Friday, November 27, 2009

Not in Kansas Anymore

Why are we surprised that unemployment continues to rise? Why do we expect the GOVERNMENT to do something about it?

We've spent the last 200 years mechanizing and automating everything possible. Substituting fossil fuels for human labor and computer circuits for cogitation. "Labor-saving" has become "labor-destroying". Yet it never occurs to us that there could be such a thing as too much productivity.

As James Howard Kunstler says, “It’s all good”…as long as the economy keeps growing every year. But planet Earth ain’t getting any bigger. The highest-quality, most easily extracted resources are gone, and now we’re strip-mining an Arizona-sized chunk of Canadian forest for tarry goo, and even thinking about scraping the barrel at 25,000 feet below sea level. How do you spell “desperation”?

Plus there are limits to how much credit you can vacuum out of the future to jack up present consumption. So when people get frugal, when hundreds of millions of Americans wake up and realize that we don’t really need all the junk we’re buying, unemployment skyrockets. People are terrified that no one else needs them. With good reason. Decade after decade, our economy has “decided” that more and more of the essential jobs should be done by machines.

As citizens, we sure as the devil don’t ACT like we want other Americans to have jobs. Except we’re not citizens anymore – we’re cogs in the economy. As consumers our fidelity is to the lowest prices – getting as much as possible for as little as possible – flaunting our wealth – dying with the most toys. As investors we want the highest rate of return. If these things are incompatible with living wages, health care, honoring pension obligations, supporting local communities…well to hell with them. We’re rational, after all.

But what about good-old-fashioned self-reliance? Right. These days we don’t even want to employ our own legs to get from “a” to “b”. Of course it doesn’t help that 50+ years of Happy Motoring has destroyed pedestrian-oriented, transit-supportive communities.

Yes, Greenspan and his disciples are clueless. But so are people who think that with a dose of hard reality – and if only the government stops “interfering” – the economy will eventually turn around and grow and everything will be OK again.

Sorry, we ain’t in Kansas anymore.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Willful Ignorance

Ask yourself why so many of us expect "the government" to compensate for jobs lost to increases in labor productivity (i.e. output of a good or service per unit input of labor.) Ask how it is possible we CELEBRATE increases in labor productivity even as we cringe at rising unemployment. Just how stupid are we?

And what about those of us who believe the biophysical limitations of Earth all but guarantee that Mankind's consumption of resources will soon shrink, and shrink dramatically? Who have concluded from the recent financial crisis that we have substantially exceeded our powers to vacuum ever-more credit from the future in order to stimulate ever-higher consumption in the present? Who recognize that marginal increases in material consumption throughout much of the industrialized world often have a NEGATIVE correlation with human well-being?

Is there any chance that we-the-consumers and we-the-investors will be willing to shift our fidelities from the lowest prices and highest rates of return to intentional, meaningful, fulfilling employment for one-another…and for ourselves? Doesn't our love affair with the automobile prove that we don't even want to employ our own legs?

What shall become of human employment in a future of limits? If the means of production are not widely held, what will be the fate of those who own little or none of it? Is a Darwinian economic religion compatible with love for one another? And even if all these other factors could be overcome, are our human natures suited for life without needful labor?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Manufactured Uselessness

The pervasive, willful ignorance which characterizes nearly all public discouse concerning unemployment is stunning. How can we be so blind to what is so obvious - that Growth makes the "crisis of surplus labor" worse and worse?

Consider the facts:

(1) We-the-consumers demand the lowest (internalized) costs
(2) We-the-investors demand the highest (internalized) rates of return
(3) Any business which ignores these demands is quickly rendered extinct in the Marketplace
(4) Therefore we mechanize and automate and outsource everything possible...
(5) ...replace human labor with coal and oil and every other easy-to-extract fossil fuel we can rip out of the Earth...
(6) ...throw power tools and robotic machines at every job we can…
(7) ...and then we're astonished that unemployment is a problem

DUH! God help us, really, we're too clueless to help ourselves. We cannot imagine such things as too much Progress or too much Productivity. We cannot see – cannot admit – that one of the main "outputs" of the Growth Economy is Manufactured Uselessness.

