Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rant or Revelation: My Money's on Revelation

Correspondent Michael Goodfellow's rant reaches revelation.

Frequent contributor Michael Goodfellow and I correspond on a great number of issues. Having worked in technology and software his entire career, he brings an engineer's sensibility and rigor to many issues. Recently he wrote a commentary which he titled "A Charles Smith Moment" which leaves rant and enters revelation in my view.

He suggested I introduce it with the phrase "this is what I get when he's in a bad mood..." but I think you'll find a succinct indictment here:

A "Charles Smith" Moment

Unfair to you to call it that, but when reading this item about Iraq off Cato,

Time to Leave Iraq

(and these links on Social Security/Medicare and the Federal budgetSSA Trustees Report and Tax Policy Center)

I had that feeling that the whole country is just a Ship of Fools headed into the rapids and there's nothing I can do about it.

It's not just that I disagree with the neocons -- their values, their goals, their plans and their politics. It's that they don't even seem to care. They don't clarify their goals or strategy, they don't learn from their mistakes and they don't even want to look at whether Iraq is a success or failure. It's as if they don't even believe what they say.

They just want to act out some WWII-inspired fantasy of turning countries into democracies and being the world's policeman. But now Iraq is just "so 2005", so ignore it, wrap it up, and off to Afghanistan! And both wars have so much momentum that even the President can't seem to slow them down or divert them, let alone call them off. He'd rather let both wars be huge failures than take any short-term political heat. Again, it's as if no one, even the other party, cares what we accomplish. Thousands of American soldiers die, tens of thousands of Iraqis die, trillions are spent, and for the politicians, pundits and public, it's just "whatever!"

And it isn't limited to the wars. On health care, the Republicans are patting themselves on the back for derailing ObamaCare, but neither side is facing reality. We can't afford existing Medicare. The baby boomers start hitting 65 in a couple of years. Time is up for dealing with that crisis. Even if the Republicans stop health care legislation, they still have that to deal with. And not in some "future generation", but during their term of office. What can they possibly be thinking?

But what can the Democrats be thinking? It's not as if there's any cost control in the ObamaCare plan. They seem surprised that CBO keeps scoring the plan as expensive. Can't any of them do arithmetic? 45 million uninsured times $2000 a year (a very cheap insurance policy) is $90 billion a year, or about a trillion dollars in ten years. CBO is only scoring the first five years of the plan, since it phases in. Still, any back-of-the-envelope calculation would have told them the tab was going to be in that ballpark. And this is on top of the Medicare problem, Social Security, Cap and Trade, and the financial crisis. How does anyone think we can afford all of that?

In fact, the one thing that does seem to unite both parties is a complete disinterest in what the legislation will actually do. They just want to let the usual special interest groups fight it out, write a thousand pages of incomprehensible regulatory gibberish, and call it done. Just don't ask us to read it!

The same was true during the financial crisis. The whole attitude of Congress was "Keep this away from me! I don't understand any of it! You, Federal Reserve, here's a blank check. Just solve this problem and don't even tell us what you are doing."

Again, this isn't a matter of values or priorities. It's beyond incompetence. It's a complete disinterest in the results of their actions. I would call it panic, but that requires a certain alertness. This is some kind of psychosis.

So I look at the entire political system and I think how unreal it all is, and how tired. Republicans are running on intellectual fumes -- neocons and old warhorses like McCain; anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-trade sentiment and populist know-nothings like Palin. No awareness of where the country is right now, and no willingness to stick to any principles at all.

I still like the libertarian arguments on Reason and Cato, but they have their problems as well. First, they are a tiny minority. Second, they mostly criticize the system without offering practical, politically possible steps in the right direction. And third, they are hopeless nerds. I watch those guys on video and I think "This guy couldn't sell me ice cream on a hot summer day! And I'm someone who agrees with him!"

I could never take the Democrats seriously either. From the various bailouts to all their plans for the economy, health care, environment, it has the same feel of unreality as the Republicans. As if they just don't want to know whether any of these plans can possibly succeed, or whether we can afford to even try. They just want to act out their fantasies, where they save the Earth, bring healing to the poor and end racism.

I wrote to one guy on global warming that the only thing that matters is what gets invented in a lab somewhere. If we can build better batteries or solar panels, do carbon capture or geoengineering, then we can make a difference. But the hair-shirt conservation measures have no real effect. And you can prove that with statistics about efficiency and the savings they could possibly get.

If you actually cared about global warming, you'd want to know what works. (and build nuke plants, which is apparently being shot down by the Obama administration.) But he doesn't even want to talk about that. It's just "if we don't pass cap and trade, the oceans will rise and the Earth is doomed." And if you don't agree with him, you are an evil "denier." It's not even a reasoned argument. Where am I supposed to go with that?

Like you, I expect a train wreck at some point. Unlike you, I don't expect chaos. Instead, it will just be a hunker-down, "do something, anything!" government-orchestrated mess. More of the same, with increasing instability and poverty. I don't think that knowing how to grow veggies or collect rainwater will make any difference at all.

The thing to remember is that most of the third world has worse governance than we do, worse financial problems, fewer natural resources and a less educated population. Still, from Argentina to Poland to India, they just limp along. Anarchy does not break out. I see no reason for it to do so here either. It will just suck.

Thank you, Michael. Such clarity is a rarity these days.

Those of you who have slogged through my free eBook (shameless plug)Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation will recall parallel descriptions of fantasy, disinterest and psychosis.

The entire structure of response and policy is what I term simulacrum, facsimiles of solutions, pseudo-solutions which as Michael points out, are being "sold" with the sort of half-heartedness of those who know full well they are props and facades and thus utterly illusory.

