Archive for March, 2020

Most news I gather is for me unsurprising. That’s the regrettable condition of a doomer continuously learning of different sorts of corruption and awfulness piling up. For instance, the coronavirus crisis is unsurprising to me, as I’ve opined many times that a pandemic was overdue. The previous time I remember being surprised — sickened actually — was learning of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Similar garbage gyres are found in all oceanic bodies.) I’m surprised and sickened yet again upon learning that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended enforcement of environmental laws against industries that despoil the environment in the course of their activities. Polluters are being granted, in effect, a license to kill. The 7-pp. memo can be found here.

I tried to read the memo, but it’s formulated in that dry, bureaucratic style that obfuscates meaning and puts readers to sleep. The news is reported here in a more readable fashion. The EPA’s action is purportedly a temporary response to the pandemic, but the crisis and the response seem to me unrelated except in the sense of “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” I fully expect opportunists to further consolidate power at the Federal level; I never suspected the crisis would be used to enable rape and pillage of the earth’s resources without consequence. No doubt, free rein to relax precautions is a dream many industrialists harbor, which aligns handily with GOP politics. Even to a cynic, however, this revision of policy is astonishing.

The earth has suffered quite a series of insults and injuries at the hands of its apex predator. How much more the earth can absorb is an impossible question to answer. However, it will obviously outlast us. We depend wholly on it, while it is indifferent to our needs. So the decision to loosen up and accept destruction not normally countenanced only hastens us early into the grave we have been digging for ourselves for the past three centuries or so. The pandemic and industrial civilization are already in the process of killing us (and in truth, probably most everything else). No need to accelerate further.

Caveat: I’m not an economist, nor do I subscribe to most economic analyses. The dismal science is a weird sort of voodoo practiced by self-proclaimed priests and wizards. So more than usual, this blog post is me talking outta my ass.

As we enter a new phase of history where developments come barreling at us with seismic force, the past offers limited guidance what to expect or how to act or react. We are all being sorely tested in myriad ways. Considering how so much of modern civilization depends on money to keep things going, we’re also now testing the limits of fiat currency’s departure from reality before the whole stinkin’ mess collapses. The appearance of cryptocurrencies based on absolutely nothing (unless social consensus and/or obscurantism counts) was easy to ignore, though the opportunity cost is obvious. Public debt and unfunded obligations (e.g., ballooning repayment schedules, entitlements, pensions) have been less easy to ignore, though that proverbial can continues to be kicked down the road indefinitely. But now, this week, we’re greeted with news that the U.S. Congress is readying helicopter money to be showered on everyone to stave off the very collapse some of us consider inevitable. Can’t ignore that. How it will be distributed is unknown (by me, at least), but historical guidance suggests that the least needful will be getting most of it.

The rather precipitous disappearance and reappearance of money (or value) from the U.S. stock market, first in a matter of weeks and then in only days, invites not just disbelief but jaw-dropping incredulity. Unlike the previous crash/recovery when the malefactors and beneficiaries were mostly the same claque of Wall Street goons, this latest crash and preposterous flash recovery (for now) owes its origin to other causes, not that any of the old vulnerabilities were lessened. Most regular citizens a decade ago wanted bad actors — criminals, really — prosecuted and jailed. Didn’t happen, of course, and we have no such scapegoats this time around. Moreover, whatever the extraordinary measures might best be called (bail-outs, bail-ins, etc.), they signal a foundational test of the nature of money.

Modern monetary theory (MMT) would have us believe that sovereign countries like the U.S., especially because the U.S. dollar functions as the world’s reserve currency, can essentially print and spend as much of the stuff as needed. No blowback will result — certainly not the dread specter of hyperinflation. But how confident can anyone be in the theory when its relatively modest prior practice has been immoderated so egregiously? If hyperinflation does indeed follow, which I can’t prophesy, economic priests and wizards ought to be defrocked permanently. Good luck with that, I suppose; rational explanations fare poorly with a public fed a steady diet of false narratives, lies, cons, and swindles leavened with a heavy dose of aspiration and hope, if not outright greed.

A heavily used rhetorical device of mine is to remind folks that there is always a bigger umbrella over the narrow theme of any blog post, and this final paragraph is no different. That covering is the nonmonetary resources that the money economy motivates. Whether a loaf of bread costs 20¢ or $20, the bread is what really sustains us, not whatever make-believe currency we use to facilitate exchange. Sure, the money compels us (for now) to do the things that make the bread or extract the oil or assemble the disparate parts of the widget. But once money becomes worthless or goods become so prohibitively expensive our efforts no longer suffice to sustain us, what then? We have no alternatives or second chances on the horizon, do we? Thus, the anticipated infusion of helicopter money might well be the equivalent of an all-in bet in poker. That’s a pretty big bet with whole population hanging in the balance.

