Archive for the ‘Coming Bad Years’ Category

The test of reality

June 23, 2020

For decades, the USA and other rich nations have had the luxury of dealing with self-created problems.’

Some were self-created (deregulation of finance, foreign intervention), some symbolic (the border wall, Confederate statues) and some imaginary (the Russiagate plot).

Now, however, we’re up against real things.  Pandemics don’t care about public opinion polls.  Climate change doesn’t care about the limits of the politically possible.

Some nations are demonstrating the resiliency needed to rise to these challenges.  Some aren’t.  In a few years, we’ll have the results of real-life experiments as to what works and what doesn’t.

My hope is that we Americans will learn from experience.  My fear is that we will be unable to endure the pain of facing reality and the consequences of what we have allowed our rulers to do.

COVID-19 is the quiz, climate change is the final exam by Jeff Masters for Yale Climate Connections.

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Kirkpatrick Sale’s bet on the world of 2020

June 11, 2020

The Luddites in action

Back in 1995, Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired magazine, made a bet with Kirkpatrick Sale, the critic of technology.  The bet was that, by the year 2020, technology would have produced a much better world.

Kevin Kelly believed then and still believes that technological progress will automatically produce a better world.  Kirkpatrick Sale believed the opposite.  He thought then and still believes that the world has been on the wrong course since Columbus’s voyages in 1492.

My old friend in Texas called my attention to a 2019 article, in which Sale described the bet and told how he foresaw the world going wrong:

First, an economic collapse. I posited that it might take the form of a worldwide currency devaluation, in which the dollar loses its standing as the world’s reserve currency and becomes effectively worthless even in this country, and a global stock-market crash and depression.

Second, a political collapse, with upheavals both within nation-states and between. I saw the collapsed economy leading to maybe the bottom fifth of society in the developed world, no longer bought off with alcohol and drugs and celebrity and consumerism, rising up in rebellion and creating havoc and disarray throughout; at the same time a similar rebellion of the poor nations, no longer content to take the crumbs from the table of the rich, and simultaneously fighting violent guerrilla wars and flooding into the developed nations to escape their misery.

And finally, perhaps over-arching, an environmental collapse, in which global warming and ozone depletion, for example, made some areas like Australia and Africa unlivable and caused ice packs to melt, and old diseases, released from melting ice and deforested swamplands, mixed with new and spread deadly infections to all continents.

Source: CounterPunch.org

Kirkpatrick Sale’s predictions haven’t come true, at least not completely, but they seem much more probable than Kevin Kelly’s faith in inevitable technological progress.

I have to say, though, that, in 1995, I would have bet on Kelly’s side.

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Is green technology a mirage?

June 9, 2020

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.  [Attributed to Donald Rumsfeld]

It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.  [Attributed to Ayn Rand]

A new Michael Moore movie, “Planet of the Humans,” is an attack on the renewable energy movement.  Environmentalists by and large are outraged, and some demanded the movie be suppressed.

It actually was taken down from YouTube for 11 days, but it’s back up now.  If it is taken down again, you can view it on the Planet of the Humans Home page.

It runs for 100 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it held my interest, and maybe it would hold yours, too.

In the first part of the movie, director Jeff Gibbs shows that solar panels and windmills are built through energy-intensive industrial processes and that they are made of materials such as high-grade quartz and rare earths that are scarce and non-renewable.

Solar panels and windmills wear out and have to be replaced.  In one scene, he visits Daggett, California, which pioneered in the development of solar and wind energy.  He sees a wasteland of dilapidated panels and windmills, because the pioneers couldn’t afford to keep them up.

And they don’t even fully replace fossil fuels.  Because of variability of sun and wind, backup electrical generators have to keep spinning, and the ones that aren’t hydroelectric use coal, gas and nuclear fuel.

In the second part, he looks at the environmental destruction caused by biomass energy.  There is no gain from freeing yourself from dependence on coal companies and embracing logging companies.

He makes a big point of pointing out the corporate ties of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and of environmentalists such as Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Richard Branson and even Bill McKibben.

He questions the whole premise, promoted by advocates such as Al Gore, that it is possible for middle-class Americans to enjoy our current material standard of living simply by adopting a new technology.

Fossil fuels made possible a world with an exponentially increasing population with the average individual using an ever-increasing amount of fuel and raw materials, Gibbs said.  Such a world isn’t sustainable, he said.

