Archive for October, 2011

Below Crush Depth

Posted: October 31, 2011 in Economics, Politics

Just in case anyone forgot about the other elephant in the room (one of many, actually) while attention turned to Europe’s financial shell game, Occupy Wall Street protests, and (justified) preoccupation with the 1%, here is a comment by Barstiat at Clusterfuck Nation (stolen and quoted ruthlessly) that puts U.S. Federal debt into useful perspective:

Here is why S&P downgraded the US credit rating.

  • U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
  • Fed budget: $3,820,000,000,000
  • New debt: $1,650,000,000,000
  • National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
  • Recent budget cut: $38,500,000,000

Now let’s remove 8 zeros and pretend it’s a household budget.

  • Annual family income: $21,700
  • Money the family spent: $38,200
  • New debt on the credit card: $16,500
  • Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
  • Total budget cuts: $385

I did a couple quick searches to vet the numbers but was unable to find a matching source, though numbers found at the Congressional Budget Office were fairly close. (Just trying wading in at that site and finding the info you seek. G’head, I dare ya.)

The eight zeros lopped off represent $100 million in Federal debt to every $1 in household debt. Since the billions and trillions contemplated in the Federal budget lose coherence — they’re simply too large to be meaningful any longer — let’s deal instead with household numbers, which folks can still get their heads around.

So you’re already $142,710 in debt and racking up an additional $16,500 on the year but you only cut back on yearly expenses by a measly $385. No reasonable individual or household could possibly believe such lopsided numbers are responsible. Your credit would be frozen long before reaching this desultory state and your standard of living would plummet. Of course, no one wants to give up any of the trappings of modern life, so you plunge into further indebtedness, which will eventually become someone else’s problem. Remember, however, that the U.S. government runs its own money-printing machines, abetted by banks that loan into existence even more money, resulting in a scenario that we (the people) owe more money than exists or ever will. Nice conjuring trick. In similar fashion, lots of recent college grads are discovering that school debt assumed to finance their educations is not even remotely correlated to their earning potential in the current economy, reinforcing the mistaken notion that higher education is essentially vocational training. The likelihood of ever being financially whole is now like the telescoping hallways of nightmares, receding from view no matter how fast you run.

Many individuals and nearly all governments (Federal, state, county, and municipality) are now under such crushing debt loads that they can no longer reasonably contemplate functioning according to the standards understood and enjoyed for several generations now. What happens next is still unclear, but various types of implosion are to be expected, such as an avalanche of foreclosures and individual bankruptcies, defaults on sovereign debt, and corporate bankruptcies (such as today’s announcement about MF Global). In short, we’re in too deep, below crush depth, which can only have happened when notional wealth disconnects and unlinks from reality, which describes much of modern civilization.

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I am coming to the end of part one (of two) of The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. After having described the divided brain, he is now at the stage of explaining in detail why the right brain is the master and the left brain the emissary. Here is one of many restatements of the central thesis from p. 177:

There is a tendency for the life sciences to consider a mechanistic universe more ‘real’, even though physics long ago moved away from this legacy of nineteenth-century materialism, with the rather odd result that the inanimate universe has come to appear animate, to take part in mind, while the animate universe appears inanimate, mindless. Science has to prioritise clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up of detail over the the bigger picture. Like philosophy it comes at the world from the left hemisphere’s point of view … There Newtonian mechanics rules; but it ‘frays at the edges’, once one pans out to get the bigger picture of reality, at the subatomic, or at the cosmic, level. Here uncertainty replaces certainty; the fixed turns out to be constantly changing and cannot be pinned down; straight lines are curved: in other words, Einstein’s laws account better than Newton’s. Straight lines, such as the horizon, are curved if one takes a longer view, and space itself is curved — so that the rectilinearity of the left hemisphere is a bit like the flat-Earther’s view ….

Naturally, one must rely on language to describe hemispheric worldviews, so it is no surprise that McGilchrist uses metaphors from science to support his argument. He points out, however, that while the left hemisphere can understand conflicts between Euclidean and elliptical or hyperbolic space (among other things, e.g., Schrödinger’s cat or the wave vs. particle debate), the right hemisphere is far more comfortable dealing with flow, flux, ambiguity, and paradox. Those problems are not resolved in the right hemisphere, exactly, but they no longer matter so much.

