Political Economy

Celebrating the Darkness of Winter Solstice

stonehenge_wintergc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2015

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Happy solstice to all. This is usually a happy day for me because I know that every day after will get longer compared to night time. The proportion of light to dark gets more favorable with each passing day. While the summer solstice, you would think, should make me sad because the days will get shorter (and I do contemplate that) still the days are long and light is bright so there is not quite a symmetrical relation in moods.

This year my mood seems to more closely match the darkness of the season, I'm afraid. I look about at what is happening all over the world and suspect the darkness of thought and knowledge is increasing even while we will see longer days ahead.

Are We Entering a New Age of Darkness?

So is this what a global civilization collapse looks like? Or am I the only one who sees the world crumbling at a seemingly accelerating rate? I am open to the possibility that I am suffering from confirmation bias since I have been a commentator on this subject for many years now. But as I continue to survey the dynamics of things like the refugee crises, the growing spread of terrorist acts, and American politics, among others, I am more convinced than ever that we are sliding into a serious decline of civilization on a global scale.

Recently I have read and heard a number of analyses of the political phenomenon of the Republican party's fiasco over the last several weeks. The general consensus seems to be that the average Republican voter feels completely alienated and angry with the party regulars. This, the writers and talking heads seem to feel, is the basis for the fact that Trump is leading in the polls. Trump? Really? Unfortunately I don't think he is just an anomaly. Most of the field of candidates appear to have some really wacko ideas. Ted Cruz continues to deny global warming, for instance.

And in truth are the Democrats really any better? They might not be wackos but they still hold ideological beliefs that are at odds with reality. There is not a single mainstream politician out there who is calling for an end to growth (let alone de-growth) even though it is growth that has been the cause of the systemic problems, such as global warming and resource depletion, that are at the root of all other social discord. This is the main reason no political process can fix anything. All of the players fail to recognize the real problems. At best they, like Obama, put bandaids on the wounds that are continually showing up (e.g. the bailout of to-big-to-fail banks and automobile manufacturers). They simply react to events. They have not been able to connect the dots and realize that there is a fundamental disease that needs treatment. They can't see it as a disease because they all deeply believe it is the solution to all problems. Neoliberal capitalism is the real cancer in society. And the belief that it somehow is the saviour of humanity is mental illness in human beings.

False Hopes

The climate talks in Paris have ended with a major breakthrough in agreement among the parties, which is generally viewed as a good thing. But those who are deeply familiar with the numbers are a little less impressed since it has been twenty one years since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 after which nothing really happened. And now they point out that what has been agreed in Paris is about half of what would be needed to make a substantive difference is putting the brakes on carbon emissions. While everyone is hopeful it will be several years before we have any idea if the “transparency” provisions are going to work. It is a step in the right direction but I must admit to remaining skeptical that the world will be able to accelerate its movement in that direction to catch up with what we really need to be doing to actually decrease the carbon dioxide concentrations in air and oceans in time to make a difference. I am on record as predicting that almost no matter what we do the rate of climate change is much faster than our response capabilities and, hence, we will be overtaken by extreme weather anomalies and sea level rise with a diminishing ability to adapt due to a lack of energy resources.

The low prices of fossil fuels and other commodities are being taken as a good sign for “consumers” and as evidence that we don't have a fuel/energy problem, except for the carbon dioxide part. But the story is much more nuanced than most commentators realize. The reason that prices are so low is a basic economic phenomenon — supply exceeds demand. But most commentators and economists have attributed the situation to an over-supply due to the seeming abundance of oil and natural gas in North America and the Saudis continuing to produce at a rate that is designed to drive the oil producers in North America out of business. It is true that the latter group has been hurt badly by the low prices. But more so because of the extreme debt that many of them built up trying to finance a rapid extraction industry in the tar sands in Alberta and the tight oil/gas in North Dakota and Texas (and other shale formations). Everyone had really high expectations for the wealth that would come gushing out of the ground (even if the costs of extraction and production of products were much higher than conventional oil and gas). And they had high expectations about the total volumes that would be recovered. As it has turned out those expectations were way too high. The return on investments in drilling and pumping have not materialized because the wells have largely not produced the volumes they were supposed to. Not enough cash flow to service the debt let alone make a profit and sooner or later you close the business down.

