Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stupid Societies Die When Their Luck Runs Out

With interest rates at historic lows and unemployment at historic highs it could not be more obvious that government spending right about now would stimulate the economy as nothing else could while at once addressing in an actually substantive way the looming catastrophes of climate change and resource descent that will define our generation or destroy our world.

Notice that I said, "right about now." Mine is not a declaration that government spending is always more stimulative than so-called "private sector" alternatives, but that it is when a national economy is caught in a liquidity trap such as our own is now, an extraordinary but occasional circumstance that Keynes and his heirs provided and refined the analytic tools to grasp and cope with for those with working brains. To deny this case -- until the models are proven wrong, and they simply have not been -- is to be a macroeconomic illiterate, plain and simple, while to pretend those making this case are treating it as a universal or a panacea is to be a liar.

This explains why Republicans so regularly make both these sorts of claims. All the austerity and tax-cut talk, to the extent that it is earnest and not just greedy opportunism, is the talk of people who are macroeconomic know-nothings, either embarrassingly ignorant of or outright denialist about. For a party which provides a home for climate-change denialists and anti-Darwin creation-"scientists" and abstinence-only follies it can scarcely be surprising that one finds laissez-faire dead-enders among Republicans in droves -- the GOP is, indeed, the largest and most powerful Flat Earth Society on Earth's curving surface.

As for the lies -- well, if the GOP didn't lie about what they are doing they would never be elected for anything, because they mean to enrich a small minority at the cost of majorities and no majority would let them get away with it if they were honest about it in even so notional a democracy as our own. Telling lies is second nature to Republicans, as lying to themselves is first nature.

Now, shifting from our oil, coal, and nuclear energy infrastructure to a renewable solar-wind-tidal-geothermal energy infrastructure, and also shifting from our car culture to a continental mass-transit infrastructure, and also shifting from our soil-eroding energy-input-intensive industrial agriculture system to a smaller more localized decentralized organic permaculture system, and also shifting our zoning priorities to enable dense walkable urban neighborhoods and preserve the ecosystem-services provided by wetlands and watersheds and green spaces would revitalize our economy.

The key tools to facilitate these shifts are regulations, public investments, tax policies -- certainly not micro-greenwashing boutique lifestyle consumption, nor macro-greenwashing "geo-engineering" marketing fantasies. We will not shop our way out of this crisis. We cannot expect the elite-incumbents who profited from the engineering of this catastrophe and thrive in it still to save us from the devastating results. There is no spontaneous order that will crystallize sustainability if only we deregulate out of its way.

The indispensable governmental regulations, subsidizations, investments, and shifts we can and must implement would facilitate the necessary return to a production rather than immaterial-neoliberal financial/promotional consumer-debt pseudo-economy. They would also provide social conditions for the revitalization of organized labor and hence renew the middle class (this time demographically diversified and more multiculture-competent) as a definitive democratizing force in public and civic life. And they would give the human race a chance to survive and possibly even flourish amidst the already-ongoing catastrophically-upcoming global warming and weirding of climate change (superstorms, pandemics, climate refugees in the millions) and resource descent (water wars, mass starvation, rare-mineral-dependent high-tech infrastructure failures).

Although we know what to do, we are not doing it. In fact, things have been getting worse, far worse, and getting worse ever more rapidly, the more we know more clearly what should be done and how do-able what must be done actually is.

Incredibly, our economic catastrophe has actually created excellent conditions for coping with our climate catastrophe: the best way to stimulate the economy is to invest in infrastructure and precisely such investments are indispensable to shifts into renewable energy and mass transportation systems, the greatest obstacle (apart from ignorance and Industrial-Ag lobbying) to a shift into smaller scale permaculture is its higher labor demand at a time when high unemployment happens to be our greatest, and to our everlasting shame our most neglected, economic priority.

My point isn't to propose that easy fixes are available, but just to say that it is hard to imagine a more congenial complementarity of crises, when what must be done is so well understood and the means for doing it solves so many problems at once. It is extraordinary to say the least that in the face of such urgent problems, such obvious solutions, such available means that the institutions of governance are so dysfunctional that we are doing nothing at all when there is so much to do that can so readily be done, especially when to do nothing is literally likely to do us all in.

