Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mass Production Means the Death of Style

Just a few days ago I and my husband were judging the date of a YouTube video by the hairstyles and clothing of the people in the audience at a concert. Usually when we look at films or TV shows from the last 70 years we can pretty easily guess the decade in which they were created. Kevin Drum posted this interesting observation: "Kurt Andersen writes in Vanity Fair this month about something that I've noticed too: visual style hasn't changed much over the past 20 years:
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it.

....Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.
You can pretty quickly recognize a movie made in the early 70s or the early 50s. But the early 90s? In movies like Silence of the Lambs or Basic Instinct, only tiny clues give away when they were made.

Andersen's theory is that we're victims of future shock: "In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out." That doesn't really sound very convincing to me, but his basic observation about the inertia in fashion and other visual cues over the past couple of decades seems fair. Anybody got a better explanation?"

My explanation: corporitization of culture. Everything is mass-produced with the sole criterion the lowest manufacturing price possible. Design costs money. Our Wal-mart culture would rather have cheap look-a-like basic clothing made in sweatshops in Asia rather than spend a little more and have individual, stylish, but more expensive clothing. Everything's cookie-cutter. Cars have no individuality. Our electronic hand-held devices are minimalist - no room for anything but function. This stripping-down has been a steady process through the last hundred years but it took a long time to eliminate style this completely (think about the style in antique handcrafted wooden cabinets, a typical one had scrollwork and carved ornaments, and compare that to a typical piece for sale in a furniture store today).

Mr. Anderson's idea that we are overwhelmed by newness is a common misperception about history; that our time is notable for its disruptions due to rapid technological change. The Industrial Revolution upended Great Britain, tore up cultural foundations that had been in place for centuries (an agricultural/artisan pre-industrial economy), and replaced them with profoundly new lives for the working class: mechanized factory jobs and city living replaced a much less regimented rural existence. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hidden Ways our Government Favors the Rich, part 1

I’m rereading “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich” by Kevin Phillips, published in 2003, and it has really sensitized me to ways our government's policies are slanted towards the rich.

For instance, today I read an op-ed, The Famine Next Time, in the New York Times about the current famine in Africa. The article asks: why do we never solve the problem of famine? There’s enough food in the world. The crisis builds slowly over months if not years; action could be taken before it becomes a full-blown catastrophe. Yet we seem to have to wait until we see starving infants on TV before we are moved to act.

What jumped out at me was this line: “By the end of June, with the crisis in full swing, the United States had committed a total of about $64 million to Kenya, much of it in the form of food supplies (this doesn’t include relief for the Somali refugees). But food aid loses at least half of its value, according to the Government Accountability Office, because we ship actual food instead of sending cash for local purchase, like most countries.”

What is this food aid but a subsidy to American agriculture, particularly the large-scale companies like Archer Daniels Midland? In a similar way we “give” military aid to various countries around the world with the stipulation that they purchase Americans weapons with that money. Our foreign aid is just another way to funnel cash into our corporations and their principal beneficiaries, the investor class, in other words, the rich.

The article describes a farm in Kenya, in the middle of the famine/drought zone that was
a green oasis — a farm, a greenhouse, a well, a water pump, a windmill. Running around were the first happy, healthy-looking children I had seen. This is the Kutulo Farm, a women’s cooperative in Wagberi, where they grow kale, cabbage and peppers. They received money for the well from the European Union, but otherwise have done everything on their own. They would like to expand, said Adey Issack, one of the founders, but have no access to credit.
Programs like the Kutulo Farm are significantly cheaper to start and maintain than sending mounds of food aid at the last minute, in large part because they leverage the skills and knowledge of local residents to do the work. The current crisis is a painful demonstration of how well such an approach works: those few communities that received small, well-designed assistance are weathering the drought relatively well.
Rajiv Shah, the head of U.S.A.I.D., told me during a trip he made in July to Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. “It is one-tenth the cost to provide effective agricultural support and help communities gain food security than it is to provide food aid at a time of famine.”
Our aid dollars could go TEN times further if we gave the aid in cash instead of sending food.

I titled this "part 1" because I am sure I will be adding lots more examples here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Kind of Country Do We Want?

The editors of Adbuster magazine (where the Occupy movement was first conceived) published an article about the future of the movement in the Washington Post last weekend, "Why Occupy Wall Street Will Keep Up the Fight":
Occupy was born because we the people feel that our country and our economy are moving precipitously in the wrong direction; that America has evolved into a kind of corporate oligarchic state, a “corporatocracy”; and yes, that what is needed is a regime change — a Tahrir moment of truth in America.
This winter, they suggest, will be a time for the movement to regroup, network, and brainstorm. In my experience talking to people there is a hunger out here among the older generation who want to be part but can’t, for various reasons, be part of an occupation group. What are we hungry for? I think the people of this country want to have a conversation about what sort of country we want to be.

Do we want to be a plutocracy, a nation run by and for the one percent?

Do we want to be the world’s merchant of death, selling weapons to the world? With a military that dwarfs the rest of world's forces combined? A country that maintains enough nuclear weapons on alert to kill the entire human race? That spends half of its budget on the military instead education, infrastructure, and research to improve the lives of its citizens?

Do we want to be the country with the highest percentage of its citizens in jail? Do we want to be a country that imprisons people so that corporations can make a profit on their imprisonment?

Do we want to be the country with the worst health care outcomes in the world because the medical-industrial complex likes it that way?

Do we want to be the country with the lowest living standards for the developed world?

Do we want to be the country with the most limited social mobility?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Economic System Reflects a Society’s Values

Many economists, Paul Krugman among them, argue that we must separate economics from values and morality.

However, I believe that an economic system is a direct expression of a society’s values.

The Republican Party has been known as the “party of values” for years now because they are obsessed with issues of sexuality: abortion, homosexuality, the “sanctity” of marriage, etc.

At the same time conservatives advocate a hard-line market capitalism which is brutal in its effects on society. Their wildest dream is to eliminate all federal regulations and the New Deal and Great Society social programs, making our economic system even more exploitative and unjust.

Morality doesn’t just mean issues of sex. Morality means ethics, principles, and values. How do our values inform our social interactions? How do we treat our neighbors? How do we care for the poor and the sick and the needy in our midst? Do we care about social justice? Do we care about the impact of our actions on the environment?

Free-market capitalism reflects a society whose values are based completely on greed and short-term self-interest: get all I can for myself and my family with no concern for the consequences to the society I live in and the world at large.

We have been convinced by economists and politicians that greed-driven capitalism is the best system on Earth, but there are new forms of economic interaction emerging that challenge this belief and reveal that people are driven by factors other than greed and self-interest.

Harvard University professor Yochai Benkler has just published a new book describing these new economic systems, “The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest.”

