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

Learning from the Greeks

5760This is what compassion for refugees looks like:

Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Daniel Etter, whose images from Kos touched the hearts of millions last year, returned to Greece this September to photograph the islanders who feature in the new documentary short Ode to Lesvos, created by Johnnie Walker® to shine a light on the inspirational acts of compassion shown in response to the refugee crisis.

Everyone who cringes from fear and/or accuses refugees should be embarrassed by the empathy and compassion of the people of Lesvos. But only for a moment. Then you should do the same.

The Single Most Boring Things

HSRWe had a European friend over for dinner a couple of nights ago, a visiting scientist and numbers guy who has been here for several months and will soon return to the small Balkan nation where he lives. Beyond our nice dinner and the pessimism about global climate change he shared with aperitifs, there was other food for thought.
He was puzzled, for example, by the complete lack of public transportation options, not just locally, but between our small university town and the international airport one hour away. No way to get there absent private car or a van service, and I shared the feeling of travesty as he shook his head in disbelief.
And the thing is, a great deal of planning is required for us to find ourselves in as such a situation. One has to systematically and persistently downgrade the notion of public commonwealth in every sense to make people feel that public transportation options would be some kind of waste – or, even better worse, an infringement on their liberty. A threat, not just to be discouraged but to be blocked at the earliest sign of gaining even the smallest measure of acceptance. It takes a lot of work, but it CAN pay off: we have no trains.
It occurred to me later that infrastructure has to be one of the most boring things ever. And what that gets us is a terrible transportation infrastructure – not just one in bad shape, but poorly situated to service the most people; fundamentally wasteful of time, energy and resources; and perhaps most importantly, one that absolutely guarantees the most soul-crushing commutes, urban development, and isolation that allows for the development of things like crazy talk radio and xenophobia. Again, Very Boring Stuff.
And there are other boring things, like exercise and diet, which have, when you think about, really just an unfair influence on the state of our health. It’s just not fair. And it’s boring to walk, especially when you could be driving so far!

Earth Overshoot Day

Let’s keep track of these things, shall we?foot_print_hr

On this day in August 2015, humans have used an entire year’s worth of the Earth’s natural resources, according to the Global Footprint Network.

Calling it Earth Overshoot Day, the group celebrates — or, rather, notes — the day by which people have used more natural resources, such as fish stocks, timber, and even carbon emissions, than the Earth can regenerate in a single year. It’s basically a balance sheet for global accounting.

“We can overuse nature quite easily,” Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network, told ThinkProgress. “When you start to spend more than you earn, it does not become immediately apparent. But, eventually, you go bankrupt.”

How many Earths would it take… it seems as though the personal responsibility zealots among us would key into this logic, except for the great climate change hoax, which of course has nothing to do whatsoever, nosiree, with our  collective and per capita energy consumption. It is an interesting proposition: Four months left to go in the year, two of them likely pretty frosty for most people, and we’re out of gas everything?

Natural racehorses, indeed.

No So Gently Lapping at Your Chamber Door

The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880. The December combined global land and ocean average surface temperature was also the highest on record.


The acceleration of the rate of sea level rise over the past couple decades is even higher than scientists had thought, according to a new study that uses a novel method to estimate the global rise of the oceans.

The reason? The rate of rise across the 20th century has actually been overestimated — by as much as 30 percent — meaning there’s been a bigger jump in sea level rise rates from the beginning of the 1900s to now than previously thought.

But you know what? VousetesCharlieSelmaGotRobbedAllCountryMusicSoundsTheSameAmericaDoesn’tTortureElCapitanBokoHaramDukeSCOTUSIslam Gas prices are down.

Liberal Myths about Climate Change

CorsoThis is pretty right on, and not in a good way:

But before moving on, one more point about liberal and conservative denial: Naomi Klein has suggested that conservative denial may have its roots, it will surprise many liberals, in some pretty clear thinking. [i] At some level, she has observed, conservatives climate deniers understand that addressing climate change will, in fact, change our way of life, a way of life which conservatives often view as sacred. This sort of change is so terrifying and unthinkable to them, she argues, that they cut the very possibility of climate change off at its knees: fighting climate change would force us to change our way of life; our way of life is sacred and cannot be questioned; ergo, climate change cannot be happening.

We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life. Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created. And so do Democrats and Republicans stay together in this unhappy and unproductive place of emotional self-protection and planetary ruin.

