Monday, May 11, 2009


The economy shows, according to various ostensibly independent news reports, some signs of recovery. New unemployment claims are down. That doesn't mean that anyone has got a new job yet; it just means that though the disaster is larger each week, the rate of increase of the disaster has subsided somewhat. One note that is usually struck -- we no longer seem to be in free-fall. I'm inclined to agree. We are a little more knowledgeable than we were in FDR's day, but we aren't doing much better on the political score.

The fiscal conservatives, among whom I usually reside, have started to claim that this recovery is proof that we didn't need to spend so much money. On the contrary, my sensible friends, think about it this way. The economy is underperforming by about $1T per annum. We are spending about $0.4T this year and next year to purchase this reserve capacity. The difference of $0.6T is the part that will be translated into joblessness and various other forms of human suffering.

In February, Media Matters identified a few economists who agreed that the stimulus was too small -- too small by far. I have followed up to see whether they still seem to feel that way. Yes they seem to. Here are some links for those listed.

Eileen Appelbaum - visiting professor at Rutgers, New Brunswick
Dean Baker - Center for Economic and Policy Research
J. Bradford DeLong - professor at UC Berkeley, visiting scholar SF Federal Reserve
James K. Galbraith - Levi Institute, Bard College
Paul Krugman - Princeton and NYTimes (China speech here)
Joseph Stiglitz - Nobel Laureate
Mark Zandi - Moody's ( here, and here as well)


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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lords of the Lemmings

Why the Green Program is Hypocritical and Doomed to Frustration

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have a new article in The New Republic called The Green Bubble comparing the waxing and collapsing of environmental sentiment, not coincidentally, to the labored breathing of the ailing business cycle. They point out than in actuality we have done nothing of significance to address the Global Warming problem, and that we are not likely to. All of our actions for the environment are symbolic, more addressed to guilt management than anything else. Several times since Earth Day was started, the American people have gotten all worked up about the issue, only to change their minds when the economy shifted.

The authors point out the hypocrisy of green-strutting (my word), posing their green poses like prairie partridges on the lek, as if their actions were significant. CFLs and Priuses are not going to do the job. Not when the systems that drive our daily lives burn on unchanged. Nobody is going to make significant sacrifices. Understand that. Nobody is really prepared to return to the idyllic pre-industrial life, where life was so noble ... as well as nasty, brutish and short.

Green philosophy would have the aspirations of the world's impoverished billions redirected into a Utopian myth. These people are not that dumb. Chinese people want to drive cars. Indonesians want air conditioners. Nobody really wants to work the fields by hand. They want what we have, and now we're telling them that they can't have it ... just when hope finally begins to seem justified. Good luck with that.

Cap and trade appears to be off the table. All suggestions of a carbon tax generate massive resistance from Americans of both parties, even when it is suggested that other taxes can be reduced. Americans get angry at HOV lanes for God's sake. No Daddy is big enough to make us take our medicine. The Kyoto treaty itself has not been successful at creating CO2 reductions. Don't expect that to happen any time soon either. IMO, only the nuclear treaty that Bush negotiated with India is of sufficient scale to matter. Nothing else presently under consideration addresses the concerns of the developing nations and provides any hope of addressing environmental concerns.

Americans, in spite of the example of French success, are unwilling to encourage nuclear energy as a clean alternative. Obama is afraid to bring it up. In fact, our irrational preference for solar and wind power, both expensive and unsuitable for base energy needs, has reduced the likelihood that new nuclear will be affordable. Nuclear is a suitable base, actually more reliable than coal, since it doesn't rely on frequent deliveries. Coal untaxed is, however, the cheapest form of energy. Any preferences applied to solar and wind will come at the expense of nuclear rather than coal.

It appears, when everything is weighed up, that what we must do, we cannot do. Environmentalists lack the necessary knowledge, vision and clout, and Americans in general lack the conviction and willingness to sacrifice. Under the current civic regime, it's not going to change.

I say that when you finally see that a problem cannot be solved, you are free to solve it. You do it by backing up a few steps and including the problem within the context of a larger system. The system that we must change is our collective method for generating decisions. Democracy is effective only in a contributory context, where the best of our thinking is collected and distributed. We are, today, being tyrannized by the Least Common Denominator.