The publisher’s abstract from Amazon says:
For centuries, we as a society have operated according to a very unflattering view of human nature: that, humans are universally and inherently selfish creatures. As a result, our most deeply entrenched social structures – our top-down business models, our punitive legal systems, our market-based approaches to everything from education reform to environmental regulation - have been built on the premise that humans are driven only by self interest, programmed to respond only to the invisible hand of the free markets or the iron fist of a controlling government. In the last decade, however, this fallacy has finally begun to unravel, as hundreds of studies conducted across dozens of cultures have found that most people will act far more cooperatively than previously believed.
In the October American Prospect there is an article about companies that facilitate sharing of possessions, like cars, bicycles, and houses; “The Commons,” by Monica Potts, which quotes professor Benkler:
Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School who has written two books on the subject, calls this type of economic model the social market, because it draws upon the obligations we feel to one another. The incentives to join and share go beyond monetary compensation…For Benkler, the rise and persistence of all of these services just shows that the social market is fundamental to human nature. Its existence is only surprising because economists have done such a good job convincing us that people need top-down control systems, as in state-run communist economies, or market incentives like raises or bonuses, to work for the benefit of a larger group. ‘They said everything could be understood through rational self-interest,’ he says, but it isn’t true. ‘We are more like how we tell our kids to be on the playground than what the economists say.’

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Class Warfare? Bring it On!

Sally Kohn has an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, entitled "President Obama Shouldn't be Afraid of a Little Class Warfare." After giving some dismal statistics on the recent increase in wealth inequality in this country, she surprised me with some exciting ideas about how to mobilize the middle-class to fight back against the wealthy and the corporations, who, as Ms. Kohn rightly says, started this war.

Small-scale demonstrations like what's been happening on Wall Street mean nothing. What we need is something on the order of the university divestment movement in the 1980's, which forced public universities to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa.  

Ms Kohn suggests:
Imagine millions of Americans withholding mortgage payments to banks that refuse to adjust underwater loans. Imagine divestment campaigns to pressure public pension funds and universities to pull their money from the private sector and put it into government bonds. Imagine students staging sit-ins to protest teacher layoffs. Imagine families who have lost their homes squatting in vacant, bank-owned properties. Imagine a nationwide call to arms, as passionately nonviolent but as violently passionate as the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world. After all, according to the CIA, income inequality in the United States is greater than in Yemen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Does Social Security Narrow Wealth Inequality in the U.S.?

In the last few months the PBS NewsHour has done some shows about wealth inequality in the United States. This week they aired a segment with an unusual take on the subject: economist Robert Lerman (professor at American University) contends that Social Security and Medicare represent significant wealth for the average American totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and should be included in any mapping of wealth distribution.

Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley has the most widely-used statistics about wealth inequality. Click here to see me discussing these numbers on YouTube, or here to see Professor Saez’s website.

The NewsHour chart showed the bottom 40% of the population owning 5.7% of the total wealth. Professor Lerman revises the figures so that the bottom 60% own 28.5%.
I think Professor Lerman has a point, but the way he delivers this theory is ripe for misinterpretation in our current political climate. Social Security and Medicare are commonly called “entitlement” programs, as if they are pure give-aways to the elderly. In fact, these are forced retirement savings programs; everyone has so-called "payroll" taxes automatically deducted from their paycheck, these taxes go directly into the Social Security and Medicare trust fund accounts. After watching the NewsHour segment online this morning I wondered: what kind of return on investment does the average worker get for her payroll taxes?

With just a little investigation I found that the average person actually receives LESS in Social Security benefits than he or she paid in.

The figures below are from a widely reported study by the Urban Institute, and the total taxes paid into the system are calculated using an investment return of 2%. The average return over decades in the stock market is 8-10%. When helping a person plan for retirement many investment advisers project a conservative estimate of 5-6% to ensure that the actual return is higher. But as this blog shows, many standard retirement planning calculators use 10% return as a calculator. Even in this era of deflated savings rates, 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds yield 2.83%. In other words, if the taxes paid in were calculated at a higher return on investment, these statistics would look even worse for the average person.

Here’s some statistics for a person turning 65 this year; from the Urban Institute, revised June 2011; (interest earned on taxes calculated at 2%). These figures include both Social Security and Medicare:
Single man earning average wage ($43,500)
Total taxes paid  $359,000
Benefits over lifetime $436,000

Single woman earning average wage ($43,500)
Total taxes paid  $359,000
Benefits over lifetime $478,000

Two-earner couple both earning average wage
Total taxes paid $717,000
Benefits over lifetime $913,000
If you subtract out Medicare, the average person loses on Social Security.

These figures are for Social Security tax and benefits only:

Single man earning average wage $43,500
Total taxes paid $305,000
Benefits over lifetime $267,000

Single woman earning average wage $43,500
Total taxes paid $305,000
Benefits over lifetime $294,000

Two-earner couple both earning average wage
Total taxes paid  $611,000
Benefits over lifetime $560,000
Clearly Medicare is the only problem in terms of unfunded benefits, just another aspect of our ongoing national health-care crisis. If we had a sane politics, we would have solved this problem years ago but instead it continues to fester, sapping our nation’s strength.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tim DeChristopher and Civil Disobedience

In January 2009, as the country struggled to get through the last weeks of the George W. Bush presidency, a young activist named Tim DeChristopher attended a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases in Utah. DeChristopher spontaneously began to bid on parcels, and by the end of the auction had “purchased” $1.8 million of leases on 14 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. DeChristopher was a 27-year-old economics student; he clearly had learned that money is the only language people in power understand.

The auction was Bush’s end-of-term gift to the oil and gas industry, and DeChristopher’s action not only disrupted the auction itself but brought national attention to the giveaway. The leasing plan was challenged in court and most of the proposed leases were ultimately withdrawn.

I wrote in my journal at the time:
Yesterday heard of young man bidding at BLM auctions in Utah preventing oil and gas leases from being sold and I was so excited because here was someone doing something. I went to the website an hour later and donated money for his legal fund, something I never do. I wrote on the site, “this is the most exciting thing I’ve heard in years, including Obama’s election. Someone taking direct action. That’s what we need to bring change, the people taking action (by implication, a leader can’t do it for us).”
Somehow I believed that with Barack Obama taking office a couple of weeks later, DeChristopher’s actions would not be prosecuted. How naïve of me.

In July DeChristopher was found guilty of interfering with a federal auction and sentenced to two years in federal prison and fined $10,000. He was immediately taken to a prison in California.

After his sentencing, DeChristopher sent an interesting letter to the website about the modern plea-bargain system. We have been trained to think that it is a necessary expedient to speed up an overburdened court system, but after his courtroom experience DeChristopher has another take: it’s the eroding of our constitutional right to be judged by our peers. If a defendant doesn’t accept a plea-bargain and demands his right to a trial, but then loses, he’s punished with a worse sentence. In addition, there are all sorts of tricks the prosecutor can employ to keep the jury from hearing the whole story. In DeChristopher’s case, the jury could not hear why he bid on the parcels, which was central to everything he did. By preventing the defense from presenting DeChristopher’s motives, the government made a mockery of justice.

DeChristopher wrote:
If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense "wasn't too bad." The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my "continuing trail of statements" and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that's why most activist cases end in a plea bargain…

The revolutionaries who founded this country were deeply distrustful of a concentration of power, so among other precautions, they established citizen juries as the most important part of our legal system and insisted upon constitutional right to a jury trial. To avoid this inconvenience, those seeking concentrated power free from revolutionaries have minimized the role of citizens in our legal system. They have accomplished this by restricting what juries can hear, what they can decide upon, and most importantly, by avoiding jury trials all together. It is now accepted as a basic fact of our criminal justice system that a defendant who exercises his or her right to a jury trial will be punished at sentencing for doing so. Transferring power from citizens to government happens when the role of citizens gets eliminated in the process.

