A Theory or Two of These Grim Times

Maybe it’s a function of who I follow on Twitter, but I didn’t see much in the way of “ring in the new year” chipperness. Seeing Australia go up in flames might have something to do with that, but even those who seemed awfully domestically focused also seemed subdued. I also noticed comparatively few “Year in review” or “Best of 2019/the past ten years” but that could just as well be due to the gutting of news rooms. Nevertheless, I thought I might be so bold as to offer a theory.

It’s not hard to see plenty of reasons why all save a select few (which includes the deluded and End of Days fans) have reason to be downbeat. Climate change. Mass species dieoff. Poisoning of the planet, particularly with plastics (that overlaps with dieoff but also creates day to day health and diet worries). Student debt. Short job tenures combined with mainly McJobs on offer. Often unaffordable and crapified health care. Having kids who ought to be able to go to college but need to be talked out of it since the debt load would be punitive. Fear over one’s likely inability to retire with the real risk of not being able to work. And that’s before getting to personal tragedies, like suffering a foreclosure or bankruptcy, or death, disability or drug addiction in the family. Shocks like that are even harder to take when so many things seem precarious.

To add to that long list, there’s more anxiety. Bizarrely fearful parenting even though the overwhelming majority of kids are safer than their free-range parents were at a similar age….and the riskiest thing kids do today on a regular basis is ride in a car. Anger and frustration over seemingly more and more Kafka-eque bureaucracies wreaking havoc. Surprisingly widespread diet fesithism. Anger about Trump. I’m sure readers could add to these lists.

None of these are news, but what seems to deepen the general gloom is a lack of confidence that anything will get better, a sense both of sorely limited personal power and lack of trust in those nominally in charge to do the right thing. And that is made more intense by concerns about pending collapse. When the very richest people in the world are acting like preppers, there’s reason to be worried.

I am personally upset at being part of the problem. I now live in a freestanding house, which means energy inefficient. I use a car to get about. Public transportation here is pretty much non-existent, and please don’t advise walking or biking. Both are physically impossible.

I also despair at my inability to do anything other than take pathetically trivial steps to reduce how much plastic I wind up using. Even with being a Yankee and using things until they are about to or do fall apart, I do wind up buying some things. Even socks are in plastic! And forget about buying food in the US. Eggs? Yogurt? Berries? You’d be surprised at how few egg vendors use cardboard cartons. It’s even gotten hard to to buy loose lettuce down here (although oddly loose kale is a different story). Admittedly not everything is this way….but way too much is.

So why are we so stuck on a bad trajectory? Simple explanations are always simplistic, but I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex. Let me turn the mike over to that great philosopher, Jamie Lannister:

So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

More specifically, one’s most pressing duties are to immediate family. Neoliberalism has somewhat weakened that; even Japan now sees young people regularly neglecting their parents, something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But people. But in many societies, those ties are extremely strong, to the degree that some countries are run on a tribal/clientelist basis.

Traditionally, religion as well as settled systems of obligation (like feudalism) provided something of a framework for working to serve broader social/community interests as well as personal/family ones.

Neoliberalism has weakened community ties while religion has come to play a much less powerful role in organizing society than it once did. Western society, even down to marketing, fosters individualism, yet individuals have little power. And people who are struggling to survive or substantially occupied with earning an income and doing their best with their spouse and kids in a society that keeps them leisure and even sleep deprived barely have the slack to think about the looming problems bearing down on all of us, let alone do much about them.

I hate taking issue with Caitlin Johnstone, who I greatly admire for her penetrating analysis and acid writing style, but her deep immersion in fighting propaganda looks to have blinkered her thinking on bigger picture issues. Her theory of why we are all screwed is that it’s the result of being fed a lot of bad ideas by our parents:

We all slid out of the womb an itty bitty helpless information sponge into a world full of mentally ill giants who couldn’t wait to fill our tiny skulls with all of their inner demons. And now everything, understandably, is fucked.

That’s basically our whole entire situation in a nutshell. You can add on as many extra details as you like — plutocracy, corruption, mass media propaganda, billionaire wine cave fundraisers, whatever — but ultimately our plight is due to the fact that every single human showed up on this planet completely helpless and knowing nothing, forced to trust crazy giants to give them the grand introductory tour.

Now quite a few people actually do have mentally ill parents. But putting that subset aside, most parents bring up their kids to function in their world, get married, and find a measure of happiness. That could be, say, 300 years ago, subsistence farming and fishing, or maybe having a craft, like being a blacksmith. Religious observance would be seen as essential, mainly for one’s soul but also because the price of apostasy would be ostracism.

Johnstone wants people to operate more freely and think more independently. But as much as I believe in that too, it’s not as if everyone can afford to do that. Lambert recently linked to an older piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which he recounted with some satisfaction about how an academic criticized him for doing teaching and research as a sideline. Taleb ventured the reverse, that people are free only if they don’t have to worry about the opinions of their putative peers:

I have had most of my, sort of, academic career no more than a quarter position. A quarter is enough to have somewhere to go, particularly when it rains in New York, without being emotionally socialized by a group of people and lose intellectual independence. But one (now sacked) department head, one day came to me and emitted the warning: “As a businessman and author you are judged by other businessmen and authors, here as an academic you are judged by other academics. Life is about peer assessment.”

It took me a while to overcome my disgust –I am still not fully familiar with the way non-risk takers work; they actually don’t realize that others are not like them, what makes people in the real world tick. No, businessmen as risk takers are not subjected to the judgment of other businessmen, only that of their personal accountant –unless they are peons in a hierarchy, the type of servants judged by their masters, about whom later. They just need to avoid having a documented record of ethical violations. Furthermore, not only you didn’t want peer approval, but you wanted disapproval: an old fellow once came to me in the pit where I was trading and told me: “if people over here like you, you are doing something wrong”.

Further,

You can define a free person precisely as someone whose fate is not centrally or directly dependent on his peer assessment

How many people can actually live like that? How many of you, for instance, have to treat very carefully when various orthodox beliefs, like the trustworthiness o the mainstream media or that Russia really stole the 2016 election for Trump, are the subject of long discussions? Or if you are in a more conservative community, say that opposing our wars is disrespectful to our men and women in uniform? In other words, going too far down the path of having independent views is often hazardous to being able to fulfill your duties to your family. Making yourself controversial is generally not a career-boosting strategy.

So the inertial forces, of continuing to do what works or seems to work for you to provide for yourself and those important to you swamps anything other than too-small efforts to be more responsible. For instance, I imagine the overwhelming majority of poachers of endangered species would take other work, particularly steadily-paid work, if it were to be had. Some environmental groups have successfully stopped some type of poaching by hiring former poachers to work in conservation roles. But they couldn’t get out of that box on their own.

Again, I can’t prove it, but my belief is societies can cope better with competing levels of obligation when there is more slack, or in Tainter terms, when energy costs are affordable. It’s easier to make modest sacrifices if they don’t put you in a state of deprivation or if you are confident there will be some reward or acknowledgment of your contribution. That is one reason the idea of the Green New Deal is so appealing: it promises personal betterment, or at least a basic level of employment, while holding the promise of Doing Something Serious about the environment. We gloomy types worry this idea has come thirty years too late, and the best prospect for collective survival is radical conservation, which means radical lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see given the primacy of family that that won’t happen voluntarily.

At least in the US, with corruption and cheating widespread, there’s no reason to be trusting save in particular individuals who have proven themselves. That’s a terrible basis for collective action.

It would be better if concerns like these were wrong, but unless we have a decent definition of the problem, we aren’t likely to get anywhere. And we need to recognize that we, meaning our social organization and values, are a big and potentially insurmountable part of the problem.

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237 comments

  1. das monde

    Taleb: “I am still not fully familiar with the way non-risk takers work; they actually don’t realize that others are not like them, what makes people in the real world tick.”

    The non-risk takers value comfort over that kind of freedom, really. They humbly accept a need for either leaders or well-oiled “nanny” institutions. Their parents did not condition them enough, were too sensitive to apparent whims and tastes.

    Reply
    1. Robert S

      This comment struck a chord with me:

      “Again, I can’t prove it, but my belief is societies can cope better with competing levels of obligation when there is more slack.”

      I’m sure it’s true. Of course, it’s a truism to say that it is hard to find a rebel with a mortgage. But I can’t help feeling that an enlightened society might fund dissent, might fund rebels, will fund those who need a bit more time to work things out. By funding them it will allow people to take a risk; it will accept the risk that in some cases it will be paying slackers; and in the end will be enriched by it.

      When I were a lad (in the UK many decades past) … We had full grants to go to university, tuition plus maintenance. We had a (relatively) generous dole and housing benefit. Most people didn’t treat that as an invitation to do nothing with their lives. But it allowed for difference, for trying things out, and I believe it made for a more plural society.

      I am reminded of George Michael’s first single – Wham Rap – a celebration of life on the dole and a paean to the generosity of the Department of Health and Social Security, whose initials – DHSS! – are chanted in the chorus. Can you imagine that? That was in 1982 – a different world from this one.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Mark Blyth has said that without that government funding of education in that era, that he would probably just be hanging around the streets of Glasgow right now.

        Reply
        1. Monty

          Yes, thanks to the Evils of Socialism in the UK, I got a good education and didn’t have a pile of debt or any need to pay for “healthcare” or even a car. I was able to take chances with my career. So instead of needing to get into the nearest hamster wheel and brown-nose it for the rest of my days, I worked with friends for equity in a business. No money at first, but eventually it was successful and I managed to make enough to retire at a young age.

          Reply
          1. mary jensen

            @Robert S, Rev Kev, Monty. Nice little thread.

            Brian Eno (when the OBE?) has often acknowledged the vital role “the dole”, NHS, Public Lending LIbraries and BBC all played after his leaving Art School: the time and possibility to pursue music as he wished instead of as a hobby after “work”. Eno’s John Peel Lecture of 2015 is very clear on that subject.

            Wasn’t UB40 the name of an unemployment formulaire?

            Reply
            1. paul

              It was indeed, though their best essay on the subject was one in ten,far more thunderous outside a computer speaker.
              They went via the dole(or the bru (a contraction of the bureau of emplyment, which used to be called the labour exchange)as we call it up here) to being one of the biggest selling artists of the end of the century.
              It was pretty ugly how they ended up with no money from their efforts.

              Reply
      2. das monde

        Obligations in pre-industrial societies were defined and distributed by social roles, while modern democracy kinda requires everyone to be responsible for everything, within families as well. That was not too much in the 1980s when nearly everyone was a big shot or in rah-rahs. How could it happen that government generosity was not really respected and was diminished without adequate political resistance? I guess that Calhoun’s experiments are relevant here. Relative welfare bites absolute welfare. The current stage is of “the beautiful ones”, more or less.

        Reply
        1. Karla

          The fault with Calhoun’s experiment was, IMHO, that he didn’t take into account that mice would react to certain mice being painted with different colors and patterns which would lead to violence and rejection.

          Reply
      3. Plenue

        The Taleb quote struck a cord with me: I’m reminded once again what an irritating dick Taleb is. The majority of people are not ‘risk-takers’, by his standards. “they actually don’t realize that others are not like them, what makes people in the real world tick” is a description of him, not other people.

