Criticizing the market

In a society wherein it is the final arbiter, is the market beyond criticism?

Is the very idea that an arbitrary arbitrage of value could be subject to notions of virtue, inspected for justice, honesty, moderation, only now a naive trifle? Question its wisdom and identify yourself as an unschooled radical. We know better, so we say little. Good sense about our prospects in the market gets the better of us and we ‘trim our sails’ and ‘keep our powder dry.’ But these are boats that won’t leave the harbor, stocked with guns that won’t fire. What if we are poised upon the very footbridge that people will one day look back to and identify as the last chance? How many more opportunities can wait? Upsells, upgrades, limited offers, monopolies on that perfect, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, bucket lists… the language of premium experience and exclusivity harkens, tugging at heartstrings, it is assumed, in crass attempts to woo because of course it would. Nothing shall be off limits. But the organs blacken. We feel it but do not fight back. It’s just the market – this is what it does – equanimous and unyielding. It is the only entity that will pursue its truth, and follow the trail wherever it goes. Its judgment is neutral, unbiased, equal opportunity, nonracial and irreligious. Abiding by its decisions relieves the burden to prove anything: the market has spoken. Slowly boiling amphibians may at least have the semblance of regret.

This is the saddest article I’ve read in quite sometime, and extremely well-reported. Right-to-work. The American South is Seoul’s Mexico.

Image: Market Place II by Charles Nkomo

Eco Hustle – poverty

Again, I hoist one of these columns from the Flagpole archives and I’m aghast at how little nothing has changed:

let-us-now-praise-famous-menLike corporate green advertising, our policies against the poor get lost in a shuffle of righteous sounding reforms, intended to move people from “welfare to work” in order to usher in a new era of “personal responsibility.” The two strategies have much in common as we whitewash our consciences with high morals and the appearance of genuine, public-spirited problem solving. But there’s a dark side to this shell game every bit as dastardly as Exxon-Mobile working to build your energy future: Where do the poor go once they leave a statistical column?

In the land of perverse incentives, Georgia happens to be the shining city on a hill. A nice, depending on your orientation, compendium of our state of affairs appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Mother Jones magazine. The experience of several young mothers on welfare is profiled for all and sundry and it’s not a pretty sight. What we do to ourselves in regard to getting people off of welfare rolls is nothing less than a full abrogation of human, economic and civil rights. We lie, mislead and otherwise confuse those among us who need help the most. The connections to other, similar atrocities to which we subject ourselves and our environment bear no further case to be made; if we can do this to the so-called least of our brethren here, there are no limits to what we might do to people, earth and sky we nominally care about and depend upon.

The whole thing, plus a few more columns. 2009, people.

Image: by Walker Evans, from Let us Now Praise fampus men, by James Agee and Walker Evans

Eco Hustle – climate change versus the recession

Sounds like a really long band name but no, it’s the gist of an Eco Hustle column from March 2011. From the archives of Flagpole and sadly, still relevant, to wit:

On the off chance that it is becoming possible to think about the climate crisis and our economic collapse as related events, consider the admonitions coming from the financial institutions, corporate media and political establishment of late. Is there any doubt that most of the talking heads on cable, along with an uncomfortable ratio of the professional politicians they report and comment on, do not know what they’re talking about when it comes to the causes for and ways out of our economic recession? Why does the picture seem so incomplete? What’s being left out of the discussion? Who, speaking through silence, bears the name of the one who signs the text?

Perhaps the most famous man to shed a tear in a television commercial was a Sicilian actor named Iron Eyes Cody. Dressed as a Native American of indeterminate tribal affiliation, he paddles a canoe through stagnate waters to a shore littered with all kinds of trash, smokestacks chugging away in the background, eventually arriving at a crowded highway. “Cannon” and “Bullwinkle” star William Conrad intones, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” The Keep America Beautiful ad left us with the salutary glimpse of the tear running down his face.