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What’s the world coming to? A rant

May 20, 2020

Things are getting worse faster.  Some French movie director once said: Have the courage to believe what you know.  I keep hoping that what I know—what I think I know—won’t prove to be the case.

U.S. domestic policy is steered by a selfish financial oligarchy, which we can call the neoliberals.

U.S. foreign policy is steered by a murderous national security establishment, which we can call the neoconservatives.

Civilization faces two threats, nuclear war and global climate change.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives are making both worse.  Because of them, the U.S. has restarted the nuclear arms race and is stepping up fossil fuel production.

They also are soaking up resources needed to provide basic public services, maintain infrastructure and provide a social safety net.  Manufacturing capability and governmental capability are being hollowed out because of failures to invest.

The neoliberal and neoconservative elite maintain their power by corrupting the democratic process.  One way is by creating a dependence on big donors to conduct political campaigns.  Another is through gerrymandering, voter registration purges, creating artificial difficulties in voting and using hackable electronic voting machines.

This year the USA faces a near-perfect storm— (1) a pandemic that nobody really understands, (2) unemployment exceeding Great Depression levels and (3) the likelihood of more floods, storms, fires and other weather- and climate-related disasters.

The powers that be give us only two choices – (1) shut everything down and deprive millions of people of their livelihoods or (2) open everything up knowing that hundreds of thousands of people may die.

It’s possible that the coronavirus pandemic will ease off sooner than predicted, but it won’t be the last pandemic and may not be the worst.

We’re headed toward an election in which, as in 1876, there may be a dispute as to who really won.  I don’t expect a new civil war, but then the historic Civil War came as a surprise.

The Bernie Sanders campaign showed the near-impossibility of bringing about meaningful political change within an existing political party.

The Greens, Libertarians and other small parties have virtually no chance of coming to power, and probably wouldn’t know what to do with power if they got it.

Maybe a national reform movement can be created through grass-roots organizing, but this could take decades—barring a societal collapse, which is more likely to bring to power demagogues and dictators than new FDRs.

I’ve pushed back against those who say Donald Trump is a new Hitler.  It is not just that he doesn’t have the political acumen or sense of purpose of a Hitler.  The Trump-as-Hitler meme ignores the degree to which the USA of 2016 had already adopted Nazi-like practices—unprovoked military aggression, contempt for international law, assassinations, torture, detention without trial.

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Is this our situation?

May 18, 2020

My old friend in south Texas e-mailed this.  I added an illustration.

My smart friends: Is THIS our situation?

1.) Nobody REALLY understands the coronavirus, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

2.) Nobody REALLY understands the coming economic effects of the pandemic, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

3.) Nobody REALLY understands accelerating climate change, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

4.) Nobody REALLY understands the murky 2020 US presidential campaign, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

It’s dismaying to think I could go on here.

5.) Nobody REALLY understands the current confusing international situation, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

6.) Nobody REALLY understands what’s up with American education (student debt, testing mania, online education, privatizers, shut schools) although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

Surely I MUST be missing some blue sky somewhere, right?  Let me know.

The irrelevance of old-time Keynesianism

May 12, 2020

John Maynard Keynes was one of the great economists of the 20th century,  Maybe he was the greatest.  He is the father of the idea of economic stimulus.

His insight was that, in a capitalist free-enterprise economy, economic growth depends on a growing mass consumer market, which depends on masses of the public having money in their pockets.

So when the economy stalls and people are out of work, the best way to stimulate the economy is to give the people more purchasing power.

J.M. Keynes

Once they started buying things, businesses would hire more people, and there would be a multiplier effect that spread through the entire economy.

The important thing, according to Keynes, was to get people back to work and earning money—no matter how.  He famously said that hiring workers to dig holes and fill them up again would be better than nothing.

In the pandemic lockdown, governments are doing exactly the opposite of what Keynes recommended.  The government is actively trying to prevent millions of Americans from going to work.  By staying at home, they help limit the spread of the virus.

Congress recently voted an economic bailout that was called a “stimulus” bill.   But economic stimulus was not, and is not, needed.  What is needed is an economic sedative, combined with an economic life support system.

We do not need employment for the sake of employment.  We need to have virtually necessary jobs get done, less necessary jobs put on hold and useless jobs not to be done at all.  We Americans as a nation have not yet figured out how to do this.