        Also, if his position is that a person isn’t truly free unless they don’t care what their peers think, than he himself isn’t free: https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/892736047519608833

        Reply
        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I just want to add that

          1. it can be risky being a non-risk taker (one risk here is it lets the risk takers take over the world). In that sense, we are all risk-takers (both non-risk takers, and risk takers)

          2 voting, to look at one specific example, is a risk taking act (as is not voting). You can never be sure how a candidate (presidential, judicial, mayoral, etc). will turn out. A conservative judge may rule like a liberal.

          As for being free, I would like to add that it may involve

          1. feeling free to act as one wishes
          2. feeling free to act not as one wishes.

          For example, maybe you don’t like salmon, but that is what is before you. You can insist that you are not free to eat it, or you can be your liberating self by eating what you don’t wish to eat.

          Reply
    2. Trick Shroadé

      I guess I’m a so-called non-risk taker and the way I see it I enjoy the freedom of being able to logoff and shutdown at the end of the work day in ways that my risk-taker overlords can’t.

      Reply
      1. Tomonthebeach

        My 32-year military career demonstrated that risk-takers are an elite (as in rare) group. I pushed my entire career for the Navy to create a 2-track career path; one technical, and one grooming for leadership. That notion will clearly gain traction only once recruiting becomes difficult. Thus, the DOD “Up-or-Out” policy (promote or you’re fired/retired) loses competent people to the private sector who just like doing the same job their whole career.

        I think it boils down to how people perceive risk. Most people seem to view risk as stressful and thus something to avoid. A small fraction of the population view risk as what makes work exciting, stimulating, fun. On the downside, riskers might feel entitled to privileges as a reward for their courage to risk. Once at the top, riskers might view the risk-avoidant as slackers, and that can create personnel policies that reward workers with pay just sufficient to keep them on the job until replaceable by machines or obsolescence.

        Reply
      2. Yves Smith Post author

        I think being a risk-taker is highly overrated, particularly with respect to entrepreneurship. 90% of new businesses fail in 3 years. If you can stand to put up with the nonsense of being in an organization and your work is not stultifying or evil, what’s not to like?

        And recall Taleb’s vaunted risk taking was as a trader using other people’s money. Help me. I believe he now speculates with his own but got his education about risk taking by taking risks on behalf of others. Having your bonus be at risk isn’t at all the same as being at risk of not eating.

        Reply
        1. Off The Street

          Risk takers are part of the distribution, and earn their rewards up or down while facing legitimate risks. What isn’t needed are the so-called facilitators, (read too many in Congress), that extract kickbacks from NGOs or other recipients while claiming that they are other than parasites. They rig systems to steal from constituents while socking away money offshore. That seems to be the opposite of what John Adams and others wanted. Tocqueville and others warned about the longevity of systems where people could vote themselves Other People’s Money. Now they do it with foreigners, too.

          Reply
          1. The Rev Kev

            When you say ‘Risk takers are part of the distribution’, does that imply a bell curve distribution for risk-takers?

            Reply
            1. Off The Street

              Yes, at least some type of curve but not necessarily bell-shaped. Risk-taking and risk aversion seem to be part of the human makeup to allow for survival so some genetic markers would be plausible.

              Reply
    3. Thomas P

      Would a society with only risk takers even work? The people who want to avoid risks provide some sort of stability while the risk takers provide innovation. Both are needed, which, I suspect, is why evolution has given us that kind of individual variation.

      Reply
      1. das monde

        Good question. A society of narcissistic risk takers would be terrible. Consider a wolf pack (Youtube): each generation has alpha, betas, omegas — and it is soon clear who is which. Our modern society is too harsh in expecting everyone to take risks, all political and moral responsibilities.

        Reply
        1. Plenue

          “Consider a wolf pack (Youtube): each generation has alpha, betas, omegas”

          No, they don’t. Wild wolf packs are family units, with the ‘alpha’ male and female simply being the parents of the rest of the pack. Betas and omegas don’t exist at all.

          The notion that wolves are engaged in some sort of never-ending fight for supremacy is fictitious gibberish beloved by internet edgelords. It hasn’t been accepted science for decades. And the only reason it was ever believed in the first place was due to downright shoddy methodology that erroneously viewed the behavior of artificial packs in captivity, assembled from unrelated wolves, as representative of wolves in their natural state.

          Here’s a much better, and much more succinct YouTube link, from the guy who literally wrote the book on ‘alpha wolves’, before later disowning that work entirely once he realized it was utter nonsense: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU

          And the idea that political and moral responsibilities are the exclusive domain of ‘risk-takers’ is nonsensical blather. Our leadership largely aren’t brave risk-takers; they’re cowering bootlickers. Meanwhile the patrons they’re cowering before are also not brave; they’re mostly skilled grifters, few of which ever started at the bottom or even in the middle.

          An example of an actual risk-taker in US politics would be Bernie Sanders, champion of that ‘nanny state’ you hate so much.

          Reply
          1. das monde

            “The notion that wolves are engaged in some sort of never-ending fight for supremacy…”

            The point is: “never-ending” fights are not necessary for establishment of a communal hierarchy. There is no genetic arms race for alphaness. More important is genetic modulation to fit into a pack. And genetic variation for likely status is preserved. (How? A possibility is hinted in that youtube video of the Dutchers.)

            Perhaps no time to dig into research methodologies and “alphaness” of our elites this time. That the elites behave more like aggressive customers rather than poised providers is perhaps a strengthened feature of our earnest democracy.

            Reply
            1. Plenue

              Again: literally what on earth are you talking about? Your style is making whatever point you’re attempting to convey inscrutable.

              ‘Alphaness’ literally isn’t a thing in wolves. Wolves don’t have ‘likely status’; the leaders of the pack are the parents of the pack. Their status as leaders is theirs by default. The ‘alphas’ of the pack only stop being ‘alpha’ when they die (the cause of which is never their kids killing them).

              And this entire invoking of wolves is profoundly stupid because, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but wolves aren’t humans. If you wanted to blather on about dominance, you could at least have have picked something far more closely related to humans. Gorillas actually do run on dominance, with groups built around a single alpha male and his harem.

              Of course, if you were going to invoke apes, you would get even closer to humans with the bonobo, which, oh look at that, are female led and engage in casual orgies to dispel conflict.

              “Perhaps no time to dig into research methodologies”

              Maybe you should make the time. Then you might know what you’re talking about.

              Just reading the summary the book looks like crap, by the way. In the United States politics is not ‘polarizing’. People aren’t picking one extreme or another. Instead they’re mostly just checking out altogether. Half the country that could vote simply doesn’t, and of those who do independents, not party loyalists, are the largest and growing group.

              That’s on top of the fact that there is precious little difference between the GOP and the Democrats when it comes to the actual substance of policy. There’s just lots of kabuki theater. They do not represent warring political philosophies. Liberals are not the Left. They never have been, but they’re particularly retrograde now.

              The actual Left-most of US mainstream politics is not particularly radical. Regardless of what he calls himself, Sanders is not much of a socialist. He’s a throwback New Deal Democrat, a callback to a more enlightened form of Liberalism.

              We don’t need less democracy in America, we need more and deeper democracy. Far from being polarized, our politics is dominated by a singular ideology, with the vast expanses of human thought almost entirely absent from the public consciousness.

              Reply
    4. Plenue

      What is this bizarre right-wing dichotomy? Since when is wanting things like uh, having a job, decent public roads, and leaders who vaguely know what they’re doing a sign of moral failing (apparently in your mind both of the individual and of their parents)? And since when is ‘living on the edge’ exemplified by laws and institutions just not existing? Is freaking Somalia your ideal of a ‘risk-takers’ ideal?

      What a sad, ugly worldview you have.

      Reply
      1. das monde

        My moral implications (if they are that obvious) are willfully exaggerated. The eventual suggestion is perhaps this: the exceptionally good post-WWII times are over, and humanity is returning to a “natural” normal of (yet mildly) Darwinian-Malthusian kind. Our looking down or looking up to each other helps the humanity to swim evolutionary waters continuously.

        Reply
  2. Charles 2

    Would you feel better if I told you that I shared most of your assessment and feelings ? I hope so.

    Also, I would be interested if you could elaborate on cycling being physically impossible. Are bicycles prohibited on roads ? I read that in some part of the US, it is the case.

    Reply
      1. Mel

        A while ago the ad servers were swamping me with ads for small electric motorcycles, Vespa style and others. They looked pretty neat. No license required in a lot of jurisdictions, because speed was limited to 20kph. Limited run-time/range dissuaded me, because here in the boonies it’s a 14km round trip to the closest coffee shop — 20km it you want pastry with coffee — 50km round trip for groceries. It might have been possible, but chancy. In the town/city, perhaps no problem.
        The big risk, of course, would be traffic. These things would travel like bicycles, and might get the same treatment from drivers.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I am super leery of motorbikes of any sort. I had enough trouble with regular bike injuries, including breaking a cheekbone. One of my brothers completely shattered his thigh in a regular bike accident, six months in a cast as opposed to the usual six weeks. He was lucky to have survived his accident.

          Plus (confirming PlutoniumKun just below) you’d be killed here on one of those bikes or a regular bike. No shoulders on the roads. No sidewalks. Main artery right down the hill, traffic is 40 MPH. On side roads, tons of turns where someone could easily overcome you and run you down or off the road. And horribly underlit at night, the side streets have almost no lighting.

          Reply
      2. Charles 2

        Oh, I see. Sorry to read that.

        I faced a similar predicament when my wife was afflicted with joint inflammation. I bought an electrified tandem from Hase bikes so could still ride with her and, coupled with a Travoy trailer, we manage to live without a car so far. I recon however that most of our destinations are less than 10 miles away and we have nice neighbours who let us borrow their car a few times a year.

        Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I don’t believe that bikes are prohibited anywhere specifically in the US, except for mixed grade highways (but this applies nearly everywhere). However, they are in reality prohibited in many places for anyone but the physically strongest and hardest nerved due to a combination of horrible engineering and the lack of legal protections. I’m an experienced and relatively hard nerved cyclist – I’ve cycled in many parts of Europe, the US and Asia/Middle East, both urban and rural – and there are places in the US I simply would not get in the saddle, its just too dangerous and nerve shredding.

      Reply
      1. TimH

        The two problems with biking are cars and coming off. Bike lanes are a little like no-peeing areas in swimming pools. The road marking helps a little, of course, but an inattentive car driver (and every driver is that from time to time) isn’t prevented from hitting a bike by road paint.

        Reply
        1. Pelham

          Re bike lanes: New York City has found that they may actually increase biking accidents. Personally, I believe that unless there are physical barriers preventing the mix of cars and bikes AT ANY POINT, especially at intersections, it’s foolish to cycle anywhere in urban car traffic.

          The problem is similar to that posed by mixing pedestrians with rental scooters. People on foot are moving at one speed and those on scooters are moving faster, creating the inevitability of collisions when there’s anything approaching a crowded situation. Same with bikes and cars.

          Reply
          1. Yves Smith Post author

            The bit about NYC makes total sense to me. You still have very frequent intersections! How does a bike lane protect bikers crossing an intersection? Answer, it doesn’t and worse may give them a false sense of security.