If one of our strengths is the ability to be honest with ourselves, then we need to go the Fully Monty. It means not being afraid to go there, if ‘there’ is about substantial changes to our way of life in order to stave off planetary ruin. Sure, the extent to which you already live close to work, take alternative transportation, do not own one car per-driving-age person in your household will make you more open and amenable to solutions that are simply out of the question to other people. But that’s the point above. maybe we need to start with ‘out of the question’ and try to work forward.

Get around the anger and soft-pedaled pedantry about climate change by blasting straight through it. It won’t make the tough decisions go away, but maybe we could get face-to-face with them sooner rather than later.

Image: The Corso, Rome, author photo from June 2014

The Way We Develop

plosOneSEStories we tell children about a long ago time and place, a verdant, green land with cities and towns that glistened within their limits and only slipped beyond those with the greatest care and caution. Linked by tiny roads and fast rail lines, seen from the air the denser areas were surrounded by neat parcels under cultivation. It all looked so orderly and organized to work properly, if not effectively. Oh, yes, then there was that other meaning of denser:

Giant urban sprawl could pave over thousands of acres of forest and agriculture, connecting Raleigh to Atlanta by 2060, if growth continues at its current pace, according to a newly released research paper from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We could be looking at a seamless corridor of urban development,” said Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the USGS and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who was the study’s lead author.

The development will engulf land from North Carolina to Georgia, and possibly spread to Birmingham, Ala., “if we continue to develop urban areas in the Southeast the way we have for the past 60 years,” he said.

Combining USGS demographic modeling with North Carolina State’s High Performance Computing Services and analyzing the data for six years, Terando and his five co-authors estimated that urbanization in the Southeast will increase by up to 190 percent.

See also, the Myth of Progress for further edification. That orderly view is also available, but you’ll have to make arrangements to take a different route.

Image: The Southeast U.S. region used in this study. (Terando et. al/PLOS One)

Money and How You Spend It

There was a weird point about ‘political capital’ George W. Bush kept making after he won the 2004 election: he had it (via beating Kerry) and he was going to spend it. A non-sensical notion outright, talking about political capital this way always seemed like one of those things he didn’t understand – to which we can now add painting – whose utilization in this case was not only inappropriate but ultimately futile. Recall that he was going to used his to privatize Social Security. Amazing.

For some reason this comes to mind with the news that the half-billion dollars spent in anti-Obamacare advertising has actually led to increased enrollments in the program.

Divestment is almost political capital in reverse; you have little or no political momentum whatsoever, and so you resort to your next best, perfectly legitimate weapon in a capitalist system  becomes making a moral distinctions about how you spend your money. It might be one of the only uses of morality relevant in a capitalist system, but we’ll leave that to Adorno. The Unitarian Universalist Association, however, have decided to exercise their full rights:

An overwhelming number of the 2,000 delegates present at the meeting voted to approve the resolution. But some did raise concerns about the influence the divestment movement actually has on companies. “Some people said that disinvestment is ineffective because it doesn’t actually affect companies,” Tim Brennan, Chief Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer, told us. “But it’s not about affecting the companies as much as it is about making a strong moral statement.

This a very political use of capital. Identifying Carbon Tracker 200 companies is an aggressive attempt to inform and speed the divestment movement. Just like physicians and insurance companies were within their rights to spend in the service of protecting the status quo, so to are groups seeking to upend the fossil fuel economy. Will it work? Can the moral case be made? Past attempts can be instructive.


the end of a sure beginning

Klee_MayRest in peace, our dear Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

Here is Passing Time, from the 1975 anthology “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.”

Your skin like dawn
Mine like musk

One paints the beginning
of a certain end.

The other, the end of a
sure beginning.

Image: May Picture, by Paul Klee. 1925. Oil on cardboard. The Met has put a great deal of their collection online and I’ve been staring at this one for a while.

Of Thermoclines and Open Spaces

The sudden temperature change between the warmish surface water of the ocean and colder deeper zone is known as the thermocline. The thermocline effects the way sounds move through water (the warmer the faster), so sound waves can hit it and bounce all kinds of weird directions. The phenomenon is connected to detections of a pulse signal from Malaysia Air Flight 370, making it still hard to pinpoint, even though the black box signals are an encouraging lead.

But I received a signal of different kind, similarly bouncing, a couple of days ago during a visit to Boston. That’s Boston Common above, a stunning example of devoted public space in a city with space at a premium. While not the biggest or perhaps best such park in the world, it makes Boston a proper city – considerate of its population as a place for people to breath, sit, walk, hold hands, fly a kite, propose. The Common makes the urban density not only more appealing, but workable and livable. It might have 99 other problems but those aren’t one.

Image: author photo(s) clumsily spliced using fancy software.