This is the mother of all third rails in American political and social discourse: no one will admit - in public - that Productivity has severed tens of millions of Americans from employment and vocations which are associated with real human needs. And not only are these workers TOTALLY UNNECESSARY for the production and delivery of essential goods and services, but less and less of their labor is needed for the provision of ever-more extravagent luxuries, indulgences, status symbols.

Always and forever we are told the solution is More Growth. "Drink more bottled water!" "Fly to Disneyland!" "Buy a vacation home, a bigger riding lawnmower – we need JOBS!" But every year it takes fewer and fewer people to provide that bottle of water, that vacation trip, that vinyl-clad McMansion, that gas-guzzling go-cart which happens to cut grass.

Heaven knows most of us don't need more stuff any more than we need the spiritually-corrosive manipulations which marketers use to foist more stuff upon us. Such things as greed and gluttony, lust and pride and envy are – as they have always been – vices, moral hazards, threats to family and community. Meanwhile we are reaching and exceeding the biophysical limits of Earth.

But mainstream economists and businessmen and politicians live in holy terror of thrift and frugality – if the consumer isn't spending "enough" on credit, then by God the government had better do so. Libertarians and Austrian-school types fervently believe that balanced budgets, minimal government, and a truly free Free Market will solve everything; they don't seem to worry about the fact that half the working population in America would be jobless if our nation REALLY got serious about living within our means. At least Keynesian liberals and progressives give a damn about employment for working people, but they focus so much of their energy on demonizing super-rich elites that they fail to recognize Productivity is a double-edged sword. And Productivity may become far more sinister than even the Luddites imagined:

Perhaps we are so enamored of our various Balkanized groups/ways of thinking that nothing less than a catastrophe will open our minds to real "Change". Is this why so many of our wise ancestors have deemed the human condition tragic?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Economic Liberty and Moral Chains

Men are qualified for economic liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. (With apologies to Edmund Burke)

When I hear Wall Street titans, corporate executives, and their innumerable sycophants in the media and academia protest that the carnage wrought by unchecked greed is in fact the fault of a government which failed to adequately control “animal spirits”, I want to vomit.

Consider the absurdity of such a claim.

(1) Wall Street and corporations are not responsible for self-restraint.
(2) Therefore it is the duty of government and regulators to force them to behave.
(3) Regulators are appointed and approved by politicians.
(4) Politicians gain power via elections.
(5) Elections – especially for national office – are overwhelmingly driven by campaign contributions and the wholesale purchase of media-space (i.e. “free” speech).
(6) Day-to-day governance is powerfully shaped by lobbyists (i.e. more “free” speech).
(7) This “free” speech can best be described as “one dollar equals one vote”.
(8) Wall Street and giant corporations vote the most.

Complicated, eh? How is it possible that such flagrant buck-passing is so prevalent in our national discourse? Follow the money.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Urban? For What Species?

It is unfortunate that we use words like "urban" and "city" to describe fundamentally different built environments - i.e. everything from sprawling habitats constructed for the convenience of homo automobilicus to compact habitats scaled for the species homo pedestricanus.

Of course here in the United States the main thrust of our economic activity over the past 60 years has been to expand habitat for homo automobilicus - which inevitably undermines, destroys, and prevents the formation of habitat for homo pedestricanus. No surprise, the larger, faster, more powerful species homo automobilicus is now dominant in most communities. The dearth of human life on the sidewalks of villages and small cities throughout the US attests to the lost struggle.

This victory may prove short-lived, however. Having suffocated millions of acres of bioproductive land beneath the highways and parking lots it needs to move and store its colossal population, homo automobilicus is now appropriating even more land for “food” production (i.e. biofuels). But it is unlikely that homo pedestricanus will have to suffer this seizure for much longer. Why? Because homo automobilicus will eventually collapse from its rapacious appetite. With an average weight of several tons, and given the fact that it travels at much higher speeds over much longer distances than the small, slow, localized species homo pedestricanus, homo automibilicus has far larger energetic requirements. It is by nature a carrion feeder, and basic thermodynamic laws make it highly unlikely that Earth's sustainable energy flows will prove adequate fare for a population of hundreds of millions.