            Reply
            1. HotFlash

              Dunno bout NYC, but here in Toronto I do *not* feel secure in designated bike lanes. Paint won’t save me and cars seem to think that bike lanes, even with bollards, are places to use their cellphones. How nice! “But I had my flashers on!”

              Reply
            2. PlutoniumKun

              Its been well established worldwide that bike lanes parallel and intersecting with highways increase accidents. Quite simply, most accidents occur at junctions and intersections, and by definition adding a separate bike lane increases the number of such interactions.

              This is why in continental Europe when possible its generally preferred to use traffic calming and other safety features instead of creating parallel separate bike lanes. In reality, most bike lanes are a form of virtue signalling, they are rarely subject to the sort of rigorous safety analysis that would be normal for normal traffic intersections. The Warrington Cycling Campaign has a particularly hilarious and shocking set of photos demonstrating just how bad they can be.

              Reply
              1. The Rev Kev

                @PlutoniumKun
                Meant to mention a book to you that you might like as you are into bicycling. It is called “Three Men on the Bummel” by Jerome K. Jerome, author of “Three Men in a Boat”, and was written in 1900 in the early days of bicycling. You can find a copy at-

                http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2183

                It might seem familiar when one guy in the book, when asked what his bicycle was like, answered that it was like most others. Fine in the morning but a bit stiff after lunch.

                Reply
              2. Math is Your Friend

                Most of the things they call ‘traffic calming’ are as accurately named as labeling gasoline as ‘fire extinguishing fluid”.

                They generally take your mind off other vehicles, and pedestrians; increase stress; when conditions are bad some of them increase the risk of induced skids; increase carbon emissions; increase wear and tear on vehicles, potentially degrading safety; create greater variation in vehicle speeds and behaviours, which increases the probability of accidents, and incline people to hurry more to make up lost time.

                Reply
        2. Math is Your Friend

          The problems with biking are:

          1. Very limited carrying capacity.
          2. Road hazards such as snow, ice, wet leaves, and streetcar tracks.
          3. Lack of protection in case of accidents.
          4. Lack of inherent stability.
          5. Insufficient speed and range to meet most transportation needs.
          6. Lack of weather protection.
          7. The tendency of cyclists to habitually break traffic laws and otherwise behave unpredictably.
          8. Lack of secure in vehicle storage.
          9. Inability of a large number of people to utilize bicycles due to physical issues.
          10. The difficulty of seeing small, visually ‘thin’ objects moving in unexpected places or directions.
          11. The ease with which braking will cause a one vehicle accident under fairly common circumstances.
          12. Insufficient speed, range, reliability, environmental protection and carrying capacity for dealing with emergency situations, particularly when 50 or 100 km from the nearest hospital.
          13. Loss of transportation capacity on roads with bike lanes that see little or no actual use year round, or in other cases, the four or five months with snow and ice on the ground/road.

          Reply
      2. tegnost

        Indeed PK I’d agree it’s getting worse, as a corollary look at increased pedestrian deaths in Washington State that I expect are replicated nationwide. It’s a bit hard as a long time reader of NC who has heard the travails of yves and many others as we age and lose some autonomy to see some of the responses, especially when getting care is difficult or impossible. This ties in somehow to our “desert” landscape, We’re versed in the food desert, we could certainly add transportation deserts to that. When I (rarely now, can’t stand the TDS at the dinner table, combined with a visceral hatred of bernie) venture to San Diego to see family it’s a 3 mile walk to the bus stop, and the only bus I ride/rode there was the 30 which goes from old town to ucsd and back all day. One of the reasons I stayed away this year was that I’m healing a knee and just can’t walk that far yet.
        Thanks for this post yves, at it’s core it represents so much of what is great about you and Naked Capitalism. You have had such a positive impact on my life and I only wish that I could give some of that strength back to you. I guess we’ll have to accept that life is a full contact sport and keep doing the best we can in our small way. Happy New Year and let’s hope that 2020 surprises on the upside.

        Reply
      3. Steve

        The simple bike may be the best chance we have for change in the immediate future. They are readily available now. Not everyone can use a bike for transportation but not everyone has to. To reduce the environmental load of vehicles every person not driving helps. Deloitte just put bikes as the second most upcoming trend behind only 5G. The vast majority of vehicles being operated are only going 1 to 5 miles. For anyone who wants to bike more but has a physical issue holding them back or lack of a safe direct route the e-bikes are game changers. E-cargo bikes are so useful that countries in Europe have either started or will start zero interest loan programs to get people to replace a car with an e-cargo bike. Not only do e-bikes make biking to work, to get groceries, etc much easier they also make it much safer. I live in Minneapolis and my 6 mile direct route to work goes through an extremely troubled neighborhood. The solution is to use the bike paths which are more hilly and adds over 2 miles to my commute. As someone who has biked a great deal (I’m also 60) this stopped me from trying to ride in a couple days a week but with the e-bike it isn’t even a consideration. My wife who has never biked like I have wanted to ride into work and she could not have done it on a traditional bike, even though she is in good shape. We got e-bikes and in the past two years she has ridden in 1 -3 times a week for 7 months out of the year (18 miles round trip). Her commute has little exposure to vehicles do to separate bike paths and is faster than driving the same route. I know that this is not an option for everyone but nothing is an option for everyone. Millions of people right now could start biking with the infrastructure they currently have available. There is no magic bullet for that despair of our current condition but bikes can help make a difference and they can do it right now.

        Reply
        1. Anarcissie

          — If you have $1400 to spare, which is what an electric bike person told me his cost — it was one of the tough delivery bikes which I think would last the longest. I realize that for the middle class (is there still one?) $1400 is pocket lint, but not for some of us further down the economic food chain. The rider still has the problem of aggressive motor traffic, zombie pedestrians, and the everlasting generic hostility towards anything new and different, but these can be overcome with an iron will, right? Of course I’m talking about New York City, which is a bicycle playpen compared to the rigors of the South and other major provinces of car country.

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          1. Steven Bailey

            “I know that this is not an option for everyone but nothing is an option for everyone.” I rode over 4000 miles mainly commuting and buying groceries in Minneapolis last year and I would never ride in NYC or many other places. There are many good places to use a bike as transportation. Also a good e-bike costs more than $1400 but at an average cost per mile of driving a vehicle of 61 cents per mile you recoup that quickly. It also is very good exercise keeping medical costs down, currently saves paying for parking, and helps with air quality. I also said nothing about iron will! E-bikes make it much easier to take safer routes. 50% of new bikes sold in the Netherlands are now e-bikes. If any style of bike doesn’t work for you individually that is fine. They do work for many others and that helps!

            Reply
            1. PlutoniumKun

              In parts of Europe e-bikes have been genuinely revolutionary – they are getting so many more people on bikes, and are especially good for older people (although its been reported from the Netherlands that there has been an increase in accidents involving older cyclists because of this). In most urban areas, its hard to see why anyone really needs two cars per family when ebikes are so cheap to run and efficient and fun.

              Reply
        2. BCD

          There’s a 90 year old in my building who drives her small e-tricycle upright seated scooter out of her apartment, into the elevator, to the grocery store and back to the refrigerator all w/out standing up. She can’t get into a car without assistance so she let’s everyone know she couldn’t be happier about the contraption keeping her out of assisted living. She gets her hair and nails done while seated in the e-tricycle. She says she likes watching TV in it since its easier to get out of than her recliner! The physical health barriers to transportation freedom have never been lower.

          Reply
          1. Steven Bailey

            Last week I saw a woman, who I would guess was at least 70, come out of a Minneapolis store and get on a fat tire bike and ride off :)

            Reply
            1. HotFlash

              Heh! I bike around Toronto, summer and winter, and I am 70 for sure. Not everyone can do, but if you can, it’s great. I have an elderly 3-speed, basket in front and a milk crate zip-tied to the back and that hauls my groceries, my tools for jobs, my cats to the vet and my foraged fruits and veggies home for canning and drying.

              For our business, we go to our clients mainly by bike. When needing to get to the downtown care, where most of our big clients are located (“entertainment district”) we find it is cheaper (of course) and *way faster* in most cases. Just the time saving in parking, let alone waiting in traffic, is huge. This is what our public transit tells us; TTC Trip Planner. We love our TTC, we can take our bikes on it most times (restrictions at rush hours, but many of the subway stations, and soon all, will have bicycle elevators so we don’t have to thump our bikes up the stairs and/or escalators). And if not, TTC for just people is pretty reasonable. As seniors we can get nearly anywhere in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) for $2.20. Try that with your car!

              With trailers, we have hauled many bikes around town, tools and stands to repair cafes and school fun fairs, harpsichords to concerts and recordings; our friends at Chocosol do all their deliveries by bike and much of their cocoa and coffee processing is bicycle-powered. We have even hauled a harpsichord on a bike trailer to Toronto Island (via ferry) for a recording project, and back.

              Reply
      4. Tony Wright

        Bicycles and motorcycles have bitumen airbags. What a pity most motorists seem oblivious to this. Maybe I should print it on my cycling t shirts (which are red to improve motorist noticeability) IN CAPS LOCK.
        I cycled to commute in the days when I had a risk free (but frustrating) job. Balancing risk and risk free maybe? Three potentially fatal encounters with inattentive motorists. Fortunately my guardian angels were well alert and I escaped relatively unscathed on each occasion.
        We recently moved back from country to city. Yesterday some a…… Stole my padlocked bicycle. Welcome to 2020 everyone.

        Reply
        1. HotFlash

          My dear Tony, I am so sorry for your loss. I do not believe in capital punishment, but I will make exceptions for people who steal bicycles or musical instruments. Don’t know your city, but there is probably a community bike shop near you, here is a website that might be of use to you in getting another bike at a reasonable price: bikebike.org

          Reply
      5. rd

        I know (or knew) more people who have been seriously injured or killed by a car hitting them while they were riding a bike than have been injured or killed in a car accident, even though far more people drive. American drivers are generally oblivious or antagonistic to cyclists. Riding a bicycle on a city or rural road is taking your life in your hands unless you are on a protected or dedicated bike lane.

        Reply
      6. MichaelSF

        I raced motorcycles (motocross, observed trials and road racing) for 45 years (officially becoming a “former racer” in 2019). I’ve occasionally considered a push bike (and I have racing friends who switched from motorized to human powered two wheel racing) but frankly they’ve generally looked to be more dangerous than racing a motorcycle.

        If I’m going to potentially be doing 15-20 mph on a bicycle I’d be wanting to dress for the crash and not the ride, just as on a powered two wheeler, so there’s boots, helmet, gloves and at least dirt-bike garments/armor. If you don’t think that level of protective gear is needed, try jumping out of a car at those speeds in your normal clothing and see how you feel afterwards.

        Other than that, bicycles don’t accelerate very well (at least any of them I’ve powered) and the brakes/stability/cornering has seemed lacking too. If I’m going to be a target of vehicular mayhem I don’t want to be a sitting duck. I don’t ride a motorcycle on the street any more because there are too many distracted/uncaring drivers, a bicycle looks like it would reduce my odds of survival.