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Monday, May 04, 2009

Beyond the Labor Arms Race

So how is my idea different? What does it contribute? It looks just like a regular employees' union, don't you think? Who needs more unions?

Now, that in itself is going to turn off about half of you. People who know business owners tend to sympathize. I guess that's where my sympathies are as well. I worked in a union shop long ago, run by the Teamsters. I ran afoul of them for various reasons, and their first impulse was to threaten me. They also took far more of my monthly paycheck than could be justified by any reasonable person. What could they be doing with all that money? Not only that, they kept my wages low. I knew that people were getting literally three times what I was earning across the river for the same exact job. (If I'd had any brains at the time, I would have taken one of those jobs and bought a car with the extra money.) Are you getting the picture yet? The union was in bed with management. Somebody was getting paid to run a charade union, and shop stewards were being paid to keep people in line. Did I know this at the time? I knew that Rock and Roll is Here to Stay ... and not much else.

How can we characterize such an organization? It was top-down, recruitment driven, parasitic, authoritarian, and probably counter-productive. The company went out of business a few years later. I sometimes wonder what happened to those shop stewards. Companies that specialize in recruiting stupid people and keeping them stupid are not exactly in touch with their Model Modern Business Practices.

I am also opposed to card-check, but not without reservations. We've all heard stories of companies that have been raked over by unions, and we've all heard of workers that have been raked over by management. Privately owned companies will do just about anything to stop a union from forming. They own the business. They don't want outsiders to tell them what to do. It's understandable. I've heard of cases where the owners closed down the company, fired everyone, sold the inventory at a loss and left the state – all rather than accept union representation. People can be very bull-headed – or very principled, depending on your point of view.

Unfortunately, good owners and nasty, rotten no-good owners that really need union supervision all have the same response. I've had managers that qualified for sainthood and others that smelled of brimstone. I was reasonably suspicious that one VP, on that Teamsters job, was actually a Nazi, and not just because of the accent. None of them, the good, bad or ugly, would tolerate real unions.

The tactics that Management uses to discourage unionization are famously deceitful and cruel. So union people – honest union people that is – often come to the conclusion that you have to fight fire with fire. And they are often fired up with righteous wrath, justifiably if you ask me. In those days I knew a real Red communist. He had the zeal, the rage and the knowledge, and remarkable courage. He couldn't get very far with that crowd of workers, or with me either, but he had our respect. He didn't need no stinkin' card-check, though. What he needed was a cultural shift that wasn't going to happen.

In today's business environment, people just accept union and management because they have to. Nobody really likes either. Yet, here I am trying to sell you on my voters' union approach to the world. So what's the difference? What makes me think that it won't turn into some top-down, parasitic something or other?

The organization I'm proposing is home-grown. Recruitment is anathema. You click with your friends. You inspect them for the trust that you share. The only objective is to grow an information entity, starting with a tendril of reliability spread outward into the unknown soil of modern life. It is a worthy effort in itself. Representation is organic, not functional or confrontational. We are simply trying to get things straight here. Anonymity is helpful to keep out the control freaks and the spies and the zealots. We don't need to be manipulated and tricked into our choices. We will make up our minds according to the channels of trust that we construct. It's more of a defense against disinformation and arm-twisting than some power-seeking entity. I want it to become part of life, not part of the job, and I want it to be fun.

Membership is not exclusive to specified groups. Everyone is invited in, union and management if you honestly trust one another, but invited not as agents, only as friends. The idea is to start with trust and build on it, testing and strengthening it. In time we will grow a tree of trust. Things of importance can flow though the body of that tree without arousing animosity or suspicion, without causing polarization.

I'm not pushing mysticism. I'm proposing a calculated methodology conjoined with a shared philosophy, a social algorithm for calibrated connection.

Unions are like the Blob, growing constantly larger by spreading out and moving into new territories, engulfing and absorbing whatever organized relationships already exist. Only the Blob chooses. Well the Blob hasn't been very successful lately because the victims know how to defend themselves. And the Blob is not very happy about it. Voter's unions – I don't really know what to call them yet – are more like Tinker Toy sets, where the toys construct themselves and piece themselves into progressively larger groups, according to fixed rules of node and branch.

