Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stupidity has compound interest

Yesterday morning I took my car to the gym as usual not that you'd know it by looking at me but I remain a regular even if I can't convince myself to swim eight miles a week anymore and anyway just like I always do I locked my wallet and other valuables in the car before I went in which is fine but little did I remember to take it out of the car later you see because I needed to take my wife's car which is bigger and has a moonroof but I didn't need it for the pre-morning routine but more for the afternoon to pick my cousin up from college in Boston where she attends or her stuff does and it was a pile of boxes that I really had to pick up to save the kid a few bucks on shipping two hundred pounds of near-worthless dormroom accessories to the Northwest and back again which would be a pretty pointless and expensive exercise so I don't mind stuffing the boxes in the attic for a couple months except that my wallet remember was in my other car and I didn't realize it until I got to work and I didn't have my id to get into her building and I didn't have the toll transponder either which also resides in the other car but not my wife's and I didn't have any cash for the ever-increasing fare to enter the city and so I gathered up the change under the seats and mooched a couple of bucks off of my co-worker worrying that I might not even have enough cash to get into Boston and quite confident indeed that I won't be able to drive out of it and I'd have to ask my cousin for a couple more which is embarrassing because she's just a broke college kid and what the hell I'd rather offer to buy her dinner out or something like that to show an example of how nice and responsible try to act which in essence is something other than mooching off of broke people and she's got an injured leg and had to bin up her crap and take it down herself because I can't sign in especially with my seedy badly shaven shaggy-haired thirtysomething maleness and don't I feel like an idiot but it's not like I have a credit card either to identify myself or an atm card to get toll cash and I beg my couple of quarters from my cousin and head out on the Pike thinking that if the toll adds up to more than $3.25 then I'm screwed because my absence of cash is going to make me more likely to run a toll which is going to make it more likely get pulled over which my absense of a license is going to really exacerbate to the level of court appearance and I'm humming along and failing to resist the urge to speed and my knuckles are pale on the steering wheel and I'm beating myself up for the minor error that added up to such a ineluctably dumb situation and I think back to the stupid things I did in college and since too for that matter and it comes to me that this near-panicked sense of intense embarrassment and belayed consequences all deriving from some trivial fuckup or failure to plan some minor detail isn't exactly unfamiliar and while it hasn't happened all the time it's still been a companion all my life and I figure I really have to re-evaluate but re-evaluate what exactly and what then?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yes, But is it Good for the Druids?

So I've been reading The Archdruid Report lately. Druidry? Well, best I can tell it's a practice of spirituality in nature, and without any evident orthodoxy, doctrine, belief, or pantheon (whatever the original druids might have worshipped or practiced is long since lost after all), it seems benign enough. If I were going to invent a religion from new cloth, it might go something like that, but on the other hand, the world already has more than enough faiths for its own good. I am sometimes attracted to these sorts of big-picture environment-and-society blogs as a matter of general understanding of how people fill up the planet and what we do here, and because I like to imagine where it goes from this point. Also, it's good to remind yourself that life could be lived much differently than whatever it is you're doing now. For the future, assuming a whimper rather than a bang (or, unfortunately, a rocketship), peak oil is estimated within a five-year time frame (via), and one imagines that coal and uranium won't net more than a generation or two using it at this pace. What will we do?

So I like reading these sorts of blogs...with reservations. Although the field appears to draw good writers, the commenters often scare me. Dmitry Orlov has the benefit of being funny, and brings a first-hand perspective of the Soviet collapse of a couple decades ago. I think he understands better than most people what happens to society when political reach rapidly disintigrates (hint: it's violent), but enough calls of "yeah Dmitry, but don't forget the coming race war," in one comments thread was enough to get me to stop reading altogether. Jim Kunstler has a delightfully named blog, and writes well even if he sometimes borders on nutty, but he attracts assholes like a Turkish bathhouse, and the sanctimony that his rural Lake George upperclass writer's life provides for him makes me want to sock him in the eye. By contrast, the Archdruid is gentler than these other guys, and he thinks in that comprehensively generalist way that I sometimes aspire to, even if I find him to be casual with numbers. He had some discussion of Systems Theory, which I'd never heard of even though I spent two years writing about it, that really won me over. (And yeah, it's always these guys: men look forward to a collapse more than women do, for obvious reasons. Even the kindly druid got my blood boiling a little with suggestions that we'll have to revert to more traditional domestic arrangements. Maybe that'll happen, and maybe it doesn't have to be sexist, but it probably will be: some commenter opined that feminism will simply one price we have to pay. I'm sure it would be a big sacrifice for him.)

