Saturday, July 19, 2014

It woulda been nice

I'm in North Carolina this week, talking with people about the nature of government and what role it can play in causing or solving our nation's problems.

But at the moment I'm procrastinating in the hotel room before going out.  Continuing this week's theme of 21st century capitalism's decline and fall, over at my favorite doomer blog, the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer is once again exploring the mismatch between material decline and our guiding myth of Progress.  He thinks it is going to be a painful and traumatic wrench - one which people are completely unprepared for.  I think he's probably right, but I'd add a few caveats.

As I've related before, when I went to the former USSR as an eager young anthropologist in 1994, I thought I'd be looking at the excitement of the end of an ideology and the beginning of a new one.  But when I got there, no one wanted to talk about any such thing.  They were much too busy trying to keep a roof overhead, keep the daughter in school, the son out of the army and find a place to store 100 kilo of potatoes for the winter.

There's no doubt that many people did not survive the dry run for collapse that was mid-nineties Kazakhstan.  Male life expectancy was dropping to the mid-fifties and most of that had to do not just with material suffering, but the ripping away of life's sureties - salaries, certificates, positions, status all lost their value and that hit middle aged men the hardest.  Vodka and automobiles culled that herd.

But one advantage the Soviet people had was that they'd almost all given up on the monomyth of Soviet progress.  There was no collapse of an ideology to study, because it had been hollowed out to just another bit of habitual theater.

So the reaction (and the long-established practice) was to hunker down, and do their best to ignore anyone who was rash enough to rave about a new myth - capitalism, Islamism, nationalism, socialism or whatever.  The state was happy to encourage that for the most part.

In the current US, as I ignore the pundits and the boosters and talk to regular people, I find very little faith in the myth of progress.  Yes, Greer's analysis is correct that it's the accepted default mode, and people don't really have cognitive alternatives other than to wish for it to be true.  But they don't seem to believe it.  The faith is broken at least when it comes to their little part of the world - and for many, in the big picture as well.

If and when the failure of Progress becomes too obvious to ignore, there will be those who can't adapt.  But I wonder if the majority of people are being eased into decline at a pace that will eventually result in a "well, it woulda been nice" rather than an abrupt collapse of a world view.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Inflation, unheralded


A fascinating little article in the New York Times, called "Everything Boom, or Maybe the Everything Bubble," makes the observation that with so much money chasing after too few assets, the assets are expensive even though the returns are low.  What's an investor to do?

One obvious explanation for the quandary is that money isn't worth as much as it used to be. There's a huge unheralded process of inflation going on.  Most things are valued less (because of a decline in demand or because an asset that used to be a good investment isn't any more), but since money is also worth less, it looks like nothing is happening. 

On the other hand, the minority of sought-after assets are holding their value but the declining value of money means more is needed to buy it, and so prices rise.

A good way to think about this hidden inflation is to think about something - a thing or a service that you could get at a high quality a couple of decades ago, but today you notice that the quality has declined significantly.  I have some great old kitchen utensils, spoons and a spatula built to last forever, and I salvage old steel screws and bolts because they don't strip and bend like the ones at the hardware store.  But of course the quality hasn't really declined.  I could replace those steel spoons for $100 or so, and I'm sure there are places to get quality hardware rather than the Chinese scrap.  But if you had to spend a buck fifty on a wood screw that you're used to paying 15 cents for, you couldn't help but notice the inflation.

And then you realize that the furniture couldn't hold a screw even if you wanted it to, since the stuff you can afford is mostly particle board held together with staples and glue.

For investors, however, there is a second half to this story: the end of economic growth.  Investment is the practice of taking one's wealth and buying something that will produce more wealth - regardless of whether the currencies are stable or inflating.  The printing presses of the Central Bankers have been running day and night, in the vain hope that the beneficiaries (bankers and financiers mostly) will invest it in wealth-making activities - factories, buildings, new technologies.  But vast trillions of these quick-spun dollars and euros and renminbi sit, flitting from hand to hand in the markets, eroding in value because investors don't see anything that is going to pay off in real wealth.

Now the peak energy people won't have any difficulty diagnosing this.  Our economic growth has been primarily based on access to more and more cheap energy, almost exclusively in the form of fossil fuels - coal, gas and oil.   Now that the cheap fuels have been used up, we have to pursue, dirtier, less concentrated, harder to extract sources - economic growth begins to slow down.  The economy will eventually go into contraction if it hasn't already.

I suspect there's more to it than thermodynamic destinies.  These things are always over-determined.

21st century capitalism is exhausted.  Marx was perfectly aware that capitalism, left to its own devices will tend toward monopolism and eventually stagnation and self-strangulation.  It's taken longer than he thought, but the sclerotic state of our capitalism is probably terminal - as any entrepreneurial upstart is taken up and ingested.

And if the only solutions are to do something different than what we've been doing, who achieves the levers of power these days?  Are the kinds of people who rise to the top of our broken politics and our bureaucratized corporations really the kinds who are likely to solve the problems, which business-as-usual is bringing down on our heads?