        This is not to say that if I had access to a separate bike lane completely insulated from motor traffic I might not have ended up with a bicycle, especially now there are the pedelec models to help with the hills of San Francisco (I’m at the bottom of all of them, just above sea level, so most everywhere would start out up hill). But I’d still wear the protective gear that has proven effective in preventing ER visits in racing, and I suspect that a lot of people would find gearing up to go for a ride to make bicycling less attractive.

        Happy New Year to all, NC has been a joy and an education.
        cheers,
        Michael (cautious old guy)

        Reply
        1. HotFlash

          Totally, ‘old guy’, I agree with you 100%. When parents tell me, “Oh, I don’t want (child’s name) riding a motorcycle, it’s so dangerous!”, I have to reply that riding an m/c is *much* safer than riding a bicycle. Well, as long as they understand about countersteering. A motorcycle goes the speed of traffic. Bikes do not, which makes them more vulnerable, and there is the class prejudice: “If they were real, important people, they would be in a car.”

          Oooh, so observed trials, where did you compete? What did you ride?

          Reply
          1. MichaelSF

            Bicycles go as fast as motorcycles on neighborhood streets. My parents should have probably bought stock in bandages because I recall a lot of gauze pads on knees and elbows when I was a kid!

            I rode a 350 Bultaco in NM in the mid 1970s, and came back riding vintage trials in the 90s with a Kawasaki KT250 in NorCal with a ride on a friends Montesa at an AHRMA national at MidOhio. Trials was fun, but I wore all my MX gear (even though other trials riders scoffed at it as overkill) as I found falling down at a walking pace could still be pretty uncomfortable if landing on something/having the bike land on me. Good riding gear can make a crash painless at best, and at worst a lot less painful than it might have been.

            Lycra does not impress me as a protective garment!

            Reply
    2. Jack

      I am not exactly sure what Yves means by her statement but I can tell you here in SC, you are taking your life in your hands in most areas to ride a bike or even walk. Bike lanes are almost non-existent. As are sidewalks except in downtown areas. A very close friend of mine is an avid biker. He doesn’t own a car and has not owned one for 6-7 years now. He has biked up and down the whole west and east coast. And he will NOT ride his bike around where I live when visiting unless he borrows the car and takes his bike to one of the few trails. The south doesn’t like to spend money on infrastructure. They let the developers come in, throw up 100’s of homes and walk away stuffing their pockets with profits. No road planning involved, no requirements as to sidewalks, no green ways, etc.

      Reply
      1. John Wright

        Even somewhat bike friendly areas (for example, Sonoma County, in Northern Ca) still have the problem of narrow roads that are shared with cars and bike riders.

        Relatively untraveled country roads may seem safe for cyclists, but distracted, sightseeing car drivers may also view them as empty and may not expect to encounter a cyclist on a blind curve.

        Riding a bike in traffic scares me.

        I was able to walk to work (about 2 miles) for about a year a few years ago.

        On the walk I crossed one intersection where a visiting cyclist was killed by a driver doing a left turn in front of him. At another intersection a pedestrian told me to be cautious as he was hit, months before, in the crosswalk despite having the walk sign.

        When USA citizens are forced to drive much less, as I expect will eventually happen, I believe bicycle riding will be far safer and America may embrace cycling as a way to get around town.

        Reply
        1. Lyle

          Having ridden bikes both in Houston, and on country roads in the vicinity of houston, I learned a few lessons, First wear jerseys in bright colors so it is hard not to see you, (i.e. not colors you are likley to see in fields etc) A reflective helmet also helps here Second in cities know the street layout and use side streets where possible (I know this does not apply to Manhattan, but most of the country is not Manhattan). As to controlled intersections, don’t start off until the traffic traveling with you has begun to move and if you see someone turning right while stoped make eye contact with them. By moving with the slow moving traffic as in starts moving from a light there are larger objects behind you that folks will see (i.e. the traffic). In the country one other obstacle is dogs who decide that chasing bikes is a lot of fun (because have invaded the street outside their territory) .When they bark at you just shout loudly back.

          One other way to do a controlled intersection all be it a bit slower is to cross with the starting traffic, then wait on the other corner until the traffic clears. Left turns are best done on a cross to corner turn 90 and cross to the next corner. The only accidents I had related to poor road conditions in most cases the bike just falls down.
          Now today bikes like the electric trikes seen on amazon might well work, (plus the trike has more stability, riding a 2 wheeler with a back pack does change the handling characteristics greatly.

          Reply
          1. furies

            This discussion is near and dear to my heart. I used a bicycle or walked/used public transportation (what little there was of it) for 11 years. I’d happily use public transportation now if it wasn’t so expensive…(4 dollars one way to get groceries).

            As a hard-core pedestrian it is so very discouraging to live with the fact that cars are king, only the ‘poors’ are pedestrians. In the small town I relocated from (to another, better small town). The SUVs and Gro-dozers would PARK on the f*****g sidewalks, leaving the shamed pedestrian to venture out into the narrow streets.

            I especially loved it when they parked in the crosswalks:)

            And how in the heck can one make “eye contact” with tinted windows??

            I feel so beat down with it all.

            Reply
        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          We would need gas to reach $8-10 per gallon and stay there or go up some more for that to happen.

          Reply
  3. kimyo

    We gloomy types worry…

    it’s not that we’re gloomy, or that we worry too much. those words are straight out of the msm lexicon.

    i believe the correct way to state this is ‘those of us who have examined the situation carefully understand that none of the proposed solutions have even a remote chance of success’.

    windmills, solar and electric cars cannot deliver business as usual. a vote for a politician who thinks these are a path forward is at best a token gesture, and even the most honest and well-meaning elected officials are more likely to make things worse (ex: corn based ethanol, cfl light bulbs, carbon credit schemes) than better.

    in a triage situation, as we’re in today, the top item is food production. instead of ‘clean energy’, the new ‘manhattan project’ should be to switch away from fossil-fuel based fertilizer asap.

    so, as an individual, purchasing your food from a regenerative farm instead of the supermarket is going to have much more of a positive impact on the future than voting for candidates x or y.

    Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Those who can do both . . . can do both.

        Those who can only do one or the other . . . might well focus on either the one OR the other . . . whichever might reduce carbon skyflooding the most if done by millions of people.

        Reply
    1. Ian Ollmann

      I don’t think it is quite so bad. It just takes some personal diligence. Let’s start with one small sea change: your consumption is limited simultaneously by both available money and carbon. If we accept that, then we find that for many of us, especially in the states, carbon allowance is the thing in short supply, and if we want to be richer (able to spend more) then we need to free up carbonbucks by burning less. Fortunately because of the added constraint there is now a huge pile of otherwise unspendable dollars available for green tech like EVs and solar. At least in my case, replacing cars and adding solar to the home cut the carbon in half. These were “easy” things to do, which took me maybe a year and mostly involve someone else’s labor, and resulted in some small improvement in living quality. If you plan it well, some recurring dollar costs will be pruned like car maintenance and your electricity bill, and you may be more robust against energy infrastructure failure like PG&E and oil price shocks. It’s pretty much win, win, win. You just need to get off the couch.

      The other half, consumer spending, air travel, food are to a large degree not under your control except to boycott such services until they get their sh__ in order. Maybe you buy some carbon offsets instead, if you believe them. As for the other stuff, as a child of the Cold War, I would happily take 21st century problems over 20th century problems any day.

      The social engineering challenge is to figure out how to introduce a carbon allowance to a skeptical public. If you succeed, the windfall will be enormous. Consider for example the social justice dividend of limiting billionaires to 20 tons / year.

      Reply
  4. Ignacio

    I think that, regarding commuting/transport in US cities, a good solution could be municipal ownership of car/motorbike/bike sharing vehicles and facilities. Having some or several for profit businesses competing for transport sharing doesn’t make sense, resulting in suboptimal utilization of the resources and space, as well as motorbikes and bikes badly parked or thrown anywhere in the most bothering way.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      That would be a good idea in more “traditional” societies. The proper maintenance of such a communitarian undertaking requires a degree of social cohesion generally lacking in most American metropolises. Social cohesion is there, but in smaller segments of the overall society. The social cohesion needed for your idea is larger, in general, that that available in America.
      The pernicious side effect of the philosophy of “Rugged Individualism” is, as many have noted, Social Atomism.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think it can be argued that Rugged Individualism has historically gone with a rigid application of the rule of law, because historically if you want something done on a large scale, you either do it through collective consensus and activity (i.e. gather up your relatives or tribe and do it yourself with the approval of the chief/elders), or you do it through the rule of law and structures paid for by taxes. Both approaches work.

        The problem with neoliberalism/libertarianism and its dominance today is that it has undermined both forms of collective action and left nothing in its place.

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        1. The Historian

          The problem with neoliberalism/libertarianism and its dominance today is that it has undermined both forms of collective action and left nothing in its place.

          I think you are on to something there. I’ve always asked myself: Why do people engage in protests and riots? Why are the protests in Hong Kong so big when it is obvious that not everyone involved wants the same things? Why did some religions start, like the Black churches, like Mormonism, like even Christianity? Why is Judaism still a religion when it has faced so many obstacles? Why did the peasants in Russia form collectives? And the answer seems to be that people want to be part of something, that they really do not want the freedom and rugged independence that they are told over and over that they should want, that they are inherently cooperative and would rather belong to a group that in some way shares something with its members.

          Reply
        2. Susan the other

          Neoliberalism never had a goal, except to expand and become rich. I dunno why we can’t start setting goals. I’m too lazy to think through it but there are plenty of people who could envision and end goal – not the end-all – but a goal that can be achieved, followed by the next goal and with lotsa little sub-goals. Etc. Maybe neoliberalism could function if it defined “the market” as a market of feasible solutions, goals within reach, for the environment, equality and peace. It’s pretty clear that the creation of money wealth isn’t even half the battle, using it is the most important half.

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          1. skippy

            I thought neoliberalism was actually easy to understand E.g. the “natural order” of things ….

            Albeit the sausage making with ingredients from the past and present is not unlike a religion evolving to incorporate regional pagan beliefs, just to expand its narrative and co-opting them with retaining its authority over the said narrative.

            I would think the Lars Syll video I linked to, with say the old Ames post on Friedman, with the Koch docs link of the past on the Powell memo being not aggressive enough, would bare out the fundamental drivers of this agenda, add Century of the Self for good measure.

            I think the problem with late stage neoliberalism is how entrenched it is, how all its failures are pinned on non existent boogieman – lingering socialism et al, defective birth cohorts – need to refine the code, those at the top are served by it – hence why would they mess with it, and the whole thing being so fragile as the environment pushes back – no human agency to incorporate or co-opt with nothing to replace it without its shareholders losing power.

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            1. Susan the other

              yes, I agree except that those at the top are not feeling very happy or secure and I believe they have realized we are in one giant mess. So, assuming (big assumption) that they didn’t get to the top by being totally oblivious to reality, I believe they will come around to a new century and we’ll all start to like each other again. I hope.

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              1. skippy

                My concern is Conservatism operates only to command power and retain it in perpetuity.

                So lets say like PM Boris some redistribution is thrown out the window of the carriage to the mopes whilst moving from palace to palace. Nothing has really changed WRT to power or the sums it commands, mopes just get enough to stave off any idea of removing the millstone of neoliberalism.

