Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Biting off more than we can sustainably chew

"The larger question is, If we continue with business as usual—
with overpumping, overgrazing, overplowing, overfishing, and
overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide—how long will
it be before the Ponzi economy unravels and collapses? No one
knows. Our industrial civilization has not been here before.
Unlike Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which was set up
with the knowledge that it would eventually fall apart, our
global Ponzi economy was not intended to collapse. It is on a
collision path because of market forces, perverse incentives, and
poorly chosen measures of progress. We rely heavily on the market
because it is in so many ways such an incredible institution.
It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planning
body can match, and it easily balances supply and demand.

"The market does, however, have some fundamental, potentially
fatal, weaknesses. It does not respect the sustainable yield
thresholds of natural systems. It also favors the near term over
the long term, showing little concern for future generations. It
does not incorporate into the prices of goods the indirect costs
of producing them. As a result, it cannot provide the signals
telling us that we are caught up in a Ponzi scheme.
In addition to consuming our asset base, we have also
devised some clever techniques for leaving costs off the books—
much like the disgraced and bankrupt Texas-based energy company
Enron did some years ago. For example, when we use
electricity from a coal-fired power plant we get a monthly bill
from the local utility. It includes the cost of mining coal, transporting
it to the power plant, burning it, generating the electricity,
and delivering electricity to our homes. It does not,
however, include any costs of the climate change caused by
burning coal. That bill will come later—and it will likely be
delivered to our children. Unfortunately for them, their bill for
our coal use will be even larger than ours" (Brown 15-16).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Finalish Thoughts on Patel's "The Value of Nothing"

"Taking what we can from the sociology of the commons, a genuine democracy appears to involve changing the way we relate to the world around us, and moving beyond ownership to stewardship to commoning. This isn't a call to abandon all property--personal property is important, and no one should be denied it within reason. Nor is this a call to abandon markets--markets are good ways to decentralize decision making, and it's hard to imagine a functioning democracy where people are free without also having markets. British economist Diane Elson points out that even utopian community groups create some sort of market and tools of exchange--pure systems of barter are harder to manage, and democratically controlled markets make exchange easier, while leaving open the space to craft and adjust prices within those markets. What needs to be plucked out of markets is the perpetual and overriding hunger for expansion and profit that has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe; what needs to be plucked out of us is the belief that markets are the only way to value our world" (Patel 188).

I also love a huge section on pages 176-177 about how to make this new democracy work. It's motivating and delicious. It's not as specific as I'd like it to be, but then again, it wouldn't be democratic if it were.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Reading from the book of Nothing

"If 'savage' was the magic word for colonialists, 'political will' is the fairy dust of today's democracy. When change fails to happen, it is for want of 'political will,' a sort of magic powder that stirs the powerful to action (even if that action ends up being merely 'rinse and repeat'). What contemporary ideas of 'political will' betray, more than anything, is our own ambivalence about government. The public at large have more than enough political will for health care, for education, for reduced spending on weapons, or for the environment. It's just that, all too often, the abundant will of government representatives is shaped by a corporate agenda, rather than a popular one. In Italy, one of the best-selling books of recent years is La Casta (The Caste), a political expose' by senior journalists Sergio Rizzo and gain Antonio Stella that portrays the political establishment as a club of more or less well-meaning kleptocrats. When government really is a caste apart, it seems there's little that can be done to bring them back to earth except, as history suggests, through widespread civil engagement. Curiously, in one of the more cited studies of what makes bureaucracies work for the people, Robert Pugnam's Making Democracy Work, a key factor in Italy has been the presence of the Communist Party.

"While the Italian Communist Party may seem a rather unlikely and remote source of hope, its 1970s foot soldiers knew something that has largely been forgotten in Western democracies--that the passivity of the majority is what allows the powerful to rule. It is in this insight that we can find the rocket fuel for Polanyi's double movement. The second part of the double movement, where society reclaims power from the market, happens through demand, not gift. In a sense, this was the promise of the Obama election campaign. The slogans of 'No more politics as usual' resonated, as well it should, with disenfranchised people around the world, not just in the United States.

"There is, however, a difference between rousing campaign rallies and widespread democracy. The Obama administration is, for instance, firing up the campaign machinery that first got him elected, to push his agenda on education, health care and climate change. One of the characteristics of the new campaign meetings is the lack of time for questioning the substance of these policies--there's just one enemy: 'politics as usual'--and just one solution: the president's new politics. The proper name for this is populism. The cult pact between leader and led isn't, however, a sign for reinvigorated democracy--it's the last desperate substitute for it. For democracy to flourish, we need our own moment of admission that our economic organising system has failed us. Just as Greenspan lost his faith in an economic organizing principle, we also need to take a long hard look not only at the free market but at the political system that supports it. It's in reclaiming the idea that we're able to think for ourselves and that we're ready for politics, rather than outsourcing it like so much else, that we will be able to reclaim both democracy and our economy" (Patel 118-119).