Well, OK. But what makes me think it will not degenerate into the Teamsters, or the Pinkertons for that matter? Americans have had nightmares about cabals and secret societies. We don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to defer to others. So how can I square the organization I've described with the individualism of America. I don't know yet, but I've been trying to convey my vision in a convincing way for a couple of years now, a vision still under development, I'm afraid. If you have any suggestions, I'll be glad to entertain them.


The glimpse of an unintended motion,
The shake of a head, an unexpected shift of the eyes,
Teaches more in a flash than you'll learn
From eight patient hours of listening to lies.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Optimal Mesh

The Swine Flu is spreading very efficiently. It seems like modern society has the ideal configuration for spreading it. So, just as a thought experiment, what would be the ideal organization for spreading the flu? It would not be, I think, like our goods distribution system.

Let's say the flu began with a little rubber duck made in Shanghai. After getting punched out of the mold, it would tumble along the conveyor belt infecting other rubber ducks along the way and get dumped in a box, mostly with those other rubber ducks already infected. Who knows, maybe someone, a Chinese woman, would do some inspection and touch-up. Would she be wearing gloves? Maybe she'll paint on cute little eyes and eyelashes and lick the tip of the brush. I've seen people do that. But our little duck and its friends would end up in a box pretty quickly. The box would be sealed, placed in a pallet with other boxes of rubber ducks, containerized, stacked for weeks in some ship and then in higher stacks at the port in Seattle, then finally shipped to Toys-R-Us in Peoria, IL. From the truck to the shelf is a pretty efficient process these days, but someone in Peoria would have to handle these ducks. Children might play with the ducks. The customer would pick one up and place it in a cart. The cashier would scan it and bag it. And it would find a nice home. Direct customer shipments might be neater, but somebody will still be exposed.

So basically, there would be two growing nodes of infection due to transportation of goods, the one in Peoria and at the origin in Shanghai. Our global system for the distribution of goods is designed to minimize handling and reduce unnecessary dispersion. The rubber duck would have very few opportunities to infect anyone. More importantly, the rubber duck would never move very far again.

Transportation of people is an entirely different thing. Everybody drives to work to be with others where they shake hands, kiss cheeks, pick up the wrong cup, cough on the bathroom fixtures. Then they come home -- where they lick their fingers to wipe bits of jelly and chocolate off of smiling faces. The kids get shipped to school where they have even more interesting ways of uploading their microbial history. The teachers collect assorted papers and projects that have little smudges and sticky spots. Then they take the subway home, and drive to conferences or night school in the next town over. The professors mingle with their students after class, responding to questions by laughing, scratching their heads in thought, borrowing pens perhaps to sign papers. Then they fly to San Diego for their conferences.

I've heard it said that every drop of water we drink has been excreted by a thousand dinosaurs. I think about that whenever I'm breathing the air on an airplane, and possibly sitting next to a large individual. Sometimes when I come up the ramp and pass through the waiting area, there's a new crowd waiting to get on the same plane. Sometimes they crowd around, making it difficult to exit the area. There's a lot of jostling. They seem eager to be on their way. Maybe they're going to Shanghai. Maybe they'll bring some toys home for their kids.


So how would I maximize the spread of the flu? For a specific pathogen, I think it depends on the mode of transmission. For a virus that requires contact, I think the best environment is the happy suburban shuffle, where kids are carpooled to preschool in the morning, playdates and playgrounds in the afternoon, and then maybe group Suzuki lessons, with swimming on the weekends. Maybe the perfect group size is five or ten.

But for flu, it seems like jumbo jets and stadiums can't be beat. If the guy selling hotdogs is coughing on his customers, things can spread pretty quickly. Bowl games bring people from all over and drunks don't cover their coughs either. The Olympics seems like a potential Perfect Storm of infection. Thousands of sports fans, young and friendly people for the most part, will be meeting and mixing with others from every three-letter national entity that can carry a flag around an oval track. These folks will all go home on airplanes and share their experiences, visiting perhaps, all the schools and churches and arenas in a thousand scattered Peorias.


Two related questions occur to me: If we organize our networks to optimize the speed of an epidemic, does that have any bearing on the likely severity of the cases? And second, does the pyramidal structure of my proposed league of voter unions strike you as being in itself a pretty good vehicle for disease transmission?

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