No nation can borrow 13% of its GDP without consequences, but rather than face our situation with what I term an adult understanding of triage and trade-offs--that you can't get everything you want right now, that priorities must be assessed and difficult trade-offs made--we as a nation have entered the delusion that we can just borrow the money to put off any hard choices.

Wars going badly? Borrow another trillion to "stay the course"--whatever that means. As Michael notes, the policy has always been incomprehensible, switching from finding WMDs to fostering democracy to stopping terrorism in Mosel before it gets to Miami to the ideological-flavor-of-the-month.

Sick-care unsustainable and broken? Borrow another trillion, write a 1,000 pages of gobblydigook to placate and pander to the special interests involved, solving nothing and doing nothing to actually cut costs, and then "declare victory": Mission accomplished!

It rings hollow because it is hollow: nothing of substance has been accomplished because as I put it, those with asymmetric stakes in the game are pouring every dime and every ounce of energy into the game to protect their share of the swag, while we citizens and "consumers" are expiring from death by a thousand cuts--none deep enough to spark concerted action.

While the government and corporate Elites protect their fiefdoms, the citizenry are distracted by trash-talk radio and TV, courtesy of a mass media owned lock, stock and barrel by six corporations.

Complacency and fatalism reign supreme, and the Elites are loving it because a confused, doped out, distracted, apathetic, complacent, fatalistic populace is easily duped and manipulated.

What Michael foresees as our future is what I term devolution. We differ on two points, which Michael already knows from our voluminous correspondence. So I want to be sure to note that I am not reading this into Michael's commentary--these are my thoughts.

I think we will devolve to "tipping points" or phase shifts where systems will break down. This won't necessarily lead to chaos but it will lead to something beyond complacency and fatalism. It could be negative or it could be positive; that choice is ours.

I believe that the loss of wealth, the extremes of income inequality and the credit/debt implosion are all phase shifts which have already occurred, but the status quo Power Elites and citizenry alike are in denial, hoping that some miracle of additional borrowing will re-set the clock back to the era of bogus "prosperity."

Those hopes will be proven futile because simulacrum is not reality and delusion is not a practical substitute for actual solutions.

I differ somewhat with Michael on solutions, as I think all solutions come from the margins. While I hope for technological solutions, I am skeptical because our consumerist mindset is fixated on the notion that "buying something new" will somehow solve all our problems.

Mo offense to Prius owners, but I suspect we've all been sold a bill of goods on its benefits. The entire cost of a vehicle, or any manufactured object, is called its lifecycle costs. This means calculating the cost in money, energy and resources of everything required to manufacture the vehicle--not just the steel, but the cost of pumping water to make the steel, mine the ore, etc.

Now a Prius has two components which simply do not exist in a stripped down ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle: a large battery pack and extremely complex electronics for switching between electric and ICE drive.

Batteries require a stupendous amount of costly resources to manufacture. Until batteries are made of sand (silicon) or equivalent materials and do not require highly complex processes, they will remain costly. They are also toxic and therefore costly to recycle/ dismantle properly.

Thus I suspect that if you include the full lifecycle costs of manufacturing a Prius, the cost of maintenance and the fuel it burns (or the electricity used to recharge its batteries) and the disposal/recycling of its components, and weigh them against a high-mileage cheaper vehilce like a Honda Civic or subcompact Ford/GM, the Prius is probably less efficient and less environmentally sound than the cheap ICE vehicle.

"Buying something new" might not be the answer at all except at the margins--transformers that lose less energy, electronic power converters which are suddenly mandated to be efficient rather than energy hogs, etc. etc. Perhaps the Consumerist Gods will fail to be the "solution."

Just as technology changes at the margin, so too does behavior. I have to disagree with Michael about growing veggies, because as I have said before, "a garden and a homecooked meal are revolutionary acts." These simple acts are revolutionary because they upend the oppressive regime of agribusiness, packaged/fast food and the sick-care system--all parts in a seamless system of ill-health, derangement, torpor and chronic disease which can be treated with enormously expensive and mostly needless medications and procedures.

This is what I term an integrated understanding of the entire system of growing and consuming food and health. Agribusiness, fast food, high salt, high fat and high sugar processed "foods" (poisons is a more accurate term), chronic illness and various derangements, and an immensely profitable sick-care system are all one. There can be no "solutions" without an integrated understanding that simple behaviors are the heart of any and all real solutions. Buying something "new" is a simulacrum "solution" marketed to reap profits.

The solution to sick-care starts not with 1,000 pages of legislation, paid for with trillons of dollars of borrowed money but with an understanding of the causal connections between gardening, vegetables/food, cooking rather than consuming, self-reliance, goal-directed activity and responsibility for one's health.

The market will create the proper incentives to conservation and wise choices if it is given a chance. When gasoline is $10 a gallon (and it will be), then people will change their behaviors as common sense dictates. When peaches cost $10 a pound, then all the fruit that drops to the ground to rot now will be collected before it rots.

I read somewhere about a town in Alaska (I forget the source) which lost its electrical service and had to rely on costly generators for some time. The cost was passed onto consumers. As if by magic, electrical consumption dropped 40% overnight. No new devices were required; the Consumerist Gods were shedding tears and wailing mightily, for the "solution" was behavioral.

Yes, technology promises many innovations, but how we live offers much cheaper, easier and more environmentally sound solutions without waiting around for mechanical/electronic saviors promoted by the Consumerist Gods.

I would like to end with a mindful haiku from resident haiku poet Jed H.:

End of an Era
A Culture of Corruption
End of the Empire.

Here it is with Jed's notes:

END of an Era ( i.e., the Boom-times: 2000- 2007 a la 1920s )
A Culture of Corruption
END of the EMPIRE ! ( i.e., US of A is on its Downhill Slide, like Romans ! )

Thank you, Jed, for a poetic summation of "the end of an era."


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