This calls to mind an early scene in the movie The Matrix where Neo admits that things feels off, or subtly wrong somehow. He can’t pin it down, but he can sense it somehow. This is why the right brain is the master: it gets it more fully, if perhaps imprecisely. (“What is it, exactly?” asks the left brain. “Who cares,” answers the right brain, “let’s dance!”) Yet we strain and struggle to fix reality in our minds via the left hemisphere due to habits of mind developed, learned, and institutionalized over centuries. So the wrong way of viewing the world has gained the upper hand, at least temporarily (some 6,000 years perhaps, which is almost nothing in the larger scheme of things).

I was delighted to discover (on two different blogs on the same day, a good instance of how something suddenly goes viral) an RSA Animate video of McGilchrist summarizing his findings, which is a shorter, animated version of a longer version (available elsewhere on YouTube) delivered behind a podium with some supplemental media.

His message is very clear to me, but I’m currently reading the book. As I watched the video, however, I was struck that the tantalizing visual distraction and cleverness of the illustrator (using animation within the animation) overwhelms the spoken message. It’s basic media theory: the medium is the message, and here, despite using MiGilchrist’s book as the ostensible subject, the dominant message becomes about the illustration (or the illustrator).

In something that sounds like it ought to be a joke but isn’t, the day when the Earth’s human population is projected to cross above 7 billion (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) is April 1, 2012. What fools we all turn out to be!!

Back in the day (the 1960s and 1970s), I recall the population explosion used to be a very real worry, as were the energy crisis and the ecology movement. They were not entirely forgotten but were submerged for a time beneath the usual happy lies we tell ourselves about human progress (e.g., Reagan’s rhetorical blather about Morning in America). Forgotten worries have resurfaced as Peak Oil, Peak Coal, Peak Water (frankly, Peak Everything), population demographics run amok, environmentalism, and permaculture, all leading to industrial collapse and probably maybe even human extinction.

With respect to population specifically, this article in The Guardian has a scary picture of present-day Taipei just to show what a swarm of locusts humans looks like:

Of course, it’s far too late now to stop us from destroying ourselves, essentially by consuming the planet and thus ruining our own habitat (along with that of most other species). This foregone conclusion was foreseen in the 18th century by Thomas Malthus, which is described in a now four-year-old interview of Iain Boal at CounterPunch called “The Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse.” The news is out, has been for a long time in fact, but none save the Chinese (to my knowledge) have taken any real steps to stem population growth. (A few countries have logged negative population growth, but not purposely.) A more sober, mathematical unpacking of the issue by Prof. Al Bartlett is found here, which describes the slow, steady, implacable force of even modest growth rates. One can argue with arguments, perhaps, but how can one argue with math?

Update: According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), world population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011. The world population clock at the U.S. Census Bureau (linked to above) still projects April 2, 2012, as the crossover date. These are estimates, to be certain, and it’s probably not so important which is more accurate.

Scheler’s Hierarchy

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Culture, Education, Philosophy
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Most educated folks know about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

As I continue my (glacially slow) progress through The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, I was intrigued to read about a different hierarchy — that of value modalities — developed by the German phenomenological philosopher Max Scheler:

McGilchrist notes that Scheler anticipates the left brain/right brain division of labor The Master and His Emissary adopts as the foundation of its main thesis. McGilchrist’s description of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy makes clear admission that the tools of philosophy are inadequate to account for the fullness of human experience, thus the rise of phenomenology. So it may also be worth observing that whereas Maslow’s hierarchy begins with the needs of the body and progresses to the needs of the mind or self (the enumeration weighted heavily towards abstract needs after physical needs have been met), Scheler’s hierarchy appears to be concerned primarily with mental states. Scheler’s hierarchy also relates closely to his Stratification of Emotional Life, which might best be understood through psychology and philosophy despite emotional life being experienced in the body, making emotion as much sensual as mental.

