Saturday, June 11, 2005

Power to the People?

Mainline Democrats are only slightly more democratic than their Republican opponents since a strongly egalitarian politics threatens the prerogatives of professional people as well as billionaires. Certainly, none of the relevant elites is about ready to let the mass of the population have a decisive say in foreign policy. The democrats really do have a different take on the proper use of power, but liberal imperialists who wish to rule through consensus are still imperialists. Which largely explains why the Democrats have been so helpless in confronting the Iraq war. Many of them more or less openly endorse the notion that we have a right to unilaterally impose our system and its values on others by the application of deadly force. The Weapons of Mass Destruction scam didn’t just provide cover for the right. The moderates that went along with Bush may have thought that Saddam had some mustard gas, but they also knew perfectly well that the WMDs were utterly inconsequential, the merest red herring. They knew, but they were as willing as Powell and the rest to use this phony excuse to manipulate the public because they have no scruples whatsoever about lying to the people. Whatever you think of their motives, that is what ruling classes do.

My point is not to suggest that the world would automatically be better or safer if the wishes of the public were seriously consulted, though I think the European public at least has been far wiser than the American Neocons about the Middle East. There are a great many things that should not be settled by a vote, indeed a great many things about which people in general have no right to an opinion. The problem is that our nation endlessly proclaims its democratic principles but denies them in practice in areas—war and peace, wealth and poverty—where everybody really does have an existential stake and therefore a right to be heard and listened to. Since democracy on these matters would interfere with the wishes and interests of the rulers, we get democracy where it doesn’t belong by way of compensation. The courts will become collection agencies for the corporations, but we will tenderly protect the people’s right to impose their sexual morals on everybody. We’ll steal your pensions and your social security contributions to pay off our political supporters, but you’ll be able to decide scientific issues like evolution by a show of hands. You want to pronounce it New-cu-lar, you go right ahead. See, we’re populists.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Windfall Prophets

To hear people use the word you’d think that the notion of spirituality was as plain and unambiguous as $3.45. I don’t mind admitting that I’m less clear about either the referent or the intention of the term. In fact, I just don’t know what it means. On the other hand, I do know at least one thing it’s for. Like many other words that lack an overt definition, it certainly has a job description. For example, you trot out “spirituality” on those occasions when you want to intimate that you are a decently deep individual even though you are also a little too sophisticated for more mythological or dogmatic or organized forms of religion.

I don’t have much use for “spirituality” myself because I’m always trying to be as shallow as I can. That’s my job: to pursue the horizontal depth of the literal. I guess in a pinch I could identify as spirituality the Psalmist’s solitary insomnia or my own recurrent surprise and delight at the spectacle of the world, a gratitude that tempts me to invent somebody to thank. Mostly, though, I avoid using terms like spirituality whose meaning eludes me. It doesn’t seem quite decent to speak so loosely about what is rumored to be the most important dimension of life. I certainly have the exclusive rights to that particular scruple. Folks who are otherwise very cautious of speech immediately lose all restraint once the time comes to make vague religious assertions, and the modern precedents are all on their side.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Putting the Waste Back in Wasteland

American journalism is highly offensive to people with an engineering mentality because it represents an enormous waste of resources. When I see a CNN anchor sitting in front of a room full of expensive electronic equipment manned by highly trained technical folks, I can’t but wonder if Turner et. al. would have ever made such a massive investment if they had known how little of the information gathering capacity they created would ever be used. What we see on the screen depends far more on fear of offending the government or the sponsors and the imperative of sticking to the storyline of the week than on any input from the real world. In the absence of an institution willing to inform its audience, building up the machinery of newsgathering is as pointless as fighting a famine by manufacturing more spoons. The newsmen already know what they need to know. What they lack is the nerve to tell it to us.

Deciding what to show and what not to show is an absolutely basic function of any kind of journalism, but the problem with our system is not that it is selective but that the bases of its selection are uniformly perverse. A certain kind of faux liberal pundit likes to claim that many stories are too complicated or too old hat for the fickle and mindless listeners, but much of the information coursing through the wires behind Aaron Brown is both interesting and timely. If he doesn’t report promptly on stories like the Downing Street memo it’s not because of their irrelevance but precisely because they are all too relevant. Real news would be highly exciting, perhaps even inciting; but it would also get the networks in trouble with the government and its corporate allies.

You often hear that television news reflects the taste and intellectual capacities of the public. Aside from the obvious fact that the tabloid obsessions of the day don’t preexist the nonstop coverage of the nonevents, the displacement of serious news by gossip wasn’t motivated by ordinary commercial considerations. The kind of folks who are eager to listen to blond harpies picking at Michael Jackson’s scabs are a very much less desirable demographic than the well-educated, mostly prosperous people who want to know what’s actually going on in the world. Unfortunately, to reach that audience would require a huge gamble that would put at risk a great many careers and a lot of capital. Which is why it’s probably not going to happen. And since we’re not going to have a free press again for a long time, most of the electronics on the set of the news shows will be as useless as the machine that went ping in the old Monty Python skit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Tyranny of the Agenda

Politicians and pundits tend to think that everything that occurs is relevant to the issue that happens to preoccupy them that day, just as scientists can fall into the analogous error of thinking that their observations automatically bear on the topic of the grant proposals. In a recent study of capuchin monkeys at Yale, for example, an economist set up a token economy for the animals. When the females began to hook for tokens, it was assumed, quite arbitrarily, that this primate prostitution reflected badly on the monkeys when it may have had more to do with the moral atmosphere of New Haven.

