The Political Universe

Jeffry Simpson had an interesting column in today’s Globe and Mail regarding the Harper Governments’ newly introduced Omnibus Crime bill. As you may know, this bill consolidates a number of previously un-passed crime and punishment proposals into one massive piece of legislation. It calls for a huge increase in prisons, creates a bunch of new criminal offences, institutes mandatory minimum sentences (including provisions that make rape a less serious offence than growing marijuana plants) and opens the floodgates to allow unrestricted wiretapping and warrant-less detentions. What the column zeroed in on was the statement by the Minister that there legislation was not based on statistics but on what they thought was right. And he warned that this was just the beginning of their (unpublished) program.

Now I don’t know about most people, but I have an expectation that our leaders at whatever level are making reality-based decisions on behalf of the crown and the electorate. After all, measurements of the world around us guide our actions in everyday things, assist in understanding the past and shaping our plans for the future. And for most of us, the experience of others helps us to avoid the same mistakes ourselves. But in the world of senior level politics this does not appear to be the case. Perhaps a few modest examples might suffice:
My favorite example is the US experiment with Prohibition, partially because I am currently reading ‘Last Call’, a history of this experiment in social control. Imposition of the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act generated an explosion in alcohol consumption – suddenly it was fashionable to be drunk. Supplying this demand for alcohol fostered the development of organized crime at an unprecedented scale and established a number of major personal fortunes here in Canada. My reading last night mentioned that in 1926 the sale of illegal alcohol was a 3.5 billion dollar business, larger than the budget for the entire US military. When it was finally repealed the changes it wrought persisted to the present day. It would not seem unreasonable to think that the damage it did has never been erased.
This can be paired with the current ‘War on Drugs’ that has been going on for the last forty years in the US and elsewhere. The demand has fueled the rise of increasingly violent gangs in the producing areas – Central and South America, Afghanistan and elsewhere. A cynic might say that all the government work to suppress the trade has fostered its development and provided much appreciated price support. While there has been a lot of sober discussion outside of government circles, no doubt reflecting on the experience of Prohibition, of legalizing drugs and taxing them, our leaders seem quite oblivious. Interestingly, the experiment by Portugal of legalization produced the almost predictable decline in usage – and the government had decided to put the money previously spent on control into treatment.
I am also inclined to include the Ontario electrical system in my catalog of dubious programs. Let us not forget that the model of an open market for electricity was developed by Enron – in a sense the ultimate expression of raw capitalism and free market ideology. But its underlying principle was to increase the profits of Enron by playing on popular mythologies and manipulating its availability rather than increase the supply and reducing the cost. As I understand it, the prosperity of Ontario was for a long time driven in part by its inexpensive and reliable electricity system. But Ontario Hydro got a case of bureaucratic bloat over time – and a political cure was applied. The once monolithic company was split into a number of independent crown corporations, each taking a piece of the pie. To be sure, executive positions (with diamond studded lifetime pensions beyond the dreams of most people) have multiplied – we now need multiple senior executives (some of who’s abuses have been newsworthy). But electricity rates have soared and there is always the talk of restricting supplies through price and availability controls. And taxpayer money is being thrown at alternative energy sources in a dubious attempt to create industries that cannot sustain themselves economically without continuous government life support. And the European experience with large scale wind shows clearly that this technology is not an unmixed blessing. And we will ignore the tendency to build wind farms in bird sanctuaries and along migratory flyways – despite the wildlife protection treaties that the US and Canada have signed over the last century.
As a friend of ours recently said – inside the halls of government the outside world just fades away and it all becomes an endless search for means and justifications to stay in power. Doing good for the populace and having a vision of the future are just not part of the equations. In the US it is all too obvious that inside the beltway similar dynamics are in play. The country struggles with a deep recession (dare we say Great Depression II?) with wide-spread joblessness. Local politicians have begun openly wondering how long this can continue before there is urban unrest. But no one inside the Beltway seems to be aware of this – they are obsessed with cutting taxes for the rich and reducing government deficits caused in part by their unilateral foreign wars and expenses for bailing out their buddies in institutional finance. And the programs they want to cut are precisely those that help the already hard hit middle and lower classes.
So I wonder how this is all going to end? Are we living in a ‘those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’ era? I would welcome any evidence of reality-based public policy, but clearly that is not going to happen. Instead, our unresponsive leaders appear to be digging ever deeper into a surreal world of their own imagining, intoxicated no doubt, on their own self-importance.