History will almost certainly show that petroleum was the largest, most nutritious dead carcass humankind will ever find on Earth. Cheap oil alone has allowed homo automobilicus to gorge and breed to wildly unsustainable numbers, and the end of cheap oil spells its demise.

One would hope this implosion will not prevent homo pedestricanus from flourishing once again. But why must it come to this? If only the species homo sapiens were to discover enlightened self-restraint!

Monday, May 4, 2009

What's at Stake

One starts off fighting for some relatively small thing – to establish a pedestrian-oriented town square, to protect a watershed, to head off yet another sprawling subdivision and strip mall. Gradually one realizes that one is fighting battle after battle against politically-connected elites who have the money and time to press their agendas until they get what they want; fighting against an omnipotent, rabidly-defended belief in the Growth Economy; indeed, fighting a war against the main trajectory of one's society.

It may be useful to ask what animates the opposition. I would say that at root is the primary – if seldom acknowledged – end-product of the Growth Economy: fear of being useless, without purpose, bound and fettered to a Leviathan that remorselessly destroys our needs for one-another no less effectively than it dismantles self-reliance.

Let us remember that Development is not the final aim of the planners and architects and contractors – they want something meaningful and creative to do with their lives. Nor is Development the end goal of the carpenters and drywallers and plumbers – they want be needed by others so they can earn a living. Development is not even the ultimate objective of those who develop to amass great wealth – they are merely hell-bent on gaining respect in a society that has made virtues of the Seven Deadly Sins.

I am coming to the conclusion that we will inevitably loose on the small things if we do not win the war. Given the stranglehold of Growth-fed media on the public consciousness, however, chances are slim that advocates for a sustainable way of life will be widely heard above the stupefying clamor of Commerce. If humankind is lucky, the limits of energy, natural resources, and/or debt will – in relatively short order – collapse the Growth Economy without widespread suffering and loss of life. But will Man learn from the experience that we are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains upon our own appetites?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fatal Pace

Oregon, Wisconsin USA

Our failure as a community to support and reward those who attempt to go about their lives at a walking or bicycling pace is bad enough. But the recent cyclist fatality near Brooklyn, Wisconsin reminds us that we-the-drivers often pose a life-and-death threat to non-motorists. The swift, the powerful, and the heavily-armored so thoroughly dominate most of our public thoroughfares today that merely walking or bicycling across them can be hazardous. (Walk or bicycle along them? Forget it!)

Our pervasive (if unintentional) disregard for the “least among us” – i.e. those annoyingly slow, small, vulnerable creatures called pedestrians and bicyclists – represents one of the most flagrant injustices in our society. Rather than joining the anthropogenically-motivated, we’ve made things even worse by withdrawing ever more frequently into our supersized vehicular exoskeletons. Many of us now consider a three-ton armored personnel carrier a practical necessity for conveying our youngster to extra-curricular activities. “My child needs to participate just like other normal children, and I need a big SUV to keep her safe!”

Unsurprisingly, our police and highway departments won’t slow drivers down enough to make it feel safe and be safe for non-motorists on our roads and highways. A more human pace would surely throw a wrench in our speed-addicted economy, and a voting majority that has become almost totally dependent on the automobile would not suffer any such disruption to the “Happy Motoring” way of life.

I cannot end this with a pep talk and some bullet-points. Not only is the Brooklyn cyclist’s death a tragedy; our sprawling, hyper-mobile, resource-gobbling way of life is a tragedy as well. And so long as we cling to our steering wheels; so long as our leaders deploy American troops all over Earth to ensure an uninterrupted flow of cheap energy into our tanks, nothing will change.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sinking In

This past weekend at my wife's family farm on County Highway D south of Madison, Wisconsin, we had a garage/estate sale to dispose of my brother-in-law's material possessions. Traffic was good - if one considers 99% of potential buyers using a motor vehicle to access 99% of their destinations to be desirable.

For once I kept my mouth shut about our nation's wars and occupations for oil, our addiction to driving everywhere, the enormous Environmental Footprint of homo automobilicus, etc. and just tried to sell my brother-in-law's stuff and thus cover his bills. Instead I used the occasion to quietly absorb the vast gulf between my beliefs versus our prevailing expectations and norms.