With civil disobedience cases, however, the government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small…

But our modern government is dismantling the First Amendment because they understand the very same thing our founding fathers did when they wrote it: What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and outrage in the hearts of a movement. And if those hearts are fertile ground, those seeds of love and outrage will grow into a revolution.
You can stay connected to what’s happening to Tim DeChristopher on his Facebook page.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why Do We Treat Capital Better Than Labor?

A question I have been pondering for some time is, “Why does capital get all the rewards? Why do profits flow to the money men and not to the laborers? Why does our system crown money as king?” Is it only because the wealthy make the rules in our plutocracy? Or is there some underlying economic principle at work? I don’t think so. I think this is a reflection of the fact that we are still living in a semi-feudal economy.

Warren Buffett made a splash a month ago by publishing an op-ed in the New York Times, "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich," restating his sense of outrage that his employees pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than he does. The top rate on wages is currently 35%; the investment income rate is capped at 15%. “As a result, anyone making more than $34,500 a year in wages and salary is taxed at a higher rate than a billionaire is taxed on untold millions in capital gains,” says a Washington Post article, "Capital Gains Tax Rates Benefiting Wealthy Feed Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor." The abstract for the article claimed that the “job-creating” benefits attributed to a low rate were disputed, but then never really gave a cogent opposing argument (of course). In fact the drop in the capital gains tax (under Clinton and G.W.Bush) encouraged the speculative investments that brought down the world economy in 2008.

Couldn’t you make a case that there is no difference between capital and labor? That capital is in fact, excess labor, and should be treated identically? When humans first began agriculture there was no such thing as capital. There was only human labor. But as our skills increased, we accumulated excess food—this was the first capital. Slowly this excess built on itself until it became abstracted into currency.

Labor is the source of capital and should be what is rewarded by our tax code. Instead of passive investment we should be rewarding active labor. The Washington Post article quotes Marty Sullivan, an economist and a contributing editor to Tax Analysts: "The way you get rich in this world is not by working hard. It's by owning large amounts of assets and having those things appreciate in value."

Unfortunately there’s bipartisan support for low capital gains taxes, because a huge number of members of Congress are rich. Here’s some numbers from an article in The Week magazine "The Congressional Millionaires' Club: By the Numbers":
261: Number of millionaires in the last Congress, out of a total of 535 members

$911,510: Median wealth of all members in the last Congress

$25,149: Median estimated wealth of an American over the age of 18 (2005)
What we have in this country is a plutocracy. The wealthy are rule this country. The trappings of democracy, elections for example, are maintained as a superficial veneer to hide the truth.

And of course since the wealthy are in control, capital will be rewarded and labor penalized. In 2009 I wrote an article for my column in Highlands Newspaper called "Feudal Economics." An excerpt:

What do I mean by “feudalism”? Feudalism is a socio-political system where a very few “lords” own almost everything and everyone else is a “vassal,” or servant of the lord. The vassals work for the lord and are completely dependent upon him. We usually think of the Middle Ages in Europe or the Shogun era in Japan when we think of feudalism, not modern-day America. 
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. According to G. William Domhoff, a sociology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz (using 2004 numbers), the top 1% of United States households owned 34% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% owned 50%. In other words, 20% of the people own 85% of everything in this country. That leaves 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% of the population. 
In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households have an even greater share, 42.2%, and the top 20% owned 95.2%, leaving only 7.5% for the bottom 80%. (To be clear, we’re not talking income here, these figures are for assets.) 
We haven't moved past feudalism; we've just added a new wrinkle or two. Case in point: the rise of the corporation.According to the World Institute for Development Economics Research, the 500 largest corporations in the U.S. “control over two-thirds of the business resources, employ two-thirds of the industrial workers, account for 60 percent of the sales, and collect over 70 percent of the profits.” 
Further, the CEOs of these corporations serve on each other’s boards, creating an even more incestuous relationship, something like the royal families of feudal Europe intermarrying to keep the power in the family. The CEOs grant each other huge pay packages, and you can only imagine the secret favors they do for each other. 
The current concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is very dangerous to our democracy, because wealth is power. Our government is owned by the wealthy and the corporations. The elite run this country and the rest of us—the majority of people in the country—are no better than wage-slaves. 
Karl Marx’s theory of economic development predicted countries would progress from feudalism through capitalism to socialism. No reason to worry about this country going socialist—we haven’t even made it to capitalism yet. Let’s concentrate on throwing off the chains of our feudal lords.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time-Lapse Map of Nuclear Bomb Tests 1945-1999

Do you have 15 minutes to gain a comprehension of the 2053 nuclear bombs that were exploded between 1945 and 1999? A Japanese artist named Isao Hashimoto created an amazing video that shows every one of those bombs overlaid on a map of Earth, colorcoded to tell which country set it off, and sized to give a sense of the megatonage.

At first the time-lapse seems too slow, but by the time you get to the 1950's you understand the need for the slow but steady beat of each month of each year.

It's frightening how many bombs the United States set off in its own western lands. The Soviet Union and China also used their own land, but being smaller both England and France used their colonies: England exploded many bombs in Australia, and France used both northwest Africa and the southern Pacific (Tahitian island chain) for its tests.

It gets quiet in the late 1980s, then there's a flurry in the late 1990s when Pakistan and India go through an escalation that almost led to nuclear war.

What has been the impact of these tests on the planet?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Blues

As usual, Labor Day has brought articles about what is wrong with the job market today. Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under President Clinton, published “The Limping Middle Class” in yesterday’s New York Times.

He starts with this stunning statistic, “The 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics.” Our economy has become seriously dysfunctional, with the super-rich earning most of the income and the great bulk of the population barely surviving.

Reich makes it perfectly clear that this dysfunction is the result of political choices, not an inevitability, by comparing the U.S. to Germany:
Germany has grown faster than the United States for the last 15 years, and the gains have been more widely spread. While Americans’ average hourly pay has risen only 6 percent since 1985, adjusted for inflation, German workers’ pay has risen almost 30 percent. At the same time, the top 1 percent of German households now take home about 11 percent of all income — about the same as in 1970.
In the U.S. the top one percent earn approximately 24 percent of all income.

Reich suggests that, “the rich are now being bitten by their own success. Those at the top would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy than a large share of one that’s almost dead in the water.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the rich actually believed that?

Harold Meyerson’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, “The Fallacy of Post-Industrial Prosperity,” actually evinces some optimism. After beginning with the declaration that, “Of all the lies that the American people have been told the past four decades, the biggest one may be this: We’ll all come out ahead in the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society,” he ends with the hopeful news that some businesspeople and economists are recognizing the theory’s fallacy:
Since that new economy blew up three years ago, many of those elites have been disabused of the financial fantasies that ordinary Americans long ago ceased to entertain. The fact that Greenstone and Looney’s study [of the decline in men’s wages] emerged from the Hamilton Project — a pillar of new-economy thinking, founded by Clinton Treasury secretary Robert Rubin — is evidence of a paradigm shift in economic vision. From centrist Democratic groups such as the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way, to economists such as Hoover Institution Nobel laureate Michael Spence, to chief executives and former chief executives such as Dow Chemical’s Andrew Liveris and Intel’s Andy Grove, the new watchword for America’s future — however challenging it may be to get there — is manufacturing.
Reich also ended his article with an optimistic thought:
As the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression, what we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.”