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                1. Susan the other

                  My concern has to do with the imperative for making a profit. It makes me sound too communist, but I think profit taking is the biggest problem of all because it throws the whole “economy” off. Profit is just an idea that lingered from the first gains of the agricultural revolution, imo. That you could plant a handful of wheat grains and get a bushel. But now that has run its course and then some. If regulation took a bite out of profits maybe the rest would fall into place. In that there would not be that constant push to drive us all over the cliff. And this then entails our whole concept of “freedom”, no? We basically tout freedom as free rein to do anything we can get away with, more or less.

                  Reply
    2. PlutoniumKun

      Yes – another casualty of neo-liberalism is that municipal ownership of services is simply not on the agenda anymore. Going back to the late 19th Century and early to mid 20th Century it was simply assumed that if basic infrastructure was needed, whether it was water, waste or transport, it was the responsibility of the municipal government to do it.

      A while back I was talking to a local government employee in my city and we were talking about bike share schemes – he was responsible for implementation/management of the existing city system. I casually mentioned that the simple way of overcoming all the implementation issues was for the Council to do it themselves directly without involving outside companies, there is nothing technically complicated about it. It was clear from the look on his face that this had never actually occurred to him. We are, quite literally, brainwashed.

      Reply
      1. Summer

        That’s what many have been saying: All this blame on gov’t interference and the gov’t is barely more than adminstration of contracts to the private sector who are doing the things people complain about on gov’t stationary for correspondence.

        Reply
      2. notabanker

        Was listening to a story the other night of first hand witness of local corruption, it was about a dirty underhanded move that involved outright lying by and to elected officials. I made the comment at the end that the US system is completely corrupt from top to bottom and got a room full of nodding heads. I am quite certain that 3 years ago I would not have received that consensus reaction from those same folks.

        I see no rational evidence to suggest the US can reform itself. Quite the contrary, it seems the decline is accelerating. Perhaps a Sanders election could prove me wrong, but it sure seems to me the fix is in to prevent that at all costs. Another cycle of neoliberal leadership, whether blue or red branded could very well be the tipping point, if we haven’t run out of time already.

        Reply
        1. Trent

          “I am quite certain that 3 years ago I would not have received that consensus reaction from those same folks”

          A good sign, unless its all Trumps fault.

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          1. jrs

            Yea I know people who do nothing but complain about corruption all the time. Some exists of course, it’s not all made up. But I don’t know what their ultimate point is, to give up on government as possibly being useful for anything because “everything is corrupt”? And that’s supposed to be an improvement?

            Reply
            1. jrs

              And yes it’s almost always government corruption that gets complained about. Corporate entities must either be saintly or automatically assumed to be corrupt to such a degree than only government is worth complaining about ad naseum, until one gives up on it entirely or something, I guess, let the corporations have their way with us by default (because afterall the government is corrupt, the unions are corrupt, workers are corrupt and only in it for themselves etc. etc.)

              Reply
      3. Off The Street

        Brainwashing can also reflect cognitive dissonance. People are overwhelmed with sensory inputs, many of which are deflections, deceptions or dark pattern manipulations. It takes a huge and continuing effort to steel oneself to deal with the tidal waves of bullshit pouring out from airwaves, journalists and the anti-social media.

        That latter is an insidious evil that preys upon the credulous and induces even somewhat-resistant types to participate due to FOMO. Look at how pervasive those platforms are in daily life and at work. People literally have no way to hide from having the essence of their lives exposed to all and sundry, and commit to providing even more fodder for some cretins to monetize and other cretins to exploit in illegal ways.

        Tell your children to close their media accounts and attempt to regain some semblance of control over their data. Then ask your parents for forgiveness and understanding as they ponder the strangeness of data concerns permeating lives.

        Do people post those Instagram or SnapChat or other photos out of any pure or noble reason or are they driven primarily by FOMO? Shallow, empty lives devoid of purpose lead to opiod despair and death, among other bad ends.

        A foreign uni professor told our class that he viewed American society as a nation of self-sufficient rapists, due to increasing isolation and decline in any depth of personal interaction. That was decades ago when the newish technology of CB radio was a fad, well before cell phones. People wrote letters and called their mothers.

        Nonetheless, I am optimistic about 2020. Exposing liars in government and the media is a good first purgative.

        Reply
      4. lyle

        Actually the pendulum has swung both ways on state ownership of transport facilities. Originally the governments build roads such as the National road from Columbia MD to Vandalia Il, Then New York state build the Erie Canal which made NYC into the biggest city in the US. Then following the rule of who succeeds innovators, Northwestern states build lots of Canals, Ohio 2 from lake Erie to the Ohio river, Indiana, from Toledo Oh to the Wabash River at Terre Haute, and Ill from Chicago to St Louis.
        The canals in Indiana led to the state going bankrupt in 1837, and as a result a number of railroads that had state sponsorship, such as the Michigan Southern and Michigan Central along with other projects were privatized. The Federal government in conjunction build the Illinois Central, but most of the immediate railroads around Chicago were privately funded. The civil war lead to the lesson that railroads were a military necessity, so the Union/Central Pacific was build. Other Railroads such as the Northern Pacific, the ATSF and the Southern Pacific got large land grants from the feds (here the feds gave something that was worthless to it to the railroads who after being built made the land worth something. Then with the coming of the modern bicycle, along with the later automobile the good roads movement came about, and government became mostly responsible for highways, all be it it took a long time to get a set of highways that were paved from coast to coast. (Paved roads started out for a distance from major cities so rural folks could get to town and town folks could go for a drive in the country)
        So the private versus government ownership debate is as old as the country.

        Reply
    3. HotFlash

      WOOHOO! got that in spades! Here in Toronto we have Bike Share, it is city-owned, works like this: https://bikesharetoronto.com/how-it-works/

      And, as and others have mentioned here, a key issue is good bike infrastructiore. Ours here in Toronto can still use heaps of improvement, but it is way better than it was. Here is our City of Toronto maps to cycling routes and infrastructure. Yes, we have cycling infrastructure! https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/cycling-in-toronto/

      Reply
  5. William Beyer

    The Despair Box is getting easier to check. It seems harder every day to provide for one’s family while working to be an good and informed citizen.

    Writing recently at Consortium News, Ray McGovern, chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch in the 1970s, recalled a statement made by CIA Director William Casey in 1981:

    At the very first meeting of Reagan’s cabinet, Casey openly told the president and other cabinet officials: ‘We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.’

    I think we’ve finally arrived.

    Reply
  6. Solideco

    “Again, I can’t prove it, but my belief is societies can cope better with competing levels of obligation when there is more slack, or in Tainter terms, when energy costs are affordable. It’s easier to make modest sacrifices if they don’t put you in a state of deprivation…”

    I very much agree with this. The problem as I see it is that we have policies that create scarcity and deprivation. The precariousness of modern life (for the vast majority) has serious constrained people’s choices, made everyone more risk adverse (and mean), and greatly reduced their bargaining position when it comes to jobs, wages, healthcare, etc. A cynical would say this is just how the big corporations and ultra-wealthy want it.

    Reply
  7. Steven B Kurtz

    Free Will is “vastly overrated.” Some say non-existent based upon definition. See:
    https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/strawsong/

    We aren’t fundamentally different than other social mammals, except for having been more clever in appropriating planetary resources for our benefit. Unfortunately we have been too successful the past century, as we quadrupled our numbers. Now we wonder why we get negative the feedback from our behavior on this finite planet. Nature will see to a rebalancing; we, as part of nature, may be major players.

    Reply
  8. ambrit

    The basic requirement needed for utilizing risk taking behaviours seems to be, at least to this ‘bottom dweller’ of the moderne social matrix, some degree of comfort. Either that or a stark threat to existence. This is where the political philosophy of the “Third Way” falls apart. Incrementalism and it’s fellow travelers need a cushion upon which to rest. Anecdotally, my experiences with the “upper classes” and their enablers during my youth showed me, although it has taken me decades to understand the lesson, alas, that “rich” families tend to, through simple knock on effects of material abundance, ‘teach’ their offspring to not fear risk anywhere as much as do the children of poorer families.
    The opposite situation, the fact that cripples “risk taking” as a social philosophy, is the bare bones reality that, out of the group of “risk takers” who step up to any challenge, most will fail. The consequences of that failure are, I assert, what curtails most people’s propensity to take serious risks in the first place. If a society can support an average citizen through the depression that follows most failed risk taking episodes, then that society can weather any storms better, by virtue of having a larger pool of ‘adventurous’ souls upon which to draw when action in the face of risk is needed. This leads to the observation that a ‘healthy’ society needs not only material capital with which to function optimally, but also ‘social capital,’ the aforementioned nurtured ‘risk takers.’ The development of ‘social capital’ of that sort requires a longer time frame in planning than is the norm today in, particularly, the business and financial spheres of the society. In elevating those short term thinkers to positions of prominence, the society in general has abandoned the traditional longer term thinking that usually informs social planning.
    Rant over.

    Reply
    1. Mark Anderlik

      Thank you Ambrit! Well said. Even the business entrepreneurs who risk-take under neoliberalism seem not to have much in the way of support if and when they fail, except for bankruptcy law. They get not much in the way of emotional or material support. Much less for the other kinds of risk-takers who are not even recognized by the society at large. And if these risk-takers for the commonweal demonstrate “leadership,” then neoliberalism seeks to supplant true leaders with mere tenders of the machine.

      Reply
    2. Cat Burglar

      The history of 20th Century rock climbing and mountaineering in the English-speaking world illustrates your point.

      The sport was largely an upper-class and professional class sport until after the Second World War. With rising incomes, more plentiful jobs, and the advent of the welfare state, it became possible to take the risk of living cheaply, not working for extended periods of time, and going climbing.

      Histories of UK, North American, and especially Yosemite climbing all recognize that as the reason for the growth of the sport and the rise in technical difficulty of the climbs. Working class participation increased gigantically with free time (and also with the then relatively low cost of equipment), both generally, and at the top level of the sport. A highway department civil engineer made the first ascent of the face of El Capitan. A bank teller led the first ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome. A plumber from Manchester reached the summit of the third-highest mountain in the world on the first ascent. The greatest Colorado climber was a bricklayer. Upward mobility meant more than just social mobility, and removal of the fear of falling to the bottom economically meant limits could be overcome on the heights.

      Reply
      1. Off The Street

        Those climbers inspired many, including myself, as we identified with them as individuals and as pioneers. Simple applications like the use of small chock stones in webbing to provide some way to protect against a fall off a train bridge led to more innovations, like a seat harness, as more found out via word of mouth or through small climbing journals.

        Rock and mountain climbing were terrific examples of a positive network, with a deep ethic and communitarian focus in what was often a solo or small group pursuit. Maintaining an ethic and focus reinforces a sense of purpose that can be squeezed out of groups when they grow so planning, care and feeding are required as with so much of life. How much of a trade-off does one make when savoring organic development while casting an eye toward the future?

        Reply
        1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

          Another climber chiming in because the metaphors are apt.

          I always loved the dichotomy in the activity: historically it was “the sport of kings”, with people like The Duke of Abruzzi making significant early ascents. But then the other end is most definitely working class, especially UK. Massive “dirtbag” ethos, where sleeping in the mud with no money but soaring above others on the peaks is celebrated.