So whatever the underlying cause, pity the poor investor who just wants to put those dollars or euros or renminbi "to work", but sees nothing but bad risks and varying degrees of wealth erosion.  Lo and behold, it turns out he's getting poorer.  Just like the rest of us.


Krugman has a timely rejoinder to my little sally, Addicted to Inflation.  In it he argues that hidden inflation is a phantasm of the political right that proves their inability to see things as they really are.  Krugman is an economist and I'm not, so take what I say with a grain of salt.  But in my opinion the thing that neither he nor the conservatives he lambasts are willing to contemplate or enter into their calculations is the possibility that the party is ending.

The conservatives were wrong about the printing presses causing the currencies to crash, because though vast sums of money were printed, they mostly sit in cyber vaults un-spent by the banks and billionaires.  Krugman is wrong because, like all mainstream economists, he doesn't seriously consider the geologic, thermodynamic and biospheric limits on the economy.  The normal tools of economic craft don't work when we run up against those limits in the way that we are today.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pollinators and predators

fritillary on butterfly weed
The butterflies are out now that the rains have passed.  

on the phlox
The vetch that is swallowing up the back garden is abuzz with bumble bees.  
The boys refuse to pull it.    

A pretty hairstreak suns on a potato leaf
Red-spotted purples and red admirals are fluttering through.  
The brown-eyed susans are full of little bees, flies and wasps.

Is this tiny fly fooling anyone with his hymenopteran disguise?
There are thousands of flies in North America -
hundreds of species of green long-legged flies, little metallic predators.  

A bronze colored long-legged fly

Members of two distinct species are patrolling adjacent milkweed plants.

A long-legged fly munching on a midge
For a hundred million years 
(according to the amber)
they have been plying their hunting grounds.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby and the levers of power

It was probably the wrong day to give up coffee.  

This week, we woke up to another infuriating ruling by our Supreme Court.  

Ostensibly, the "Hobby Lobby decision" was about certain religiously conservative business owners, who felt that the religious beliefs of their corporation (huh?!) should be insulated from the laws crafted by Congress and its voters.

This ruling brought out a rich outpouring of commentary from many directions, lamenting, among other things:

  • the assertion that powerful men's religious sensibilities are more important than working women's health and autonomy
  • the bizarre notion that corporations can hold religious beliefs, and that those beliefs earn Constitutional protection
  • that unlike the rest of us, business-religion gives one the ability to opt out of laws, even if they only indirectly burden a "conscience"
  • a culmination of the Catholic Church's long project of placing religious doctrine above secular law
  • a table being set for a legal establishment of discrimination rights against gays, Muslims, and others

and so on.

All those things are true, but I think they are also window dressing for the larger project.  The 5 radical members of the Supreme Court are barely bothering to disguise the fact that their overriding goal is to help install oligarchy in the US and to place powerful men and their corporations securely above democratic control.

The courts interpret the Constitution and rightly place limits on the dictatorship of the majority.  Since the document is expressly protective of basic rights, it has often served to protect liberty from momentary, unenlightened swerves of public opinion - and at least it offers a helpful ramp up and away from oppression, whenever such is finally wanted and needed by enough people (see civil rights movement, women's suffrage).

US democracy might still have the potential to unwind the ongoing movement toward a corporate and elite oligarchy.  And for that reason, democracy itself must be neutered, and in an Orwellian twist, the Constitution must be re-interpreted as an instrument to tie the hands of the people.

The Court recently ruled that showering politicians with money is not corruption, but is in fact political "speech," protected by the Constitution and so beyond our right to interfere with.  (There are few in this country, with the exception of would-be oligarchs and the lackeys who work for them, who believe that money has not corrupted the political process.)  Remember, this is not the court just saying such corruption is OK, it is the court saying that we, as a democratic society, have no right to make laws to interfere with this corruption, even if we disagree and believe it is not OK.

The Hobby Lobby is another step forward in this project.  The Court has been laying the groundwork for making each corporation into a kind of "super person" - one whose liberties must be protected by the Constitution - a super person who has free speech to exercise and sincere religious beliefs that must be respected - a super person who must be protected from the general populace's (heretofore widespread) belief that corporations ought to be subject to specific legal controls and even expected to contribute to a common good.

Americans have woken up to the knowledge that our democracy has been hijacked.  The Court is rushing to make sure that if we attempt to reign in these men, their corporations, and the political power they have bought, the legal and political terrain is arrayed against us.  This week's effort, which made a mockery of the Constitution's protection of religious liberty, should be understood in that light.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stealing the catbird's mulberries


Stealing the catbird's mulberries,  
I was well scolded.

Valerian in bloom by the shed.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Bad Beekeeping


One of the casualties of my busy spring has been any pretense at competent beekeeping.  On May 8th I managed to pick up a couple of packages of bees only a few hours before I was heading off for two and a half weeks.  I hurriedly installed them in the hives I'd prepared and as often happens when you hurry, I made a mistake.