Maybe this very powerful ad seemed like a turning point when it aired in 1971, and maybe it was because we’ve been tacking the other way ever since. Instead of giving the crying Indian a reason to dry his eyes, we’ve spared no expense to design the perfect towelette to wipe his tear, while generally discouraging such public displays of disaffection. Rather than seeing it for what it was, this example is much more instructive in the service of what was to follow.

The reality show of the American energy future has continued apace, not unrelated to where we left the crying Indian with trash at his feet a few short years ago. Built on the distinct appeal of “tune in next week to see what happens,” it has evolved into an elimination of survivors where we’re making do with what’s left. Yet even as we’re all quite sure that cheap oil won’t last and that anthropogenic C02 emissions will alter the chemical equilibrium of the Earth, the pre-eminent question remains not how, but whether we will plan ahead.

We facilitate this down the line – from the shows we watch to the books we read to the politicians we elect. It’s pretty much an accepted fact that a singular hyperpower will eventually be ruled by an oligarchy. Pace Jefferson and Payne, no one knew how candid this transition might be under the direction of democratic capitalism. Corporatized masses looking to further their economic advantages any way possible foment a reality we are only on the lookout for more ways to showcase…

Read the whole thing, as the kids say.

Eco Hustle – the Hustle Lives!

In 2008-9, I wrote a series of Columns for Flagpole magazine. The columns were titled Eco Hustle – What Green Means, and were a take off on this very blog from those years. Anyway, the columns had disappeared but are now back online, so I am going to re-publish them here. Thanks, Flagpole!

This is one of the early ones:

It’s a verb, it’s an adjective, it’s… green. But what does it mean? Before you can truly get hustled you need to be off your game, out of your element, down on your luck or stuffed with a false sense of security. From the looks of things, we seem to be many of these at once. Tighten up your laces: we’re going in.

Whether attending rock shows or major sporting events, we all seem to enjoy entering the biggest, fanciest stadiums around. So, just imagine that finding new energy sources while controlling carbon emissions is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. There; now pull out your circle and square diagrams, bell curves and line drawings, and let’s boil the whole system down to basics.

A system is an absolute human artifact, devised primarily for the sake of scientific conversation, though a lot of this we just don’t talk about. Systems are defined by their relationships to energy and matter crossing into them, and as such there are three types of systems: open, closed and isolated. Our bodies are open systems that exist within a closed system, the earth, and we’re constantly cycling material in and out of our systems. That material is made up of elements, basically identified in the periodic table, and they comprise living things like plants and animals or non-living matter like soil, rocks and the physical environment. But there is a fixed amount of material – its overall quantity never changes.

The earth is a closed system, where energy from the sun enters. Now, this is a tremendous energy input – more energy from the sun hits the earth during one hour than every man, woman and child on it could use in a year. There’s a strong case to be made that we should actually highlight the fundamental distinction between energy sources and energy storage. The sources are rather obvious (solar, tidal, geothermal) – what we keep looking for are the ancient energy storages hidden all over the planet (pockets of fossil fuels) so as to exploit nature’s geological-timescale labor.

Sustainability for earthlings therefore, be they Pakistani or Michigander, means living within the bounds of that solar input. Simply, if you outpace that input, you’re not sustainable.

The sustainability equation is all about…


Eco Hustle

New Flagpole column up. Is today the day we celebrate what is verte? Or is our one-track media only all-torture all the time? Ignore the extent to which this last statement is redundant and-a-half.

Eco Hustle

New Flagpole column up in all its glory. Sometimes we lose the flavor of the hustle, wrapped up as it is with so many financial, economic, and fiscal amulets. Watching how we behave toward (against, really) the least fortunate is one of the very few, truly reliable indicators of our capacity as humans. It doesn’t matter how much you might try to wind a political hustle philosophy around ‘personal responsibility’, that indicator reveals most of what we need to know, including though hardly limited to a fundamental misunderstanding of those two words.


New Flagpole column is up on the intersphere. I’ve always wondered about those ‘trust, but verify’ caveats in major arms control treaties and prenuptial agreements. They make a lot more sense when you see them as mere, though hardly just, contradictions.