Government is the indispensable institutional register capable of organizing the agency to address the catastrophes at hand -- and so, this is no time for anarchist day dreams, or narcissistic indulgences in lifestyle retreats. America's incredible resources as well as its unique historical and geographical situation make it the exceptional player in this drama, like it or not, actually capable in its dysfunction of destroying the world and also capable, were it to arrive even late to functionality, of saving the world -- and so, neither is this the time, especially for American citizens like me, to renounce our responsibilities and our power, such as it is, in despair, cynicism, or disgust.

We must educate, agitate, organize, contribute, and vote -- and I am sorry to say that this largely means engaging in a highly partisan effort for Democrats, imperfect, compromised, insufferable though they may be. You go into battle with the army you have, not the one you wish you had.

Third party bids are functional spoilers given the actually-existing system, and reforming the system to change this is harder and would take longer than pushing the Democrats left from the inside. That's just the way it is if (as I believe) the timetable for renewable infrastructure investment is shorter than the time it will take to get publicly funded elections and instant runoff voting. And all that means we have to push for renewable infrastructure investment at the most congenial actually available site: which is clearly the Democratic party.

The Republican party is -- in its present Movement Conservative phase and in this historical moment of interlocking financial and environmental crises -- the single most dangerous and destructive organized force in the world, since it is poised to do the most damage at the American site at which the most devastating and possibly irreversible planetary damage can be done.

I am far from believing that most Democrats are equal to the task at hand, just as I am far from denying that no Democrats are active forces of dysfunction and damage. But the Republicans are now defined by the project of plutocratic profit-taking at public expense and indulge in loud misinformation about sound economics and climate science in short-sighted short-term service to elite-incumbents to the ruin of the world. These Republicans must be defeated and marginalized utterly, then (perhaps the better to reorganize and re-emerge in a more sensibly conservative form), and more, and better, Democrats prevail if there is to be a chance for this world.

It is wholesome, even necessary, to pressure Democrats to reflect better the actual urgencies of the moment. One would have all Democrats embrace absolutely and consistently the politics of people who work for a living over the demands of the rentiers, the politics of public investment for all over private profit-taking for few, the politics of equity-in-diversity over parochialism and plutocracy, the politics of democratic expression and assembly over elite-incumbency, the politics of sustainability over extraction, the politics of consent over exploitation.

But it is crucial that these efforts to push Democrats from the left to the left always do so in ways that also directly empower Democrats as a governing party against the efforts of Republicans, or at any rate never -- even in the short term, since the short-term defines the span in which the address of so many of our urgent problems takes place -- actively disempower Democrats relative to Republicans.

It is better to elect a comparatively compromised Democrat in a district whose politics are backward and so increase the governing majority of Democrats -- among whom are much more progressive voices who can do something useful, even if less often than one might like, with such a governing majority -- than to allow a Republican reactionary to win and hand Republicans the majority that renders progressive voices altogether mute. Likewise, it is better to challenge an incumbent Democrat in a reliably Democratic district when their politics are less progressive than their constituency is, the better to push the party as a whole from the left to the left. So, too, it is always good to make progressive cases to one's representatives and to the community of her constituency to amplify the progressive case in the representative's hearing, and to encourage and actively support representatives whenever they act in ways that reflect progressive priorities. Again, this helps push Democrats from the left to the left.

This is slow-moving, painstaking, exhausting, compromised, frustrating work, and I realize that I am asking you to hold a whole lot of different things in your head at once that cannot be communicated easily in a tweet. But if you would imagine yourself ethically righteous or politically engaged -- and you should -- then it is your responsibility to make this effort.

Politics is not performance art nor is it a philosophical symposium.

To expect stakeholder politics seamlessly or even comfortably to align with one's own ideals would be perfectly ridiculous even in a system considerably less corrupt and plutocratic and ill-informed as our own. To expect it here and now and upon discovering it does not, to pout and stamp and retreat into purist abstraction or punitive inaction when the stakes are so high and our responsibilities so clear is almost unfathomably infantile and irrational.

Stupid societies die when their luck runs out. America is unbelievably, indeed, almost unbearably stupid right now, and I'm not sure we should be counting on luck at a time like this. It is time for good people of good sense and good will to do our best and do our duty for the good of us all.


jimf said...

> America is unbelievably, indeed, almost unbearably
> stupid right now. . .

