July 20, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Notes to myself on coinage

Brought to you by Trader Joe's Dark Roast

The phrase "parallax of nostalgia" has served me well, if I do say so myself (being the author of the coinage in the first place) as a way to describe the error in perspective that my fellow Boomer peeps are likely to make in trying to understand the world around them through the lens of their own formative years, those halcyon American days of the 1950's and 1960's.  My avatar for this Boomer perspective, Paul Krugman, is so smitten with this era that he simply cannot believe that the world has moved on past American Exceptionalism and the era of infinite growth and prosperity.  (I've actually thought about a separate blog called "Mr. Krugman's Science" to address such things - but then thought better about it.)  This is why Mr. Krugman waits patiently for the American economy to resume its "trend line," to "gain traction" and for consumer demand to leap upward in a frenzied pursuit of the Planning (Parties) & Tanning activities of yesteryear.  Mr. Krugman makes his bones these days with merciless needling of the "austerity" crowd, who have simply gotten everything "all wrong."  If we had the courage to print and borrow more money, and shovel it into the economy, all would be well in no time.

It never seems to occur to Mr. Krugman to ask: where did the idea for all this austerity come from in the first place? Granted, there are gross disparities in the distribution of the available wealth; yet a deeper look into the "secular cycles" (such as those written about by the economist/historians Turchin and Nefedev in a book of the same name) of growth and collapse historically reveals that these disparities between "elites" and "commoners" are what one should expect when a civilization exceeds the carrying capacity relevant to the historical epoch.  We are now at that moment where, with the global economy inextricably intertwined, we have managed to put the entire Earth on the same perilous footing of overshoot. This is the Grandaddy of All Secular Cycles.  Historically, when overshoot occurs, a series of predictable stages unfolds - high unemployment, too little food, scarce energy resources and general misery, and it is then that the Elites tend to commandeer the lifeboats for themselves, the Commoners be damned.  We are seeing this now, with the rise of "The One Percent" and the demand that the "freeloading Commoners" get to work (doing something or other), coupled with a call for lower taxation (which falls most heavily on the Elites, since they have all the money) and an end to "social welfare."  The stupid among the Commoners (always, in the United States, a high percentage, particularly among the traditional White Trash) tend to identify with these viewpoints, although their economic interests are completely opposed.

Nevertheless, the actual origin of the call for "austerity" lies in a real problem.  The answers to such questions, if you ask me, lie in the real world, and in concepts such as the natural "carrying capacity" of Planet Earth.  That is the ultimate source of the austerity problem.  Things are becoming austere because we've overworked Gaia.  Ultimately, all the shenanigans with paper currency cannot overcome such problems.  Humans are dependent on actual physical resources derived from the planet for their sustenance and survival, not on the paper representations of the wealth inherent in these resources.  Confusing these two things causes one to miss everything that is actually going on these days, and makes the "liberal" economists as clueless as their conservative adversaries.  Their argument is between camps of dry-lab academics debating the irrelevant.

As I've come around to this way of looking at things, naturally I have become more immersed in the analysis of the Peak Oil theorists and the Collapsarians.  Here we have the obverse side of the coin from the "parallax of nostalgia:" these forward-looking analysts and deep thinkers are obsessed with the changes coming our way, and are impatient with what they regard as the completely corrupt, decadent, and hideous state of modern civilization.  They are also fearful of how the inevitable changes will come about, as well they should be.  If history teaches us anything, it is that humans don't behave very well in times of chaos and anarchy.  Often, the very worst kind of people wind up running the show.

Yet the Collapsarians have a different sort of "parallax."  Unless these changes they predict happen within a "relevant" time horizon (meaning: during the main part of their lives), it's difficult for them to bring the urgency to their writing which even they require to sustain their interest.  Plus they are saddled with the all-too-human desire to justify their anti-Establishment lifestyles, which often takes the form, "I could make more money than you, but I don't want to be part of a corrupt, Earth-destroying culture."  They then resume waiting (impatiently) for the world to collapse.