In this week's post, the Archdruid discusses modern economics vis a vis energy sustainability. I love his notion of economists as court soothsayers, suddenly finding themselves out of their depth as circumstances (appear ready to) change. Yes, the pursuit has been a good-faith attempt to describe human behavior that is deep-down based on observations, but it's also frequently been self-serving justification, and I don't believe the precision that some economists claim, nor the omnipotence that capital is attributed. Economics is a useful description of human activity, in other words, but it's still not a comprehensive one.

But it's important to realize that Greer is describing a few schools of economic thought, schools that have adapted to a political landscape that includes 200 years of amazing energy abundance. That's not how the study developed, however, and early modern economists were more closely concerned with the balance of resources, population, capital, and land. Malthus and Mill didn't have the numerical finesse (or tools) of the eggheads and sharks on Wall Street, but that doesn't mean they weren't sharp. We can say that this is the original basis of validity that he's talking about, just like a superstition started in observation, but that's still not quite right. Economics may not have the precision of a real science, but it's still based on observation and models of behavior that have evolved to fit it. Malthus' theory, as I've babbled about, was done in by some timely technological innovations. The underlying premises changed around him, and it wasn't a valid analysis anymore. Today's capitalists (not that they don't have a lot to answer for) are more or less in the same boat that Malthus was. They may find themselves outside the range of their base assumptions as well, at which point the study will adapt again--is adapting--still trying to describe the world accurately, and hopefully not forgetting the previous lessons. It's interesting how economic theory has supported governing or dominant-class interests (like mercantilism, or the capitalism of today) or opposed them (like Marxism, or Enlightenment-vintage capitalism) at various points in history, but it's pretty much always been some kind of explanation of known events and concerns, and that won't disappear soon.

A running theme of much post-collapse thinking is that old skills will become valuable again. Probably true, but I'm extremely wary of romantic views of the past. Oil's long twilight won't be a succession of porch-time family story hours and monthly community music, knitting on a dusky quiet eventing, surrounded by fireflies or crackling wood fires, miles from the nearest neighbors. Or it won't just be that. Frontier arts might become valuable knowledge, but they are still unlikely to make you top dog in the community, which won't just go away. It may be fulfilling, but that's a challenging life, harder still if your family's survival depends on the yearly whims of the weather. Or the whims of the local power structures. Romantics hope that the powers won't have all that much reach, but that sounds ahistorical to me. We imagine that the dominant culture will improve to something less coercive, but frankly, that sounds inhuman. One thing I'm sure of, is that the future won't be a return to the past, and certainly not to a fake, idealized past. I don't believe that humanity's been around anywhere near long enough to have exhausted the possible modes of coexistence. We may go somewhere worse, but it's safe to say it will be somewhere different.

Modern economics has brought plenty of new insights and methods, and if theories of agricultural production and land rents become important again, it's not going easily back to the pre-math days, any more than society is going to suddenly forget about the germ theory of disease, or of civic organization, or how guns work. If computation energy is harder to come by, then abstract knowledgable pursuits might divert themseleves into gentlemanly or monastic activities again, sure. (If my post-collapse descendents become bookleggers, my ghost will look favorably on them.) But even in the friggin' dark ages of the West, when the political means basically evaporated, practical technology still kept going, whether adapted from the achievements of the past or the achievements of the East. There were a number of important technological developments in the middle ages, which is why when European society gradually woke up (and gave birth to protestants, anti-monarchists, modern science, and new economics) it didn't look much like primitive Rome anymore. We probably shouldn't exclude political developments, either--ugly and violent, many of them, but they did stabilize society for long stretches.