          And ethos: in central Europe use of metal gear (apart from carabiners) is forbidden and visitors comply. In my subset community we also eschewed the use of chalk because it defaces and gives the next climber a paint-by-numbers experience. The entire “clean climbing” revolution that swept the sport (for a while, anyway, before it was considered OK to start at the top and rappel down placing expansion bolts) came out of the green movement.

          But it’s the activity itself that creates the bonding ethos. What we need is a shared activity that bonds us. That used to be “civic responsibility” but today there are two competing versions of civics (roughly R & D) so it’s divisive. Maybe the next to emerge is “human responsibility” so we don’t simply choke in our own waste.

          Reply
  9. rd

    I think the biggest reason for the malaise is general societal disconnection.

    There used to be rich and poor, but they were generally living close to each other, and except for a handful of periods, the wealth difference wasn’t unimaginably big. Now, there is a huge difference in wealth and they live far apart and so they never see each other, so everything is impersonal.

    Corporations used to know their employees. The executives lived in the same communities as the workers. If the community suffered, the company suffered and vice versa. Now the corporate objective is to be disconnected from a community, and even send the work out of country entirely with the promise of rich rewards for doing so. A recent study shows that opiate deaths increase 85% in areas with an auto plant closing in the past 5 years: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/30/study-finds-auto-plant-closures-lead-to-rise-in-opioid-overdoses-death.html

    This also means that shame is no longer a driver for executives – I think the main shame most of them feel now only occurs if they actually get caught doing something bad and are ashamed when around their peers that they were the ones that got caught.

    It is only in the past handful of decades that people in cities generally don’t know where their food came from. You lived on a farm, lived close to a farm, or still had family that farmed. Now, most Americans are completely disconnected from where their food originates. We get a fair amount of our food from the regional farmers market where the produce is not sold in plastic bags and we give cardboard egg cartons back to the woman who raises the chickens for her to re-use. We live in Upstate NY and drink local wines from the Finger Lakes region (surprisingly good now) and drink beer and cider from local and regional brewers. Most of our beverages come from within 100 miles of our house, many from less than 50 miles away. The glass bottles and aluminum cans are recycled.

    People have moved far away from their families for jobs as companies and plants relocate to the south and west. This reduces support systems. Reduced family support coupled with rising student debt, and you have a very stressed out generation of 20 and 30 year olds.

    Even economists have allowed their thinking to be disconnected from how people and societies actually work allowing for very bad policy choices. The past few decades of neo-liberalism fly in the face of behavioral economics, but there are some very wealthy people who are able to push the falsehoods in order to enrich themselves.

    The one thing we are all connected in now is instantaneous knowledge of bad things happening via radio, TV, and social media. A young child gets hurt 1,000 miles away and everybody knows about it within minutes. It magnifies the potential dangers and increases stress. We were raised in the 60s in blissful ignorance, able to go outside and play all day without adults hovering and orchestrating. Now everything has to be programmed and cocooned. It is amazing to me that the generation entering today’s work force even knows how to order lunch without somebody arranging it for them.

    Reply
  10. Robert Pyle

    I also live in a free standing house, must drive a car. That was ok until recently. I believe this next decade will change locus of concern to declining net carbon energy, and resulting contraction. Presently I notice the clear signs of denial.
    Best wishes, and thanks.

    Reply
  11. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for this thought-provoking essay on the spirit of the times. I especially agree with your point about “slack.” In my mind, that’s what Bernie is trying so hard to accomplish: create some “slack” in people’s lives with M4A, etc. to give us time to make even deeper changes before social cohesion disappears completely.

    It’s very hard not to be very pessimistic as this year begins. First of all, if this year doesn’t turn out to be crazier and more violent than 1968, I will be surprised. The more long term reasons that you’ve outlined are even more depressing.

    For me, only a full-blown and massive shift in worldview will save us from both Mad Max and Handmaid’s Tale, in other words, social dissolution or totalitarianism. As impossible as that sounds, I think it’s not only possible but already underway. The shift began 50 years when the counterculture challenged the status quo, but a new synthesis of the old Enlightenment worldview and the counterculture is emerging. You may find it in a local farmers’ market or on Resilience.org or in the writings of a Thomas Berry or the praxis of an Intentional Community. At its core is the conviction that the Earth is not an object to be used for our pleasure and profit but the home that formed us through evolution just as it formed our fellow creatures with whom we share this planet. And it follows from that that our fellow human beings are not objects to be exploited and manipulated.

    Worldview is a powerful force in our lives, and while it does its work of organizing and making sense of our experience mostly unbeknownst to us, it is something that is subject to change, especially in times of great individual stress. We have reached this point of crisis because the dominant worldview in our society predisposed us to exploit the Earth. Changing this dualistic worldview with its premium on dominance and power will make the tasks before us much easier because we will be working from our worldview rather than in contradiction to it.

    Reply
  12. jsn

    If the Uber, Amazon and Walmart data sets and logistical computing were nationalized and then managed as local utilities, transportation could be made 50-80% more efficient.

    Unfortunately, the threat of existential destruction of elites by total war has historically been necessary to integrate new technologies as public goods.

    Our tech elite aren’t any more enlightened than Rockefeller, Edison or Vanderbilt, our last set of monopolists. And like them, the current crop can only see their own exceptionality which requires that any ideas of public goods be mythical.

    Reply
      1. Ignacio

        Thank you jsn. I think that existencial destruction of elites is unnecessary. Asset expropriation, or the menace of doing it, should be enough.

        Reply
        1. jsn

          The problem is that foreign armies have historically been better at solving the collective action problem than have domestic leftists.

          How shall we muster that menace?

          Maybe we’ll do better with the sword of Climate Change over our collective heads, but scorpions still tend to be scorpions, even in the heat.

          Reply
  13. Wukchumni

    In my line of work, there really wasn’t much risk taking, as I routinely rejected around 99% of aged round metal discs offered to me by other dealers, for I was a discriminating buyer. It wasn’t just me either, other professional numismatists dealt along the same lines, and i’d wonder who ended up with the cast-offs, sometimes it was just a matter of price, other times it was a question of condition of the merchandise, a lack of market interest or a myriad of other factors.

    It’s similar with real estate albeit at a different percentage, lots of orphan buildings that are unsaleable despite Zillow et al providing a ‘valuation’ for every home in the country.

    From an outsider’s inside angle (my dad was in stock biz for almost 50 years) I oft wondered why there was always a buyer for every security out there, when I knew that there must be as many stocks that were similarly undesirable, i.e. overpriced & overvalued garbage, or as we termed it: dreck.

    Reply
  14. Lee

    Faith, Half Faith and No Faith At All
    Robert Louis Stevenson

    IN the ancient days there went three men upon pilgrimage; one was a priest, and one was a virtuous person, and the third was an old rover with his axe.

    As they went, the priest spoke about the grounds of faith.

    “We find the proofs of our religion in the works of nature,” said he, and beat his breast.

    “That is true,” said the virtuous person.

    “The peacock has a scrannel voice,” said the priest, “as has been laid down always in our books. How cheering!” he cried, in a voice like one that wept. “How comforting!”

    “I require no such proofs,” said the virtuous person.

    “Then you have no reasonable faith,” said the priest.

    “Great is the right, and shall prevail!” cried the virtuous person. “There is loyalty in my soul; be sure, there is loyalty in the mind of Odin.”

    “These are but playings upon words,” returned the priest. “A sackful of such trash is nothing to the peacock.”

    Just then they passed a country farm, where there was a peacock seated on a rail; and the bird opened its mouth and sang with the voice of a nightingale.

    “Where are you now?” asked the virtuous person. “And yet this shakes not me! Great is the truth, and shall prevail!”

    “The devil fly away with that peacock!” said the priest; and he was downcast for a mile or two.

    But presently they came to a shrine, where a Fakeer performed miracles.

    “Ah!” said the priest, “here are the true grounds of faith. The peacock was but an adminicle. This is the base of our religion.”

    And he beat upon his breast, and groaned like one with colic.

    “Now to me,” said the virtuous person, “all this is as little to the purpose as the peacock. I believe because I see the right is great and must prevail; and this Fakeer might carry on with his conjuring tricks till doomsday, and it would not play bluff upon a man like me.”

    Now at this the Fakeer was so much incensed that his hand trembled; and, lo! in the midst of a miracle the cards fell from up his sleeve.

    “Where are you now?” asked the virtuous person. “And yet it shakes not me!”

    “The devil fly away with the Fakeer!” cried the priest. “I really do not see the good of going on with this pilgrimage.”

    “Cheer up!” cried the virtuous person. “Great is the right, and shall prevail!”

    “If you are quite sure it will prevail,” says the priest.

    “I pledge my word for that,” said the virtuous person.

    So the other began to go on again with a better heart.

    At last one came running, and told them all was lost: that the powers of darkness had besieged the Heavenly Mansions, that Odin was to die, and evil triumph.

    “I have been grossly deceived,” cried the virtuous person.

    “All is lost now,” said the priest.

    “I wonder if it is too late to make it up with the devil?” said the virtuous person.

    “Oh, I hope not,” said the priest. “And at any rate we can but try. But what are you doing with your axe?” says he to the rover.

    “I am off to die with Odin,” said the rover.

    You are a dab hand with your axe and as such, an inspiration to us all.

    Reply
  15. Watt4Bob

    …I can’t prove it, but my belief is societies can cope better with competing levels of obligation when there is more slack…

    ‘They’, the 1%, the Blob, live on slack.

    You could say the Blob is a enormous Slack-Consuming Machine, (hereafter the SCM). The problem being slack is becoming harder and harder to find.

    Of course by slack, I mean ‘surplus’, the blob considers all ‘surpluses’, of every kind, the world over, to be legitimate targets to vacuum up with their machine.

    If, at the end of the month, you or I have a dime left that hasn’t been spoken for, the SCM will find it and it will find a way to appropriate it. Do you like some jelly on your peanut-butter sandwich? Well, the SCM finds that to be a bit extravagant, so it will find a way to take up that slack.

    The SCM never sleeps and anyone of the laboring class who finds a way to acquire a little breathing room, will find the SCM at their door with its hand out. (actually a fist)

    The big problem is that those who own and operate the SCM have run into its most obvious limit, slack has become harder and and harder to find, and down at the level of the street, I mean the real economy, slack is virtually non-existent.

    We’ve been this way before, the SCM at one time 90 years or so ago got to the point where it was enslaving people to cut the cost of labor, and when the slaves couldn’t work because their masters shirked the cost of feeding them, they were murdered for the gold fillings in their teeth, and to make room for healthier slaves, whose health represented a bit of slack to be consumed.

    What can be done to help a people who have been convinced that the SCM, is sacred, rather than the great wrong that it actually represents?

    And when the SCM finally breaks down due to lack of slack, I worry more about the reactions of the SCM worshippers than its owners.

    Reply
  16. Phil

    A little gem in the article, being controversial. So many great films about this topic, but the quote “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” comes to mind. We should all be repeating that everyday into the mirror after we wake up. The problem is these days everybody has been cleverly trained to be mad at all the wrong people.