The overwhelming majority of people in these parts simply cannot imagine not driving everywhere. They lack any comprehension that their way of life undermines and destroys far more frugal - potentially even SUSTAINABLE - ways of living in their midst. Spending time there near that highway (a once-quiet country road which has morphed into a heavily congested two-lane commuter artery into Madison) I was stunned by the violence of movement. Seeing the vehicles that pulled into the yard, I was disgusted by the phenomenal size of many of them, especially when one considers they are used nearly all of the time for single-occupancy commuting and chauffeuring little Brittany to extra-cirricular activities rather than carpooling or hauling heavy, bulky stuff to jobsites.

What kind of power-mad, self-obsessed monsters have we become? So many people have collapsed their own identity into the identity of their motor vehicle(s). Motorcycle as lifestyle. Pickup truck as codpiece. Speed and power and restless movement as rebellion…against what? Everything branded, everything a logo and image. My own brother-in-law, God rest his soul, was a man who could express his love for his Harley and Suburban and Corvette far better than he could express love for humans; he bought into the Happy Motoring paradigm for the better part of his life. He may have been "book smart"; he certainly did well in the corporate world for a while; but he was a sucker for the perpetual dissatisfaction corporate America has to sell.

It strikes me as less and less likely that I can make any practical difference beyond my own household. This weekend helped me to realize that I have absolutely no idea how to engage most of my neighbors in discussing the issues and beliefs that really matter to me. More than a few - including a man I consider a very close friend - have already shut me off for rocking the boat.

Friday, March 6, 2009

This is Freedom?

The following is a transcript of my comments in support of a Dane County Regional Transportation Authority, delivered to Sun Prairie and Madison Area Transportation Planning Board officials at a hearing in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on 4 Mar 2009. My “prop” for the occasion was a gasoline pump nozzle.

Do I support a Dane County Regional Transportation Authority? Absolutely. An RTA isn’t just about commuter rail in Madison – it is about real transportation choices all over Dane County, including commuter service in communities like Oregon and Stoughton and Sun Prairie.

That’s right: an RTA is about freedom of choice.

Now let’s think about that word “freedom”. Edmund Burke, an 18th century British philosopher whom many consider the father of modern conservativism, had this to say:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

---hold up nozzle

Do you think this is liberty? Do you think this is freedom? Do you think importing 60% of our oil a few years ago, importing 70% today, importing 80% and more tomorrow is independence?

---look around room

Do you think freedom is pretending that you and I are not addicted to oil?

Do you think freedom is refusing to connect the dots between where most of the remaining oil is… {pregnant pause}

…and where our country has deployed most of its incredibly powerful, incredibly expensive military forces?

---hands over eyes

Do you think freedom is closing your eyes to the inconvenient truth that blood was shed – and more blood will be shed – to put that tiger in your tank…and my tank…and every other tank driving down Highway 151 and Highway 14 and Highway 138 every weekday morning with only 1.1 people inside?

---hold up nozzle

Do you think the guys at the other end of this hose are our friends? Do you think a tube made of braided rubber is no less a shackle on our lives than ones made of forged steel?

My friends, is freedom is being ignorant of these facts – or worse, willfully, stubbornly blind to them?

I’ll tell you what freedom is.

Above all things, freedom is being honest with ourselves and each other. Because this isn’t just about our entitlements to guzzle what comes out of here…

---point out of nozzle

…we also have a great many obligations and responsibilities for what happens at the other end of the hose.

---point backwards from hose.

This is something we should be talking about here, in this room. It breaks my heart that we’re not.

Freedom is living in a community where you can stand up on your own hind legs once in a while and walk – actually WALK! – when you want to go somewhere. Real freedom of movement begins with…moving yourself!

Freedom is living where your child can ride her bicycle to play with her friends, not endless duty as child chauffeur…on top of both of you working to meet your car payments!

Freedom is neighbors cooperating for the common good, funding and building and sharing energy-efficient, land-conserving, public transportation together. Freedom is being a CITIZEN who says, “Yes! I want to invest my fair share in a better tomorrow!”