McGilchrist reminds the reader repeatedly that all of experience is grounded in the body, or the sensorium, despite the apparent existence of purely mental phenomena. I used to believe that unification of the rational and irrational was needed to repair the divided self, where the former was unfairly privileged over the latter following the Enlightenment. I’m coming around to the opinion that the true dichotomy in need of bridging is the mind and the body. Scheler’s hierarchy and philosophy in general point to how we use the mind to mediate, narrate, explain, and understand experience. In short, we’re trying to live in our heads, not our bodies, and are given to distrusting the viscera, the preverbal, the unconscious, and the passions not only because they’re irrational but because they’re too powerful, too intrinsic, and therefore unavoidable. Predictability and controllability are scientific and mechanistic, very much in keeping with the soulless ethics of the modern world, but we nonetheless exist as embodied beings despite whatever mental landscape or virtual world we create for ourselves. Scheler and the other phenomenologists sensed the growing disconnect, the divided self, but could only deepen it by withdrawing into their heads and philosophical formulations.

Nature Encounter

Posted: October 15, 2011 in Environment, Health, Idle Nonsense

I visited The River Trail Nature Center and grounds recently in Glenview, Illinois, which is part of the larger Forest Preserve District of Cook County serving the City of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. A similar forest preserve district is located in Lake County just to the north. Cook County maintains an impressive network of public parks and forest preserves, many situated along Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the Des Plaines River, though I only infrequently venture into a forest preserve except when I’m driving somewhere in my car and must traverse one. Another recent day, I rode my bike on a path through the Caldwell Woods, which follows alongside the Des Plaines River. I used to ride the lake shore bike path (along Lake Michigan) quite a bit, but it’s in some ways a victim of its own success and now too crowded with people and traffic. Now I ride mostly city streets. Both of these recent experiences made curious impressions on me.

The first felt strangely artificial, as though the woods had been emptied out and sanitized for suburbanites with delicate sensibilities — people who want to be out in nature without truly encountering it. Signage warned (among other things) not to stray off the gravel paths, not to jog, and not to stay out after sunset. Sounds of passing traffic (from just beyond the grounds) intruded into the otherwise serene landscape. The Nature Center itself was a little like a radically abbreviated zoo, with its educational services thrust, child friendliness, and gawker’s sensibility: signs and pictures identified flora and fauna with clinical accuracy but only questionable relevance or intrinsic interest.

The second was a joy. The leaves had changed and begun to fall, which provided welcome sights and smells of the season. It still being Indian summer in Chicago, I raced and sweated through about 16 miles of trail, pausing at street and train crossings. Although the Caldwell Woods are situated within Chicago proper (at the southern end) and have mown grass and asphalt paths, they felt somehow less empty, less artificial than the Glenview forest preserve. I even rode past (a family of?) four deer, who were entirely unperturbed by the bicyclists speeding by.

I have commented to family and friends that Chicago is a concrete city (and brick, glass, and steel). There is precious little lawn space other than in the parks, and whenever I drive beyond the city and suburbs, I always appreciate the sense of leaving behind the city’s population density, self-conscious architecture, and clogged urban transportation infrastructure. So venturing into the woods, even those set aside specifically for our use, felt worthwhile. Still, walking and riding the paths was a far cry from tramping truly wild woods as I did when I was a Boy Scout many years ago.

Estrangement and alienation from nature are frequent themes discussed in many of the books, articles, and blogs I read. Like more than 90% of Americans, I’m an urban dweller. Only 110 years ago, more than 90% of Americans resided outside of cities and were agrarian. Connections to nature and its processes were automatic and inevitable; almost no one would have thought to “visit nature” because they already lived there. Similarly, almost no one would have gone to a gym for a workout because their lives were already full of physical activity and labor that kept them fit and active. Combining them (as with trail riding or golfing in tamed and coiffed versions of nature) is even better. That we now do both and consider it normal and desirable as a retreat from the difficulty of our modern lives is not a marker of healthy adaptation to our environment — for me no less than others. The fact that I could even have such curious impressions in encounters with nature demonstrates, however, how adapted I am to urban life despite being aware of a different sort of world beckoning.