That dream is still within our grasp.
I wish I could share their optimism.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Secret Army of the United States

The authors of the United States Constitution were very aware of the mischief that kings had made through history with the power to wage war, so in their blueprint for a republic they specifically gave that power to the Congress, to ensure that wars would only be undertaken with the knowledge and consent of the people.

9/11 was the excuse for a lot of trampling of our constitution, and this delegation of war powers to Congress is one of the casualties.

Just recently I found myself wondering, "how many countries is the United States currently bombing? Two Washington Post journalists, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, have just published a new book, entitled "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State," which details the rise of a new secret U.S. army. 

An excerpt appeared in today's Washington Post, and it is filled with some scary information:
The U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command, known by the acronym JSOC...takes its orders directly from the president of the secretary of defense and is managed and overseen by a military-only chain of command. 
Under President George W. Bush, JSOC’s operations were rarely briefed to Congress in advance — and usually not afterward, either — because government lawyers considered them to be “traditional military activities” not requiring such notification. President Obama has taken the same legal view, but he has insisted that JSOC’s sensitive missions be briefed to select congressional leaders.
On Sept. 16, 2003, Rumsfeld signed an executive order cementing JSOC as the center of the counterterrorism universe. It listed 15 countries and the activities permitted under various scenarios, and it gave the preapprovals required to carry them out.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, lethal action against al-Qaeda was granted without additional approval. In the other countries — among them Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and Syria — JSOC forces needed the tacit approval from the country involved or at least a sign-off from higher up on the American chain of command.
When Obama came into office, he cottoned to the organization immediately. (It didn’t hurt that his CIA director, Leon Panetta, has a son who, as a naval reservist, had deployed with JSOC.) Soon Obama was using JSOC even more than his predecessor. In 2010, for example, he secretly directed JSOC troops to Yemen to kill the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The president has also given JSOC the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list — and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC’s list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar, but shorter roster of names.
Created in 1980 but reinvented in recent years, JSOC has grown from 1,800 troops prior to 9/11 to as many as 25,000, a number that fluctuates according to its mission. It has its own intelligence division, its own drones and reconnaissance planes, even its own dedicated satellites. It also has its own cyberwarriors, who, on Sept. 11, 2008, shut down every jihadist Web site they knew.
Obscurity has been one of the unit’s hallmarks. When JSOC officers are working in civilian government agencies or U.S. embassies abroad, which they do often, they dispense with uniforms, unlike their other military comrades. In combat, they wear no name or rank identifiers. They have hidden behind various nicknames: the Secret Army of Northern Virginia, Task Force Green, Task Force 11, Task Force 121. JSOC leaders almost never speak in public. They have no unclassified Web site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya Proves Need for Worldwide Prohibition of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Now that the Libyan rebels are in Tripoli the news stories have turned to worries about chemical weapons, and comparisons of Moammar Qaddafi to Saddam Hussein. CBS News reported today that:
The BBC reports that Qaddafi may have around 10 tons of mustard gas, though the storage site will likely have been monitored and perhaps already secured by Western special forces.

Although Qaddafi's nuclear program was shut down in 2006, a February 2011 Wall Street Journal article indicated that Qaddafi still possesses caches of mustard gas and other chemical weapons, as well as a stockpile of Scud B missiles and 1,000 metric tons of uranium yellowcake.

That same month, Michael Luhan, spokesperson for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told the Associated Press that Libya had destroyed "nearly 13.5 metric tons" of its mustard gas in 2010, representing just over half of its stockpile.
So we can’t be excited by the Libyan people’s efforts to throw off a tyrant of 41 years; instead we need to be afraid of what might happen to those weapons?

"In particular, we must ensure that (Moammar) Gadhafi's stockpiles of advanced weapons, chemical weapons and explosives don't fall into the wrong hands," said Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in a press statement.
How many dictators did the US support over the years for fear of exactly this? We chose stability over democracy all over the globe. Today, as an example, we face the nightmare of Pakistan falling apart and Islamic terrorists taking possession of nuclear bombs.

This is a clear argument for the elimination worldwide of all weapons of mass destruction. Most countries of the world are signatories to three disarmament agreements, dealing with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. All three conventions call for the complete destruction of weapons in the three categories.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention the U.S. and Russia are supposed to completely destroy all their chemical weapons stock by spring of next year. However, there has been some delays (due to the complexity of the task) and now Russia says it will take at least until 2015 and the U.S. says the job won’t be finished until 2021.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says on its website that 44,131, or 61.99%, of the world's declared stockpile of 71,194 metric tonnes of chemical agent have been destroyed so far.

Most people seem to think that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty only requires that non-nuclear nations, like Iran, refrain from developing nuclear technology. That is not accurate. The other main “pillar” of the treaty requires nuclear nations, like the U.S., completely eliminate their nuclear weapons. Nonproliferation means reducing the number of nuclear weapons to zero.

Libya has made me realize that only in a world free from weapons of mass destruction can we unreservedly cheer on a revolution to overthrow a tyrant.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ray Anderson, Pioneer in Sustainable Industrial Capitalism

Ray Anderson proved that industrial capitalism and environmentalism can be compatible. Mr. Anderson founded Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. In 1994 he was asked to give his company’s salespeople some talking points about Interface’s approach to the environment. So he started reading about environmental issues, and thinking about them. While reading Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce,” he had what he described as a “conversion experience.”

In a subsequent book (Mid-Course Correction) Mr. Anderson wrote, “My company’s technologies and those of every other company I know of anywhere, in their present forms, are plundering the earth…I stand convicted by me, myself, alone, and not by anyone else, as a plunderer of the earth. But no, not by our civilization’s definition; by our civilization’s definition I am a captain of industry. In the eyes of many people I’m a kind of modern-day hero, an entrepreneur who founded a company that provides over 7,000 people with jobs.”

Mr. Anderson made it his mission to turn Interface into the first truly sustainable enterprise; one that takes nothing out of the earth that cannot be recycled or quickly regenerated, and one that does no harm to the biosphere through pollution or waste. He envisioned the company becoming a “restorative enterprise” that would improve the Earth as it does business.

Mr. Anderson died last week at the age of 77. The New York Times obituary credited Mr. Anderson with being “one of the nation’s most effective corporate advocates for environmental sustainability.” One of the reasons he was so effective was he proved that being environmentally responsible can be profitable:
“What started out as the right thing to do quickly became the smart thing,” he told a business group in Toronto in 2005. “Cost savings from eliminating waste alone have been $262 million.”

Efforts he began have so far reduced the so-called carbon footprint of the company’s 26 factories by about half, said the current chief executive, Dan Hendrix.

“When he first came up with this idea, I have to admit I thought he’d gone around the bend,” Mr. Hendrix said Wednesday. “But he was right.”

