Monday, August 23, 2010

Transportation Kinetics

The laws of kinetic energy for a hot gas beautifully describe our default behaviors in the complex network of interconnected “pressure vessels” we call our transportation corridors. Small things that move slowly get whacked by big things that move fast. Either the meek learn to get the hell out of the way; or they get with the program, bulk up, and shift into high gear.

It’s really not much more complicated than that. Not unless significant numbers of “molecules” choose to behave as though they are responsible for the impacts of their momentum on other molecules. And if that happens – Whoa! The changes which occur could begin to seem…well, intentional. As though something like intelligence might be at work. We might even see some respect for the little guy. But more on that later.

First, why do so many molecules want to go somewhere else so often in the first place? Why aren’t they happy being where they already are? And why are so many of the places where they want to go located so far apart? Why isn’t “a” next-door to “b” more often?

Well, that’s easy! The more kinetic energy you pump into the system, the further apart things get pushed!! (Duh.) In fact our transportation network here in the USA is a fantastic system for continuously manufacturing “needs” for more – and bigger – and longer – high-pressure pipes. Which, in turn, continuously manufactures “needs” for more energy, more machinery, more development, and more land. It’s quite the positive-feedback loop: great for investors, businesses, units of government, and employment. Tax revenues grow; the DOT and other bureaucracies swell; and politicians buy votes with the pork they deliver to the Highway Lobby. Meanwhile society can avoid balancing current expenditures with current income. You could base a whole damned economy on it. For a while, anyway.

Back to my point. For various reasons, lots of people think there are serious problems with transportation. So let’s consider some of the “solutions” that are being proposed.

(1) The overwhelming majority seem to think the way to solve the problem is to expand the high-pressure pipe network. Well, “think” isn’t really the right word; it’s their default behavior that does the thinking…and the voting. That’s why their default solution is mostly about accommodating more and more big, fast molecules. True, many people SAY they want the small and the slow to have a fair shake, but they don’t really mean it. Momentum speaks louder than words.

(2) Some people – a distinct minority – believe that if enough low-pressure pipes are added to the network, most of the molecules will have a choice as to which pipes they use: high-pressure pipes if they want to be big and fast, or low-pressure pipes if they want to be small and slow.

It’s a nice idea, but there are serious problems with it. Maybe even insurmountable ones, especially if we are at all serious about the “most” having a “choice”. Why? The existing network consists primarily of high-pressure pipes. Even if we focus on areas where molecules tend to congregate, most are places which are richly interconnected with high-pressure pipes but poorly connected with low-pressure ones. Installing new low-pressure pipes parallel to so many existing high-pressure pipes would cost a fortune. Maybe even an empire.

So who would pay for it? If you consider where the big, fast molecules REALLY like to live (exurbia), you will find damn few low-pressure pipes. Why? Avoiding the costs of low-pressure pipes is one big reason why so many big, fast molecules move there! Not only that, but most of these upwardly-mobile molecules spend most of their time “off the reservation”, congesting high-pressure pipes in places where they don’t BEGIN to pay their fair share. The system is already bankrupt, running on IOUs from children who can’t even vote yet.

Then there is the matter of proximity. Fast molecules couldn't care less about destination “a” being close to “b” – ten or twenty miles seem mighty short when you’re really truckin’ down a high-pressure pipe. But pity the slow molecules! Even if there is a low-pressure pipe running parallel to a high-pressure one (so the slow guys don’t run the risk getting whacked), the TIME it takes can be a killer. Moving slow, it feels like darn near everything is just too far away.

Last, we must not forget that all parallel pipes eventually have to intersect. And it’s a tough engineering challenge to build these intersections so that the small, slow molecules can safely cross the high-pressure pipes. Especially when you have big, fast molecules who don’t much like being restrained. You know, high momentum dudes who behave as though having to wait for slowpokes is…well…an insult! “Move over, a**hole!!” “Get the f**k out of my road!”