Politicians, Economies and Climate Change

As I watch the runup to the elections here and in the US I wonder at how a bunch of fairly intelligent people could look at the same reality and draw such divergent conclusions of its current state and probable end state. But then I am reminded of the research work my good friend Tim did with lizards in the Caribbean many years ago. When he found that there were many species all living on a type of bush he expected to find a lot of conflict but in fact there was little. He theorized that each lizard variety partitioned the space into areas that may intertwine but did not overlap. Over the years I realized that people tend to do the same thing. Since our memories determine much of what we perceive of the world around us, someone from a ghetto and someone from a very wealthy family could look at the same situation and draw very different conclusions. To some extent our experience and beliefs enable us to construct a framework of rules and filters that help us extract key information from our perceptions and guide our responses down the most successful (for us at least) path. Some people would look at the social effects of drugs and alcohol and think Prohibition and War on Drugs with assault and ever more severe punishment as the only possible ‘cure’. And yet others look at the same situation and think ‘business opportunity’ – Canadian distillers and US criminals, drugs gangs are too obvious examples. Because of the intrinsic conflicts between different conceptual models of the world I would suggest that progress is only possible when we can share a common world view (or a shared delusional framework if you will).

What is so fascinating about the current political season is both the extremity of world views being expressed and the lack of recognition of the efficacy of proposed economic policy when applied in the past. Tax cuts and deregulation have been the recipe for prosperity from the right for a long time. The US has applied it repeatedly over the past twenty years or so but no one seems to recognize the growing unemployment and declining wages of the middle class.  It is perhaps not surprising that the high income beneficiaries of these cuts get richer — perhaps the right was thinking of job creation as more maids, butlers and manservants. So we keep hearing the same recipe over and over, shouted louder every time, and yet there is this weird faith that maybe this time the same failed recipe will actually work.

Then there is this faith that austerity will make things better. I don’t understand this one at all. It hearkens back to the old days in medicine when the popular idea was to bleed the patient due to an excess of bad humors. The patient may eventually survive, in which case the bleeders will congratulate themselves on a cure well done. Or the patient may die, in which case the likely interpretation would be that it wasn’t done soon or aggressively enough. But never an admission that it was the wrong thing to do. My father came through the Depression working in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) building trails and facilities in the US Park system. We may want to think of doing something like this to syphon off the overflowing pool of unemployed as an alternative to social unrest. But this was a government program – if we bleed off too much then how could we do anything this useful even if we could see the need?

But then there is this other thought that troubles me. Money is an abstraction of value exchange supported by shared social conventions – a religion, if you will. Unlike the matter/energy duality it can be both created and destroyed – sometimes at the same moment. And it is governed by no natural laws – if I jump off the top of the CN tower without mechanical aids, I will go splat when I hit. Gravity, as far as we know, plays no favorites. And this whole crisis started with money creation on the part of the banks multiplied by unreasoning speculation that pushed the players imaginary pool of money to dizzying levels. But when the faith that sustained this delusional framework collapsed our leaders turn to us to make it good – so we endure ‘austerity’ while the bonuses at Goldman’s and others go on. Seems to me we need a new shared, delusional framework around money to make these problems go away and make the world a nicer place for the many, not just the few. I hope someone with the imagination and courage necessary comes up with one soon – other than a few select executive suites the world is getting to be a more ugly place all the time.

Which brings me to the subject of climate change. The problem with economies is that despite our elegant theories of how they work and the oh so confident assertions of what needs to be done, which never work by the way, economies prosper or decline. I am sure the problem is people… But compared to the natural world, the universe of human interactions is a tiny and simple place. There are only a few billion of us after all and we live for such a short time. The natural world is much, much larger and more persistent.  I suspect that we have glimpsed only a few of the possible interactions among its components. But we persist in making grand statements about what is happening as though we controlled it – and I suspect we do to some small degree, but with a lesser success rate than with our economies to be sure. But there are clearly other factors at play and how much they each contribute to current and future conditions we have likely not even guessed. This makes me humble about the degree of our influence on the outcome although perhaps less so on our contribution to some of the changes.

But there are others who are much less humble and I suspect are pushing us down a dark road. We stop work on nuclear power because there might be a problem. (Let us not forget that Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were first generation power plants.)  And we want to raise the prices on burning fossil fuels to encourage us to stop doing it or somehow release their energy without any of the chemical reaction byproducts being released. Or we cover rural areas with wind turbines and convince ourselves they are ‘green’, ignoring both their intermittent output and the huge environmental costs of the concrete and steel that go into these short-lived monsters. And even better, we make the electrical grid ever more interconnected despite frequent warnings for the need of stable inputs and the impossibility of managing grid stability with uncontrollable variable inputs and loads. The failures of 2003 and 2011 where cascading failures were triggered by what should have been a minor problem are just a foretaste of the world we are building.