So for a while there was a huge bulge in production that flooded the markets and helped to drive prices south. But the real story is the demand side. What is keeping prices down is that there are fewer customers overall and what customers there are are not consuming at the rates that existed pre-2009. Too many people who had been driving gas guzzlers have been switching to economy class cars, all with higher mileage ratings. But that is only a small part of the story. There has been a reduction in almost all of the fuel product categories. People are cutting back their consumption of heating oil. Businesses are shutting down. While the official jobless rate seems to be improving, the labor participation numbers continue to grow which is a huge part of the explanation for the jobless rate numbers. The real story in the USA is how the former middle class is gradually slipping into poverty. Way too many people in the middle class went heavily into debt as they tried to maintain a lifestyle they have become convinced they were entitled to. Debt seemed like a perfect solution to the wage stagnation problem (actually it turned out to be wage decline). It certainly made the bankers happy since they made substantial profits from loaning money. We all know where that went with the implosion of the financial sector triggered in part by sub-prime mortgages and other financial shams.

The same goes for businesses and whole countries. Look for more attempts at mergers that are followed by massive consolidations. China was supposed to be the global engine for economic growth. Of course they too over did it. One thing is clear, that China is not soaking up the products or resources of other countries the way it had been envisioned.

What is really happening is that a growing majority of people, businesses, and countries are growing poorer, while a few people and some companies are capitalizing as long as they can. There are always winners and losers in any major economic or technological transition. Only this time there are just a few winners and mostly losers. The latter are giving up their attempts to keep living the good life. Most people in so-called developing countries (which are de-developing as we speak) are struggling just to put food or water on the table. And too many, as in many parts of Africa, are failing. Hence the turmoil in those countries and the subsequent refugees.

The Macro and the Micro

All of this decline is amplified by the already-here effects of climate change. Droughts and higher temperatures have already led to state failures in many North African countries (and is starting to be felt in sub-Saharan Africa as well). That has led to revolts, people still cling to the idea that their governments should be able to do something to fix things, but, of course, they are powerless to do anything meaningful. When they fail to do so, there is revolution and in a region rich in cultural diversity, episodes of ethnic cleansing ensue. Who wouldn't want to get out by any means possible.

All of our major institutions are in some degree of failure or at least dysfunction. I've reported on the latter going on in public education in the US (and increasingly being copied in other countries where they thought we in the US were doing such a good job). What I have been seeing in higher education turns my stomach and pushed me to the decision to retire, even though I feel capable of teaching for several years more. I just can no longer be a party to the ruination of young peoples' abilities to think and create meaningful artifacts for society. I've also drawn attention to the massive failures in the science and engineering fields where money (grants) has trumped the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Scientists are caught in a trap. Most, I think, want to pursue knowledge but they can't do it without financial support. They can't get the latter unless they are doing something that someone else thinks is useful. And young budding scientists in universities can't hope to get tenure unless they publish in volume rather than quality.

Government and the political processes that put politicians into governing jobs have been failing around the world. Even western so-called democratic nations are showing increasing signs of dysfunction. Watch carefully what unfolds in Europe as more and more immigrants settle into ghettos, are unable to find work, and their young men and women become radicalized to violence. The recent Paris attacks are just the tip of an iceberg. Nor are the US and Canada immune. The conservatives' calls for immigration limits or even bans, while seemingly morally repugnant to the liberal sensibilities, are actually honest emotional responses to a perceived (and not made up) threat to the future. Conservatives have a mind set that works that way. But they are not necessarily wrong about the future threats. Curbing carbon emissions will hurt the economy (the one they think is a good one). Unlimited immigration will hurt what they perceive as the rightful American culture. Of course they react with fear. And the politicians in the Republican party are just reacting to that fear with fear mongering to win support among the growing cadre of the fearful.

Its the little things that I am noticing that are telling the story. I've decided to abandon riding a motorcycle to work because I am seeing more and more incidence of sheer aggression in some drivers and thoughtlessness in most others. I've been cut off, edged aside, and pushed from behind by drivers who are not just not seeing me, but are actually trying to force their advantage. People are becoming increasingly rude, not allowing safe merging, trying to get in front of everyone else, as if they are especially privileged and owed to be at the head of the line. I still see it from my perspective in an automobile but I feel safer than when on my motorcycle. I had a great perspective from my bike of people texting and talking on their cell phones as they drove and ignored traffic conditions. In short the freeways are becoming a free-for-all and drivers are showing an increasing lack of respect for other drivers. It has become a me-first climate out there. Road etiquette is a thing of the past.