    Reply
    1. Phil in KC

      Indeed–a divide and conquer strategy. They have team Red and team Blue go after each other tooth and nail, “they” being the PTB who are really running things for the global elite. We are fed a daily diet of the poisonous acrimonies between Red and Blue by the media, while the billionaires extract resources and monies, destroy our habitat, and build bunkers to protect themselves from us. US!

      Reply
  17. avoidhotdogs

    Thanks. I’ve seen the negativity too. I have tried to overcome this and do something I considered positive. I thought I should put my money where my mouth was and I joined the UK Labour Party. I shall defer judgement but my first few interactions on twitter with someone who clearly identifies new members was not exactly great. I didn’t seek to “direct the conversation” but he seemed very interested in the fact I advocate electoral reform (as does Clive Lewis, who just declared his candidacy). Knowing Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem I don’t get too wedded to one system, though I do have a preferred one, given the (well known) “conservatism with a small ‘c'” of Brits. Thus I advocate a system that approximates proportionality but isn’t ideal (it can’t be); its advantage is minimal change from existing First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). (Hint – it’s NOT AV, rejected a few years ago.)

    After initially showing interest, he constructed a highly artificial example to show how my preferred method might be problematic. I acknowledged this theoretical vulnerability but said I didn’t think it was a likely PRACTICAL problem at the moment. He put forward his preferred method. After “straw-manning” me with an example that essential boiled down to 4 candidates each with 25% vote in a single-member constituency (a situation NO voting system can deal brilliantly with), I just played his game. I, in 5 minutes, constructed an example where HIS preferred form of PR failed Arrow’s “non-dictatorial” maxim – 4 MPs could essentially dictate most govt policy. He dismissed my example as nonsense. Why? We have one MP that has power she would give out (the Green MP). Just 3 more MPs from single parties could give them HUGE power. They are effectively like the “Roman triumvirate Emperors”.

    This is what drove me mad. HE is allowed to shoot down an idea by a new member who seeks to reconcile the problems the Labour Party faced in December. Yet when I do the same I got ripostes like “that would never happen” etc. It reeks of the “ideological purity” tests I remember watching in the early 1980s when the Labour Party was in a fight to be “social democratic” or a “bastion of Militant with a perfectly ideologically pure agenda” that nobody wanted.

    Is the Labour Party still hung up on this kind of thing? Or are you ready to bury differences, just agree on electoral reform and allow new coalitions (which would help the “coalition WITHIN Labour” to possibly break and yet maintain influence) and move forward. Because I’m slightly depressed at my first interaction. My first Labour Party meeting is tonight. I’ll see how it goes. But I’m here for a year. I’ll give it a go. But if it it’s all just “modern updates of ideological purity tests” like the 1980s then I’m afraid my conclusion will be similar to that of many Americans regarding the Democratic Party……we need a new party. I’m trying to be positive, quietly talk about things raised here like MMT……but if the system is like 1980? Sheesh……

    Reply
    1. Clive

      Well, well done for joining the UK Labour Party. It’s going to be an interesting experience!

      As you’re starting to appreciate, there is a world of difference between being — like I am myself — committed to social reform and social justice plus class equality and how we may as a practical reality get from where we are now to where we want to be.

      The pet peeve you bring (electoral system changes) shows, unfortunately, that we’re all on the progressive left part of our own problem. If you start attending Constituency Party meetings, you’ll quickly find that there’s people like yourself championing this angle, there’s people like me on about how we need to reconnect with Labour Leave, people who are passionate about how job number one is to repeal Universal Credit, some others who equally say that rolling back NHS PFI (Private Finance Initiative), a whole tribe which is nothing but ecological and environment priorities. etc. etc. etc. And then, some more etc. etc. etc.

      It is not, of course, that any of these concerns are not totally valid. All are ripe for being advanced to a policy making phase and shortlisted for a manifesto.

      But what about that quintessential pre-requisite for governing — discipline? How in the name of all that is holy can anything emerge from this rag-bag of good intentions which can be assembled into a coherent voter proposition demonstrating intellectual, message and ideological consistency across all aspects?

      It can’t.

      Little wonder, then, the progressive left (of which the Labour Party tries its upmost to uphold) all-too-often descends into a shouty, angry, braying student demo-like mess which sends voters fleeing to the comparative coherence of the right.

      It is my plea that the left learns this lesson (again…) from the right. I know that, like Trump, Johnson is an easy target for the left and the left can’t hide its loathing and the siren call to score cheap points at every opportunity. But look at how Johnson won:

      + being in tune with membership opinion but not a slave to it
      + being in tune with public opinion but not a slave to it
      + deciding what he believed to be important (two or three things, tops)
      + ruthlessly dispatching anyone who didn’t accept this and wanted to run a party within a party
      + simple, consistent, interesting and plausible messaging
      + ignore the Westminster media bubble and relying on conviction politics

      To repeat what Yves wrote:

      I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex

      Labour is the political poster-child of this phenomena. We are simply unable to organise and resolve the inevitable compromises we need to agree on. Johnson shows, for better or for ill, how it can be done (I’m not saying at all we need to follow his precise model, only that we need some acceptance of instilling collective party responsibility and managing and resolving competing viewpoints).

      Shorter? See John’s comment on hyperindividualism. We’re all stuck, labouring under it. Myself included (otherwise, I wouldn’t be saying this, would I?!)

      Reply
      1. vlade

        Amen.

        The problem with Labour under Corbyn was total lack of leadership. Corbyn’s “I’m your servant, tell me what you want to do” is in theory very nice, honest etc. etc. In practice, people want to be told (to an extent) what to do, so that they can disagree with it furiously – but, ultimately, move somewhere, and find a bit more on what they actually did want to do.

        At the same time, they don’t wan tot be told “here’s 20 different things we want you to do”. As you say – five tops, three better.

        We will see whether it can get better.

        Reply
        1. Pym of Nantucket

          Was it lack of leadership or Blairite Zionists that took him down? Certainly once the Guardian was taken over by MI5 post-Snowden he stood no chance.

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          1. norm de plume

            If he was Bernie he’d have stood a chance, because Bernie would not permit the agenda to be set for him and is capable of direct accusation and calling a spade a spade. JC was too polite. Not a crime, but a not a winning approach.

            Reply
          2. vlade

            Phuleease. He exhibited no leadership. That is what took him down. Did press help? Yes. But the press didn’t make him not to choose on Brexit, or to vaccilate on antisemitism..

            Moreover, the press is what Labour cannot, ever, control. If Labour cannot, ever, win with the tools it CAN control, then it’d just give up, because it’s literally wasting everyone’s time.

            Moaning about stuff we can’t control – “But for the evil XYZ we’d be… ” – is useless. You’d really need to focus on what you can change. If you don’t then we’re in the “everyone gets the government they deserve” territory.

            Reply
      2. avoidhotdogs

        Many thanks. I kinda hoped you would pipe up. I honestly do *get* that we must FIRST organise and make some compromises and nasty decisions to show we can be united and a good fighting force like the Tories. It’s why I thought hard, and it was Clive Lewis’s commitment to electoral reform that “pushed me over the line”. Yes I have a preferred method of voting. Will I die in a ditch for it? NO! Anything that stops giving us minority Tory govts will do – if Scotland and NI leave the Union it is DOUBLY important. I strongly dislike the Lib Dems but we must swallow our pride and deal with them (even if just for a Parliament) to get something like electoral reform done.

        Once “coaltions” are the norm, then I think negotiations will be better. And FWIW I actually do agree with you that reconnecting with Labour Leave is very very important – after all my seat was lost by just 700 votes and was the strongest brick in the Labour red wall in Nottingham area. I GET leave. I see and feel the anger of people round here. They WANT to believe in a strong, unified Labour Party. They just don’t see one (at present). If I can help in even a tiny way I’d be glad to.

        Reply
      3. PlutoniumKun

        There is I think a strong contradiction in most forms of democratic socialism in that there is a strong belief in bottom up solutions, listening to what ordinary people say, etc. However, the political history of parties that genuinely believe this is terrible, especially in the ‘developed’ world. People just don’t believe in parties that promise this.

        Politically, people want decisive leaders with a simple clear message, even if that message itself is mumbo jumbo (Hope! Change!). I don’t mean this as a cynical statement, its a simple observation of election patterns in numerous countries. People want to believe that the people in charge at least know what they are doing, even if they don’t fully agree with what they are doing.

        The left has, in my opinion, never been able to reconcile these conflicting objectives. When progressives have been elected, its almost always been thanks to a particularly charismatic leader or certain special circumstances.

        The reason why I’m a fan of the GND is because it is at least the germ of a simple, straightforward message that can cover a lot of the Progressive wishlist, but at least has some potential of resonating with a majority of people. Its often been criticised for being wishy washy or wrongheaded, but this is to miss the point. Its a clear message, which delivered the right way, can succeed when any number of well meaning convoluted Elizabeth Warren (or Corbyn) type policies will fail electorally.

        Reply
        1. Clive

          GND would be one of my top three things anyone in UK Labour — and the progressive left in general — can, almost unfailingly, unite around. It isn’t as you say perfect. There’s a lot of Devil in the details. But it ticks so many boxes.

          Reply
          1. avoidhotdogs

            I’d have felt pretty great if the GND had been mentioned – it was a mix of xmas fun (due to election purdah) and serious post-mortem. But when discussing “what went wrong” there was a lot of “people just didn’t understand BREXIT and it wasn’t our fault” stuff. I, plus a clued up millennial, pointed out that real wages have stagnated for decades and the posh areas are now a dump. I got a chance to tell them that the high leave rates were the wards with the worst Index of Multiple Deprivation.

            I didn’t get the feeling most really realised “it was all about the economy stupid” – except one 70+ medical statistician (thankfully sitting next to me and obviously longtime member) who came to my aid. Some members of the “70s club” as described in that article Yves linked to shortly after the election, nodded vigorously. Trouble is I was the ONLY member of Generation X to attend. It was 75% retirees and 25% millennials (who I’m not sure actually voted – they went very quiet during discussions of the experiences of voting on a December day).

            I will say it was a lot LESS intimidating than I expected. I got to talk to various senior members of the local party, explain to them the stats (some of which I cribbed from here!) together with some I knew from my own analysis. On balance I liked it. My worry? It’s all 70s people plus millennials. Where the eff are Generation X? My people.

            Reply
      4. JTMcPhee

        Boris Johnson is a boss. That works for a lot of people, always has.

        We USians have had bosses too. Our Johnson, Lyndon Baines version, knew how to move people and get things done. As a Democrat, but as a power player who knew how to make things happen, even though his own “compromises” were not the greatest: give the Imperialists the Vietnam war in exchange for bits of the “Great Society”— a kind of malformed concept that set the stage for Reagan, another boss of a more seemingly avuncular but far more toxic stripe.

        All this groping for the Golden Mean, by people who by and large are self-interested and happy to be the half of the working class that will accept paydays to kill the other half. What political economic factors and forces allow even identifying agreed parts of that Golden Mean, much less driving people to coalesce around possible means and methods to achieve even some of what might be identified as its elements?