Awarded Answers 02

Posted: October 10, 2011 in Advertising, Blogosphere, Education, Writing
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In a previous post, I linked to 17 of my awarded answers at WebAnswers.com. Here are an additional 12:

  • What according to you runs the world? link
  • Is Hugh Hefner … just a dirty old man? link
  • If you stumbled upon a magic lamp and a Genie came out … what would be your three wishes? link
  • Will it be a true reality that some day there will be cities built underwater? link
  • Did you hear about the new trains which runs [sic] on magnets? link
  • What is the name of this movie? link
  • Your opinion on unemployment[?] link
  • What is a Troy Ounce? link
  • Which is Your Favorite James Bond 007 movie? link
  • Do law school students take special courses in writing? link
  • What is the best western movie ever? link
  • Why are ipods so good for listening to music? link

Although my profile says I’ve been awarded 53 answers, I can only see 32, and of those, 13 links are dead and display “Page Not Found” error messages. (That’s a lot of lost awarded answers: more than one-third! I would be concerned if my participation weren’t mostly a distraction for me.) My total answer count is 280, which yields 18.9% in awarded answers. A surprising number of questions I answered remain unawarded to anyone. Senior members have answer counts in the thousands (a handful in the tens of thousands), but I don’t spend enough time there to reach that level of activity any time soon.

Car Culture

Posted: October 10, 2011 in History, Idle Nonsense

This blog post was originally published on February 3, 2008, at Creative Destruction. This republication is somewhat modified.

The movement of middle class whites from city centers to suburbs starting in the 1950s is one of the many effects cars and their infrastructure have wrought on social organization and landscape. Those of us born during the baby boom and after (which is most of us by now) have difficulty imagining any other possible way of living besides climbing in the car every day and driving where we go. A handful of U.S. cities have significant enough public transportation to enable some to forgo owning car, and I know a few die-hards who try to ride bicycles everywhere, even in the winter.

Jim Kunstler has a phrase he repeats regularly to describe the acute blindness most of us share regarding the inevitable changes to the economics of owning and operating automobiles: happy motoring. We act as though the era before cars — the one we can’t remember — is permanently behind us and the availability of cheap energy, whether gasoline, ethanol, or electricity, will never disappear. Peak oil experts tell a different story, and because of that, Kunstler has prophesied that the suburbs are already dead but we don’t yet realize it. All that remains to be played out. What’s clear right now at least is that we’ve put all of our eggs in this one particular basket, and until the basket is irrevocably ruined, we’ll continue to act like there will be no end to happy motoring.

In the meantime, a couple curious behaviors related to car culture have caught my attention. In Chicago, we get a couple heavy snows each winter that pretty much grind traffic to a halt. Many people park on the street, and when they dig out their cars, all sorts of junk appears on the street to claim the cleared spot: lawn chairs, broken furniture, orange hazard cones, milk crates and boards, etc. The unspoken contract seems to be, “I cleared this spot, now respect my labor and don’t park here.” It isn’t legal to stake out a parking place, and it only happens in the winter after large snowfalls, but it seems pretty clear that one would have to be pretty foolish to remove the lawn furniture, park in the spot, and then leave one’s vehicle worth several thousands (at the very least) unattended and vulnerable to whatever vandalism inflicted by the person(s) who cleared the snow.

Personally, I would never stake out a spot, though I’ve been disappointed a few times to lose one I cleared, and if I did stake one out, I’d never go the extra step and vandalize the car parked by someone who moved my lawn furniture out of the way. Do I expect others to exercise that restraint? Not on your life. I’m undecided whether this tradition is basically harmless or an instance of hoarding in scarcity. Since I have a dedicated parking spot, I guess I don’t have to decide.

The other curious behavior having partly to do with car culture is the line of vehicles on the shoulder of the highway into O’Hare International Airport. Folks are waiting in their vehicles 1-2 miles away from the airport for a phone call from the person to be picked up rather than circling the terminal or parking and walking to meet their party. It seems like a reasonable approach until one considers that these cars are waiting on the shoulder of a highway where drivers routinely travel 60-80 mph. Blocking the shoulder may not be much of a problem, but merging into traffic from a dead stop is not a maneuver I trust most people to execute either respectfully or safely.

I don’t attend to the local media closely enough to know whether police are ticketing drivers waiting along the highway or that City Hall declared a moratorium on claiming parking spots after snow removal. Perhaps these behaviors pose no particular issue for most. I’m still wondering what will happen when the price of oil spikes and few can afford to rack up 25k+ miles per year. If it’s anything like the horribly stupid movie Blood Car, it won’t be pretty.