Ralph Nader, who became friendly with Mr. Anderson after hearing one of his speeches several years ago, called him “the greatest educator of his peers in industry, and the most knowledgeable motivator, by example and vision, for the environmental movement.”
I discussed Mr. Anderson’s work in an earlier blog post, “Imagine No Possessions”, and wrote a couple of columns about his book “Mid-Course Correction” in 2008 in the Highlands’ Newspaper: “Mid-Course Correction” and “Loops are Better than Straight Lines.”

Thank you for your contributions, Mr. Anderson.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Consciousness and Anxiety are Linked

Being Wrong, a new book by Kathryn Schulz, is an enjoyable look at epistemology, or “what do we know?” The most important thing she does is to help the reader see that error and being wrong is not the unmitigated disaster that we usually envision it to be.

Error is unavoidable because we do not perceive the world directly. Our sense perceptions are processed in our brains to form a mental model of the world, built up from beliefs about how the world works. No one’s model matches reality, and this mismatch results in errors. Ms. Schulz refers to this as a gap between our mind’s image of reality and reality itself, and shows how this gap is actually a source of great pleasure to us, through its expression in comedy, art, and magic. Ms. Schulz writes,
The Incongruity Theory of Humor posits that comedy arises from a mismatch—specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief—and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is—give or take a little pleasure—the structure of error.
Our love of optical illusions, magic, and puzzles show how much we actually enjoy the experience of being wrong.

Error also arises as an inevitable byproduct of our brains’ efficient use of assumptions. Our minds work through inductive reasoning, which means we extrapolate to general conditions from a small, particular sample. This is a very powerful analytic tool, for example, when we learned English we learned that adding –ed to the end of a word made it past tense. We didn’t have to learn every single word and every tense-variation individually. Of course that meant we made errors, like saying “sended” instead of “sent.” But the few errors were worth the time saved overall. Ms. Schulz writes,
We tend to think of mistakes as the consequence of cognitive sloppiness—of taking shortcuts, cutting corners, jumping to conclusions. And in fact, we do take shortcuts, cut corners, and jump to conclusions. But thinking of these tendencies as problems suggests that there are solutions: a better way to evaluate the evidence, some viable method for reaching airtight verdicts about the world…there are other ways to reason about the world, but those other ways aren’t better. The system we have is better. The system we have is astonishing…our mistakes are part and parcel of our brilliance, not the regrettable consequences of a separate and deplorable process.
But I think Ms. Schulz veered off the track when she came to the end of the book and made conclusions about what these propensities to error mean. She asserts that being wrong about reality is actually the best thing for us; it’s what makes up optimists, it’s what keeps us from being depressed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Anarchist Wing of the Republican Party

Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes, editor of the Nation magazine, were guests on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week. Hayes mentioned that his mother was a government employee, and Coulter said, “She’s a drain on society.” Coulter and fellow guest and British author Amanda Foreman went on to say that government employees contribute nothing to society and in fact just suck from those who do:
MAHER: We want you to know that. Your mother is a drain on…

COULTER: Well, you asked.

HAYES: Ann Coulter thinks you’re a drain on society.

FOREMAN: What Ann means, she’s not a revenue producer. She’s not a revenue producer.

COULTER: Right. She’s a revenue taker.

FOREMAN: No, she’s gainfully employed, but she’s not a revenue producer.

COULTER: No, it's worse than not having a job, having a government job, because you have somebody doing something nobody wants, taxpayers pay for it, and they can never get rid of them.
Amazingly, (and typically for a liberal) Hayes just sat there and allowed this slander of government (and his mother) to stand.

[Transcript is from a conservative blog, you can see his take on this exchange here.]

The rejection of large government is perhaps the most defining element of the right-wing, but pre-Ronald Reagan Republicans were moderate, even liberal by today’s standards, in their approach to governing. For example, during Eisenhower’s administration the U.S. built the interstate highway system, and Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Then came Reagan and his famous anti-government aphorisms, for example, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language? I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In the last thirty years we’ve seen an acceleration of this anti-government attitude, and it seems to have gone into overdrive since Barack Obama’s election as president.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reinventing Feminism

A Facebook friend posted a TED video by blogger Courtney Martin called “Reinventing Feminism.” That really wasn’t the subject of her talk, but as a 30-year-old feminist who contributes to the website ("an online community for feminists and their allies" according to their website) she did have some comments about her generation’s attitude towards old-school feminism.

In particular she seemed to confirm my observation in the blog post below, “Twenty-first Century Feminism,” about the way feminists dressed in the 1970s and 80s. Ms. Martin said she became a feminist when she saw a woman, who was a famous feminist, lecture at her college wearing fish-net stockings. “Aesthetics, fun, and beauty matter,” Ms. Martin commented. All she had seen of what feminism meant up to that point was “man-hating and Birkenstocks.”

This was the legacy of Erica Jong’s generation. I don’t think modern-style feminism is any better, justifying the sexualization of women’s bodies as “liberating.” A true liberation of women will celebrate the natural beauty of the female body without needing spike heels or face paint or push-up bras.

Cooperation and Fairness are Driving Forces of Human Social Evolution

Social Darwinism is a philosophy, developed in the late 1800s, that applied Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human society. If it’s true that competition is the mechanism of physical evolution and that today’s species are the winners of earlier struggles to survive, wouldn’t the same principles be true for societies and their structures? By applying this thinking to politics and economics Social Darwinists concluded that the reason white European societies were dominant in the Victorian era was because white Europeans were superior; they had won out in the dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest contest and come out on top. Subjugation of the lesser races was just and right.

Social Darwinism argued that biology was destiny and that a broad spectrum of socially undesirable traits, ranging from ‘pauperism’ to mental illness, resulted from heredity. Rich people were successful because they were superior. Poor people were failures because they were inferior. Thus social policies to help the poor were a waste of time.

This philosophy naturally gave rise to the "science" of eugenics, which was devoted to improving the human race by getting rid of the “unfit.” It was just a short step to Hitler and the Holocaust.

Social Darwinism isn’t talked about much today, yet it still underlies many people’s thinking: it justifies laissez-faire economic policies, for example. Modern-day conservatives love the idea that science proves that the rich and powerful deserve to be rich and powerful because they are inherently more “fit” in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. Look at the success of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that racial differences in intelligence could be genetically based.

How much of our thinking about our interactions with each other, both in our individual relationships and in the larger societal sphere of economics and politics, has been warped by this pseudo-scientific thinking that competition is the sole basis for life?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Twenty-first Century Feminism

Erica Jong published an essay in the New York Times last weekend about modern attitudes towards sex, entitled “Is Sex Passé?” Basically she says that young women of today have turned their backs on the freedom her generation won. Jong argues that these women want to regress to a 1950s ideal of motherhood and monogamy, and/or want control more than passion.

I'm a woman born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom and am thus an heir to the feminism of Jong. I've considered myself a feminist since I was 12, (although I have long since abandoned that for humanism, by which I mean liberation for both sexes—men needed to be freed from cultural ideas of manhood).

Jong’s article sounded to me like the standard cliché of a crotchety old woman blaming the younger generation for not being as good as hers.