Making an analogous error, David Brooks recently delivered that the economic problems of Europe demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Left, even though, as I recall, very few rightists ever admitted that the former economic power of the West Germans was evidence of the superiority of Social Democracy or that the abysmal performance of American medicine has anything to do with our peculiar political economy. Political polemic aside, the performance of the European economy surely reflects a host of demographic factors; the aging of its population; the costs of absorbing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact into the system; and, crucially, the price of oil. The putatively socialistic institutions of Western Europe didn’t prevent many years of general prosperity in the region—remember the Wirtschaftwunder?—; and, in any case, since the socialistic parties in Europe have pursued a far more market-oriented policy over the last decade, one could just as easily maintain that it has been their abandonment of the true leftist faith that got them into trouble. My point is not that one or another of these explanations is right, but simply that determining which issues matter in such discussions is already a crucial and difficult question. Just because you happen to obsess about the proper balance between the public and the private doesn’t mean that everything happens because of the level of social spending in Norway.

Generals famously prepare for the last war; and, more generally, people go on worrying about the same old issues when the times change. I suspect that both the left and the right are part of a failing ancien regime that has fallen into this trap, though the stereotypical thinking of the right is vastly more harmful just now because the right is in charge. When Brooks denounces Europe in the name of a more dynamic if piratical economic policy, he is promoting remedies for the wrong disease. In an era of cheap fuel and demographic expansion, one could indeed make a case for a more laissez faire approach because too much welfare spending probably did reduce the overall growth rate of the European economies at a time when the great challenge and opportunity was still growth. Under contemporary conditions, on the other hand, it is at least problematic to suggest that building strip malls in Tuscany constitutes progress since it is not obvious that it constitutes progress in Nebraska. By the same token, promoters of a yet another New Deal fall into anachronism by supporting income redistribution as a way to shore up demand in an era when the most pressing need is to figure out how to suppress demand without crushing the economy or impoverishing a large part of the population.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Awaiting the Sensation

Whether what’s coming is a short, sharp shock, on the other hand, remains in dispute. In the last six months or so a great many people have finally noticed the problem with liquid fuels. There was even a made-for-TV faux documentary on one of the off-brand stations last night that dealt with the consequences of an interruption of oil supplies, though even this pot boiler, which was otherwise sufficiently alarmist, was careful not to let on the fundamental problem isn’t recalcitrant Arabs, balky technology, or hurricanes but the sheer disproportion between a finite supply and a continuously growing demand. Absent Ben Laden or Iraq, we’d still be up against it, albeit the political and military angles will doubtlessly have a lot of do with how and when the crisis plays out. And of course it does make some difference that the current administration is doing nothing substantive to deal with the problem.

The approaching problem hasn’t been a secret for some time. Aside from assorted environmentalists and folks who simply hate the car-dependent suburban lifestyle and can be dismissed for parti pris, sober scientific types such as Philip Morrison have been sounding the alarm for many years, though it must be admitted that publishing editorials in SCIENCE is not exactly calculated to reach a large audience. Even when the message has been audible outside the technical ghetto, it has been misunderstood as a claim that we were facing a generalized energy shortage instead of something a lot more specific and hard to deal with. But the point is not that there aren’t many available substitutes for oil but that the sources of energy that remain abundant are not the right forms of energy to sustain an economy like ours. Despite its abundance and high caloric value, coal can’t be put in your gas tank, for example, anymore than you can eat it. Converting coal into what we need is not, contrary to the G.E. ad, merely a matter of filling the coal mines with sweaty Victoria Secret models. It is not going to be easy to figure out how to use coal or nuclear or the renewables to fuel transport and, perhaps more crucially, to produce the huge inputs of fertilizer that have so far kept agricultural production ahead of world population growth.

Perhaps we misunderstand the problem because the public discussion of energy issues tends to be dominated by economists who tend to think that energy is as fungible as money and engineers who tend to think that every problem is solvable by sufficient ingenuity. I’ve think I’ve tended to be overoptimistic about the effectiveness of the technical solutions myself, in part because I deal with the technological side of the issue in my day job and know of many possible ways of ameliorating the situation if only the political will existed to implement real steps to deal with the problem. Even making the dubious assumption that the nations and their citizens can be persuaded to act rationally in all this, I may still be too optimistic.

It’s easy to dismiss the scary prophesies of writers like Jim Kunstler as green hysteria, but rather more difficult to defeat the particulars of their arguments, especially the very important point that the transition to a non-petroleum economy will be exceedingly expensive, perhaps impossibly so, without a fairly drastic decline in the standard of living. It takes a lot of gas to fill up the trucks that deliver the cement that goes into a new nuclear plant, for example; and that gas is likely to be even more expensive by the time we finally get around to building even one new nuclear plant. Even the building of new coal power plants and the mining infrastructure needed to supply them with fuel requires a great deal of petroleum. Biofuels have the same weakness. Indeed, since agricultural production in its modern form requires a huge and continuous input of petroleum products, synfuels may be dimes purchased at a quarter a piece even after you amortize the costs of ramping up their production.

Any change involves waste, but the transition of this country to a totally different energy regime is likely to result in an enormous write-off of assets. A large proportion of the wealth of a country like the United States is tied up in suburban real estate. Increasing the price of gas automatically deflates the real value of much of this store of wealth by making it more and more expensive if not impractical to live many miles from work. Having made the decision to build huge suburbs, we can’t just move all those buildings into more compact and energy efficient cities. We’re stuck with the consequences of earlier choices.

Students of economic geography often point out the dilemma faced by the Russian Federation. Huge cities were built in Siberia during the Soviet period at the whim of tyrants and commissars even though it never made much sense to locate large population centers so far from markets in such a miserable climate. Now that the cities are there, however, it is next to impossible to dismantle them, even though they have filled up with unemployed people and represent a drain on the entire country. We’re going to have to deal with the Capitalist version of the same problem. L.A., Phoenix, and Las Vegas are every bit as artificial as Magnitogorsk or Irkutsk.