It may not happen like that, of course.  Indeed, the force behind the corporate-driven need for expanding growth and profits (which is all that Big Business is about) is such that it's quite possible that the world economy can be resurrected to its former "glory" and resume its task of finishing off the planet.  In other words, there might be a "secular" (time-limited) recovery where the available resources prove sufficient to restore at least the simulacrum of an (unsustainable) status quo ante

This would actually be a very bad development because it would perpetuate the illusion of infinite growth on a very finite planet.  It is instructive that CO2 emissions have decreased in the United States since the financial collapse of 2008, and now the two market indicators of world oil prices, West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude, are again sky-high and closely correlated (WTI is the price typically received by American-based oil companies, Brent the international measure).  At around $106 a barrel, the price is well above that which tends to produce "stall speed" in the economy, and when you strip out money-printing from the American economy, it seems obvious that "growth" in the American GDP is distinctly negative and has been for some time.  Such a state of affairs comports with the Commoner view of reality, but the mainstream media are, by and large, organs of the Elites, and so this reality is obfuscated.  Yet Reality is that which remains after you wish it would go away.

Sky-high oil prices during the height of the "driving season" will guarantee that America, against all its natural instincts, will continue its "green" ways, while the plutocracy feasts on its orgy of virtual money.  One can at least take comfort that the pastime of hallucinating money is a low carbon-intensive activity.

July 16, 2013

A few thoughts on the Zimmerman case

As an intellectual exercise, occasionally I like to delve into the controversies du jour to test my own cultural mental health; to wit, is it me or American culture that's completely nuts?

The Zimmerman case is the latest such cause célèbre.  The standard formulation is that an innocent African-American youth was gunned down by a vigilante who took refuge behind Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and was thus acquitted by a redneck jury in a redneck state.  Is this what happened?

First, I have no problem with people becoming upset with what happened.  A young guy is dead, his death was unnecessary, it's a tragedy for his family; however, his death is part of a much broader critique, in my view, although I think the media-inflamed national conversation does not seek to acknowledge this.  The critique is really of violent American society.  If you look at it that way, however, the whole "narrative" goes away and you wind up with saccharine pronouncements of the kind President Obama offered in the wake of Zimmerman's acquittal (the President was, as always, careful not to offend anybody or to actually take a position).

I think the Zimmerman case is a poor vehicle for the purposes it's being put to.  In the first place, did the Zimmerman case even involve the "Stand Your Ground" law?  Answering this question, of course, would require someone, somewhere, to read the law.  So I did.  The SYG law is an extension of the "Castle" doctrine.  About half the states and federal law allow a person to use deadly force to defend against an intruder if the person using the force reasonably believes he/she is in imminent danger of deadly force or great bodily harm at the hands of the intruder while such person is on his/her premises.  That is, you don't have to retreat from your own "castle" even if it could be safely done.  This is not too different from standard self-defense, but it is different.  (Texas goes a little farther and requires you to shoot the intruder, or you will be denied admittance to your neighborhood bar the following Saturday night.)

SYG laws (in Flordia and a few other states, including Washington state, somewhat surprisingly) expand the doctrine to include anywhere you are, even in public areas.  If you can retreat safely rather than use deadly force, it doesn't matter.  That certainly is a questionable doctrine; it seems to encourage homicide where it isn't necessary, by definition.  I'm not sure what public purpose it serves - homicide is better than humiliation or even inconvenience? 

Yet here's my question: on the facts as tried in the Zimmerman matter, as I read and understand them, what does the Stand Your Ground Law have to do with the case?  If George Zimmerman had a right to self-defense, as the jury found, did it arise under circumstances where he could have "safely retreated" as an alternative to using his gun?  The jury concluded that Zimmerman was on the ground, that his head had been banged against concrete by Trayvon Martin at least once, that Zimmerman feared it would happen again, and that he was being beaten by Martin's fists.  An eyewitness corroborated this version of events.

One can disagree with this version of the case.  One can call the whole account a fabrication and argue a different set of facts.  So be it.  But that isn't the case that the jury tried.  The prosecuting attorney (the D.A.), in fact, called the chief corroborating witness (the eyewitness to the version in which Martin sat astride Zimmerman, beating him) as his own witness.

If the eyewitness account is wrong, if Zimmerman was actually standing, not under assault (or if under assault could nevertheless have safely retreated), then of course the SYG defense would have come into play.  But, as I said, that's not the case the jury tried.

I think the general public, egged on by uninformed or deliberately misleading media cheerleaders, have seized on Stand Your Ground as a handle for unfocused outrage, although it has nothing to do with anything.  Nothing much new there.  The real sadness, the real outrage, is that we live in a country where people walk around with concealed weapons, hassle other people knowing they're carrying the decisive edge if they provoke something (as Zimmerman no doubt did by stalking Martin unnecessarily and unfairly), and then blow the person they're hassling away with the full majesty of the law on their side.

But Zimmerman would have been acquitted under standard self-defense law.  What led up to that decisive, fatal moment, is the real problem - the problem you might call life in modern America.