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Is universal basic income the answer?

March 27, 2020

Universal Basic Income as it’s usually presented is a solution to an economic problem that doesn’t yet exist.

The imaginary problem is what happens after automation and computer algorithms make a majority of American workers unnecessary and unemployable.

The real problem is that our present economic system rewards useless and harmful work more than it does necessary work and even allows much necessary work to go undone.

There are a great many unmet needs in society and a great many unemployed people available to meet them.  It ought to be simple to match them up, but it isn’t, not within our present economic and political setup.

The coronavirus pandemic is a great revealer of who’s necessary in our society and who isn’t.  Grocery store clerks risk their lives so that I can have food in my pantry.  Yet as a class they’re on the bottom rungs in pay and social status.

They should get the equivalent of combat pay and maybe a military-type medal in awards ceremonies after the crisis is over.

I do think a UBI could be useful in the present emergency.

Send a $1,000 check every month to every man, woman and child who are willing to pledge to socially isolate themselves.

Send $2,000 or $3,000 every month to those who are doing the necessary work to keep us alive and well—health care workers and emergency responders, farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, grocery and drug store clerks, public utility workers, etc.  Shut down everything that’s not necessary for life and health.

[Added Later.  My idea is that the income grants would be supplementary to what people already are earning or drawing from savings.  The specific amounts are just to illustrate the concept and could be more; I don’t think they could be much less.]

The problem is – the USA may not have the capacity to do something so seemingly simple.  I read somewhere that it may take months before the government can mail physical checks in its one-time-only economic stimulus plan.

Laissez-faire conservatives used to say that the only thing government could do competently is mail out checks.  Evidently it can’t even do that nowadays.

The best practical thing that could be done immediately is for the federal government to fully fund state unemployment insurance programs and Medicaid programs up to a reasonably generous cap.

For the long run, the country needs is a full employment program more than it needs a UBI.

See to it that every needful thing is done to prepare for pandemic and weather-related catastrophe.  See to it that every practical thing is done to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  See to it that every needful thing is done to safeguard the lives and health of children, the elderly and the sick.

Pay all the people who do the needful work a decent wage.

If all these things were done, UBI would become an unimportant side issue.  Whether these things are possible within our current economic and political structure is a question I don’t have a good answer for.

LINK

The False Promise of Universal Basic Income by Alyssa Battistoni for Dissent Magazine.  [Hat tip to Steve B.]

Taking the coronavirus seriously 3

March 17, 2020

I think I have less to fear from the coronavirus than most people.  Unlike many, I live in a house alone rather than in an apartment with several.  Unlike many, I own an automobile.  Unlike many, I am a pensioner who doesn’t have to go out into the world to earn my daily bread.

I already live the life of a semi-recluse,  Being more of a recluse than I am would not be a great burden.  I have a library of unread books and an Internet connection that keeps me in touch with the world.  I am in a position to stay home except for going to the grocery store and keeping my medical appointments.

But what about the thousands of people i depend upon to keep me in my comfortable position—the thousands of people in the supply chain starting at farms and ending in the checkout line at my local supermarket?  the supply chain leading to my local drug store?  the public utilities that supply me with electricity, heat and clean water?  the whole health care network?

A new report says that emergency measures may have to last for up to 18 months or millions will die.  Are we prepared for this?

I’m 83 years old, which puts me in the vulnerable population, but even at that, my chances of survival are excellent.  Suppose there is a 50 percent infection rate, and roughly 16 percent of infected people in my age group die.  That means, all other things being equal, I have a 92 percent chance of surviving the epidemic.

Then, too, dying of a COVID-19 infection would be better than dying of cancer.  it would be far better than me spending my last years in a state of dementia—a living body with nobody home.  I accept the fact of death, at least intellectually.  Dementia is the thing I fear.

No, I don’t worry about myself.  I worry about my country.  We criticize the Chinese government for being slow to act, but what about our own government?  The first COVID-19 infection outside China was detected on Jan. 4, the first infection in the United States was detected Jan. 20 and President Trump banned travel by Americans to China on Jan. 31.

So our government at high levels has been well aware of the problem for many weeks, but it is only just now beginning to exercise leadership, and even now without long-range thought.  Local governments, too, are issuing emergency decrees without long-range planning.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has ordered the closings of restaurants, movie theaters and casinos.  But what happens to all the small businesses that are forced to close?  How many of them will reopen after the crisis?

