processed tomatoes yearly. . . . We are exporting what we are also importing because it is profitable for the companies doing it, not because it is good for the nation or the environment.” This kind of pointless trade-for-the-sake-of-trade is exactly the sort of thing Obama's carbon cap should stop in its tracks.
  • New coal power plants placed on hold: Thank you, EPA, for finally listening to the what the Supreme Court told you over a year and a half ago! The CO2 savings from avoiding both these huge construction projects and the subsequent plant operation are probably enough to build quite a number of wind turbines, while simultaneously providing an intense motivator for conservation. Local governments' long-term energy plans were probably founded on the assumption of those new coal-based supplies coming online. Now they'll be forced to look for simple things that just needed more political will (the ultimate renewable resource, eh, Al?), like programs to get people (especially apartment landlords!) to trade in all their old, inefficient appliances for Energy Star-compliant ones.
I'm sure Sharon Astyk would come up with some objection to each of these. My hope is that she'll come out with some actual numbers on the high carbon cost of making carbon-reducing tech, so she and Gore's people can have a real argument based on facts rather than conjecture.

*Note: it is somewhat worrisome that Obama doesn't mention energy efficiency at all in this speech.

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Yesterday night, Barack Obama became the first African-American elected to the highest office in the most powerful nation on Earth. Two days earlier, I received my copy of The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, the first environment-related book by an African-American to reach the New York Times bestseller list. These two things are more closely related than they appear.

Obama's victory was due in no small part to his highly effective campaign strategy, which improved on Howard Dean's idea of mobilizing the netroots with a message of "this election isn't about me, it's about you." (Thus we now have an obligation to hold him to that rhetoric, and make sure he keeps listening to the people he represents.) But the other major factor, of course, was how much worse things have gotten in this country under the last eight years of Republican leadership. As the Onion headline amusingly puts it, things had to get pretty bad before we would elect someone as committed to real change as Obama appears to be, while largely ignoring the color of his skin.

In the days leading up to the election, McCain supporters dug up an interview with Obama that the San Francisco Chronicle had run in January, in which he stated that his own energy policy would cause electricity rates to "skyrocket" (yes, I've verified this at the source). I found out about this here, and despite everything I know about the power of natural capitalism, I took Obama at his word and replied to the entry saying that Obama would have to dramatically revise his energy plan. In particular, I'm worried that he might cancel plans to auction off carbon credits, and instead simply give them away to existing polluters, then let them figure out a price based on the slowly declining supply. This "grandfathering" strategy hasn't worked out too well in the EU.

But then, on the way home from a returns-watching party last night, I cracked open The Green Collar Economy for the first time. From the excellent foreword by Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a shorter version of which is available here, I learned that two centuries ago, when Britain was about to outlaw another free commodity amid similar fears that such an action would destroy the economy, "Britain's economy [actually] accelerated. Slavery's abolition exposed the debilitating inefficiencies associated with zero-cost labor; slavery had been a ball and chain not only for the slaves, but also for the British economy, hobbling productivity and stifling growth. Creativity and productivity surged. Entrepreneurs seeking new sources of energy launched the industrial revolution and inaugurated an era of the greatest wealth production in human history."

In the introduction, Kennedy also cites venture capitalist Stephan Dolezalek as saying that "With the right market drivers and an open-access marketplace, we can completely decarbon our electric system within years." Dolezalek draws an analogy to the rapid growth of Arpanet-sponsored Internet backbones between 1987 and 1996. These analogies may be flawed, but that doesn't make them non-instructive. And given the free-marketeer tenor of the preceding quotes, it should be no surprise that John McCain also supports a carbon cap-and-trade program.

Finally, in the first two pages of the book itself, Van Jones points out that the price of oil is basically doomed to rise over the next decades, given the rapidly rising global demand and limited production capacity, and this will push us into a stagflation economy regardless of what happens to electric rates in the short term. So what do we do about poor people who would find it hard to pay that bill when their local power plant just had to buy a bunch of carbon credits at an auction? Simple: train them up and offer them well-paid entry-level jobs in the new green economy, as Chicago and other towns across the nation are already starting to do. And if that isn't brought to scale fast enough, we institute rules to ensure that power companies take out the brunt of the price shock on those who can afford it most--people with incomes at least as high as mine.