This unwritten blog post has been sitting in my drafts folder since October 2019. The genesis, the kernel, is that beyond the ongoing collapse of the ecosystem, the natural world that provides all the resources upon which we humans and other organisms rely for life and survival, all other concerns are secondary. Now 5–6 months later, we’re faced with a short- to mid-term crisis that has transfixed and paralyzed us, riveting all attention on immediate pressures, not least of which is ample supplies of paper with which to wipe our asses. Every day brings news of worsening conditions: rising numbers of infection; growing incidence of death; sequestering and quarantining of entire cities, states, and countries; business shutdowns; financial catastrophe; and the awful foreknowledge that we have a long way to go before we emerge (if ever) back into daylight and normalcy. The Age of Abundance (shared unequally) may be gone forever.

Are we mobilizing fully enough to stop or at least ameliorate the pandemic? Are our democratically elected leaders [sic] up to the task of marshaling us through the (arguably) worst global crisis in living memory? Are regular folks rising to the occasion, shouldering loss and being decent toward one another in the face of extraordinary difficulties? So far, my assessment would indicate that the answers are no, no, and somewhat. (OK, some municipal and state leaders have responded late but admirably; I’m really thinking of the early executive response that wasn’t). But let me remind: as serious as the immediate health crisis may be, the even larger civilizational collapse underway (alongside the current extinction process) has not yet been addressed. Sure, lots of ink and pixels have been devoted to studies, reports, books, articles, speeches, and blog posts about collapse, but we have blithely and intransigently continued to inhabit the planet as though strong continuity of our living arrangements will persist until — oh, I dunno — the end of the century or so. Long enough away that very few of us now alive (besides Greta Thunberg) care enough what happens then to forestall much of anything. Certainly not any of the real decision-makers. Collapse remains hypothetical, contingent, theoretical, postulated, and suppositional until … well … it isn’t anymore.

While we occupy ourselves indoors at a social distance for some weeks or months to avoid exposure to the scourge, I’d like to believe that we have the intelligence to recognize that, even in the face of a small (by percentage) reduction of global human population, all other concerns are still secondary to dealing with the prospect (or certainty, depending on one’s perspective) of collapse. However, we’re not disciplined or wizened enough to adopt that view. Moreover, it’s unclear what can or should be done, muddying the issue sufficiently to further delay action being taken. Fellow blogger The Compulsive Explainer summarizes handily:

We have been in an emergency mode for some time, and are now just recognizing it. This time it is a virus that is killing us, but we have been dying for a long time, from many causes. So many causes, they cannot be enumerated individually.

So for the near term, life goes on; for the farther term, maybe not.

As we prepare to hunker down for the Long Emergency (using Kunstler’s apt term), there has been a veritable stampede for the exits, which takes multiple forms as the U.S. anticipates an exponential rise in the viral epidemic, roughly a week behind Italy’s example. It wouldn’t surprise me to see curfews and/or martial law enacted before long. But then, I’m an avowed doomer and have expected something wild and woolly to transpire for some years now. It was always futile to predict either what or when with any specificity. The number of possible scenarios is simply too great. But the inevitability of some major disruption was (to me at least) quite obvious. Whether the COVID-19 pandemic develops into a megadeath pulse remains to be seen. I cannot predict any better than most.

In the meantime, panic buying of toilet paper (an irrational essential I joked about here) and prophylactics such as surgical masks and alcohol swabs; widespread cancellation of concerts, sports events, school sessions, and church services; press releases by every public-facing corporate entity as to their hygienic response to the virus; crazy fluctuations in the U.S. and international stock markets; and exhortations to stay home if at all possible attest to the seriousness of the threat. The velocity of the stock market crash in particular points to a mad stampede to get out before being crushed. Our collective response seems to me exaggerated, but perhaps it’s necessary to forestall the worst-case scenario or letting things run rampant. It’s possible that quarantines and a major economic slowdown will do more damage than the virus, making the cure worse than the disease. That’s a hypothetical to which we will probably never know the answer with certainty, though the United Kingdom may be running that very experiment. Also, Guy McPherson suggests that a 20% reduction in industrial activity will be enough to trigger an abrupt rise in global average temperature further negatively affecting habitat. However, it’s a Catch-22 precisely because sustained industrial activity is already destroying habitat.

