Saturday, January 09, 2010

Economy 2010 Part 2

If you thought I was downbeat in my new year assessments, here's how Bob Herbert began his first column of the year this week: "I’m starting the new year with the sinking feeling that important opportunities are slipping from the nation’s grasp. Our collective consciousness tends to obsess indiscriminately over one or two issues — the would-be bomber on the flight into Detroit, the Tiger Woods saga — while enormous problems that should be engaged get short shrift."

Herbert begins his uneasy litany with the problems of unemployment and housing. "Forget the false hope of modestly improving monthly job numbers. The real story right now is the entrenched suffering (with no end in sight) that has been inflicted on scores of millions of working Americans by the Great Recession and the misguided economic policies that preceded it."

Those "false hopes" turned out Friday to be false in more than one sense, as unemployment rose more than expected in the first December assessment, though far below the worst levels last year. This Times story checks with the usual economics suspects, and as usual they don't agree on what should be done. Some continue to call for another big dose of government spending, but the Screeching Right is focused on the "socialism" of that prescription, while of course also screaming that President Obama isn't doing anything to create jobs.

Meanwhile, Obama is getting little press or credit for the substantial accomplishments of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act spending, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says has kept at least 6 million Americans out of poverty, and lessened the severity of poverty for at least 33 million more. The Congressional Budget Office affirmed that the stim has created or saved from 600,000 to 1.6 million jobs, a fact that got much less press than the purported "overestimate" earlier by the White House, of 650,000 jobs.

Such current or future spending takes time to create real jobs, especially when the stim is a "Reinvestment" package as well--targeted not just to infrastructure but the new energy economy. (See part 1 below.) But among other pressing problems (continuing housing mess, slow to nonexistent financial regulation reform) the one that's looming now--with the most impact on employment and the national economy--is the severe slump in state government income.

In his Friday column--"Invitation to Disaster--Bob Herbert zeroes in: "This is an arrow aimed straight at the heart of a robust national recovery....This is not a disaster waiting to happen. It’s under way. Without substantial new federal help, state cuts that are now merely drastic will become draconian, and hundreds of thousands of additional jobs will be lost. "

As usual, California leads the way, and Governor Terminator's budget message on Friday was full of cuts of unparalled dimensions and cruelty, as well as a churlish tone regarding federal responsibilities. This state is already reeling from last year's cuts, and their effects haven't even been fully implemented.

The dire state that states like California and New York are in (as well as Commonwealths like Pennsylvania) is due in part to political failures--some of them institutional, some of them due to past gutless expediency, and many of them, especially in California, due to the past "successes" of the Screeching Right in choking off tax money in favor of corporations and the rich.

But the banks were hardly paragons of virtue when the federal government had to bail them out. If there is anything too big to fail without catastrophic consequences, it's state governments. Way too many jobs are directly and indirectly affected, as well as services to the common good, obligations to those who worked and contributed in good faith and did their duty to their families, as well as those who can yet contribute to a better society.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Economy 2010 Part 1

There was an interesting economics debate at Salon this week. First up was their columnist Michael Lind, asserting that the Clinton boom of the 90s was essentially an illusion, and its premise--that a better educated workforce in knowledge jobs with high tech information infrastructure (the Internet, etc.) was creating a prosperous New Economy--was wrong. That's important, because in many respects, it's what the Obama administration is promoting to revive the economy now.

Lind writes that the productivity gains were overestimated by as much as 20%, with much of the rest accounted for by the tech and housing bubbles. Most gains were made by the top 1% of earners anyway--with the middle class losing ground. Lind's prescription for actual prosperity is: "The most effective way to raise wages at the bottom would be to increase the bargaining power of workers, by unionizing the service sector and by tightening the labor market through restricting unskilled immigration. That would probably spur genuine productivity growth over time as employers substituted technology for more expensive labor." He suggests that the corporate backers of the "middle way" Democrats discourages this, and so the Democratic party doesn't get behind such an effort.

A day or two later, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute disputed Lind's thesis and conclusion. He argued that productivity did increase in the Clinton years, and that economic gains were felt across all income levels. He also cites economic data showing "strong positive returns to educational attainment," so "it seems perverse to argue that Clinton and his allies, as well as President Obama, are mistaken in wanting to see more Americans attend college. "

As usual with these things, they often argue past each other. Marshall writes that steep drops in union membership is due to the fading industrial sector, but doesn't mention Lind's argument that unionizing service workers should be a priority. Lind seems to ignore the structural changes involving information tech that Marshall cites as transformative. Finally, there's no reason that the country--or the President--should have to choose between advocating better educational opportunities and more and stronger unions.

