Saturday, April 26, 2014

On the [F]utility of political violence

Out west in Nevada Cliven Bundy 'won' his standoff with the BLM officers who tried to repossess cattle improperly grazing on protected land.  He refused to pay grazing fees for 20 years, and after all of the court cases were decided against him, he owes the Government more than a million dollars in fees and penalties.   So, insofar as he gets to continue doing what he's doing, he 'won' that particular conflict.  Of course, to do it, he had to rile up as many disaffected anti authority gun nuts as he could, in order to momentarily outgun the Feds. 

Which of course means the public at large loses.  We lose the million dollars he owes us, we lose respect for lawfully constituted authority,  we lose protected habitat for endangered desert tortoises,  his neighboring ranchers who abide by the law have to compete in the marketplace with someone who doesn't have to deal with the costs of lawfully doing business.  What do we gain? we gain a political movement that doesn't hesitate to use threats of deadly violence to advance their agenda. 

If the Feds were wearing their thinking caps, every person who took up arms and stood with Mr. Bundy will get added to a list of potential domestic terrorists.  I fear that in the future, more people will chose to defy the federal government in a similar fashion and someone, or a lot of someones will get killed.  In this instance the Feds probably chose correctly, when they elected not start shooting.  The tortoises that live on the land probably are safer from Mr. Bundy's cattle than they are from retaliation minded rednecks in the event of violence.

The BLM is nothing if not patient, and by working with the IRS and the court system, they will no doubt eventually be able to thwart Mr Bundy, especially given his habit of going on record with ignorant racist bilge.  If the reactionary wing of the American right thinks they have a champion in Mr Bundy, they are mistaken.  His appeal is limited to the people who thought Archie Bunker was the hero of 'All in the Family'. 

So when the next bunch of 'patriots' openly defies the feds, will it be in the Nevada desert?  or will it be closer to home?  Who watched the situation play out on their TV and will decide that they too can fight the law and win?  If this leads to more violence down the road, are we going to look back and see this as a missed opportunity?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Contemplating the future

The end of the world is in again.  After the cold war failed to deliver a hot sequel and y2k landed with a wet flop instead of a bang, I thought the end of the world might fall out of fashion.  It is not so.  In the last few years, the rapture has become bigger than ever, the zombie apocalypse has become a national obsession, and peak oil and the singularity round out the list of popular end of the world scenarios.  Digging a little deeper we can look at global climate change and various local secession movements for equally grim situations.

And looking at the problems facing the US and the modern world there are ample grounds for pessimism.  The world's population of humans has never been larger, the climate has never been hotter (in human history) and most of the easily exploited fossil energy resources have been exploited right out of existence.

But the key thing to remember is that despite the wishes of an apocalyptic few, there are 7+ billion of us who have a vested interest in improving the status quo.  Survivalists and secessionists both labor under the same delusion, that the reason they aren't more successful is that more powerful forces are holding them down.  Survivalists, imagine a world in which their carefully hoarded AR-15 and pallet of ammo are worth more than a well-paying job [even more so than a supportive community of friends and family].  Preppers imagine roughly the same scenario only their power flows from a diesel generator or cache of canned food.  Secessionists imagine the only thing separating them from their own kingdom where they get to make the rules and taxes are merely an unpleasant memory is the boot-heel of the federal government.

But the answer to powerlessness in the face of government or corporate exploitation isn't building a separate microcosm of society.  If the civilization were to crumble tomorrow, by next week the people running what's left would not be the back to nature farmers, the paramilitary militias or the jack-of-all-trades preppers.  The people running the show will be the organizers, the business people, and the leaders, who pretty much are running the show already.  Organizing in the wake of disaster is what governments live for.  It's why the army corps of engineers gets to redesign the Mississippi river every decade or two.  Its why New Orleans isn't a ghost town.  Its why New Jersey and New York are rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and why Florida is inhabitable at all.

Acute national disasters are the local's worst nightmare but the aspiring administrator's opportunity.  FEMA is pretty freaking good at what it does.  The National guard and the Red Cross do a bang up job at getting to where the action is, rescuing the distressed and giving them a hot meal, a place to poop and a place to sleep.  Even the government's belated and half-assed response to hurricane Katrina, saved far more people than it failed.  And insofar at it failed, it is rightly seen as a disgraceful lapse, rather than business as usual.

