Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Naomi Klein’s new climate change book

October 22, 2014

Naomi KleinWe know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backwards; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society that we need.

==Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

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Naomi Klein’s brilliant new book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism versus the Climate, underlines two important things I had not quite realized.

The first is that the built-in financial incentives of the fossil fuel corporations, or capitalism generally, make it impossible for corporate executives to do anything on their own that would limit the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change.

The second is that many seemingly unrelated struggles against abuses by fossil fuel companies, or abuses by corporations generally, tie in with fighting climate change.

hoax-cop15When native Americans fight to have Indian treaties recognized in law, when small towns in upstate New York pass ordinances against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, when ranchers and Indians protest the Keystone XL pipeline, when other protestors object to corporate trade treaties such as NAFTA, when Occupy Wall Street protesters advocate economic democracy—all these things help other people in danger from the increase in droughts, floods and violent storms.

I confess that I did not see these connections, or did not fully realize their significance, until I read this book.  I had thought of the question of climate change as primarily a question of how and how much I and other people are willing to reduce their material standard of living, or give up hope of increasing their material standard of living, so that future generations will have a decent planet to live on.

This is a real and important question, but it is not the only question.  As Naomi Klein points out, the well-being livelihoods of many people are threatened by continuing on the present course.   That is because the era of easily-available oil, gas and coal is long gone, and the methods of extracting them—deep water ocean drilling, tar sands, fracking, mountaintop removal—are increasingly costly, dangerous and destructive.

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The limited benefit of enriching the rich

October 17, 2014

trickledown

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow

The young nations and the aging nations

October 7, 2014
world baby boom

Click to enlarge.

crudebirthrate

Click to enlarge.

I think the leveling off of population growth is a good thing.  There is a limit to how many people the earth can support.  I don’t claim to know what that limit is, but it will be passed at some point unless population growth is leveling off.

demographic transitionThe good news is that this is starting to happen.  The problem is that it is not happening in every nation at once.

Some nations have low birth rates and an aging population that is growing in relation to the working-age population.  Other nations have high birth rates and a young population who can’t all find jobs.

Should there be more immigration from the growing young nations to the static older nations?

What happens to the world balance of power when the population of some nations is static and the population of others grows?  If present trends continue, India will have a larger population than China.  Mexico could become a more populous nation than the USA.  What then?

Bertrand Russell years ago wrote that in order to achieve world peace, nations needed to limit their populations as well as limit their armies and armaments.  Is that possible?

Demographers say that a nation’s population growth starts to level off when women are emancipated enough to be able to decide whether or not to have children, and when a nation reaches a level of prosperity such that parents think their security in old age is better with a few well-educated and well-off children than with many poor children.

I hope this comes true for the whole world.  Expressing this hope is as close as I can come to answering the questions I asked.

What do you think?

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Fed official says low unemployment is dangerous

September 29, 2014

Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said it may be necessary to raise interest rates if the unemployment rate falls below 6.1 percent because low unemployment could lead to higher wages.

Crowded Michigan Unemployment OfficeFisher pointed out that in Texas, wages are rising faster than the rate of inflation.

To me, that is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Why interfere with the law of supply and demand?  The only reason that I can think of is that it might decrease the market value of financial assets.

I am reminded of Karl Marx’s claim that “a reserve army of the unemployed” is necessary to the functioning of capitalism.

I believe in the value of self-discipline, education and the willingness to work.  But anybody who preaches these values ought to be able to show that there is a payoff, and that the payoff is available to everyone, not just the exceptionally talented and the exceptionally lucky.

If the economic system is set up so that at least 6.1 percent of the work force is unemployed at all times, then there is no way to rise out of that 6.1 percent without knocking somebody else down into it.

LINKS

Fed’s Fisher: wages rise when joblessness falls below 6.1 percent by Reuters (via Tom the Dancing Bug).

‘Poor people don’t plan long term.  We’ll just get our hearts broken’ by Linda Tirado for The Guardian.  Somewhat long, but well worth reading.

Obama’s Long Battle to Cut Social Security Benefits by Eric Zuesse for Washington’s Blog (via Mike the Mad Biologist).  The President’s goals are not what his supporters think they are.