Still, it's an interesting debate. I don't know if Lind's economics is right, but it makes sense to me that stronger and more widespread unions are needed to get working Americans a just wage, and (along with more reasonable--that is, higher--corporate taxes) return this country to the economic and social balance as well as the prosperity of the 50s and 60s.

On the other hand, Marshall is right about changes: neither the economy nor society resembles or could resemble the 50s and 60s in important respects. Putting aside for a minute the new reliance on the service economy, the information technology aspect is only part of the relevant equation. The corresponding part, which neither Lind nor Marshall mention, is energy. U.S. prosperity was fueled by cheap fossil fuel energy, and an energy grid that is now deteroriating and obsolete, even without the need to replace fossil fuels.

President Obama has emphasized that jumpstarting a new economy and creating jobs requires emphasis on new clean energy technologies, and both the manufacturing and service companies and jobs to create a clean energy industry. He's advocating, he's envisioning, and he's devoting chunks of the Economy Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to such projects.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle, though. There's the question of markets and market share, and whether the U.S. will innovate and lead in this area as it did to a debatable but substantial degree in information technology. So far, the evidence isn't entirely favorable, as countries in Europe and South America as well as Japan and China are in some ways ahead. Given our dependence on the global marketplace, this is probably a big deal--especially if the transformation of the U.S. itself relies on foreign-made systems. Can't happen? Ask General Motors about that.

A clean energy boom might help to restore some manufacturing to the U.S. economy mix, and some better wages. The idea that the service economy can remain so dominant requires such elements as robust government spending (politically unlikely, especially in the states) and foreign slave labor manufacturing (unlikely to continue, as the places where that's economically feasible are declining, even apart from the moral depravity of the practice.)

The debate has been raging for years now on just when fossil fuels are going to become so expensive that solar, wind etc. become competitive. As limitations on coal become part of the equation, and as oil is a finite resource, it seems inevitable. One aspect of this that fascinates me is that those on the left, right and center who are totally in love with the Internet and cellular networks and all the new devices using them, manage to not think about all the energy they use. (A few years ago, George Gilder projected that Internet computing would soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001). As well as all the toxic chemicals they use and electronic garbage they create and to make them (author Hunter Lovins estimates the manufacture of a laptop computer creates 4,000 times its weight in waste. Cell phones are being discarded in the billions.) These are going to be enormous problems. We can't go on forever, advocating an end to greenhouse gas pollution, while using fossil fueled electricity to say so.

What nobody wants to talk about is more of less, of the enormous waste built into this consumer economy that is unsustainable. Or the distinct possibility that there are no models for what's happening, and neither Lind nor Marshall, nor any oft-quoted economist, has anything like an accurate idea of what's ahead.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth."
--John Keats. Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Not Always So

It's not easy to face what causes fear, rightly and wrongly. Some of what I write here constitutes a way for me to grapple with these subjects, and with those fears.

Though at times I find it overwhelming--prospects of my personal journey taking painful turns and ending, as well as the larger scale prospects I more often write about here--I don't dwell on all this as much as might be suggested by what appears here. Nor should anyone dwell on all of this too much.

Concentrating on the play of consciousness in time, which is all we clearly have, is a more pleasant way of living, though it doesn't dispel an essential sadness. Some philosophies that advocate such an approach--usually though not exclusively forms or derivations of Buddhism --acknowledge this sadness as an appropriate response, though elements of joy are also part of it.

Consciousness of being in the world is a tricky thing. It takes hints from the hyper-reality of some dreams, it's often inspired by nature, and the easily derided emotions easily evoked by children and animals, or by beauty in all its forms, warm and cool. Meditation is a tool specifically designed for such consciousness of the moment, but I also use forms of writing that don't appear here, at least by my authorship. And then there are conversations and other relations, and the more physical involvement, including music, the long vigorous walk, and Zen and the art of shooting hoops.

I mention this here and now because recent posts and quite probably future ones accent the gloomier prospects and aspects of life today. All of this is important, it's a responsibility as well as part of life--we do like to figure things out, as well as to do what we can to make possible a better future. But we're here such a short time. We ought to take it in, and enjoy what we can.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Mechanics of Fear

Unwarranted and ultimately self-destructive fear is apparently a byproduct of a set of natural responses designed to help creatures like us avoid or escape from mortal danger. But the excesses of a glandular or pre-conscious response (disproportionate to the danger, or evoked mistakenly or falsely) become more consequential when culturally ossified or automated, and especially when linked to the power of machines, which multiply the human ability to damage and destroy to horrific proportions.