This is why, in the face of global climate change, and all of attendant food shortages, water shortages, plagues and brushfire wars of the coming century our best bet isn't to stockpile guns or canned food.  Our best bet is to meet our neighbors, and work together to build a more resilient civilization.  We need to build and remodel houses and multi-family residences that are liveable year round, where a power grid failure would be an annoyance not a catastrophe whether it happens in January or July.  We need neighborhoods where residents can build a real sense of community.  We need power and water not dependent of the price of ever more expensive carbon.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-mold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

I am not the only person who notices that things cannot continue as they are.  Changes need to be made.  In the US, the productivity gains of the last 30 years have gone straight into the wallets of the richest .01% of us.  In real terms the purchasing power of the average American has been in decline since the late 1970s.  That isn't just a problem for the middle class, that isn't just a problem for the lower class, it is a problem for every American.

And it isn't just the US.  The manufacturing jobs that let anyone with a high school education support a family and buy a house on a single income are long gone.  They were the backbone of the economy, they won us two world wars and they were an escalator out of poverty.  Investors in the US thought it would be better to move those jobs overseas so they didn't have to deal with unions and American environmental and safety regulation.  Now we get cheap electronics and the Foxconn employees that make it are committing suicide to escape the misery of 21st century indentured servitude.

Wealth is brought into the economy in two basic ways, harvest or extraction.  You can broadly characterize them as agriculture vs mining, but that's an oversimplification.  Harvest is the sustainable production of a good or service in a way that means it can happen year in and year out.  When farmers produce crops year after year, and take care to guard against erosion and rotate their crops and even leave fields fallow to protect the soil, that's harvest.  However if the farmer plants the most lucrative crop year after year, fertilizing and spraying pesticide as much as they can to maximize yield without giving any consideration to runoff or soil erosion or anything that would cost him an additional cent, that would be extraction, that farmer is trading in the long term viability of that farm for an immediate paycheck.

Mining is, by definition, extraction.  Mining is also necessary and central to our current economy.  But
even mining could be better. Some  plants bio-concentrate heavy metals,  they could be grown on beds of crushed ore, and later burned and smelted for a dramatic reduction of energy input to produce metal.  Smelters themselves need  not use coal fired furnaces, they could just as easily run from wind power or solar arrays.

Extraction is attractive to financiers and investors, it maximizes the return on up front investment and
pushes off negative externalities onto local communities.  It is less attractive to those local communities, because of those same negative externalities, like communities full of underpaid workers, piles of coal dust, mine tailings and smokestacks belching smoke.

Leveraged buyouts, and hostile takeovers and stockholder lawsuits are all the result of investors demanding higher return on investment, which is to say a shift to extraction, or to double down on it.  If you examine what used to be considered the hallmarks of a well run company, e.g.  a well trained, prosperous work force, production capital that was wholly owned, not mortgaged or rented, a well staffed R&D department busily developing new products and production methods and a pension fund that was fully funded and invested in safe investments.  Every single one of those things is something a buyout artist will liquidate for a quick payout.  Workers will be downsized or outsourced, facilities will be sold and rented back or mortgaged, and pension funds will be raided.

For a current example I invite you to read this article on what Bain Capital is doing to Guitar Center, the "big box" merchant of musical instruments.  (I am a fan of knowing where a hyperlink will send you, sono shortened links here!) Guitar Center is just another example of a company that is being squeezed to death by too much attention from investors.

When big finance turned its attention to real estate, we got credit default swaps, the ongoing recession and millions of Americans bankrupted and evicted.  Every step of that process was squeezed for maximum upfront payoff, which is why banks got in trouble for foreclosing on everyone they could, even those eligible for assistance.  They wanted the immediate payout of a short sale.

Now, big finance has turned it's eye to post secondary education.  State financial support for public universities has collapsed since the seventies, so prices have ballooned, college loans are easy to get and federally subsidized, so for-profit colleges of doubtful utility have bloomed like mushrooms in manure, private  college loans are ruinously expensive and now college debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. From an economic standpoint, we have another situation akin to a pile of oily rags stacked next to a leaky furnace (hmm, it's almost like someone's out there doing this on purpose).  The result is millions of young people have huge amounts of debt they that many of them will never earn enough to discharge.

We need a way to insulate our institutions from the financial sector.  We need a way to shield a boring profitable business from the investors that will break it up for a quick payday.  We need a way to stop propping up businesses that take government  money in one hand and beat up their workforce and outsource and send profit off shore (...with their other three hands? metaphors are not an exact science)