Black and white ways of child-rearing

September 23, 2014

Brittney Cooper, who is black, wrote for Salon about why black parents are often so authoritarian and white parents are often so permissive.

In college, I once found myself on the D.C. metro with one of my favorite professors.  As we were riding, a young white child began to climb on the seats and hang from the bars of the train.  His mother never moved to restrain him.  But I began to see the very familiar, strained looks of disdain and dismay on the countenances of the mostly black passengers.

They exchanged eye contact with one another, dispositions tight with annoyance at the audacity of this white child, but mostly at the refusal of his mother to act as a disciplinarian.  I, too, was appalled.  I thought, if that were my child, I would snatch him down and tell him to sit his little behind in a seat immediately.

My professor took the opportunity to teach: “Do you see how this child feels the prerogative to roam freely in this train, unhindered by rules or regulations or propriety?”

“Yes,” I nodded.

“What kinds of messages do you think are being communicated to him right now about how he should move through the world?”

And I began to understand, quite starkly, in that moment, the freedom that white children have to see the world as a place that they can explore, a place in which they can sit, or stand, or climb at will. The world, they are learning, is theirs for the taking.

Then I thought about what it means to parent a black child, any black child, in similar circumstances. I think of the swiftness with which a black mother would have ushered her child into a seat, with firm looks and not a little a scolding, the implied if unspoken threat of either a grounding or a whupping, if her request were not immediately met with compliance.

So much is wrapped up in that moment: a desire to demonstrate that one’s black child is well-behaved, non-threatening, well-trained.   Disciplined

I think of the centuries of imminent fear that have shaped and contoured African-American working-class cultures of discipline, the sternness of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ looks, the firmness of the belts and switches applied to our hind parts, the rhythmic, loving, painful scoldings accompanying spankings as if the messages could be imprinted on our bodies with a sure and swift and repetitive show of force.

I think with fond memories of the big tree that grew in my grandmother’s yard, with branches that were the perfect size for switches.  I hear her booming and shrill voice now, commanding, “Go and pick a switch.”   I laugh when I remember that she cut that tree down once we were all past the age of switches.

via The racial parenting divide – Salon.com.

I think there is a lot of truth in this.  How parents bring up children depends partly upon whether they see the world as a harsh and dangerous place, or whether they see the world as a place of opportunities to be explored.  (I’m writing now about normal families, and not about messed-up families without any real parenting).

The differences are not just between black and white families.  Blue-collar families, of whatever race, tend to more strict than upper-crust families.  Contrary to the stereotype that some black people have, not all of us whites are affluent, college-educated professionals.

I think there also is a generational divide.   Looking at the generations in my own family, my grandparents were much tougher disciplinarians than anybody would be today.   That was because of the customs of the times.  Nobody then would have thought that slapping or spanking a child was a form of abuse.  But those customs were a product of a much more demanding and unforgiving world than the one I grew up in.

One of the problems of the children of the Baby Boomers was that so many of them were raised to live in a kinder, gentler world than the one the found themselves in.

I think it’s tough to be a parent.   I don’t know how you strike the right balance.

The sad, sick, poor and dwindling Russian people

September 15, 2014

PG_14.01.29_agingFacts_10_negPop

Russia is a nation whose population is declining because of a low birth rate and a high death rate.  Its people are poor, sick and unhappy.

Source: Nike Eberstadt

Source: Nike Eberstadt

Its future is bleak.  Its manufacturing industry is falling behind even what it was in Soviet days.  Despite a high level of average education, its economic productivity is low.  Russia in the coming decade can look forward to a decline in its working-age population and its military-age population.

Such is the conclusion of a study published in 2010 by a demographer named Nick Eberstadt.  Its conclusions were highlighted in an article in the New York Review of Books by Masha Gessen.

The weakness of Russia isn’t necessarily good news for the United States, even from the standpoint of geo-politics.   The fewer troops that Russia can muster, the more its government will fall back on use of nuclear weapons.

Russia isn’t the only country whose population is declining.  The same is true of Germany, Japan and other countries.  But these are rich nations with a low death rates, and with the potential to support an aging population.

