The Myth of Money

One thought that troubles me in these days of ‘austerity’ coupled with seemingly mindless bureaucratic spending is the way money is treated. One would think from all the fuss that money were a conserved substance governed by natural conservation laws — like matter and energy. I am sure that at some point in the past it may well have worked like this — a common metric of value that at least over a limited geographic area had a shared meaning. As ‘two purple rocks for a sheep’ and so forth.

But the one thing that the financial system (and indeed much of big business since they are more bank than factory) demonstrates is that money can be created and destroyed at will. Oh, to be sure, there are accounting systems (many of them) that with great ceremony treat the manifestations and currents of money as though it were a conserved substance. But I would suggest that at the root they are all social conventions and beliefs as rooted in reality as the pre-Copernican solar system or the views that race or religion ‘X’ is ‘naturally’ superior over ‘Y’.

So I suspect, given that this boom and bust cycle seems to be a fundamental feature of the current financial system, much like the current trends to socialize risk and privatize profit — we pay and ‘they’ get wealthy, that there really is no cure within the bounds of the system. The misery and disparity will continue. Austerity attacks the society it is supposed to heal making things worse. I think this is how the US slid into the Great Depression – and may do yet again.

Somehow I think we need a new system to liberate us from the ‘rock exchange’ … although I am nowhere near bright enough to envision it. Just that I can see the harm our continued belief in the current religion of money is doing. And recognizing money for the artifice it is think that there must be some other way of persisting and exchanging value that will help all human society to escape this trap.

Power to the People — Ontario Ice Storm Edition

We woke up Thursday morning to find that the projected freezing rain did materialize and everything had a thick coating. The old willow on our shore lost a couple of big branches and will probably have to be removed in the Spring. Power went out while we were having our coffee and was off for most of the day. Service came back in the evening but was pretty ragged overnight until going off again around 6am for another five hours.  No power means no water, no heat, no phone service, etc.  And no way to check outage status on the Internet. Our standby generator got a good workout with probably more to come.

One of our neighbors is a retired Hydro worker who mentioned that the reason power interruptions are getting worse is that Hydro as a policy has offloaded their line maintenance to contractors — who are supposed to drop everything and come running when there is a disaster. This made me think of Toronto Hydro and the news that they abruptly cancelled a program of upgrades and laid off 1,000 contractors — after telling them that there was work for years.

At the same time we read about staff increases in the various power and distribution companies as partial justification for the relentless cost increases we are all asked to absorb. And of course the continued program of wind farm buildouts that follows from an auditor report that most of the premium power being bought from these cronies is wasted. And let us not forget that the Enron designed restructuring of the Ontario power market multiplied the number of business entities (and the pricy senior positions they contain) while simultaneously obfuscating any accountability relationships to businesses and consumers.  The mantra all along has been that by introducing a ‘modern’ market-driven mechanism power should become more available and affordable.  But the reality seems to be that we are following the Enron-California model where power becomes much more expensive and less reliable.  Politics (or more specifically failed ideologies) rather than sound engineering is driving the process. Curious. I wonder if anyone has succeeded in delivering on the promise?

And of course while the power producer market became increasingly Balkanized the grid itself is more tightly integrated. So during the storm the wind farm on Wolfe Island should have been producing power — but it supplies the grid, not the local area.  So Wolfe went dark. As did a large chunk of eastern Ontario between Belleville and Gananoque.  But the issues are not publicly reported and there appears to be no followup on preventing these issues again — so just another broken branch hammered into another hole in the dike.

The 2004 blackout report made fascinating reading — from the original maintenance reductions that caused the initial line break to the monitoring equipment that was unaccountably offline to the communications and management issues between the multiple operating companies that compounded and expanded the failure.  The report concluded that part of the problem was the complexity of the grid and the potential interactions that must be managed exceed the capability of the human and automatic management processes.  It is just too complex to manage effectively.

One thing I learned in my years of contingency planning consulting is that  loosely interconnected systems are pretty fault-resilient. This is quite different from the massive centralized systems that attempt to control everything and because of the complexity of their interactions are difficult to replicate or recover. Even the approach to alternate energy is done in a centralized manner — rather than producing power for local use and drawing from the grid to top up, the big solar and wind plants feed directly into the central grid. This maximizes the loads on the central grid rather than minimizing it as a more distributed approach might produce.  I think that Ontario is moving from a collection of local power systems into a huge, brittle structure — looks like the standby generator is going to get a lot more work.

Politics as Service

A couple of days ago Belinda Stronach had an option piece suggesting that public service might be better as a term of service rather than a career. The comments were equally interesting — one suggested that politics is an art form requiring a lifetime of study (at the public expense one might note) to acquire the correctly nuanced skills. There may be some truth to that notion, but I digress.

The American Founding Fathers held a similar view — politics, or more precisely public service, was something that one engaged in after a successful life as planter, business man or military leader. One did their duty to the country and then retired. It is hard to see how someone coming to Ottawa or Washington for a few years would be motivated to cultivate a network of syncophants and campaign contributors in the manner that today’s career politicians do. And to some extent it really does bother me that the career politicians on both sides of the border seem to march to drums different than the apparent needs of the country. In the old days, as my father advised, one simply tried to vote for the person who would likely steal the least. But in the current atmosphere of disinformation and spin that kind of decision is getting harder than ever to make.

Personally, I would prefer a system where my lifetime of business experience solving real world problems could be put to work assisting my country. Or that any successful person could at least have the option to serve at the end of their careers. But the role or citizen-advisor is already filled with career pols and favored consultants with very little room for a concerned citizen.

So I continue to watch things go down the drain, in wonder as decision after decision is made for reasons that are quite opaque. But as one poster to the Stronach piece observed — politiicans are smart and their lifetime in the system gives them a viewpoint different from the rest of us. Problem is that I know and that makes it hard to sleep at night.