In nature, there are several familiar waves far too powerful to stop or control: earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. I suppose we should now acknowledge another: pandemic diseases. While it’s sensible to seek to understand what’s happening even as it happens, I can’t help but to wonder whether resistance is futile and letting the wave crash over us is roughly equivalent to before-the-fact mobilization. Pop psychology would have us do something, not nothing, as an antidote to despair, and indeed, abandoning people to their fates has a callous feel to it — the sort of instrumental logic characteristic of tyrants. I’m not recommending it. On the upside, after the initial panic at the sight of the approaching wave, and shortly after the wave hits, we humans demonstrate a remarkable capacity to set aside differences and pull together to offer aid and comfort. We rediscover our common humanity. Maybe Mad Max-style dystopias are just fiction.

In educational philosophy, learning is often categorized in three domains: the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor (called Bloom’s Taxonomy). Although formal education admittedly concentrates primarily on the cognitive domain, a well-rounded person gives attention to all three. The psychomotor domain typically relates to tool use and manipulation, but if one considers the body itself a tool, then athletics and physical workouts are part of a balanced approach. The affective domain is addressed through a variety of mechanisms, not least of which is narrative, much of it entirely fictional. We learn how to process emotions through vicarious experience as a safe way to prepare for the real thing. Indeed, dream life is described as the unconscious mind’s mechanism for consolidating memory and experience as well as rehearsing prospective events (strategizing) in advance. Nightmares are, in effect, worst-case scenarios dreamt up for the purpose of avoiding the real thing (e.g., falling from a great height or venturing too far into the dark — a proxy for the unknown). Intellectual workouts address the cognitive domain. While some are happy to remain unbalanced, focusing on strengths found exclusively in a single domain (gym rats, eggheads, actors) and thus remaining physically, emotionally, or intellectually stunted or immature, most understand that workouts in all domains are worth seeking out as elements of healthy development.

One form of intellectual workout is debate, now offered by various media and educational institutions. Debate is quite old but has been embraced with renewed gusto in a quest to develop content (using new media) capable of drawing in viewers, which mixes educational objectives with commercial interests. The time-honored political debate used to be good for determining where to cast one’s vote but has become nearly useless in the last few decades as neither the sponsoring organizations, the moderators, nor the candidates seem to understand anymore how to run a debate or behave properly. Instead, candidates use the opportunity to attack each other, ignore questions and glaring issues at hand, and generally refuse to offer meaningful responses to the needs of voters. Indeed, this last was among the principal innovations of Bill Clinton: roll out some appealing bit of vacuous rhetoric yet offer little to no guidance what policies will actually be pursued once in office. Two presidential administrations later, Barack Obama did much the same, which I consider a most egregious betrayal or bait-and-switch. Opinions vary.

In a recent Munk Debate, the proposition under consideration was whether humankind’s best days lie ahead or behind. Optimists won the debate by a narrow margin (determined by audience vote); however, debate on the issue is not binding truth, nor does debate really resolve the question satisfactorily. The humor and personalities of the debaters probably had more influence than their arguments. Admitting that I possess biases, I found myself inclined favorably toward the most entertaining character, though what I find entertaining is itself further bias not shared especially with many others. In addition, I suspect the audience did not include many working class folks or others who see their prospects for better lives diminishing rapidly, which skews the resulting vote. The age-old parental desire to leave one’s children a better future than their own is imperiled according to this poll (polls may vary considerably — do your own search). How one understands “better off” is highly variable, but the usual way that’s understood is in terms of material wellbeing.

Folks on my radar (names withheld) range widely in their enthusiasm or disdain for debate. The poles appears to be default refusal to accept invitations to debate (often couched as open challenges to professed opinions) as a complete waste of time to earnest desire to participate in, host, and/or moderate debates as a means of informing the public by providing the benefit of expert argumentation. As an intellectual workout, I appreciate the opportunity to hear debates (at least when I’m not exasperated by a speaker’s lack of discipline or end-around arguments), but readers can guess from the title of this post that I expect nothing to be resolved by debate. Were I ever to be offered an opportunity to participate, I can well imagine accepting the invitation and having some fun flexing my intellectual muscles, but I would enter into the event with utterly no expectation of being able to convince anyone of anything. Minds are already too well made up on most issues. If I were offered a spot on some bogus news-and-opinion show to be a talking head, shot from the shoulders up and forced to shout and interrupt to get a brief comment or soundbite in edgewise, that I would decline handily as a total waste of time.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new
cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci

 As a kid, I was confused when during some TV drama I heard the phrase “The king is dead; long live the king!” I was interpreting events too literally: the king had just died, so how could his subjects proclaim for him long life? Only when age awarded me greater sophistication (probably not wisdom, though) did I then realize that the phrase connotes the end of one era and the start of another. Old regent dies; new regent assumes power. We’re in the midst of such as transition from one era to the next, though it isn’t marked clearly by the death of a leader. Indeed, when I launched this blog in 2006, that was what I sensed and said so plainly in the About Brutus link at top, which hasn’t changed since then except to correct my embarrassing typos. I initially thought the transition would be about an emerging style of consciousness. Only slightly later, I fell down the rabbit hole regarding climate change (an anthropogenic, nonlinear, extinction-level process). I still believe my intuitions and/or conclusions on both subjects, but I’ve since realized that consciousness was always a moving target and climate change could unfold slowly enough to allow other fundamental shifts to occur alongside. No promises, though. We could also expire rather suddenly if things go awry quickly and unexpectedly. At this point, however, and in a pique of overconfidence, I’m willing to offer that another big transition has finally come into focus despite its being underway as I write. Let me explain. In his book America: The Farewell Tour (2018), Chris Hedges writes this:

Presently, 42 percent of the U.S. public believes in creationism … [and] nearly a third of the population, 94 million people, consider themselves evangelical. Those who remain in a reality-based universe do not take seriously the huge segment of the public, mostly white and working-class, who because of economic distress have primal yearnings for vengeance, new glory, and moral renewal and are easily seduced by magical thinking … The rational, secular forces, those that speak in the language of fact and reason, are hated and feared, for they seek to pull believers back into “the culture of death” that nearly destroyed them. The magical belief system, as it was for impoverished German workers who flocked to the Nazi Party, is an emotional life raft. It is all the supports them. [pp. 50–51]

That’s where we are now, retreating into magical thinking we supposedly left behind in the wake of the Enlightenment. Call it the Counter-Enlightenment (or Un-Enlightenment). We’re on this track for a variety of reasons but primarily because the bounties of the closing Age of Abundance have been gobbled up by a few plutocrats. Most of the rest of population, formerly living frankly precarious lives (thus, the precariat), have now become decidedly unnecessary (thus, the unnecessariat). The masses know that they have been poorly served by their own social, political, and cultural institutions, which have been systematically hijacked and diverted into service of the obscenely, absurdly rich.

Three developments occurring right now, this week, indicate that we’re not just entering an era of magical thinking (and severely diminishing returns) but that we’ve lost our shit, gone off the deep end, and sought escape valves to release intolerable pressures. It’s the same madness of crowds writ large — something that periodically overtakes whole societies, as noted above by Chris Hedges. Those developments are (1) the U.S. stock market (and those worldwide?) seesawing wildly on every piece of news, (2) deranged political narratives and brazenly corrupt machinations that attempt to, among other things, install select the preferred Democratic presidential candidate to defeat 45, and (3) widespread panic over the Covid-19 virus. Disproportionate response to the virus is already shutting down entire cities and regions even though the growing epidemic so far in the U.S. has killed fewer people than, say, traffic accidents. Which will wreak the worst mayhem is a matter of pointless conjecture since the seriousness of the historical discontinuity will require hindsight to access. Meanwhile, the king is dead. Long live the king!

That man is me. Thrice in the last month I’ve stumbled headlong into subjects where my ignorance left me grasping in the dark for a ledge or foothold lest I be swept into a maelstrom of confusion by someone’s claims. This sensation is not unfamiliar, but it’s usually easy to beat back. Whereas I possess multiple areas of expertise and as an autodidact am constantly absorbing information, I nonetheless recognize that even in areas where I consider myself qualified to act and/or opine confidently, others possess authority and expertise far greater than mine. Accordingly, I’ve always considered myself a generalist. (A jack of all trades is not quite the same thing IMO, but I decline to draw that distinction here.)

Decisions must inevitably be made on insufficient information. That’s true because more information can always be added on top, which leads to paralysis or infinite regress if one doesn’t simply draw an arbitrary line and stop dithering. This is also why I aver periodically that consciousness is based on sufficiency, meaning “good enough.” A paradox exists between a decision being good enough to proceed despite the obvious incompleteness of information that allows for full, balanced analysis, if fullness can even be achieved. Knowledge is thus sufficient and insufficient at the same time. Banal, everyday purchasing decisions at the grocery store are low risk. Accepting a job offer, moving to a new city, and proposing marriage carry significant risks but are still decisions made on insufficient information precisely because they’re prospective. No way of knowing with certainty how things will turn out. (more…)