I think Patel's characterization of Obama's tenure so far is both too harsh and too nice. The same is true for his opinion of our "economy," something he's trying to tear down without scaring people too much.

It's time for people to get educated, get angry, and get active. We need to as a culture become more aware of the externalities, the "hidden costs," of the way we live. We need to care about those costs and change our behaviors accordingly. Individual behaviors are a good start, but they're not enough.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Different Kind of Substance

- a pound of dried split peas
- an onion, chopped and sauteed in butter and olive oil
- three-ish red potatoes, chunked
- three-ish carrots, washed and chopped
- some celery, diced
- a bunch of fresh basil, chopped to your liking (I got lazy, as you can see)
- many shakes of dried thyme
- a few shakes of dried marjoram
- a good amount of filtered water
- salt and pepper - lots (or to taste, which should be lots)

Simmer ingredients until it smells divine and the peas and root veggies are soft enough for you.

Reheats incredibly well.

Friday, July 09, 2010


I'd love it if you'd weigh in on yesterday's blogpost.

In the meantime, I have a song in my head. It's one of the Buddhist things we're singing at church on Sunday.

"When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love."
Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, in a way. But it takes practice. As for the music, it's a beautiful three-part round. And it still feels good to be an alto.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

I'm still reading "The Value of Nothing." Good stuff!

"The history of slavery shows not only that the set of things allowed into markets can change but also that decrees establishing what belongs in markets can be revoked. Once, slavery was allowed. Now it isn't. [It still happens, but the author deals with that elsewhere.] In other words, there is nothing natural about buying and selling things for profit, and allowing markets to determine their value. Before commodities can be bought and sold, they have to become objects that people think can be bought or sold. Most of the things that we buy and sell weren't always commodities in the way we understand them today--land, music, labor, care, people and food once had a much more ambiguous status. These things became commodities through complicated and layered processes, to be exchanged in markets with very specific attributes" (Patel 17-18).

My philosophical and religious interest here is in the word "objects." Objects are things which are external to ourselves. They are not things we respect in our communities. When people and land become objects, we've got a problem.

Patel then mentions Karl Polanyi's book The Great Transformation, in which that author talks about the shift of thinking about land and food as commodities. "It may sound odd to think about land or labor as fictitious when the heart of contemporary working life beats to the rhythm of paychecks and rent, but that's a measure of how 'great' the transformation was. It transformed social arrangements so dramatically that it is impossible to think of them in any other way. In other words, the transformation not only changed society, it also changed us, by changing the way we see the world and our place in it" (18).

So, if not turning people into commodities, what alternative do we have? Do we have to go immediately to Communism, that supremely damn-ed way of thinking? What are our options? Ooh! Patel continues:

"The great transformation demanded a great deal of social upheaval. In order to buy and sell land, the people who were previously using it had to be evicted. This happened through the sometimes violent process of enclosure, where peasants were evicted from common land and consigned to cities where they might find income through selling their labor, and provide demand by becoming consumers. In other words, the great transformation required that the social rules governing land and work be entirely rewritten--and through this transformation, entirely new things became eligible for ownership, and for pricing. This process hasn't stopped. The engineers of new financial products work at the bleeding edge of this transformation in the twenty-first century. So do the makers of the cap-and-trade policies designed to solve climate change, in which the right to pollute becomes a commodity" (18-19). *Emphasis mine, thanks to Tracy.

This book is so good! It does a lot of things succinctly so far. For myriad, varied, and creatively brutal examples of "eviction," "enclosure," and turning the world into commodities, read Zinn, Jensen, and many others.

But still I come back. What is the alternative? Today capitalists argue that this system is the only system, because systems in which people get what they need without working for them allow those people to be lazy. People won't work unless they have to. The fun movie "Office Space" is just the first example that popped into my head that speaks to this idea.

What would you do if you didn't have to work? "I'd do nothing," says the main character. Would you do nothing? Would *I* do nothing? I'd like to think not. But I could be wrong.

Friday, July 02, 2010

New Book!

Allow me to quote this awesome little book I found at random in the library the other day. It's going to be a great companion to my novel for airplane reading this weekend:

"The great unwinding of the financial sector showed that the smartest methematical minds on the planet, backed by some of the deepest pockets, had not built a sleek engine of permanent prosperity but a clown car of trades, swaps and double dares that, inevitably, fell to bits. The recession has not come from a deficit of economic knowledge, but from too much of a particular kind, a surfeit of the spirit of capitalism. The dazzle of free markets has blinded us to other ways of seeing the world. As Oscar Wilde wrote over a century ago: 'Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.' Prices have revealed themselves as fickle guides: The 2008 financial collapse came in the same year as crises in food and oil, and yet we seem unable to see or value our world except through the faulty prism of markets" (Patel 3-4).

Raj Patel goes on to talk about Greenspan's rise and fall and how he admitted he was short-sighted and wrong. It is all quote-worthy, and I only got to page 5 before the phone rang and I had to attend a committee meeting at my church.

Life is good. Life is very, very good.