I do not necessarily criticize Gov. Cuomo and others who are are issuing emergency decrees.  Maybe this is the best we can do under the circumstances.

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The worst of the pandemic is yet to come

March 16, 2020

Click to enlarge. Chart Updated 3/18/2020

[Updated 3/18/2020]  The chart in the upper left shows the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.  Others show that France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the USA are on track to follow in Italy’s footsteps.  So far the virus is spreading more slowly in Canada Sweden and the UK.  

Nobody can know for sure what will happen, and France and Germany are somewhat better prepared for a health emergency than the UK or the USA, but I don’t see anything in place that would save any of these countries from Italy’s crisis.  And of course the situation in Italy may become much worse that it already is.

Unless things change, COVID-19 will not be the last or the worst pandemic.  People and governments need to concentrate for now on dealing with the emergency, but afterwards we need to think about why we were caught by surprise, and why our globalized economic system can enable infection to spread from a single source, possibly a live-animal meat market in China, to every corner of the globe in a matter of months.

I include myself among the complacent.  I have a certain limited intellectual understanding of the crisis, but I don’t feel it in my bones.  As the saying goes, I lack the courage to believe what I know.

LINKS

The incompetence pandemic by Matthew Karnitsching for POLITICO.  Mainly about Europe.

Conceit and Contagion: How the Virus Shocked Europe by Bruno Maçães for Quillette.

Who, if anybody, has a vision for the future?

November 8, 2019

Political debate in the United States is based on nostalgia—a desire to return to a former era.

Donald Trump’s motto is “Make American great again!”  He doesn’t specify when America was great.  My guess is that his favorite era would be the 1920s, when the country was prosperous, big business was respected and the U.S. was free of entangling alliances.

The Clinton-Biden wing of the Democratic Party simply wants to turn the clock back to 2015.  Bernie Sanders wants to complete the unfinished business of the New Deal of the 1930s.  Elizabeth Warren wants to go back to a time when capitalism worked the way it should—perhaps under Eisenhower.

The closest thing we have to a positive vision of the future is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.  Her idea is to meet the challenge of global warming and resource exhaustion in ways that avoid or minimize hardship on working people.

Her key idea is full employment through a 1930s-type public works program that builds a green infrastructure and meets the country’s other long-deferred needs.  This is the only way the coming bad years can be made bearable.  I don’t blame her for not thinking out all the details in advance.

The government of China, in contrast, has a definite, feasible plan to make China a powerful and prosperous nation.  It includes an industrial policy to make China a technological leader and a foreign investment program to bring about the economic integration of Eurasia.

For the past 15 years, Pepe Escobar has been writing about the overreach and coming collapse of American empire and how China, along with Russia, will pick up the pieces.  I think that is highly possible, although my view of China is not as uncritical as his.

I think the socialist vision of a utopian centrally-planned economy has been discredited, both in theory and practice. All the uprisings going on all over the world seem to have a vision of radical democracy, which I think is hopeful, but I don’t claim to understand them well.

Science fiction offers visions of the future.  There is a lot of excellent, dystopian, near-future science fiction – Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; Ken McLeod’s Intrusion; and Cory Cotorow’s Radicalized.

For a positive SF vision of the future, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.  Cory Doctorow’s novels are said to be good, but I haven’t read them.

The trouble with extrapolating present trends into the future is that there are foreseeable crises that are likely to change everything in unpredictable ways;

  • a climate and renewable resources crisis, as global warming becomes unbearable and fossil fuels and certain raw materials become unobtainable;
  • an economic and financial crisis, as the system of global finance and fragile global supply chains breaks down; and
  • an international crisis, as the world turns against the United States and the dominance of the dollar.

I don’t know whether the change will be for the better or the worse.

If the future is unpredictable, what is the point of even thinking about it?  It is because your vision of the future gives you a compass point for the present.

Waffle House prepared to weather the storms

September 9, 2019

USA Today recently had a good article about how the Waffle House restaurant chain is organized to provide food and shelter during storms, floods and other disasters.