Ms. Jong speculates that the reason today’s women feel this way is because they are, like every generation, doing the opposite of whatever their parents did. I believe Jong is evading the responsibility of the legacy of her feminism.

Short-Termism is Harming Our Nation

Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC since 2006, is ending her five-year term with a bang: this last weekend she's on the cover of the New York Times magazine with a long interview and she published a 4-page (web-length) op-ed in the Washington Post.

Ms. Bair has been portrayed as the “difficult” member of the White House economic team (for instance in the movie "Too Big to Fail" by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin) because not only did she see the problem in advance and warn about it before it happened, giving the lie to the revisionist “no one saw/could-have-seen-it beforehand,” she argued against the pro-bondholder slant of the rest of the financial team. She believed that depositors/taxpayers should be the ones protected and that "market correction," in other words investors losing money, is what the bondholders needed. They needed to learn a lesson about risk management.

The main message of her op-ed is that our country is suffering from "short-termism." The financial industry and our political system focus almost exclusively on improving short-term profits and avoiding short-term losses, completely ignoring the long-term effects on our nation. If this doesn't change we are doomed to suffer, at minimum, another major financial crisis. That's as far as Ms. Bair goes in her article, but it is clear to me that this short-termism is hastening the decline of the United States.

Both articles are very worth reading to help understand what happened to cause the Great Recession, and what the policies enacted in response have accomplished. But for convenience here's the opening of her op-ed:
The nation is still struggling with the effects of the most serious financial crisis and economic downturn since the Great Depression. But Wall Street seems all too ready to return to the same untenable business practices that brought it to its knees less than three years ago. And some in government who claim to be representing Main Street seem all too ready to help.

Already we have heard rationalization of the subprime mortgage debacle and denigration of those of us who have advocated long-term, structural changes in the way we regulate the financial industry. Too many industry leaders, as well as some government officials, compare the crisis to a 100-year flood. “Who, us?” they say. “We didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody saw this coming.”

The truth is, some of us did see this coming. We tried to stop the excessive risk-taking that was fueling the housing bubble and turning our financial markets into gambling parlors. But we were impeded by the culture of short-termism that dominates our society. Our financial markets remain too focused on quick profits, and our political process is driven by a two-year election cycle and its relentless demands for fundraising.

I’ve had a unique vantage point during my five-year term as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., from the early failure of IndyMac Bankto the implementation of reforms designed to ensure that no conglomerate ever again is deemed “too big to fail.”

Now that I’m stepping down, I want to sound the alarm again. The common thread running through all the causes of our economic tumult is a pervasive and persistent insistence on favoring the short term over the long term, impulse over patience. We overvalue the quick return on investment and unduly discount the long-term consequences of that decision-making.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Radical Acceptance

My spiritual practice is based on the concept of radical acceptance. In every moment of now, accept the way it is. Embrace reality.

My mantra is “bend like a willow,” which means, “bow to the reality of whatever is before me.” This phrase came to me after reading the following passage about acceptance in Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity: “The principle of the thing is clearly something like judo, the gentle (ju) way (do) of mastering an opposing force by giving in to it…[Taoism] showed how the supple willow survives the tough pine in a snowstorm, for whereas the unyielding branches of the pine accumulate snow until they crack, the springy boughs of the willow bend under its weight, drop the snow, and jump back again.”

Bend like a willow is my visual representation of acceptance: as a willow bends in the wind so I can bend with the events that flow my way and allow them to move through and past me without breaking me. In flexibility there is strength.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I accept everything all the time! But the feelings of irritation and unhappiness that I experience when I’m not accepting reality are the cues that I am off balance and need to come back into harmony with what is.

Marsha Linehan, a psychologist in Washington, uses radical acceptance with her suicidal patients suffering from “borderline personality disorder,” a condition worse that its name implies. One of the characteristics of this disorder is powerful self-destructive urges. Dr. Linehan, who suffers from the disorder herself, counsels her patients to not only accept their condition, but to accept the associated feelings of despair as appropriate for a person with this condition. Instead of rejecting their feelings, they accept them.

An article in the New York Times describes the process by which she discovered the concept of radical acceptance:
It took years of study in psychology — she earned a Ph.D. at Loyola in 1971 — before she found an answer. On the surface, it seemed obvious: She had accepted herself as she was. She had tried to kill herself so many times because the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.
That basic idea — radical acceptance, she now calls it — became increasingly important as she began working with patients, first at a suicide clinic in Buffalo and later as a researcher. Yes, real change was possible. The emerging discipline of behaviorism taught that people could learn new behaviors — and that acting differently can in time alter underlying emotions from the top down.

But deeply suicidal people have tried to change a million times and failed. The only way to get through to them was to acknowledge that their behavior made sense: Thoughts of death were sweet release given what they were suffering.

But now Dr. Linehan was closing in on two seemingly opposed principles that could form the basis of a treatment: acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.

Dr. Linehan found that the tension of acceptance could at least keep people in the room: patients accept who they are, that they feel the mental squalls of rage, emptiness and anxiety far more intensely than most people do. In turn, the therapist accepts that given all this, cutting, burning and suicide attempts make some sense.
This sounds like a dangerous prescription in the case of a suicidal patient, but Dr. Linehan’s technique works:

In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere tracked the progress of hundreds of borderline patients at high risk of suicide who attended weekly dialectical therapy sessions. Compared with similar patients who got other experts’ treatments, those who learned Dr. Linehan’s approach made far fewer suicide attempts, landed in the hospital less often and were much more likely to stay in treatment. D.B.T. is now widely used for a variety of stubborn clients, including juvenile offenders, people with eating disorders and those with drug addictions.
Alan Watts gives an explanation for why this works (This Is It): “Before a man can change his course of action he must first be sincere, going with and not against his nature, even when the immediate trend of his nature is toward evil, toward a fall...One turns the front wheel of a bicycle in the direction in which one is falling. Surprisingly, to the beginner, one does not lose control but regains it. So, also, to recover himself the automobile driver must turn in the direction of a skid.”

The complete acceptance of reality sounds like a dangerous prescription for being a doormat to many people. Are we to “accept” a person who attacks us? Does acceptance mean that we let anyone do anything they want to us? Do we just let bad things happen without taking any action?

These common prejudices about acceptance are wrong. Radical acceptance is not fatalism. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean we stay stuck; it doesn’t mean we don’t change beliefs and behaviors that are harmful. In fact, radical acceptance makes it easier to change!

Acceptance of reality greatly enhances our ability to act in the world. When we accept reality it means that we perceive reality more accurately, thus our ability to appropriately interact with it is enhanced.

This is the philosophy behind martial arts, and particularly Aikido, a non-aggressive system of self-defense. Aikido training involves learning to perceive, accept, and exploit reality to your survival advantage. By objectively seeing the dynamics of an attack you have the ability to use the energy of your attacker to move him or her beyond you while expending as little of your own energy as possible. The more accurately you perceive and accept the exact configuration of an attack, the easier it is for you to deal with it.