So holding on to practical and frugal life skills? Sounds smart to me, but even if we find ourselves a hundred years out envying the 21st century third world, there's still no way we're going to discard the present. It'll loom over us like the past does today. We'll start from the current understanding, and adapt it (well or poorly) to meet the constraints of the day. Unlike the old Druids, or even the Romans, we've produced such a colossal quantity of recorded knowledge, it's hard to imagine it won't keep turning up for centuries this time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Who Rules America, by G. William Domhoff

Who Rules America: Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance is the sixth edition of Domhoff's book, rewritten especially for our 2009 American political environment. It advances a class- and power-based framework to describe our society, goes into some details on how the networks the powerful form and how they operate in our society, and dismisses some of the more conventional interpretations of political science. I suppose I have to call it a necessary book, not precisely because it's some occasionally useful alternate viewpoint--although that might describe it's place in a saner political atmosphere--but more that the last decade or so has encompassed such spectacular failures of both the usual pluralist (the high school Civics version of representative democracies and the will of the people and so forth) and what Domhoff calls institutional absolutist (those who consider government as the only important power agency--throw a dart at the intertubes, and you're sure to hit in the eye some scold going on about the "state" or the "legitimate monopoly of force"--talking about those guys), that their inadequacy is hard to ignore. Neither political theory (I cringe a little to pair those words) has represented very well, for example, how we've managed to defend a handful of industries and insiders at any and all costs while our leaders hedge endlessly and ignore obvious favorable evidence when it comes to throwing the masses a bone or two. To put the financial bailout, say, or existing tax and regulatory structures, or the century-old categorical aversion to labor (I hate unions as much as the next salaried wanker, but I do try to apply my criticisms consistently) into a pluralist framework requires such a tremendous dose of ad hoc fallacious bullshitting--at least a whole blogosphere's worth--to make old Irv Langmuir weep. Somehow the answer is always to benefit a group that contains the deciders and to keep the rest of the unwashed out of the decision-making process (even if they occasionally benefit too).

In my more jaded moments, I suspect a pluralist model has been cynically advanced by a secretive power elite as a diversion. More accurately it has evolved to serve some sort of institutionalized obfuscatory function in the policy and opinion networks that Domhoff describes. But I think the persistence of the pluralism argument, or of the idea of distinct separation of government and citizen, is based on our individual experiences. The general way to formulate an argument on these grounds is to try and extend philosophies about human nature to human institutions. It's a sort of first-principles approach, which is fine, but I think we tend to overstate the rationality of our nature, and I think the societal descriptions that come from these points of view tend to be more like a narrative, more anecdotal, with a sneaky tendency to proceed toward preferred conclusions. And I think these views are used more often to justify human institutions, at least lately. (God knows class theory has been used as justification too, but I wish some better blogger than me would take it on him or herself to pick on the Enlightenment thinkers now and again. I like the ideas to a large extent, but I am fairly sure that much of this business of the nature of property and the universality of rights also had something to do with a new class of wealthy people trying to explain why they deserved to be.) But it's also worth the effort to look at the empirical macro effects and try to think about how our behavioral tendencies might have informed them, and I'll be honest here: one reason I'm liking these class and power theories right now is that they support my bias that we are less philosophical deliberators than we are a bunch of self-congratulating pack-apes. I mean we do operate on principles to an extent, but I think ideologies fall far short in predicting the way we continue to organize ourselves. It seems more reliable to observe that we tend to look out for our section of the herd; we organize hierarchies on whatever scale, we seek to define our subgroup and are impressed with its contribution, even if we're fond of other groups. The reason politics looks like high school (or a fraternity of jackasses) is because they're both manifestations of typical human activity.