So that would be back-door socialism, you say. Well, fine, maybe we can make it voluntary and guilt you into donating as follows: Yes, things will get worse before they get better. That's because we're basically at war with the global climate, and we're losing. Obama may not get too specific when he talks about a new spirit of service and sacrifice, but this is part of what he means. Our country needs us. Will you stand up and do your part?
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If it's really discredited, of course, I shouldn't have to do this, right? But I still hear people arguing that nothing has changed, bashing the Obama tax plan with the tired old claim that only by cutting taxes for the rich and megacorporations can we promote innovation and job creation. Arguments against this, in brief:
  1. It's the small corporations that do the most innovating, because they're young, have less inertia and less to lose.
  2. As for government-supported innovation, how about all the technologies derived from military research, NASA, the NIH, etc?
  3. A huge chunk of taxpayer money already goes to pay private employees of government contractors (I was one at my last job).
  4. While I do need more support for this, I learned in college that government policy is the main thing preventing the middle class from eroding away due to the basic tendencies of a capitalist system. Further, the middle class has to be reinvented as times change, from agrarianism to industry to services to high-tech and now the emerging green-collar economy.
  5. Want more money to reinvest in your megacorporation? How's this: instead of cutting your taxes, we put a progressive tax on the ridiculously huge bonuses you corporate big-shots give yourselves all the time*, so you'll have an incentive to get into a lower bracket and spend the savings on building your business.
And another thing: to those of you who still think you're going to sway voters with the claim that Obama's plan would be a "redistribution of wealth," I have two words: Good luck. While the masses aren't talking communist revolution yet (that takes at least a few years of depression), when people can see the utter failure of the deregulation strategy playing out before their eyes, they're not going to turn around and yell "No, I don't want government interfering in the economy!" when the interference in question is shoring up the safety net for almost all of us, partly at the expense of the same rich bastards in the banking and mortgage lending sectors whose mindless greed got us into this mess in the first place. Class warfare? Well, yeah, kind of. It's only to be expected, really, in times like these.

* Note: this statement is a personal opinion, not that of my employer, nor is it intended specifically as a criticism of Microsoft.
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These days a lot of people are receiving a rude reminder that agriculture is the foundation of civilization--if it fails, we all fail. But if you feel like a heapin' helping of hope for the future, check out Natural Capitalism from your local library and read Chapter 10, "Food for Life" (or download it from the Natural Capitalism website). There's too much good stuff here to summarize in paragraph form, so I'll try an outline-type format instead:
  • Solar-drying fruits and grains:
    • Requires no electricity.
    • In a silo, evaporatively cools food "making any insects infesting it too sluggish to move and eat," eliminating the need for pesticides.
    • Solar-air-dried food needs no preservatives.
  • Greenhouses with superwindows:
    • Trap heat "so efficient[ly] that they burn no gas for heating," even in cold and cloudy climates.
    • Improve prospects for urban farming ("Some 15 percent of global food is already grown in cities.")
  • Reusing farm waste:
    • If cars could make 90 MPG (which doesn't require plug-in hybrids--see Chapter 2), "the straw burned in the fields of France or Denmark would run those countries' entire car fleets year-round."
    • Even back in the early 1980s, "cotton-gin trash in Texas" would have been enough "to fuel with alcohol every vehicle in Texas."
    • "Altogether, the diverse streams of farm and forestry wastes can probably provide enough sustainably grown liquid fuels to run an efficient U.S. transportation sector, without any further reliance on special fuel crops or fossil fuels."
    • These inputs could also include "manure-to-biogas conversion" to reduce methane emissions from livestock.
  • Maintaining naturally rich soil instead of using fertilizer:
    • Avoids industrial farming's tendency to destroy the "20 to 30 times as much biomass below the surface as [exists] above-ground" (because fertilizer puts "soil bacteria, fungi, and other biota out of work"), thus keeping the carbon locked up in these organisms instead of letting it escape during decomposition.
    • If fully converted to these "organic or low-input practices, . . . U.S. cropland alone . . . could thereby offset about 8-17 percent of U.S. carbon emissions" rather than contributing to those emissions.
    • Farmers could then make money selling carbon credits in countries with cap-and-trade policies.
    • There are "5 billion acres of degraded soil" which, if restored using low-input practices, "could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality, agricultural productivity, and human prosperity."
  • Imitating natural "rotational" grazing patterns:
    • Frees up crops for human consumption that would otherwise be fed to livestock, all but eliminating the "carnivore's dilemma."
    • Allows a farmer to use "more cattle, more intensely resident for shorter and less frequent periods" on any given patch of grass.
    • "The grazing cows yeild slightly less milk than confined animals but at far lower capital and operating cost, hence higher income per cow."
    • Allows "manure to return to the soil, closing the nutrient loop" and eliminating the current "gigantic [manure] disposal headache" as well as making the soil more erosion-resistant.
  • "Biointensive" crop farming "modeled on complex ecosystems":
    • "[I]nterplanting of mixed species [tends] to foil pests."
    • A healthy quasi-ecosystem "can provide for a vegetarian's entire diet, plus the compost crops needed to sustain the system indefinitely, on only 2,000 to 4,000 square feet," compared with 10,000 for "[s]tandard U.S. agricultural practice today."
    • Very non-labor-intensive, because "nature does most of the work," such that "an elegantly conceived sequence of plantings provides the weed control, composting, and other services automatically."
    • Can eventually be applied to large-scale farming, basically turning the American midwest back into a sort of quasi-prairie, friendly to grazing animals, "occasionally harvested by combines" but requiring "no chemicals, no cultivation, no irrigation" (particularly impressive given that "[a]griculture is [currently] responsible for about twice as much of total U.S. water withdrawals as all buildings, industry, and mining combined").
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Okay, so the first one is obvious if you think about it. Some government subsidies distort the market by giving a blanket incentive for companies to do something that makes no economic or ecological sense:

"Because of special corporate income tax credits and deductions, oil companies pay an effective income tax rate of 11 percent, compared with an average of 18 percent for other companies. . . . On top of these tax preferences, the Department of Energy spends more than $100 million a year to develop and improve oil production techniques, while the Army Corps of Engineers pays for infrastructure improvements related to the shipping of oil. These and other subsidies help keep the price of oil artificially cheap.

"Water is also often heavily subsidized, especially for agriculture . . . Because the government does not charge the full price of the water it provides, farmers have not always had sufficient incentive to conserve or to install more efficient irrigation systems. And manufacturers have not had enough of a financial incentive to develop water-saving devices. . . . Especially in arid parts of the country like California and the Southwest, it is silly to have a subsidized price system that encourages inefficient use of such an important resource as water. . . . there is much to be gained by eliminating subsidies and setting the price of water accurately.

"Germany has addressed a more subtle form of subsidy. In the United States manufacturers generally do not have to pay for the disposal of what they sell. Instead, . . . the costs of garbage pickup and disposal are covered by tax dollars or fees. A landmark 1991 German law makes producers responsible for the packaging they generate. They must either reuse it or pay for recycling it."

So what about taxes, specifically a tax on pollution? Well, the key phrase here is "internalizing externalities":

"From an economist's standpoint, a well-crafted tax is an easy and fair way to increase the price of a polluting activity so that it includes those external social costs that would otherwise be ignored. Economists also like the fact that even as taxes provide financial reasons to take better care of the environment, they ultimately leave the final decision on what to buy and do up to consumers acting through the free market. MIT economics professor Paul Krugman* has observed that 'virtually every card-carrying economist' believes pollution taxes are a good idea. . . .

"To reduce the fears associated with environmental taxes, most proponents these days talk in terms of 'tax shifting'--the idea that government should reduce other levies, such as the income tax, at the same time that it raises taxes on polluting activities. . . . Of course, any tax shifting would need to be done carefully, and strategies would need to be instituted to compensate low-income Americans who do not pay income taxes but who would have to pay the new environmental taxes."

Both sets of quotes are from The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D., Chapter 7: What You Can Ask Government to Do


*I have to note here some possible bias: according to the linked article, while greatly respected as an economist, "Krugman is known to be pronouncedly liberal in his political views."
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All of what follows should be taken with a grain of salt, because I really don't know what I'm talking about here. The American Fascism Clock needs to be recalculated using some kind of, um, derivatives. And futures. And of course, mort-guages -- a measure of the length of time it takes for a major investment bank to die after supporting dubious lending practices that have contributed to a recession.

Except the point is actually that this span never ran out for Bear Stearns, because government came to the rescue and basically nationalized them, taking control of their portfolio in a move that, at first glance, is vaguely reminiscent of a favored move of left-wing dictators. Except not really, because the whole point of the maneuver and an accompanying $30 billion loan is to limit financial risks and help smooth JP Morgan Chase's buyout of the company. This looks a lot like the "merging of state and corporate power" which is how Italian dictator Benito Mussolini probably never actually described fascism.

The other major government action that accompanied the Bear Stearns deal was the opening of an unlimited lending program for investment banks in general, probably at wholesale rates -- like the $200-billion-limit program announced last Tuesday, which didn't have the hoped-for positive effect on the stock market. Whether any of this will have the desired effect over a period longer than a week or two is unknown, but Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says they had to try. After all, the name of the game here is preventing the next Black Tuesday, which is to say trying to eliminate the perception that the financial sector is collapsing -- because on the trading floor, perceptions rapidly become realities.