In one sense it has always been a dog-eat-dog world for humans ever since the agricultural revolution. As long as populations increased (and in particular population densities) while resource bases remained relatively fixed or grew only slowly (e.g. a forest producing wood) there has been competition driving sentiments. People became a commodity and the value of human life, if they were strangers, tended toward zero. For a while competition seemed to have a good side effect in driving innovation as well. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. But today we have probably innovated all of the really useful tools that eased the competition for resources (e.g the Green Revolution). A restaurant-finding app on a smart phone, while seemingly innovative, is just serving personal desires. But that is where the innovation is today. The Ubers and AirBnB's of the world are not really serving to reduce competitive pressures. If anything they are helping increase the perception of those pressures. Hence people seem even more inclined to look out for number 1 even at the expense of others in the crowd. Think 'Black Friday' writ large, everywhere, every day.

The frenzy over professional and college sports events on TV seems to me to be way overboard, reflecting yet more alienation from civil discourse and intellectual pursuits. I cannot help but be reminded of the way Roman citizens, at the end, were said to be fixated on gladiator events. Football and all sports that involve some level of physical contact seem to be gaining in popularity (and intense emotional focus), while sports of sheer talent, like swimming are falling out of favor. Fans are becoming increasingly fanatical, they go crazy when their home town team is playing in a big game. They have nothing else in their lives to capture their attention. Their work lives are mundane and worthless. Their social lives need some kind of focus like sports so that they can have some reason for caring.

Walking down the street in front of the main entrance to our campus is also telling. Our campus was built in a part of Tacoma that used to be derelict. Indeed one of the reasons for building it there, and refurbishing some of the existing warehouses into classrooms and offices was to bring revitalization to that part of town. And it worked. What it meant was the indigents were pushed out and up the hill a bit. The main street became safer for pedestrian traffic to visit shops without panhandlers asking for change at every street corner. Only an occasional bolder beggar would come down to the main street to work the more well-off shoppers.

But over the last ten years that has begun to change. It isn't so much that panhandling has increased as it is that clearly homeless people are settling in the neighborhoods right around the campus and are much more frequently seen on the main street. As I understand it homelessness has increased especially since the 2009 crash and home foreclosures. It is another sign of a declining economic situation. But there is also the subtle change in perceptions that seems to be taking place for everyone. For a while a homeless person walking down the street with their possessions in a shopping cart was reasonably rare. Now it is becoming common and everyone seems to be accepting it as a new normal. It is that latter idea that haunts me. People just don't see the problem in terms of scale and rate of increase. They have become conditioned to accepting the situation as just the way it is. Even many of the would-be panhandlers no longer ask for change (though one hit me up the other day for a “spare twenty”!) It is as if they don't bother because they know that the people with a little money in their pockets are loath to dole out change. If they did they would have empty pockets after a couple of blocks.

Reality

The reality I see is accelerating decay and dissolution of social norms and cultural institutions. I have not seen any improvements anywhere. Of course one can readily argue that maybe some of those institutions and norms needed to change or go away just like slavery and treating women like second class citizens mostly disappeared or at least softened by mid twentieth century. Those were also institutions and norms at one time. We certainly wouldn't want to have preserved them, knowing what we know now. But isn't there a difference between those kinds of institutions and norms and something like education and science or courtesy and compassion? Shouldn't we value the latter such that we would have them repair and go forward for all of our benefits?

Not only do I see decay in some pretty important institutions and norms, I see no signs of possible repair in sight. Quite the opposite, in fact. The more these institutions fail at their social functions, the more we do the the very things that are responsible for their dysfunction. In education, the more people perceive it as failing to prepare kids to become working adults, the more we hunker down of force feed them “facts” to the exclusion of teaching them to use their minds for thinking and not just memorization (for the tests). The more people are feeling afraid of the future and of terrorists the more some politicians are fomenting the ideas of looming threats. Some of those threats are real — like climate change — and some are imagined — like the utter destruction of Christian culture, e.g., the “War on Christmas” because of the flood of Muslim immigrants and multiculturalism. Regardless, no politician is yet saying to people something like: “Yes we face challenges that will be hard to meet, but meet them we must. And we must do it for all mankind. I want to help us all find ways to do so so that one day our descendants will not have to deal with the consequences of our failures.” No one who wants to get elected will ask people to sacrifice their comforts to fight battles against subtle and ephemeral enemies. When you are in a war against a foreign tyrannical threat, that is something tangible for which you are probably willing to fight and sacrifice. But when you are at war with totally unknown forces, especially if they are cryptic, like global warming or neoliberal capitalism, that is an entirely different thing.