And yet with all this concern about rising carbon dioxide levels we are still aggressively cutting down the great forests – the things that naturally sequester all this carbon and provide us with the oxygen we need. And we build with the idea that structures are temporary and can/should be discarded as soon as fashion changes. This is the same madness, in my mind, as fueled the explosive growth of consumerism – where the US economy ended up deriving 70% of its GDP from people buying and discarding things as quickly as possible. The remark of a friend of my daughter-in-law still sticks with me – ‘what does it matter, it is just a starter home…’.

As long as the model we use says that it is desirable for the few to get all the chips and leave everyone else in poverty or worse we are doomed. Money is being made stripping the earth and burning it – so there is no hope of altering our contribution to climate change. And we persist in thinking that we can take the jobs from a well-paid group of people and ship them elsewhere and remain prosperous while the wages that built that prosperity decline. And these unemployed people accumulate while robots produce more and more of the basic goods. Like our paradigm about money I suspect our model of work needs to be addressed. As a society, what do we do with this growing population of unemployed and underemployed people? Not everyone has the intellectual ability or inclination to pursue advanced education, or increasingly, the wealth. Even farming is an intellectually demanding profession (it was always demanding in other ways). Do we gear up for continued social unrest, urban terrorism, rioting and so forth as the new norm? (So more police, prisons, domestic spying and social controls…) Do we actually consider Soylent Green? Or do something else?

At the core there are billions of delusional frameworks at play – and their lack of tangency with each other probably explains our increasing disfunction. What we need are more points of congruency and more creative re-interpretations of our old social rules to get out of this mess. Otherwise our future probably looks like something out of ‘Idiocracy’ or ‘Planet of the Apes’.

Death of a Thousand Cuts

It has been painful watching the USA die a slow death, self-inflicted at that. The latest natural disaster only adds to a growing list of injuries that do not appear recoverable. We have had the 9-11 catastrophe, the loss of parts of New Orleans to Katrina, the tornados this year, flooding, now Irene. And the spectacle of the National Guard and other emergency services trying to do their job having been stripped of vital equipment for the senseless wars abroad. And the layoffs and funding cuts flowing from Washington and the states as they respond to declining revenues and the cost of an ever-growing bureaucracy. The total paralysis of the government to do anything sensible to either stem the senseless wars or help the growing body of unemployed is pathetic. And now that the space shuttle has been shut down there is the prospect of the space station being abandoned because there is no reliable way of supplying it or getting its crew up or down. So the country is slowly collapsing, unable to respond to the issues at hand or work towards a future that is other than bleak.

I read today that the latest trick in Washington is to threaten to block aid to the disaster areas unless unrelated cuts are made elsewhere. Seems the advocate of this approach voted against it when it was suggested for his state but it is ok to do to others. I wonder if the Romans suffered the same sorts of insanity before their civilization broke down? Is the line not ‘those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’?

But in many areas there is a small group of no doubt well connected people who are getting very rich from servicing the needs of the government. The tales of billions lavished on projects unwanted in the war-ravaged areas where there is little to show except the memory of large expenditures. Where did the money go some naively ask? And yet more and more services are being privatized in the name of reducing costs. But what the public gets is less accountability and higher costs.

And there is no end of agencies being created with even more highly paid managers – Homeland Security (Hopeless Insecurity?) has spent over a trillion dollars since its inception, spending wildly on things to make us all ‘safe’ with no risk analysis or effectiveness measures. Meanwhile travel and commerce becomes increasingly paralyzed and grandmothers get cavity searches at border crossings. Problem with all these watch lists is that until someone does something bad the likelihood of them being on a list is probably nill – think Timothy McVeh or the 9-11 hijackers. We are good at reacting to last threat but probably still blind to the next. And what is even better is that the traditional protections against unwarranted search and seizure or privacy for that matter have been swept away.

Meanwhile outsourcing of jobs continues unabated – an interesting mechanism that. The domestic employees are laid off, the job goes to some third world country where the wages are much smaller. Profits for the company increase due to the lower wage component. The laid off employees go on public assistance if they are not lucky enough to get a service job flipping burgers or washing floors – so their social costs are picked up by society. But since they are making much less, if anything, their ability to consume diminishes over time. We have in one swell foop pushed the society further into poverty and made public the costs while privatizing the profits – take the money and run, tomorrow can take care of itself… Problem is that unless someone actually produced something there is no money available to consume anything, even the low cost goods produced by someone else.

There is much more to be said but I am too depressed to continue for now. I weep for the lost promise of the USA and how short term, short sighted interests living in a fantasy world of their own making are wrecking it.