I will close by telling you what freedom could be.

Freedom would be living in peace with other people on Earth instead of hogging the lion’s share of resources for ourselves.

Freedom would be us weaving ourselves together rather than our cars driving us apart; giant corporations driving us into bankruptcy; and the economy driving us all insane with the terribly wicked lie that enough is never enough.

Freedom would be leaving behind a decent planet for our grandchildren.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Secret

What if the secret to more employment for people is less employment for machines? What if we were no less committed to “the least among us” than we are passionate about our vaunted economic and political theories? What if we really did put people first, firmly above climbing over others to get ahead ourselves?

If healthy, fulfilling, honorable work for everyone was our top priority, would tens of millions of Americans know – and a hundred million or more fear – that their fellow countrymen have no further need for their services?

What if more Growth for those of us already wallowing in stuff leads us away from true prosperity? What if a tide of material consumption that rises even further would drown humankind beneath depletion and ruin long before it lifted the leaking dinghies of the poorest of the poor? What if Edmund Burke’s warning is true: we are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains upon our own appetites?

Because the choice today – indeed, the choice for all time – remains very simple: to love and serve one another; or abandon ourselves to the pursuit of the lowest prices, the highest rates of return, and the opportunity to die with the most toys.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

End of Consumption

Set aside conventional wisdom for a moment, and consider a possibility with ramifications so disturbing that America’s leading politicians, economic experts, and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge them in public. To wit: the present economic implosion really WAS caused by inadequate consumption rather than the usual suspects – inflation of the money supply, precipitous suppression of the prime rate, reckless expansion of credit, aggressive promotion of patently untenable mortgages by government, the repackaging of said toxic mortgages by a host of corporate accomplices, the viral spread of risk, astronomical increases in leverage, and computerized hyper-chicanery by our financial “creative class”. This isn’t to say these factors did not complicate or exacerbate matters, but they are not the root cause (indeed, some are symptoms). Rather, it was the beginning of the end of the age of the consumption that made the collapse inevitable.

Yes, despite Herculean efforts to consume faster than ever before, American shoppers just couldn’t keep pace with what was needed for “healthy” economic growth. Thanks to unprecedented levels of productivity, the output of McMansions and Escalades and ARMs overshot the abilities of our seemingly-insatiable markets to absorb them. Was it because too many consumers still cling to antiquated concepts like “frugality” and “modesty” and "thrift"? Certainly not! Having been incontrovertibly discredited by modern economic theory, such incendiary notions have been almost entirely expunged from our national consciousness, and fortunately no one listens to the handful of contrarians who profess them. So we must not let their censorious rantings about the evils of greed distract us from grasping the real catastrophe: in practice if not in spirit, Americans are falling ever further behind in the never-ending race to consume more than enough.

One can be forgiven for suspecting lack of money was the problem. Many years ago, when the economy managed to survive on a restricted diet of savings-based consumption, current levels of spending would have seemed ludicrous. But as mechanization and automation made goods and services cheaper and cheaper, saving before consuming wasn’t good enough to maintain profits or stave off unemployment. Thus, over time, more and more spending money had to be sucked out of the future, and the velocity of money in our globally-interconnected financial nervous system now routinely approaches the speed of light. And America’s creditors were more than willing to fund deficit consumption, right up to the collapse. No, the problem was not one of insufficient money supply.

With plenty of credit available to sop up surging output, why did Americans falter? Could it have been post traumatic shopping disorder? Not enough aisle-time in the day? Were precious hours wasted socializing at Starbucks rather than piling up savings at Target? Did skyrocketing obesity impede the vital flow of human traffic shuffling from parking lots to Big Boxes? Was it carpal tunnel from swiping credit cards? Did renting one more storage locker to stow surfeit stuff not seem worth the adrenalin rush of another 24 hour sale? Was it because auto designers ran out of room for more cup holders?