And if you come to realize you are really at war with your own beliefs, that is harder still. It seems to me I have reasonably good reasons for being pessimistic about stopping or even impeding the slide into darkness. One might maintain hope (e.g. the Paris climate accord) but it would be best to be prepared to adapt, if that is even possible.

 

 

 

The Real State of the Union (and World)

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 27. 2014

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The Formulaic SOTU

You know the drill. The POTUS starts by spotlighting some highlights of what s/he thinks is going well in the US. Here are our strengths, as a country – Blah, blah, blah – look at us, we’re good guys and exceptional in the world! There will be special guests sitting with the first partner who will be acknowledged as exceptional people for whatever reason. The “message” — Everything is fine folks. See how we prevail over adversity, etc.

Then s/he will acknowledge some critical issues that need to be addressed. The climate, the environment, energy, jobs (actually probably number 1), income disparities, etc. etc. are bound to be on the list in this SOTU.

And then comes the grand list of major initiatives that will solve all our problems. Of course, only if Congress gets off their fat butts and get bills written and through the votes. And we know what the responses will be. Politics has been so badly ideologized (if not a word it should be) that the President’s party will rise in applause for every one of the grand schemes. The opposite party members will sit staunchly, frowning and likely shaking their heads to signal their disgust and telegraphing how intransigent they plan to be to block any of the nonsense.

What You Won’t Hear, But Should

The POTUS will only be communicating with the humans on this planet. That is because we humans use language and other species don’t. Too bad. They should be warned also.


My fellow human beings, the state of the world is not good.

I am sorry to report that the US is probably the single biggest cause of this situation. Our insistence on the notions that greed is good, economic growth is good, financialization is good, and personal wealth accumulation is good, is the one underlying factor that is driving the destruction of our environment and the depletion of critical natural resources. What we are doing, and apparently not thinking about the consequences, is not sustainable, even over the next several decades. To put it succinctly — we are screwed!

The US has led the world in a mad grab for anything we could possibly exploit. We have led the world in creating so much pollution that the natural environment cannot possibly absorb and process it. Now China is trying its best to follow suit. Europe, for the most part, has been a little less guilty, but trying its best to keep up appearances. India, African nations, the MENA states, and the BRICs, and everyone in between wants what we Americans have had. If all 7.2 billion people were raised to the same level of consumption and lifestyle as Americans (middle class) we would need five and one half Earths just to get there. Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

We have messed things up so badly that our civilization is highly likely to collapse in chaos. If you are familiar with self-organized criticality dynamics (of course almost no one will be) you will recognize that the pressure has built up and many small collapses have already occurred. The big one is coming and likely soon. We can expect a massive down-sizing of the population and the living standards of any survivors. To believe that somehow our current situation is really different from prior civilizations with respect to the possibility of collapse is just wishful thinking. There is, of course, one difference with the current state of affairs and the consequences of collapse. In all other local civilization collapses the survivors had somewhere else to go where resources were still available. This time we are talking about the planet as a whole. There is nowhere else to go.Collapse on this scale combined with massive climate changes and sea level rises could very well lead to extinction of our species. We should recognize it, at least, as a possibility. In fact our destruction of habitats and now the shifting climate effects are driving many species of plants and animals to the brink of extinction. Many, unfortunately, have already stumbled over the precipice.

Now for the really bad news. There is absolutely nothing that I as president, or the congress, or anyone can do to change things now. Most of the problem is to be found in you the populace. You are profoundly ignorant of how things work. You don’t want to take the time to try to understand the world. You basically want to have a good time and leave the work of fixing things to your elected officials. The problem is that those officials haven’t got a clue for the most part. And even when someone tries to speak up and point out the problems and what we should probably try to do, they are laughed at, mocked, marginalized, or just plain ignored. Sheer massive ignorance and stupidity is defeating us on all fronts.

In conclusion I would have to say that I suspect there will be only a few more state of the union addresses given in the future. At some point truth will force itself on us all. Of course, by then it will be much too late to do anything. It really already is too late. At best a few insightful and forward thinking people will work to organize themselves to survive the chaos. There may be a species of humanity in the distant future, but only if they evolve a greater capacity for wisdom than we have.

Goodnight. And hope for the best. No sense asking a god to bless us.


These words will never be heard.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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