Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Five More Thoughts: Growth Stinks! Ed.

Yet another five thoughts, riffing on macroeconomics and Massachusetts, football and the human condition, corruption and politics.

1. "Allowing retailers to make money off of sick people is wrong."
My default assumption about local politics is endemic corruption, which I imagine increases as a function of history, poverty, and the tendency of the available money to be packed into a small population of brahmins. (The last thing may be more an indicator of corruption than a cause.) In Boston's case, my conjectures are further fueled by a combination of Edwin O'Connor's classic caricature, and the real-world clusterfuck of the Big Dig. Even if I've got to pay for it, I'm still glad I don't live there.

A lot of you may not realize that the current mayor of Boston, Massachusetts is a high-functioning retard. Well, that may not actually be true, he's got to be brighter than he appears when he's speaking. Listening to him, Tom "Mumbles" Menino carries himself with all the presence and persuasion of Milton from Office Space. How could someone who can't even use the language possibly market himself to the masses and become, very nearly, the city's longest serving mayor? (Yeah, you're thinking what I'm thinking.) I can't stand him. Even here, well outside of the city, I constantly hear the guy on radio interviews, awkwardly gladhanding his way through some civic event or local news. His political philosophy seems to be the expensive sort of liberal variety (which isn't precisely what annoys me) and the people who Menino really seems to upset are the right-wing and libertarian types, who are righteously pissed about the mayor's gun control platform, and his tendency to dance around the city worker's unions (which is also a point in his favor). No, the problem is the zealots may be more or less right about him.

As a principle, I support federal health insurance, if for no other reason than it's a better deal than our current system of private largess. On the other hand, that doesn' t mean that private care shouldn't be an option, and in those rare cases where pay-per-use health care can fulfill that market ideal of cost reduction via competition, then it's foolish to disallow it. One of the problems with our current insurance model is that routine medical services, whether preventative or basic responses, require full doctor's visits, or, for those without insurance, a ridiculously expensive, demoralizing, and time-wasting trip to the emergency room. If setting a bone or curing an ear infection (or obtaining a referral to a professional)--or you know, reaching poorer sectors in the event of any possible virulent contagions--can be taken care of by a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant for a minor fee, if it can do this and leave the heavy-duty infrastructure open for actual emergencies, then what could be the possible objection? According to Menino, he can't bear the idea of people making money off of the sick. It might also make six of the ten largest employers in the city uncomfortable, I suppose.

Corrupt, stupid, or dogmatic: it can hardly matter.

2. Sign number 1,354,894 of the housing bubble.
I like New England, but I'll be the first to admit (and the first to go on about) how the cities up here are a special breed of ugly. Manufacturing hit here sooner than it did the rest of the country, and left here earlier too. Everywhere you look are the abandoned husks of old industrial mills, many of them from the textile powherhouse days. Not only are the industries old and dead, they've got an endemic shabbiness about them that persists: there aren't factories of glass here, but complexes of stone and brick, great and blocky, dropped over rivers, and towering over the local landscape. The towns they spawned are (excepting the financial and shipping sectors of Boston, Providence, and Hartford) single-story and drab, old rows of identical housing and crumbling storefronts, with buzzing old neon, obsolete television aerials, paper-thin linoleum, and gunk at the corners of the baseboards that's probably a century old. There's a lot of interesting history in all that, an ample supply of immigrant cuisine (well, in some communities) and comfortably dive bars, but it's hardly a pretty place to live.

Housing prices throughout eastern and central Massachusetts are some of the highest nationally, and as evidenced my own experience, the most resistant to the bubble economy. My schadenfreude is hardly limited to the financial plight of the big boys, but when it starts to hit towns like Lawrence, then I start to feel a little bad. If it were limited to the Boston commuters, their aging coifed brows peering fitfully from behind the pillars of their McMansions, it would be one thing, but even in their case, there's a reason they can't afford to live where they work. Lawrence is a sad town, a particularly ugly relic among a landscape that's dotted with ugly relics. I've lived in Willimantic, Connecticut, and had family in Waterbury, and those burgs look positively ritzy by Lawrence standards. It's no surprise that the housing crunch in this state would hit there first, but you know, if a $250,000 condo in Lawrence ever looks like a wise investment, then you just might be living in a bubble economy.

3. Marketing the NFL Network
Of course New England is more than a post-industrial geographical region, it's also a kickass football team. The NFL relented under congressional pressure on the last weekend of the regular season, and allowed its matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants to take place on network television. For the game, we were treated (much as we have been treated during the playoffs) to a running advertisement for the NFL network. On December 29th, it was practically extortion. See what you're missing! Talk to your cable provider today!