We may never know what made a once-proud nation of indefatigable shop-till-you-drop shoppers drop out. But even if we did, it’s probably too late to save America now.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Independence vs Splendid Isolation

Surely one of the most elemental, fundamental forms of independence is self-locomotion: walking and running, meandering and strolling, riding a bicycle or rolling one’s wheelchair, pushing a baby stroller to the library or pulling a Radio Flier home from the grocery store. Yet in the past 60 years our society has done its utmost to undermine and destroy this independence.

Didn’t we realize that a house out in the country would make it impossible for our child to literally skip on over to friends’ houses? Didn’t we see that all the driving we and our neighbors would do meant living in terror that our adolescent would ride his bicycle beyond our “safe” cul-de-sac? Didn’t we anticipate that building the new school at the far edge of town diminished possibilities for teenagers in the former heart of the village to walk to football practice?

Is all the “splendid isolation” in our lives – seclusion within spacious houses and fenced yards and climate-controlled motor vehicles – worth it? Is importing 70% of our car fuel “independence”? If we would only stop and think, we would know better. But where I live (Oregon, Wisconsin, population 8,721), few are willing to even admit these mistakes. Thus I am at a loss where to begin. This is what frightens me most.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Missing the Bottom Line

On 14 January 2009 the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) issued a press release titled “Energy Efficiency Programs Can Realistically Reduce Growth in Electricity Consumption by 22%, According to EPRI”:

Shortly thereafter posted a synopsis of the EPRI press release titled “Growth in Energy Use Could Drop 22 Percent by 2030 Under Right Conditions: Report”:

After reading both the press release and synopsis it struck me they failed to highlight that even with the efficiency programs, US electrical consumption is projected to increase significantly between now and 2030 – a highly inconvenient truth if one considers 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to be a high priority. Closer examination shows that neither press release nor synopsis listed bottom line numbers – a spin tactic which is endemic in Washington. The fact that EPRI did this should not surprise anyone; one naturally expects an industry trade organization to be an industry shrill. But perhaps we should be less tolerant of “greenwashing” from a “” group. My letter to the editor of follows. Note that I CC:d the editor of the EPRI website as well:


Dear Editor:

I would like to offer a friendly critique regarding the news posting "Growth in Energy Use Could Drop 22 Percent by 2030 Under Right Conditions: Report":

Titles like this one tend to be confusing – and it is no coincidence that politicians very often use similar language to describe absolute increases in spending (or debt) as decreases in the projected rate of increase in spending (or deficit). Casual readers might well conclude from this title that the efficiency programs could reduce consumption itself by 22%.

Crunching the numbers in the EPRI press release, it would appear that the EIA {US Energy Information Agency} expects US electrical consumption to increase by about 25% between now and 2030 under business-as-usual conditions (1.0107^21), while EPRI believes efficiency programs could reduce this to an increase of about 19% (1.0083^21) over the same period. Put another way, the efficiency programs would thereby cut growth by 6% (25%-19%) – a number which sounds much less impressive than 22%. I'm not sure where EPRI obtained the 22% figure (it is neither the
quotient of ((.25-.19)/.25) nor (.25-.19)/.19)). Nor is it clear how the "ideal" limit of 0.68% growth would affect the other statistics.

And this brings me to another point: neither your title and synopsis nor the EPRI press release provide the reader with the far more important bottom-line numbers: US electrical energy consumption now; EIA projections for consumption in 2030 under business-as-usual conditions; and EPRI projections for consumption in 2030. Even though the 14 New York Cities statistic IS absolute, it is more anecdotal than enlightening.

Lastly, the title fails to make it clear that this is electrical consumption.

Suggestion for a better title: "Report: Efficiency Programs Could Slow Growth in US Electricity Demand from 25% to 19% Over Next 21 Years"

And then, since you are providing the synopsis anyway, the opening paragraph could include bottom-line data: "US electrical consumption, which was ___ billion kilowatt-hours in 2008, is projected by the US Energy Information Agency to increase to ___ billion kilowatt-hours by 2030 – an increase of 25%. But according to a recent Electric Power Research Institute report, efficiency programs could provide a "reduction wedge" of 6% or more…"

The reduction wedge idea, which appears to have gained widespread usage in conjunction with climate change work, is an excellent way to communicate this data.


Hans Noeldner, Mechanical Engineer