(3) A few people have their fingers crossed that the energy supply for the high-momentum molecules will eventually dwindle; the pressure will go down in the high-pressure pipes; and somehow the system will become more “humane” for small, slow guys. Maybe they are right. Probably they are right. It might take a while, though. And it’s sort of weird, expecting pipes to get “humane”. Like “pipes” caused the problem in the first place! Meanwhile, it’s obvious that the energy supply for the big and fast hasn’t run out yet. So many of the folks who are waiting for the dwindling conclude the best they can do right now is to buckle up themselves and their kids inside a big-ish molecule too. OK, one that’s not-so-big…but not-so-small, either! Then if they get whacked by a really big, fast molecule, it won’t be a guaranteed death sentence.

(4..?) Might there be another possibility – one which doesn’t require huge numbers of additional pipes…or…having to run out of energy? Like, what would happen if millions of molecules…just…began to choose to have less momentum more often? Hmm…maybe when we brush our teeth tonight, we could look in the mirror for clues about how to make it happen.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Solution to Jobless Growth

The solution to Jobless Growth is:

Growthless Jobs! Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Reverse the words and Presto! The solution to all of our problems.

Really, it makes sense. Consider what we have right now in our economy. Lots of businessmen (and women) who set out with the explicit intention to sell toasters, cars, corn chips, open-heart surgery – stuff like that. Lots of investors with a laser-beam focus on getting Higher Returns. And darn near every consumer bound and determined to get More Stuff for Less.

Given these intentions, what have we got to show for it? Exactly what one would expect: lots of toaster manufacturing; profits on toaster sales; toasters in our basements, in our attics and storage lockers, on our garage sale tables. More toasters than we need…and unemployed people who have good reason to worry about not being needed.

Hmm…no need for so many toasters…not enough need for people who need to be needed. Could it be that our intentions are the problem? More precisely, a LACK of intent? A BIG lack? A black hole, in fact?

Amidst all our intentions to make and sell and profit on and acquire more toasters than we need (along with more than enough other stuff), where is our intention to need people?

Could this have something to do with passing the buck? OK, we all love to blame Government whenever unemployment rears its ugly head. Business executives with factories run by automated machines don't even blink when they scream bloody murder about how Government is preventing them from creating jobs. Even the candidates play along, making all kinds of promises about the jobs THEY are going to “create”…after (of course!) they blame the opposition party for unemployment...and every other ill in the world.

But what if the whole thing was a ruse, a huge lie we tell ourselves in order to avoid yet another Inconvenient Truth? Forget outsourcing toaster-manufacturing, what happens in an economy when darn near everyone "outsources" responsibility for making sure that people who need to be needed…are needed?

The thing that makes it really tough is this: we can get More Stuff for Less – and Higher Returns to boot! – when we outsource employment to fossil fuels, machines, and automation. Year after year, more Productivity, more “saving” labor. What the heck, who needs other human beings these days?

Oops, we still need them to consume the stuff our machines are making. So…is there some way to make machines that consume? THAT would be sweet! Cars that drive themselves to McDonalds and order high-fructose corn syrup (straight up) from serving-robots. That's right, skip the distillery, skip turning most of the corn into cow-manure (another disposal problem!), we're talking about hyper-mobile, perpetually-hungry consumers that wanna LiveGreen GoYellow, baby.

Ye-ha! Kick back and watch the DOW soar! Who knows, with the ethanol subsidy AND “smart” cars ordering corn syrup for themselves at every drive-thru in America, maybe the corn surplus would take care of itself…

Anyway, is a bit of Luddism in order here? As in, enough to make sure that we need one-another? And how about choosing to need our own labor once in a while? Instead of using our legs mostly to press accelerator and brake pedals, what if we used them more often for (Gasp!) self-locomotion? Getting from “a” to “b”?

I got a lot more to say. You want it?

The Problem of Jobless Growth

First our Leaders told us there were “Green Shoots”. Then they began to tout the Recovery. More recently they have expressed their regrets that the Recovery appears to be Jobless. And now the Recovery itself is floundering.

This is what Business as Usual delivers in 2010: Jobless Growth - when there is any Growth at all.

Meanwhile we all know about Earth’s biophysical limits – and the terrible messes we’ve gotten into by pretending those limits don’t exist. On this (still-) living, richly interconnected planet, economic Growth IS the problem!

So is this a case of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t”? Maybe not. Ready to think out of the box? I mean, REALLY out?

(Hint: sometimes the solution becomes obvious when you look at a problem from another direction. So if the problem is “Jobless Growth”…)

Give up? OK, the answer is...drum roll...

{see next post}