Historically this became apparent with the Great War of the early 20th century, when fear and hatred on societal levels supported warfare that otherwise made no sense, except for a few rulers, military leaders and those who made fortunes on armaments and other fuel for the fires of war. It was the nationalistic response to that war that inspired the coining of the term "brutalization" to describe a nation's psyche and behavior (in this case, France. Jay Winter wrote a very powerful and illuminating essay/review on civilian support for World War I and the subsequent disenchantment, in the Times Literary Supplement of June 16, 2006. ) Such fervor was not unprecedented--but the power of modern machinery to kill so many was new, and shocking.

That war was an enormous shock to European thought, and for awhile to political life. But the madness continued, resulting in another World War. And fear did not end with that armistice either--in fact, it got worse and even potentially more consequential. After the machinery of World War I killed a generation of young men, the even more destructive machinery of World War II was trained on civilians as well, and killed millions of them, climaxing with the death by blast, fire and radiation poisoning in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by means of the atomic bomb.

But even that was not enough to inspire sanity's control over rampant, frenzied unreasonable and often artificially created fear. The atomic bomb that could kill a city was made larger, and multiplied. Then the hydrogen bomb multiplied that destructiveness geometrically, and a few nations made tens of thousands of them, aimed at each other, ready to launch at a moment's notice.

In a review of a new history of the cold war (in the New York Review of Books, 12/17/2009), Brian Urquhart writes:

“It is useless, though tempting, to speculate on who was the most responsible for the cold war and for the fantastic risk and expense it entailed. The paranoia of Stalin; the aggressive language of the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism; the wild exaggerations and panicky assumptions, sometimes for short-term political objectives, that created dangerous reactions; the tendency, on both sides, to confuse military capacity with military intentions; the mutual ignorance and hostility that led to the most hazardous and expensive arms race in history—to none of these factors, or to the people involved in them, can be confidently assigned the entire blame for a phenomenon that held the world in dread and suspense for more than forty years. The contestants in the cold war, it now seems, were all caught up in a monstrous nuclear nightmare of fear, anger, suspicion, and irrationality that no leader seemed able to dispel.”

Later in the review he adds: Thus, until quite recently, we lived in a time when many of the most powerful and brilliant people in the world spent their energy and talent, and huge sums of public money, on developing weapons that, if used, would have almost certainly destroyed orderly life on this planet. That it was impossible, for forty years, for the two superpowers to discuss this most lethal of threats to all life in a rational manner must rank, in retrospect at least, as the greatest foolishness and the greatest shared irresponsibility in history.”

Though he guesses that leaders early on realized that these nuclear weapons should never be used, and that common sense often prevailed over panic, that the human race got through the cold war was, Uurqhart writes, miraculous.

Now we face a crisis that is a threat to "orderly life on this planet" that is different in many ways, but is just as grave. To fail to address it would easily replace the cold war as "the greatest shared irresponsibility in history." But to address it requires even more unfamiliar ways of thinking as well as common sense, and above all, it requires urgent attention. Fear only gets in the way.

Two things happened during the Cold War. The consequences of nuclear war were so severe that the citizenry at large, at least in America, simply shut down emotionally and refused to face it. The prospect of societal self-destruction was too much to deal with, and it was largely absent from public dialogue. It wasn't dealt with consciously, though subconscious fears were alive, and were expressed in the arts, especially movies--from the bug-eyed monster and alien invasion flicks of the 50s to the nuclear dramas and satires of the 60s.

It could be argued that's happening again. With relentless and passionate Climate Crisis denial buttressing the tendency to avoid the paralyzing fear of a horrific future, emotions are driven underground, expressed not only in end-of-the-world cinema but in fashionable tales of zombies and vampires: the walking dead.

At the same time, fears and suspicions of the other side--more familiar feelings, perhaps more tangible--distracted society from even considering what needed to be done. Now that Americans and other westerners travel easily to Russia, and there is more access to all the cultures involved, it may seem inconceivable how monstrous stereotypes could inspire fear for so long a time. But they did. Though there were ups and downs, some of the same stereotypes from the 1950s were repeated in TV commercials in the 1980s.

The analogy to today's irrational fear of terrorism is not exact: the threat of nuclear annihilation was real, whereas the chances of anyone in America dying from a terrorist act is minuscule--crossing a small town street is statistically much more hazardous. But the grip of fear on our political life and national dialogue is just as obvious and disheartening. One failed and pretty sorry terrorist attempt on one airliner has once again thrown this country into panic, as predictably as a literal knee-jerk reaction.