Let's leave aside the corruption of corporate monopolies (in the case of the NFL), distribution monopolies (the FCC), and content oligopolies (cable--It's CraptasticTM!). The problem with the NFL network is that it made the mistake of previewing its content when it was bundled in with the rest of cable. Best I can tell, in addition to it's three showcase games a year, the programming consists of draft coverage, replayed games (which run about an hour after the commercials and uneventful play are stripped out), and fantasy analysis that makes ESPN announcers look dignified and wise. Even during football season, that stretches out the network schedule to three or four hours of programming a day if everyone talks really slowly. Throw in some cheerleader bios, high school and Canadian league coverage, and then rerun the whole thing again in an eye-gouging loop, and that only leaves about 12 hours a day to fill with...something or other. Maybe they can force some more jocularity out of Jason Sehorn and Eddie George?

The reason no one wants to pay for the NFL network is because it sucks. At the end of the day, you really do have to have a product.

4. Growth Stinks
When I drive around my own depressed--and depressing--New England town, I look around at the old garbage-strewn lots, the construction sites, the homes on the hillsides, and mentally paint original forest onto the landscape, thinking what features may have been important to the aboriginal societies, how it might have felt to walk around under trees. It's not exactly romance--I don't fool myself that the early times were anything but freezing, hungry and filthy--but I hate the celebration of the mediocre achievements of the human condition above all other things.

Reading (on Mike's recommendation) Our Kind has been reinforcing my belief that civilization, organized war, and other innovations of the species are almost exclusively a function of population and resource pressures. For a given rate of energy production (or protein production), and to the extent that human behavior can be viewed in the aggregate, then there's some optimal population which can be sustained without taking the reduction measures of emigration, war, or rationing reproduction. Buried in that equation is increasing productivity--getting more yield per effort--which will raise the population ceiling, but on a global scale we're at some point going to saturate on energy input. Only so much sunlight lands here, and there's only so much oil in the ground. It may in 50 years instead of 10, but too few people are talking seriously about too many people.

Although I piss and moan about this frequently, I'm actually on an economics thought here. The financial health of this nation and others is judged by growth. Everyone's scared out of their pants about a recession this quarter, but the wisdom of growth economies is gradually getting lost on me. In order to enhance the GDP, you need more consumption, more investment, and more exports. More people exchanging stuff faster, in other words. There are a number of ways that this happens, but as much as we hear about how super the productivity growth is, what we're really depending on is the growth of people. Banking our entire economy on a continually expanding population? What could possibly go wrong?

I worry about where it's going. Harris cites abortion, infanticide and growth of patriarchies as two ways societies can self-regulate population growth to avoid starvation and disease (the latter allows for a perpetual and disposable warrior caste and distributes women carefully), but it's reassuring that affluent societies tend to self-limit their populations too. Europe's modern population, famously enough, is declining in most places, and in the U.S., most of the increase is due to immigration, with the established families sprouting less kids. (The political marriage of anti-immigration sentiments, anti-abortion, family values, and economic is dysfunctional by nature.) Are we headed to population control through increased opportunity for all citizens, disaster, or a growing military patriarchy? Tough call.

5. Welcome to the Bozo Bin.
Of course, any political candidate to come out screaming for zero population growth will be written off as a nutter with no respect for the culture of life, the good ol' days, or the unbridled growth of the gross domestic product. As a voter, it's important to analyze political candidates' stances on various issues, as well as evaluate, with very nearly zero relevant information, their ability to promote those issues. The body politic, especially at the nationally level, is a monster of inertia, a body at rest that would prefer to stay that way, even when the status quo is destructive. The laboratories of foreign economies have demonstrated pretty well that the existing health care approach is less than optimal, for example, but of you question the dominance of private insurance, the actions of the military-industrial complex, dare to undervalue the warrior caste, advocate more equitable economic rules (not even talking redistrubition), or unmolested personal freedoms, then you're too fucking crazy dangerous to play with the big kids. So we have McCain, Romney, Clinton and Obama all saying more or less the same thing on economic and foreign policy. Yes, the differences are important, especially if you have opinions on abortion, but they're not as deep as they'd have you believe.

This makes me warmer to those alternative loony candidates. I'm going to have to hurry up, because I've just come to realize that Massachusetts is going to allow independents to vote in party primaries this year. But just because they're written off by the professional Americans, doesn't mean they're not actually nuts. Ron Paul really is a xenophobic whackjob. I'm looking closer at Kucinich--who'll probably receive my vote, actually--but at my current glance, his government really does look big and intrusive, and he peppers it all with obnoxious hippie aphorisms. Too bad the Dodd is out.

Writing off people is a necessary tool in life. Some of them will hurt you if given the chance, and it's risky to take the time to judge everyone you first meet as thoroughly as they deserve, and even when you know them, it's very difficult to evaluate them one interaction at a time. Fitting people to a personality model ends up being a necessary, if inadequate, approximation. Morally, I think it's important to use fair criteria--less how someone looks, for example, and more what they do and how they justify it. Is there a political person who doesn't come up wanting? Any person at all?

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