Waffle House stockpiles emergency supplies, employs special teams ready to rush to the scene of an emergency and has thick loose-leaf binders of directions as to what to do in any kind of emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rates the seriousness of emergencies based on the status of the nearest Waffle House – “green” (Waffle House operating normally), “yellow” (Waffle House operating on a limited basis) and “red” (Waffle House close, which almost never happens).

This is a good example of how managers of corporations and other big institutions need to think during the coming bad years.

LINKS

How Does Waffle House Stay Open During Disasters? by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Hurricane Dorian: ‘Waffle House Index’ put to test during disasters by Annie Blanks for the Pensacola News-Journal and USA Today.

What Do Waffles Have to Do With Risk Management? by Laura Walter for EHS Today magazine.

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy

August 16, 2019

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy, or what will be left of it, will be when other nations rebel against the power of the U.S. dollar.   That will be when the United States is most in danger of a would-be Hitler or Mussolini.

The power of the U.S. dollar is what gives Washington the means to be a great economic power despite huge trade deficits and a hollowing out of American manufacturing.  It provides the means to maintain the world’s most expensive military.

It gives Washington the means to wage economic warfare against nations such as Iran, Venezuela and Russia, and to force poor nations to sacrifice the well-being of their people to foreign creditors.

But the power of the U.S. dollar is a legacy of a past when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, leading creditor nation and leading exporting nation.   Now the dominance of the dollar rests on the fact no nation’s leaders are both brave enough, and lead a nation that is strong enough, to defy the dollar system.

Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in The Death of Democracy that many European nations turned to fascist and right-wing dictatorships as a result of military defeat, which discredited the established governments, and strong Communist and revolutionary movements, which caused the middle classes to look for protectors.

German democracy survived for a time, but was pushed over the brink by onset of the Great Depression, which the established government was unable to cope with.

The conditions will exist in the United States following the crash of the U.S. dollar.  The U.S. government will no longer be able to raise money by borrowing in foreign markets.  Lack of borrowing power will mean it no longer will be able to pay for a world-wide network of military bases.

At the same time, the military will have to pay more for imported electronics components, imported oil and other supplies, including uniforms.  The fall in value of the U.S. dollar will make U.S. manufacturing costs cheaper in relation other currencies, but it won’t be able to fix the lack of manufacturing capacity.  And it will make investment in new manufacturing capacity more expensive.

The sudden collapse of U.S. military power without a military defeat would open the way to a “stab in the back” myth, comparable to the one about Germany’s defeat in World War One.

The buying power of U.S. workers will fall and the prices of merchandise, so much of which is directly or indirectly dependent on foreign supply chains, will fall.  There will be a crash in the U.S. financial markets and real estate markets.  Many workers will strike.  Many citizens will turn to the streets in protest—probably very few that are explicitly Communist, but who knows?

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Twenty years onward: the coming bad years

February 25, 2019

Sometimes I wish I could live for 20 more years to see what the future brings.  Most of the time I’m glad I’m 82 and almost certainly won’t.

I envision a USA very different from today—one shaped by a catastrophic climate change that can’t be averted, and by an economic collapse that can be averted only by drastic economic and political reforms that seem highly unlikely today.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine New York City during the Great Depression being hit by Superstorm Sandy.

Catastrophic climate change is usually discussed as a doom that will full upon us unless we accomplish X things by the year Y.  In fact, catastrophic climate change is already upon us.

We can by our actions influence how bad things are going to get, but existing greenhouse gasses will produce increasing numbers of floods, droughts, heavy snow storms and power outages.

We the citizens of Rochester N.Y., located as we are on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, are fortunate. Cities such as Miami and New Orleans will meet the fate of Atlantis, but we have a good chance to survive.

We’re not in danger of tidal waves.  We have had relatively few severe storms compared to other regions.  We have access to a relatively abundant supply of fresh water which, however, we are not caring for.

Climate crisis is likely to be combined with financial crisis.  Starting with the Reagan administration and especially since the Clinton administration, the U.S. government has turned over management of the economy to the financial markets.

There have been a series of financial crisis, each one worse than the one before.  The response of the U.S. government has been to rescue failed financial institutions, and allow the cycles to continue.

At some point, there will be a financial crisis too big to resolve.  Instead of financial institutions being “too big to fail,” they will be “too big to bail.”

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I’ll be gone, you’ll still be here

December 14, 2017

I’m 81 years old today.  I don’t come from a long-lived family, and I have what they call a pre-existing medical condition, so I don’t expects decades more of life ahead of me.