The bees that arrive in a package are not a true colony.  It contains a mated queen and a random collection of workers which are vacuumed out of the air at a breeder complex.  4 or 5 thousand of them are put in a small box with a kind of paint can full of sugar syrup that has a few holes poked in it.  The bees form a swarm around the food source.  Although the bees are from many different colonies they don't molest one another, but if you introduce a strange queen to this motley collection they will attack her and kill her.  The workers need a week or so of exposure to her pheromones before they will accept her as their own queen.

For this reason the queen is put in a queen cage.  Three little conjoined chambers are routed out of a little block of wood and a hole drilled in either end.  One chamber is filled with "candy" a sugar paste.  The queen is placed in the neighboring chambers with a couple of attendants, a scrap of screen covers it and both holes are corked shut.

The idea is that you do a "slow release" of the queen when you get her.  The main box of bees you disassemble and dump into a hive.  You remove the cork from the candy side of the cage and suspend it in the hive.  The bees will stay in a hive with the queen and the candy plug allows the bees to eat their way in to her over several days.  By that time, they will have accepted her and settled into their new home.  As she starts laying eggs the workers will feed and tend her brood until they reach adulthood themselves.

But as I said, I was in a hurry, and I removed the wrong cork, releasing her directly into the hive days earlier than planned.  I couldn't see what happened to her in the confusion of bees, whether they balled around her and killed her, so I closed up the hive and hoped for the best.

It was May 28th, three weeks later, when I next could look in, and there was no sign of a queen, no sign of any brood (that is larva or pupae) that would be in evidence if a queen were present.  I did note that they were constructing "queen cells", which is something a colony will do if the queen is dead or dying.  But if there are no larvae a colony can't make a new queen.  It didn't occur to me to examine the queen cells closely.  I assumed that the remaining colony were simply the package bees, which would continue to work at bringing in nectar until they gradually died off.

Fast forward to June 23nd, nearly 7 weeks after I'd fumbled the hiving.  I saw there was still some traffic in and out of the hive, but assumed it was the successful colony robbing out the honey from the dead one.

Capped brood contain pupae and the open cells white larvae

But it turns out there is a small colony inside with brood and a healthy supply of nurse bees looking after it.  Somehow I must have missed something in that first hive inspection.  Maybe the queen was a slow starter.  Or, given the small size of the colony, maybe the original queen only survived long enough to lay a few eggs, which the workers nurtured into a new queen, who took a mating flight and is now building up her colony.

She's in there somewhere, though I didn't manage to spot her.  I'll look again and see if she has the little spot of paint that the breeders usually put on.  Until then, it's a mystery.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Solstice above Chicago

At first, when I realized that I would spend the day of the summer solstice working - and end it on an airplane - I was disappointed.  Though the summer solstice has never felt quite as significant as the winter I do always think that I should mark it better than I have.

But this day in Ohio would represent the end of a 10-week gauntlet of research and travel.  I spent a few hours walking with my videographer, Greg, first in the sleepy Saturday suburbs of Columbus and then among the strollers at the Creekside Jazz and Blues Festival in Gahanna.  I was asking people about why we have a government, what its for, what it should do, what it shouldn't do - and from there into a meandering conversation about collective responsibilities, resentments, power, discourse and freedom.

After a week of this, my little brown notebook contained notes on 89 people we'd encountered - Greg's cameras and hard drives contained a couple hundred gigabytes of video and audio recordings to be reviewed and transcribed.

Around 2 pm, I wrapped up a last interview with a trio of pretty and optimistic college girls.  It was time to stop gathering data and turn toward synthesis and analysis.  Besides, Germany was playing Ghana in the World Cup, and we had just enough time to get to the airport, drop off the car, pass through security and find a bar where the match was on.

So we got our beers and watched the Ghanians hold the Germans at bay, while Greg loaded the day's video files onto my laptop.

After the satisfying match, Greg got on a plane bound for California, while I worked on my laptop.  Tornadoes in Illinois delayed my flight for an hour, then another hour.  I was at a gate at the end of the terminal and through the towering wall of windows I could see the solstice sun sloping down onto a plain of hangars and equipment and aircraft.  It was certainly no Chaco Canyon or Stonehenge - just a scene of Late Oil Age Utilitarianism.

Later, after the storms had spent themselves or moved on, I was on the airplane.  It was a couple of hours before midnight and we were approaching Chicago from the south and east.  The aircraft passed out of a layer of clouds into the most spectacular sky I have ever seen.  We were traveling along an enormous, curving wall of billowing thunderheads - like a towering amphitheater of the gods.  The great folds and cleavages and billows were alternately blued by the darkening night and bronzed by the sunset that raged to the west.  Dark blue sky above green and yellow with slashes of translucent cloud - and orange lava flowed upon the horizon.  But as huge and imposing as the thunderheads appeared, they were dwarfed by the cloud-structure that rose up from behind them.  It was a vast mushroom, whose stem rose up from their midst miles to the south, and then spread its umbrella cap above us - painted scarlet and rose by the sun from some even more distant horizon.

. . . and the setting of this sun took my breath away - which is a pretty good solstice gift . . . 

Friends at home, celebrating midsummer night.