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism,
and the vaccine-autism link.
By Chris Mooney
In [Yale Law School professor Dan] Kahan's research,
individuals are classified, based on their cultural values,
as either "individualists" or "communitarians,"
and as either "hierarchical" or "egalitarian" in
outlook. (Somewhat oversimplifying, you can think
of hierarchical individualists as akin to conservative
Republicans, and egalitarian communitarians as
liberal Democrats.) . . .

The results were stark: When the scientist's position stated
that global warming is real and human-caused, for instance,
only 23 percent of hierarchical individualists agreed the
person was a "trustworthy and knowledgeable expert."
Yet 88 percent of egalitarian communitarians accepted
the same scientist's expertise. . .

In other words, people rejected the validity of a
scientific source because its conclusion contradicted
their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks
inherent in each scenario. A hierarchal individualist
finds it difficult to believe that the things he
prizes (commerce, industry, a man's freedom to possess
a gun to defend his family) could lead to outcomes
deleterious to society. Whereas egalitarian communitarians
tend to think that the free market causes harm, that
patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people
can't handle their guns. The study subjects weren't
"anti-science"—not in their own minds, anyway. It's
just that "science" was whatever they wanted it to be.

On the other hand, if you dare to venture into the secular
right-wing precincts of the blogosphere, you can find very
smart people who would not, to say the least, find their
own biases reflected in the pages of Mother Jones.

Here's an example:

Locklin on science
U.S. energy independence: hard numbers
by Scott Locklin, January 9, 2010

Although he quotes F. T. Marinetti, author of the Futurist
Manifesto (1909) in the above article, Locklin isn't too
kind to contemporary futurists. See, e.g.,

Spotting vaporware: three follies of would-be technologists
by Scott Locklin, October 4, 2010


Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry
by Scott Locklin, August 24, 2010

jimf said...

An amusing quote from
A sort of hand wavey corollary based again on fusion’s
promises (or, say, the “war on cancer”), I like to call,
“the folly of 20 year promises.” Bullshitters love to give
estimates that allow them to retire before they’re
discovered as frauds; 20 years is about long enough to
collect a pension. Of course, a 20 year estimate may be
an honest one, but I can’t really think of any planned,
specific technological breakthrough developed by a
bureaucracy over that kind of time scale, and I can
think of dozens upon dozens which have failed miserably
to the tune of billions of research dollars. What
“20 years” means to me is, ”I don’t actually know how
to do this, but I wish you’d give me money for it anyway.”

This principle is nothing new.

I gather that every Russian child learns stories
about a legendary rogue named Nasruddin.

Here's one I found a while ago on Usenet (before I
found out from a Russian acquaintance that every
Russian kid has heard of this character).

Nasruddin and the Shah's ass:
There once was a Shah who developed a special fondness for his ass, and
expressed a desire that the animal be taught human speech. Nasruddin came
forth, declaring that he could do the job in twenty-five years, for 25
thousand gold pieces. The Shah agreed, and Nasruddin led away the ass
loaded with a fortune in gold. Upon hearing about the bargain, Nasruddin's
friends came to his house, expressing great concern. "Surely, -- they
said, -- you will fail to teach the ass to speak, and spend the gold, and
then the Shah will order his royal executioner to cut off your head."
"Don't worry, -- replied Nasruddin, -- in twenty-five years the Shah will
die, or the ass will die, or I myself will die."


jimf said...

> In [Yale Law School professor Dan] Kahan's research. . .

You know, I googled this guy, and came to a page called
"The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School"
and what do I find under "current projects"?

Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions
Its immense range of potential applications -- scientific,
commercial, and medical -- marks nanotechnology as one of
the most promising new forms of applied science. The future
of nanotechnology, however, will depend not just on anticipation
of its likely benefits but also on fear of its possible risks.
Many members of the public, often upon hearing of nanotechnology
for the first time, react with near-instantaneous concern about
the hazards it may pose to the environment and to human health.
Despite the nascent state of the nanotechnology industry,
moreover, efforts to subject it to comprehensive regulation
are already under way.

As a component of its NSF-funded project on the mechanisms of
cultural cognition, the Cultural Cogntion Project, in collaboration
with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, is conducting
research to determine what people think about nanotechnology
and how they respond to information about it.

The **NSF** is funding this? Jaysus!

jollyspaniard said...

America is also a very lucky country, lucky enough to survive some stupidity.

I'm confident that it will eventually weather financial hard times and do the right thing. Unfortunately things are going to get pretty bad before that happens.