I sometimes regret I won’t see what the future holds in store.  But the more I think about the future, the more I’m relieved that I won’t.

The odds are good that I will win what Ian Welsh calls the death bet – the bet that I will have enjoyed the good things the world has to offer and die before I have to pay the price.  If you are 60 years old are younger, the odds are that you will lose.

THE FINAL CRASH

Right before the financial crash of 2008, there was a saying among Wall Street speculators about when the financial bubble would burst.  “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

In fact none of them suffered any bad consequences from their actions, up to and including financial fraud.  President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arranged to have the big banks and investment firms bailed out of the consequences of their mistakes, and Attorney-General Eric Holder declined to prosecute financial fraud by heads of companies deemed “too big to fail.”

The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department prioritized reviving the stock market, to the great benefit of owners of stocks and bonds, including investors in mutual funds such as myself.   But then, even under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the financial markets recovered before the job markets did.

Now the U.S. economy is in another bubble, just like the last one—overhangs of debt that can’t be paid, increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the decline of the mass consumer market and the failure of either corporations or the government to invest for the future.

It’s probable, but not certain, that the government will succeed in bailing out the big players, just like the last time.  What is certain is that this can’t go on forever.   Without big changes in the financial system, there will be a final crash in which the institutions are not too big to fail, but are too big to rescue.

NUCLEAR ROULETTE

For more than 60 years, the United States government’s policy toward nuclear war was deterrence.  The theory is that the best way to be safe from war is to have nuclear weapons and be willing to use them if necessary.  In other words, if you want peace, be prepared to go to war.

So far this policy has worked.  We’ve gone to the brink of war a couple of times, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, but we’ve always pulled back in time.   There have long been factions in the U.S. government that wanted to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons, but they’ve always been sidelined or disregarded.

I think it is likely to work—right up until the time it doesn’t work, and it only has to fail once.  If you play a game of Russian roulette, you’re likely—although not certain—to win.  If you continually play Russian roulette, you’re certain to someday lose.

I don’t expect nuclear war with North Korea, although the chances are more than zero.  I don’t expect nuclear war with Russia, although the chances are greater than war with North Korea.   But unless our policy changes, both concerning armaments and our foreign policy in general, there will be a war in which we and everybody else will be the loser.

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Why do we discount the future?

January 7, 2014

Ian Welsh wrote on his blog (one of my favorites on my Blogs I Like page) that we Americans don’t care about the future any more.

The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the future. They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their specifications.

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd.  Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In its pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead.  If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill.  Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed.  Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property.  Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay.  The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society.  The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment.  But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares?  The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

The death bet is why America had a 2.4 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit as of 2009. It is why Californians voted in 1978 to disallow property tax increases of more than 2% per year. And it is why tuition rates have increased by hundreds of percentage points more than inflation in many countries.

A death bet always come due. It just isn’t always paid by those who made it.

via The Death Bet.

Why is this?  I think it is reinforced by a philosophy that says pursuit of self-interest in a free market is sufficient to produce a good society, and moral values just get in the way.  This is not a question of liberalism vs. conservativism per se.  You can believe in individual self-reliance and oppose the welfare state, and still be concerned about your neighbors and those who will come after you.   The house I live in was built in the 1920s, before anybody dreamed of a New Deal.  Yet it is more solidly built than many of the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another factor is that American society since its beginning has been continually transformed by rapid technological change.  Why make an automobile or a computer that will last 25 years when it will be replaced by a better model in five years?  We become habituated to focusing on the new at the expense of maintaining the old.

Some of our problems seem so intractable that it is easier to try to postpone the day of reckoning rather than to solve them.  While it would be perfectly feasible and economically beneficial to launch a public works problem to repair America’s crumbling bridges, dams and water and sewerage systems (what Welsh calls the infrastructure debt), it is much harder to face up to the need for sustainable energy and the problem of global warming.  These would require daunting transformations of society that I, for one, find it virtually impossible to face up to.

That is why apocalyptic religion, and apocalyptic fiction and movies are so popular.  If we are living in the End Times, if civilization is going to collapse anyway, why bother to invest in infrastructure, education or scientific research.

At age 77, I probably will win Welsh’s “death bet.”  I expect to fall apart before American society does.  I guess that makes me part of the problem.