Now we may be able to create external conditions that restrain that, or fail to, and the collective knowledge and experience matters (the subject of about a million other posts of mine, written and procrastinated), and situations of greater real prosperity (1950-1970, say) appears to correlate with some democratization of power, but I deeply distrust either claim of causation on that one. While I'm at it, let me dismiss my own generational myopia too. I see a lot of willing suspension of disbelief in the past ten years only because I was living them and trying to pay half-attention. Not only was the American power distribution more unequal 100 or 150 years ago, it more blatant, more obvious, better understood by the public, and more vigorously resisted. Noted.

Okay, so Domhoff's thesis is that the dominant power network in the U.S. isn't military or theological, but economic. The first contentious part is that a class-based power structure exists here in the first place, and he gets to it by defining class and power with semi-statistical data: cross-referencing influential memberships (who knew graph theory was useful), analyzing wealth and income distributions, and describing power indicators (as Domhoff summarizes them: Who benefits? Who governs? and Who wins?). I like thinking of power as some kind of statistical variable, measuring, to the extent stuff in this field is quantitative, how power and wealth can be more concentrated or less concentrated in society. It's not a matter of arguing people must behave this way, it's a matter of observing that statistically, they do. Domhoff writes nothing to dispute these observations, really. The power people and the upper class people, as Domhoff variously (and I think uncontroversially) says, overlap to comprise a common group, and I guess what makes this a theory rather than just an observation is the argument that power indicators aren't chiefly achieved by otherwise neutral, unconnected means. It's hard to get status in the herd without plugging in to the powerful networks. That those networks will support the shared values of the people in them and the people underwriting them isn't a shocker either. (I spent some time thinking of the networks I'm plugged into too, a future post if its boringness can be somehow contained.)

A barrier is that it feels very strange to talk about a "class" of people comprised of individuals I might know or meet, that are basically like me. Not aliens at all, even if they (we?) aspire to some shared experiences. And some people who win, even with the networks, fought to get there. The upper class isn't some cadre of moustache-twirling archvillains promoting a pluralist viewpoint because it disguises their true goals. They probably believe in the pluralist model too. And there's a trace of validity that when corporations succeed, they're helping their employees too. (A lot depends on the corporations, what they do, how they distribute revenues, and whom they employ!) Looking at the distribution of power indicators as a property of a given society, then the extent to which typical people (let's not say "you") are in charge of their destiny through effort and training (or whatever other narrative) can be thought of as a measurement the power structure.

Although the book radically opposes the usual descriptions of our economic hierarchy (and uses a lot of liberal PoliSci jargon to do it), and although Dohmoff's judgements can be discerned in there, the viewpoint can still be read as remaining fairly neutral on the broad questions of "is it good." If there weren't a loosely defined group of corporate and upperclass interests running things, then it'd be pro bureaucrats, or labor representatives, or soldiers, or priests. Not exactly uncommon in other places and times. The corporate community owns more than its share of evil, but I can't convince myself it's more inherently nasty than the other avenues though. The biggest problem Domhoff implies, and I tend to agree with him, is that power is currently overly concentrated in one small sector that doesn't like to give it up, and it'd be better to have an environment where status was less a foregone conclusion. (Or which was more attendant to our long-term survival, but that's another hobby horse.)

Right, so obviously it took me three weeks to read a couple hundred pages. How does Who Rules pass as a book? It's an undergrad text, and typically, it's simultaneously audacious, dull, and didactic by design. Mostly I got some useful terms defined, and my prejudices were confirmed in a richer depth than usual. Domhoff has a good supply of supplemental info and a companion web site (I think all textbooks do this now--what a pain in the ass), and I found the supporting material more informative and to provide the depth and convincing information that the text sometimes lacks. Since we're only talking 50 or 60 pages added to a relatively short book, I wish they were supplied as written appendices, it would have worked more nicely by my bed.

This edition of the book was written shortly after Barack Obama was elected to office, and Domhoff took pains to leave an open-ended critique of the new administration, noting that there are slightly fewer board members in the president's cabinet than in preceding ones. He offers a checklist of signs for hope, which, in 2009, were speculative: how will Barry handle the financial bailout, the promises on healthcare, corporate lawsuits, and the other things mentioned up there in the first paragraph. A year later, and it's not very encouraging.