Nick Eberstadt wrote that this not not the first time the Russian population has declined.   Millions of Russians died in the famine and Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.  Even more millions died in the Second World War.  But what has happened during the past 20 or s0 years, he wrote, is almost as devastating to the Russian population as in the 1930s and 1940s.

Based on the death rates in 2006, a Russian man aged 20 had less than one chance in two of living to age 65.

Eberstadt devotes a chapter to figuring out why Russia has such a high death rate for all age groups.   Russia has a serious alcohol problem.  Vodka is cheaper per liter than milk.  Russian men, although not Russian women, are heavy cigarette smokers.  Russia suffers from serious environmental problems.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

But none of these, according to Eberstadt, explain its high death rate.  The main killers of Russians are cardiovascular disease and death by injury.

Eberstadt pointed out that Russia lacks “social capital”.  By this, he means that surveys indicate that Russians, compared to other peoples, feel distrustful, feel they don’t control their lives, and feel unhappy.  Russians don’t belong to clubs, associations or sports teams.

There is a book, Bowling Alone, about how Americans don’t join associations, such as bowling teams, as much as they once did.  By Eberstadt’s account, Russia is the extreme of a “bowling alone” nation.

The relevance is that mental health and physical health are connected.  I remember reading once about a town in Pennsylvania where the people had poor health habits, but were extremely long-lived.  People who studied the town thought that it was because the people had such warm family and neighborly relationships, and didn’t make themselves unhappy through stress and anxiety.

Eberstadt’s idea is that the reverse may be true of Russia.  They have high rates of cardiovascular disease because they literally have broken hearts.

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Ferguson and the loss of social trust

August 26, 2014

Brian Kaller is an American who grew up near Ferguson, MO, and now lives in rural Ireland.  This is from a good article he wrote for The American Conservative.

When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordnance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor.  They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate.  Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.

Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few.  Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world.  They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police.  Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief.  Guns were unknown except for hunting in season.

Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers.  People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.

I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago.  Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.

Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors.  Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs.  Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.

via Ferguson Falls Apart.

What he wrote is true of me.  I grew up in the 1940s in a small town on the Potomac River in which nobody locked their doors, and, if you left something valuable on your front porch overnight, it would still be there in the morning.  Very few people were actually poor, but most of us had few material possessions by the standards of today.  My parents raised my brother and me in a house that is smaller than the one I now live in by myself.

While my memories of that era are happy memories, I don’t think African-Americans my age would feel the same.   Schools and many other public institutions in Maryland were segregated, and lynchings in the South went unpunished.   White police treated black people no better than they do now, if that.  Maybe family and community ties were stronger; I wouldn’t know.

Anyhow, that’s not what Kaller is writing about.  He is writing about why we white people feel the way we do.

This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live.  [snip]

Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways.  They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated.  They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are (a) heavily armed, (b) frequently attacked, and (c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.

via Ferugson Falls Apart.

I think that’s true.  Hat tip for the link to Rod Dreher.

Dmitry Orlov’s greatest hits

July 27, 2014
Dmitry Orlov ClubOrlov collapse

Dmitry Orlov

DMITRY ORLOV, author of Communities that Abide, is a Russian-born American citizen and blogger who posts about the coming collapse of civilization and other topics about once a week on his ClubOrlov web log, which is one of the Blogs I Like.

Here are my favorite Orlov posts.

Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century

Thriving in an Age of Collapse

Our Village

Closing the ‘Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US

The Despotism of the Image

Dead Souls

The Five Stages of Collapse

Understanding Organizational Stupidity

The Sixth Stage of Collapse

Exodus to Yellowknife

I’m not certain Orlov is right about the future, at least not about the immediate future.  Neither can I dismiss what he says as foolishness.

The one thing about which I feel certain is that things cannot continue as they are, but I do not know what comes next, and in what ways it will be better or worse.

“The pitchforks are coming … for us plutocrats”

June 27, 2014

[Video added 6/28/14.  The TED organization refused to distribute this TED talk because it was "too controversial" ]

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Nick Hanauer, a billionaire who lives in Seattle, said he got rich mainly by foreseeing 30 years ago how important the Internet was going to become.  What does he foresee now?  Pitchforks—that is, revolution against people in his income class unless income and wealth are more widely distributed.   He wrote in the current issue of Politico:

The fundamental law of capitalism must be: If workers have more money, businesses have more customers.