Is it the government's job to fix things just because it has more money and power than anyone else, or because the big subprime lenders have forced its hand (specifically, forced it to dump money on them)? Well-known newspaper commentator Ellen Goodman quotes Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, as saying that "People in the financial community were able to take sectors of the economy hostage and we have to pay a ransom. The best we can hope for is to keep the ransom as low as possible and help the least undeserving." (The only similar quote from Frank that I could find elsewhere is from a transcript of PBS's Nightly Business Report, where he doesn't blame people but rather the "absence of sensible regulation" for taking "some parts of our economy hostage.") This sort of language raises the paranoid specter of corporate conspiracies to defraud the government by threatening to destroy the economy, whose success in turn suggests "the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than [the] democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism," according to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was President throughout most of the Great Depression.

But here's where I get confused again, because quite apart from the fact that I don't like paranoia, that article featuring Henry Paulson says the Bear Stearns deal basically follows "a procedure from the Depression era," when saving the economy was Democrats' way of proving ourselves to be the true Party of the People. So who knows, maybe this buyout/risk-management exercise does still count as liberal somehow, despite being enacted by the most virulently right-wing administration in living memory. Hooray for the political Möbius strip.
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"Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics.

"Many factors are contributing to the rise, but the biggest is runaway demand. In recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.

"The high growth rate means hundreds of millions of people are, for the first time, getting access to the basics of life, including a better diet. That jump in demand is helping to drive up the prices of agricultural commodities.

"Farmers the world over are producing flat-out. American agricultural exports are expected to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. [And yet] The world’s grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades.

"'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,' said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy. 'But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.'

"In contrast to a run-up in the 1990s, investors this time are betting — as they buy and sell contracts for future delivery of food commodities — that scarcity and high prices will last for years. . . .

"The biggest blemish on this winter of joy is that farmers' own costs are rising rapidly. Expenses for the diesel fuel used to run tractors and combines and for the fertilizer essential to modern agriculture have soared. . . .

"[Wheat] prices have more than tripled, partly because of a drought in Australia and bad harvests elsewhere and also because of unslaked global demand for crackers, bread and noodles."

    - "A Global Need for Grain that Farms Can't Fill," The New York Times, March 9, 2008

One of the interesting things about this issue is the mental conflict it induces in progressives.  On the one hand, we can't exactly say that gains in quality of life in the poorer countries are a bad thing in general, but on the other hand, it does push the overpopulation crisis closer to disastrous collision with the limits of world production capacity.

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Here are some intriguing closing remarks from President Phil Chase, a character whom I first quoted in this post, from the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy of near-future environmental catastrophe: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. (These books are far better than their hokey titles suggest.)

Economics-related )

On sustainability:
    "By permaculture I mean a culture that can be sustained permanently. Not unchanging, that's impossible, we have to stay dynamic, because conditions will change, and we will have to adapt to those new conditions, and continue to try to make things even better—so that I like to think the word permaculture implies also permutation. . . .
    "Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. . . . People worry about living life without purpose or meaning, and rightfully so, but really there is no need for concern: inventing a sustainable culture is the meaning, right there always before us . . . [and] will never come to an end while people still exist. . . .
    "We have to become the stewards of the Earth. And we have to start doing this in ignorance of how to do it. We have to learn how to do it in the attempt itself."

This from a president who has supported dumping mass quantities of salt into the north Atlantic to restart the Gulf Stream, as well as pumping massive amounts of water from the rising seas inland to form new salt lakes.  The full impacts of actions on this scale are unknown, and some of Robinson's characters do worry about this, but they rationalize that things have already gotten so bad over the course of the trilogy that there's no time left to look before we leap.  Hence the title of this post, which recurs several times throughout the trilogy.

One might conclude that we have a ways to go yet before that attitude becomes unavoidable.  On the other hand, consider how far we've already leapt in the wrong direction:

    "Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently estimated the ocean has absorbed 118 billion metric tons of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—about half of the total we’ve released into the atmosphere . . . [which] is good for our atmosphere but bad for our ocean, since it changes the pH. Studies indicate that the shells and skeletons possessed by everything from reef-building corals to mollusks to plankton begin to dissolve within 48 hours of exposure to the acidity expected in the ocean by 2050. . . .
    "Collectively, marine phytoplankton have influenced life on earth more than any other organism, since they are significant alleviators of greenhouse gases, major manufacturers of oxygen, and the primary producers of the marine food web. Yet because many phytoplankton produce minute aragonite shells, these pastures of the sea may not survive changing pH levels."

Major manufacturers of oxygen, eh?  That would be an understatement: "phytoplankton draw nearly as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and oceans through photosynthesis as do trees, grasses and all other land plants combined" (p. 57), converting it all to oxygen.  We're talking about a large fraction of the world's oxygen supply, slowly dissolving before our eyes.  In this light, crazy proposals like those described above, or like using iron dust to promote phytoplankton growth as described in the linked SciAm article, start to seem worthy of strong consideration.

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