So, for example, this story, which appeared in the Eureka, CA Times-Standard:

Suspicious device found on trail in Sequoia Park

A suspicious device reported to authorities Monday afternoon was destroyed by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office bomb squad.

According to a press release from the Eureka Police Department, at about 2:21 p.m., EPD received a report of a suspicious device on a trail in Sequoia Park. An officer responded and found that the device was an archery arrow with a duct-taped cylinder attached to the arrowhead end of the arrow.

EPD requested the assistance of the explosive ordinance disposal experts from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, who came to inspect the device. They responded with their EOD robot.
After inspecting the device, they subsequently destroyed it using the robot's water cannon.
”The device was obliterated but appeared to have been some type of foam rubber that had been wrapped in the duct tape, and not an explosive device,” said the release.

Several people in the immediate area of the device were evacuated from the area while the investigation was conducted. "

That foreign terrorists would train and dispatch an operative to blow up an unsuspecting hiker on a trail in this remote corner of the country, or that this financially strapped county would deploy a robot with a water cannon to douse an arrow with a bit of foam rubber stuck to it--all pretty laughable, though not quite on the Doctor Strangelove level. Except that it's indicative of what fear can do, and how it can absorb attention, short-circuit rational thought, and above all, distract from real threats.

Today there are still more than 20,000 nuclear devices in various stages of readiness in the world, including a thousand outside the direct control of the U.S. or Russia. And there is the ultimate time bomb churning away in our thin veil of atmosphere, a fire we are feeding every day, while we indulge in familiar fears and comforts. Our ability to destroy our world and ourselves thanks to our machines far outstrips our apparent ability to deal with those machines and the aspects of human nature--including the dynamics of groups and nations--that unleash our machines against us. If that remains so...the hand of evolution, having written, will move on--even if it will seem to us to move backward.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

An artist rendering of a recent discovery: the Voyager spacecraft found that our solar system is surrounded by a kind of cloud, which is held together by a magnetic field. It's wispy but a pretty big cloud--30 light years across. This magnetic field, it's now felt, helps to shield us from cosmic radiation. The Earth has its own magnetic field shield as well.

Too Good A Story

"Fear and falsehood only dread examination. Truth invites it."
Samuel Johnson

Here's a story you might have heard. Back in the 60s, NASA wanted a pen that astronauts could use in space, so they could write in zero gravity. They spent millions developing the technologically sophisticated and expensive "space pen." Meanwhile, the Soviet space program came up with their own solution. They used pencils.

It's a perfect story in its own way. It cheers those who are against government spending and feel that government always wastes money and screws things up. But it also cheers those who have experienced bureaucracy in any organization, and who are suspicious of high tech solutions for everything. And it cheers people who want to believe that scientists are buffoons, out to trick everybody for their own benefit.

So it gets repeated, in print and on the air, and in clever emails. It also happens to be untrue in almost every detail.

Both the Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts started out using pencils. Both space programs worried about the hazards of keeping the pencils sharp and the lead breaking off and floating around in the weightless space capsules. They used grease pencils for awhile. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur named Paul Fisher independently designed and produced what's known as the Fisher space pen. NASA didn't spend a cent on developing it. And eventually both the U.S. and Russian space programs adopted the Fisher space pen.

There are many other untrue stories that get prominently and endlessly repeated, many of them much more pernicious, told often enough by deliberate liars and retold by people predisposed to believe them. This alarming trend is growing. Sometimes it's because it's a good story--even if it's too good to be true. But more often these days, stories are accepted because they are sensational, or because they support a prejudice and a worldview, while they feed hatred and fear: everything from death panels to a conspiracy of scientists on the Climate Crisis. It leads to contempt, intimidation and violence, and terrible politics. If this is viral communication, we as a nation capable of dealing with the future and the real world are in danger of dying of it.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“Chaplin’s great virtue, aside from his comedic gifts, was his emotional readiness. Those who don’t respond to it will be quick to deny that emotion, or to call him saccharine—and indeed, Chaplin did have a tendency to pull out all the emotional stops and risk bathos. But it always felt real. His was not false sentiment but rather a naked display of raw sentiment. And that’s more than forgivable. It’s who he was. It’s what he had to risk to make his art, and the transcendent emotion of his best work shows that he was right to trust his heart.”
Mick LaSalle
San Francisco Chronicle