Radical acceptance is an incredibly empowering attitude towards life.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Imagine No Possessions

“How many times do they expect me to buy the White Album?” This question expresses a common frustration about the continuous improvement in audio-visual technology: The Beatles released the White Album in 1968 as an LP, then we bought it on cassette or 8-track tape, then we bought the CD, then there was Super-Audio CD, and then…

But something new has happened: now you can buy the license to download the White Album to your hard drive, and the purchase gives you the right to listen to those songs, in whatever form you want, for the rest of your life. Instead of buying some thing—a record, cassette, CD—you buy the listening rights.

A bonus: we don’t have to store all those tapes and disks in our houses anymore.

The same goes for movies: why have shelves full of DVDs? You can drive to the video store, or better yet, download a movie from NetFlix and watch it instantly. In effect we are renting the right to watch a film instead of purchasing our own copy.

These examples, common experiences for many of us, are the vanguard of what Paul Hawken calls the “next industrial revolution.” This revolution is described in Hawken’s book Natural Capitalism: “The first of natural capitalism’s four interlinked principles is radically increased resource productivity. The others are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of prosperity.”

Ray Anderson is the founder and (until recently) chairman of a global corporation doing more than $1 billion in annual sales, and he is trying to implement these principles. Anderson’s company, Interface, based in Atlanta, is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. In 1994 he was asked to give his company’s salespeople some talking points about Interface’s approach to the environment. So he started reading about environmental issues, and thinking about them.

He was inspired by Hawken’s writings and began implementing natural capitalism’s principles in his carpet business, particularly the ideas about closed loops and the provision of services instead of sale of goods.

Biological systems operate in loops, where one creature’s waste is another’s food—in nature there is no such thing as waste. Our current industrial system operates in a straight-line: materials are extracted and used to manufacture products; products are sold to consumers; products are owned and used by consumers; when products wear out they are discarded by the consumer into landfills. This system results in lots of waste.

Anderson and Hawken envision a new industrial system based on circular processes, where materials for any given product are continuously reused in a loop. A product is manufactured and leased to a consumer who uses it until it wears out, at which time the producer replaces it with a new product. The producer doesn’t discard anything, but recycles all the worn materials into new products, which are then placed in a consumer’s home to replace worn-out items…

In this new scheme, we don’t buy things any more; we lease their use.

For example, Anderson’s company has developed a program they call “Evergreen Lease”: a customer doesn’t purchase carpet from Interface; they lease “carpet service.” Interface installs, maintains, and regularly replaces worn carpet tiles.

Anderson writes in his book Mid-Course Correction: “The customer pays by the month for color, texture, warmth, beauty, acoustics—the services carpet delivers—and avoids the landfill liability altogether; that’s our problem, and we intend to convert that liability into an asset through closed loop recycling…The economic viability of the Evergreen Lease for us and its ultimate value to Earth depend on our closing the loop. That is, we must be able to recycle used carpet fiber into new carpet fiber.”

Have you ever tried to recycle a computer? Some large computer manufacturers like Dell will take your old computer in exchange for a new one, but they just send them off to China or an African country and poor people strip the components for useable parts, incurring considerable risk to their health in the process from all the toxic components.

Hawken is talking about a future where we will lease “computer service” from a company such as Dell and they will be completely responsible for ensuring the components from old computers are reused. What this will do is spur innovation in building computers (and everything else) so they can be easily and safely dismantled and recycled/reused.

Imagine leasing the service of refrigerating food! You would no longer actually own a refrigerator, just lease the cold space. The manufacturer would take care of it when it needs replacing and would be responsible for dismantling it and reusing all the components. As a result, the refrigerator would be designed in such a way that it could continuously feed the materials loop.

Why does John Lennon’s song “Imagine” keep playing in my head:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Vertical Farm

Reading “The Vertical Farm,” by Dr. Dickson Despommier made me feel optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time. Despommier proposes to turn cities into sustainable ecosystems where there is no waste; everything is recycled as in nature.

The vertical farm is the foundation of the sustainable city of the future: by bringing our agriculture into the city and off the soil, we can do so many things at once: cut water needs for irrigation (currently consumes 70% of our freshwater use); end the pollution of land and water with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; cut energy needs enormously—the transport of food is eliminated, just for starters; purify our grey/black water in the vertical farm system so there is no more sewage discharge into rivers and oceans; return agricultural land to its natural state restoring ecosystems and allowing for carbon sequestration; and eliminate many diseases caused by agriculture, worms and bacterial infections from using human feces as fertilizer, for example.

The book is filled with illustrations of what a vertical farm could look like (none exist today) along with detailed schematics to demonstrate the various functions, like purifying sewage and generating energy. You can see some designs on the Vertical Farm webpage.

I was a child of the 1960’s and loved watching the TV cartoon show “The Jetsons,” showing a typical American family living in the future with jet-cars and robots and all sorts of marvelous technologies. I find myself really wanting to live in a sustainable city of Despommier’s imagining.

Despommier argues that agriculture was always a flawed technology; it just took 10,000 years for that to become obvious. For example, one of the birth places of agriculture, the famed “Fertile Crescent,” is now a desert; centuries of intensive agriculture completely depleted the soil.

The second phase of the agricultural revolution occurred a little over one hundred years ago with the invention of internal combustion machines for plowing and harvesting and agrochemicals to artificially stimulate fertility and suppress weeds and insects. But this only made it more obvious that soil-based agriculture is unsustainable. Despommier cites scientists who believe the Central Valley of California only has another 25-50 years of productivity because the salination of the soil from decades of irrigation is about to reach critical levels.

In addition he gives positive evidence of how quickly over-farmed land can recover. The Dust Bowl is a prime example; 20 years after the land had been reduced to sand dunes it had recovered and was a flourishing tall-grass prairie again. It recovered because it had been completely abandoned. Another example is the forests of the U.S. Northeast. They were clear-cut for agriculture at least three times, Despommier says, but finally the residents realized agriculture was impossible there and the farmers moved to Ohio and westward. The forests grew back and became the basis of a flourishing furniture industry. He also recommends Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” for a first-hand account of Wisconsin farmland returning to forest.

So how do we make this future happen? Despommier has a fantasy of a U.S. federal-government sponsored competition among the states to design and build 10 vertical farms. It makes complete sense but of course in our dysfunctional political structure it won’t happen anytime soon. The hope is that a wealthy country in the Middle East, say one of the United Arab Emirates, sees the advantages. They can’t grow their own food in the desert, and they have no fresh water. A vertical farm would solve these problems, and the hope would be that the success of the farm would spur its adoption in countries around the world.

This John Lilly quote, used on one of the book’s chapter page, is apt: “Our only security is our ability to change.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Our Culture's Strange Attitudes Towards the Male Body

The Anthony Weiner episode revealed the widespread presence of (from my point of view) backwards attitudes towards sex. And this attitude is present in supposedly sophisticated elite media types.

For example, on John Stewart, a woman “analyst” gave the female point of view: “Women don’t want to see men’s bodies because they’re ugly. Women have beautiful bodies. Men just need to keep their shirts on.”

This past week Doonesbury portrayed the FOX reporter wrestling with the issue of his inappropriate tweets, and when he showed a female coworker one of his pictures, to test whether they were lewd, she recoiled in disgust.

How often did I hear in discussions of the issue that Weiner had sent “pics” of his “junk.” In other cultures, for example ancient Greece, the male body has been the model for artists—see Michelangelo's sculpture of David. I find it very odd that most people in our culture seem to agree that the male body is ugly. How many women have tweeted photos of their bare breasts? How many men have complained?