Which makes middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople like us, the true job creators. Which means a thriving middle class is the source of American prosperity, not a consequence of it. The middle class creates us rich people, not the other way around.  … …

During the past three decades, compensation for CEOs grew 127 times faster than it did for workers. Since 1950, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio has increased 1,000 percent, and that is not a typo.  CEOs used to earn 30 times the median wage; now they rake in 500 times.

Yet no company I know of has eliminated its senior managers, or outsourced them to China or automated their jobs. Instead, we now have more CEOs and senior executives than ever before.  So, too, for financial services workers and technology workers.  These folks earn multiples of the median wage, yet we somehow have more and more of them.

The thing about us businesspeople is that we love our customers rich and our employees poor. … …

The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics isn’t believing that if the rich get richer, it’s good for the economy.  It’s believing that if the poor get richer, it’s bad for the economy. … …

Hanauer believes that Seattle’s new $15 an hour minimum wage will be good for the local economy.

Capitalism, when well managed, is the greatest social technology ever invented to create prosperity in human societies.  But capitalism left unchecked tends toward concentration and collapse. 

It can be managed either to benefit the few in the near term or the many in the long term.  The work of democracies is to bend it to the latter.

That is why investments in the middle class work.   And tax breaks for rich people like us don’t.  

Balancing the power of workers and billionaires by raising the minimum wage isn’t bad for capitalism.  It’s an indispensable tool.

via Nick Hanauer – POLITICO Magazine.

I thank my friend David Damico for the link.

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Dmitry Orlov on communities that abide

June 23, 2014

I recently read Communities that Abide, a quirky little book whose editor and lead author, Dimtry Orlov, seeks lessons for human survival in the study of small, resilient communities such as the Roma (gypsies), the Amish and the Hutterites.

Orlov thinks such lessons are needed because industrial civilization is in danger of collapse.  He writes weekly on his blog about this subject.  He sees the key to survival not in stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold coins and canned food, but in human solidarity and mastery of survival skills.

He admires the anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and says the three communities follow the anarchist principle of mutual aid.  Community work is not based on payment of wages.  Distribution of goods within the community is not based on ownership of property.  Community rules are not enforced by means of violence.   That’s anarchism in a nutshell.

CommunitiesThatAbide_CoverLack of a formal governmental structure does not, however, mean a high degree of individual freedom.  Norms of behavior within the community, which are largely unwritten, are enforced my means of gossip, ridicule, peer pressure and, in extreme cases, shunning and expulsion from the group.   Such means are much more controlling than a system of formal rewards and punishments, because there is nothing tangible to rebel against.

Orlov said the experience shows that the maximum size of an effective community is about 150 people.   Any group larger than that starts to develop a bureaucracy, he wrote.  The three groups he described are all networks of communities small enough that members can decide things in public meetings where everybody gets a chance to speak.

This fits his own experience working with high-tech start-ups in the Boston area.   Every time a new company got to be larger than 150 employees, he wrote, it ceased to be a team and become a hierarchy.

My own experience is the same.  I belong to a church whose congregation never seems to grow beyond 150 members.  Our denominational leaders and ministers have told us we are wrong in being content not to grow.  But Orlov’s book indicates that maybe growth is better achieved by spinning off new groups.

Solidarity within Roma, Amish and Hutterites is maintained through customs, some of them hidden from the outside public, that separate them from the public.   Orlov said all communities that endure have a story of their founding, which they continually affirm through stories, ceremonies and historical re-enactments.   Jacob Hutter led his community for only three years in the early 1500s before he was martyred for his beliefs, yet so strong was his vision and his commitment that, 500 years later, there are people called Hutterites.

The key activity of these communities, aside from providing members with food, clothing and shelter, is the rearing and home schooling of children.  The greatest threat to group identity is public education, because it teaches the values of the modern world.  That is not to say they all refuse to send their children to school, but they have their own schooling to teach their own values.

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