We are still an incredibly Puritanical people. This is in evidence in our reaction to “sex scandals,” but how much does sexual repression cause people to do incredibly stupid things like tweet a picture of their erection in their underwear to a stranger? Maybe if we got over our old-fashioned attitude toward sex and allowed more freedom to people to express themselves sexually (other than for a lifetime with one partner) we’d have fewer of these scandals. Why can’t men (and women!) visit prostitutes? Why can’t erotic performances be staged in major halls? Why can’t we follow the sexual connections we feel with certain people in our lives, even if it’s only a one-time experience?

Ted Rall calls sexual freedom the next frontier of civil rights in his syndicated column. He writes,

If slavery was America’s original sin, Puritanism was its original curse.

In recent years the United States has made significant strides towards greater equality and freedom. Racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry have been significantly curtailed by new laws and cultural education. But we still have work to do. Four centuries after people so uptight they couldn’t get along with the British invaded the New World, however, the United States remains one of the most sexually repressed Western countries.

It is not good for us.

“If expression of sexuality is thwarted, Christopher Ryan wrote in Psychology Today last year, “the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression.”

In other words, mean parents, churches and right-wing politicians.

“Instead,” Ryan observed, “the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame, and ignorant pride.”

Like, for example, gays. Fourteen states still had sodomy laws on the books by the time the Supreme Court invalidated them in 2003...

One day, I hope, we will live in a nation where another person’s sexual expression is no one’s business but theirs and their sexual partners. We will be allowed to do whatever we want with whomever we want, as long as what we do is with a consenting adult.

Even if we take pictures and post them online.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Sound of Success

Last weekend I tried to relax in the hammock in my front yard and enjoy the quiet of my mountain cove, but I had a difficult time screening out the noise of my neighbor’s lawnmower. This is no typical lawn. My neighbor’s house is perched high up on the mountain with 200 yards of lawn sloping to the road below. In addition, the owner seems to think that it is shameful if the grass gets any higher than an inch, so this mass of grass is shorn almost weekly in the summer. He spends hours on his rider-mower, infesting my otherwise peaceful suburban neighborhood with the droning din of a motor.

As I lay in the hammock, straining to relax, I realized that the sound of mowing has become even more irritating to me because it is a prime example of our unsustainable lifestyle. We cut down trees, plant vast monocultures of grass, prop up the artificiality with chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and then spend enormous sums of time and energy mowing…for what? For status. Lawns are an emblem of wealth. They show abundance. They show that we can afford to waste land, time, and resources. The history of lawns begins in European great estates, and Americans adopted the look as we got rich in the 1950’s.

It’s easy to condemn American culture for its equation of wealth and wasteful consumption, but it doesn’t take much investigation to realize that this is nothing unique to our country. Human societies across the globe and through time have worked this same equation—an obvious example is the Egyptian pyramids, constructed by untold thousands of laborers at unimaginable cost at no benefit to the society as a whole, created only to glorify the pharaohs. Other examples that come to mind are the long fingernails cultivated by the ancient Chinese aristocracy, which proved that they did no manual labor; and Hawaiian chiefs’ feather cloaks, which required tens of thousands of feathers and many years of other people’s labor. The equation of success with excessive consumption and leisure appears to be universal among humans.

This level of excess can’t be found among wild animals. The effort to survive is always too pressing. No wild animal has achieved a level of success over the survival imperative comparable to that of humans. Elephants, great apes, lions, sharks, dolphins, and whales may be at the top of their food chain, they may have time for leisure and play, they may not need to worry about predators, but they still work every day to eat.

It’s understandable that after the invention of agriculture, when survival became more assured through surplus food production, we would luxuriate in that abundance. This is nothing unique to humans: domestic animals become lazy and fat when given the opportunity.

As centuries passed and wealth accumulated the indicator of success became the manifestation of excess, the overconsumption of everything. Success means you own more land than you need, so waste it with lawns. It means you own more food than you need, so become fat and throw the extra away. It means you own more house than you can maintain, so hire a staff to keep it clean. It means you own more clothes than you can ever wear, so give them away so you can buy more. It means you have more vehicles to carry you in private luxury than you can use at any one time: cars, motorcycles, boats, planes. It means you have electronic gadgets to help pass the time you no longer need to fill with the effort to survive.

This equation, success equals profligacy, is leading humanity inexorably to our demise. The pursuit of excess by seven billion humans (and counting) is making the planet uninhabitable by our species.

For our survival we need to change the equation of success. But this appears to be a deeply rooted association, even an instinctual drive; are instincts impossible to change?

Humans have learned to deny the most primal animal instinct of all: self-replication. Many of us, including myself, have chosen not to have children because of our concerns about the environmental costs of human overpopulation. Many more have chosen to limit their families to one or two children.

If we can overcome such an incredibly powerful instinct as procreation, I am confident that we are capable of changing our attitude toward success. Andrew Carnegie, a fabulously wealthy industrialist of the late 1800s, gave most of his fortune away before he died. In an essay published in 1889, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that great fortunes should be used for the good of society as a whole, not bequeathed to the rich man’s children and wasted in dissolute living (see Paris Hilton). He concludes with this aphorism: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away over 350 million dollars and established 2,500 public libraries.

Many of our modern billionaires have followed this advice, setting up foundations to use their wealth for the good of the planet. Now this “gospel” needs to spread through the population at large so that we turn our culture from one that worships the lifestyles of the rich and famous to one that defines success as the opportunity to learn and grow, to more freely express our selves, to serve others, and to help create a better world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

War Powers Act

The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, in response to the Vietnam War debacle. Our country got into the Vietnam war slowly, gradually, at the direction of presidents without the input of the Congress (other than their budgetary capacity of course—they could always have denied funding!).

In 1973 Congress said, “Never again. This country will only go to war after the people have discussed it and approved it, through their representatives in Congress.” When you look at the Constitution it seems obvious to me that the Founders wanted it to be this way. They had just fought a revolution against a King who could make war on a whim. The last thing they wanted was a President with the same unilateral warmongering power. They gave Congress the power to declare war, and made the President the commander-in-chief; the President only executes military actions after the Congress has decided action is needed (see pertinent passages from the Constitution below).

I think Congress was correct in the assertion of their power in 1973, and I think we need to reassert the correctness here in 2011. Every president since 1973 has pushed back against this law (except for maybe Jimmy Carter, and also Gerald Ford but he’s a special case anyway). Presidents like the power of their office and are always looking to expand it.

George W. Bush used 9/11 to greatly expand the presidential/federal powers, from ramming wars through Congress and torturing prisoners to illegally wiretapping Americans. Many people are surprised that Obama is not only not pulling back from these outrages but pushing them forward. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is not an issue of ideology; it’s an issue of power. Every president chooses to increase the power of the office because it makes him more powerful now, and who cares what the next guy might do with it.

Pertinent passages from the US Constitution:
Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have power to… declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

Article II, Section 2:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

This is all it says about the President’s duty in terms of war. Obviously the Congress was vested with the power to decide when the military is used.