        Seems to me we all live in an age of asymptotically-increasing complexity with a few niches for the greedy few latch onto to “succeed,” facing the result of behaviors that benefit a few humans, titillating their pleasure centers to the max at the expense of everything else. One of our USian Deplorables, Rodney King, offered a Big Question to the rest of us, one which apparently has no good answer: “Can we.. can we all just get along?” http://www.positivepersistence.com/why-cant-we-all-just-get-along-rodney-king/ Martin Luther King had some answers, including to the question of how to herd the individualized cats in the direction of group responsibility and betterment. https://original.antiwar.com/david-bromwich/2008/05/16/martin-luther-kings-speech-against-the-vietnam-war/ And look what happened to him.

        Reply
      5. avoidhotdogs

        Just as a PS. I think our “list of priorities” may be remarkably similar. My only “bugbear” is that I don’t believe we can start on it until FPTP is gone. Thus I put electoral reform top (and doubly so if we lose Scotland and NI). Like I mentioned, I will never get “worked up” over the alternative form. I just want an end to Minority-Majority governments. Of course I have my “preferred form” of voting: I advocate it because it seems to “tick boxes” important to Brits (minimal change from current system) but results that “look more proportional”. But ultimately I know it (like all the others) can have its flaws or be gamed.

        I just want electoral reform so the Tories can’t stymie the kind of reforms you, I and others want. I think electoral reform is a necessary first step. If we get that, then debate over ordering of the other stuff is less lethal to us.

        Reply
      6. norm de plume

        I am increasingly convinced that parties are the problem, or at least that the existence of entrenched parties permits Bad Things to occur and fails to minimise already existing Bad Things. This is due to the competing priority policy gridlock the two of you describe, where good people pursuing eminently sensible agendas get in each others’ way and prevent the achievement of desired outcomes so that an unsatisfactory stasis of compromise obtains, to the satisfaction of no-one. Except the 1%.

        And while many of our pet projects are complementary, we should understand that the era of big tent parties, when polar opposite constituencies – like well-off urban remainer professionals and the struggling northern working class (including both workers and unemployed) – could be housed together thanks to the times being just prosperous and optimistic enough for such shotgun marriages to ‘work’, is probably ending. Under the pressures listed in Yves’ piece and in the comments, these differing threads are fraying, with Brexit both cause and effect.

        ‘Labour is the political poster-child of this phenomena. We are simply unable to organise and resolve the inevitable compromises we need to agree on.’

        But do they really need to be agreed upon? Only shared party membership demands this. The fact that the Tories are the only other home with a hope of gaining government for those with these competing imperatives causes the troubled marriage of partners who would not normally wed or even go a-courtin’. The answer may be for the good people from these differing imperatives to stand independently on platforms of THEIR choosing and then coalesce as necessary and possible once elected to the House.

        ‘a coherent voter proposition demonstrating intellectual, message and ideological consistency across all aspects’

        I think this is simply impossible across the sort of coalition necessary for victory and then, especially, effectiveness in power. The independents need to be elected in sufficient numbers, on their various platforms, to be able to form a coalition. Horse dealing will have occurred beforehand of course so that a ministry could be formed in good time.

        I haven’t gone very far with this line of thought and each time I consider it I come up against the need for a government to form after an election – exactly how a ‘bloc’ or looser coalition than a party can be asked to form a government. Perhaps you can shed some light on whether such a thing can currently happen, and if not what would need to change to permit it. Not much point atomising if this just hands govt to the right eternally.

        Of course decisions on issues between these worthies would be as great if not greater than Labour, but there would have to be an agreed mechanism for a vote on each. That’s democracy.

        So not an immediate silver bullet, but just as climate change action should have begun to occur years ago to prevent what is happening now, so the move from legacy parties must start sometime soon for a sufficiently flexible and independent polity to emerge in time to deal with what appears to be coming down the track.

        Ignacio mentions henhouses, but parties ARE henhouses, by their very nature. You must have hierarchy or you have chaos, and foxes love hierarchy. They can nobble the top of the tree and all the lower branches must fall into line, or else. A parliament full of strong minded independent people, elected by their constituency on their platform, will deal with other strong independent people to form approaches a bit more optimal than we have been used to in recent years. In time you would hope they would elect a better class of leader than we have had lately.

        Re the Tories, yes they show discipline our side lacks but greed is a great uniter, and it can never be forgotten that they start elections at at 20-0 their way nowadays given the media – not just open support, but also omissions and obscurings of rightist wrongs and the invention of lies about the left.

        Parties are not important. People and issues are. Right now, crucial debates about really important issues may not even reach the House to be debated with the depth and breadth required, because they don’t make it past the parties, except as the sort of unsatisfactory and ineffectual compromise mentioned above.

        The very word ‘bipartisan’ gets on my goat now – who ever decreed that just two impoverished points of view were good enough to deal with what we face?

        Reply
  18. southern appalachian

    At some point you’ll find the CSA’s and farmers markets. Can take a while. Was researching food systems a ways back, seem to remember some creative system building down there.

    And then yours is an excellent summation of current environment, thank you.

    Reply
  19. QuarterBack

    “I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex.”

    I think this may be more profound than you give yourself credit. For most of my life, I have been fascinated by the affects of scale and complexity, with particular interest in how systems (technology and human) fail as scale and complexity increase.

    Centralized systems can be highly effective at small scales, but as numerical scale ramps up, the bandwidth demands for communication of data for decisions increases at a much faster rate. Similarly, as geographic scale increases, communication of decision data becomes increasingly vulnerable to latency (i.e. decisions made with stale data).

    Now this problem is challenging enough with sterile homogeneous data used in automated machines, but the decision (or governance) challenge grows exponentially in complexity as uniformity decreases (e.g. humans and their varying cultures).

    The crash that eventually occurs is at the intersection of exponential demand for relevant data for exponentially complex decisions meeting a governance mechanism that follows a logistics growth curve.

    It seems society may intuitively try to mitigate this challenge by enforcing uniformity as a strategy of reducing complexity of decision making (as with China), as well as craving efficiency of communication of data through technology and common languages and currencies.

    I think that the world order may be currently experiencing a heightened point of friction as the dynamics of empire demand ever increasing scale of geography, which brings with it exponentially diverse (so much for being homogenous) cultures, and geographic realities. Therefore, naturally demand uniformity, thus the destruction of diversity of cultures.

    The social network emergence may have given spark to the tinderbox of events. On one side, social media promises to connect the world unleashing more diversity, complexity, and nuance, but on the other side, empire wants (and arguably needs for its own survival) to destroy diversity. I think this is the conflict we are living in now.

    What I predict will happen, based on my theory, is a separation into smaller empires in terms of physical geography and geographic centers of cultural norms. On the world stage, empires bounded by continental scale, and in the U.S. a return to more States’ rights and less Federal control.

    Reply
    1. Er0c

      Bravo, complexities suffer by the weight/momentum of numbers. A high percentage of states today exceed the population of 1776 America. I can’t fathom the world population. Self sufficiency and self government optimize at around 300,000 souls, leaving a libertarian sized role for interdependence complexities.

      Reply
  20. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for this thoughtful essay, Yves.

    One striking (and depressing) feature of the past decade for me has been that it appears that our current problems are universal, and not down to any one individual, system, or even collection of systems. All modern societies are collaborating in the destruction of the ecosphere – the neoliberal ones (obviously), but they are not overtly worse at it than rational authoritarian societies (China, arguably Russia), consensus based societies (Japan, Sweden) or pretty much any other model you can observe. Progressive governments in South America, either current or in the recent past, have either not made headway, or have been forced into repressive or counterproductive policies, at least with regard to environmental issues. Some of that blame of course can be put on US (or others) interference, but so often it is as much domestic in origin (Brazil and Uruguay, to pick two, seem to have pretty much independently reversed highly progressive and greener policies).

    I believe that a key issue is that progressive policies only seem to have real traction when people are optimistic about the future. South America turned more progressive thanks to the surge in commodity prices when China was buying up everything, and reversed when the prices reversed. Europe was far more progressive during its post war surge in prosperity. China looked to be giving hope, up until its economic model started running out of steam and it went back to internally repressive policies and building coal power stations.

    There is little doubt in my mind but that it is the sense of fear among people – that they and their children will see a worse standard of living that is the key. It seems almost a law of human nature that in these times people become reactionary and more selfish, at least in political terms if not in terms of personal relationships.

    This is why I think a central part of any future progressive agenda has to be based on optimism, even if this is not justified by the facts. AOC and Bernie are exactly right in focusing on the GND and similar proposals that make people feel better about the future. Its the only counter that I can see to the manner in which the right has been so universally successful in preying on peoples insecurities to grab power – this seems the common feature from Trump to Bolsonaro, and Bojo to Abe.

    Another feature is that the right have been hugely successful in maintaining coalitions ranging from oligarchs and 10%ers to the working class. The left must compete, and this means if necessary abandoning holy cows in order to appeal to a broad coalition, from the poor to the (relatively) prosperous. Again, to look to Sanders, he is right to focus not on policies that help the poor, but on policies that help everyone who isn’t in the 1%. This has to be the key to long term sustainable coalitions (and all successful democratic political movements are coalitions of one type or another) which can enact progressive policies, and, more importantly, keep those policies in place over the decades needed for them to make a difference.

    This is a primary reason I think that everyone in the planet should be on their knees to pray to whatever God they have that Sanders can make a breakthrough this year. The US, for all its issues and problems, is the only country that really can lead (or at the very least, not impede others from leading). I believe that a President Sanders would really shift the logjam worldwide and show people real change is possible. I don’t really see any other chink of light for the next decade.

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      And indeed I believe that building HC4A, for instance, should bring optimism for everybody except for those profiting now from HCCh (Ch = chaos). Also, a GND provides with a very strong sense of agency since it appeals to more human motivations than the simple selfish gain.

      Reply
    2. Pelham

      I agree that Sanders may be our last hope. Would this not then be a bit like the 1930s, when parts of Europe were turning to or living under fascism in reaction to chaotic times while the US wisely turned to FDR?

      One difference, however, is that the right-wing parties in Hungary and Poland appear to be achieving some measurable and popular successes (especially with Hungary’s generous pro-family policies) minus an all-encompassing antisemitism and territorial ambitions. And another difference, should Sanders attain the presidency, would be an unresponsive and perhaps openly hostile Congress that only since the 1970s has been thoroughly corrupted by lobbyists and corporate America — a situation that didn’t exist in the 1930s.

      Reply
      1. Isotope_C14

        It’s already over.

        The Billionaires will not have Bernie taking their precious bunker money. The permanent government won’t have Bernie replacing them. At best, it would be gridlock, at worst, well, I don’t think a replication of the JFK event wouldn’t be out of the question. “He already had one heart attack, so this second one shouldn’t be a surprise.” with chanting, repetitive MSM media.

        Australia is burning to the ground. The northern hemisphere is next, not just CA. If it’s not fires, it’s going to be replicated floods from last summer all over the mid-west.

        Expect a rapid decline in the population. We’ve earned it.

        500 million dead animals in a month due to our avarice. Our species sickens me.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          What few Australian Aborigines still exist did not kill those animals. Nor have the American Indians. Nor have the Congo Rain Forest Pigmies. And they are members of our human species. ( Would someone like to step up and say that they really are not?)

          So do you really mean our “species”? Or do you mean our modern civilization and its members specifically?

          Reply
  21. Synoia

    I used to wonder why and how civilizations could fall. I never thought I would witness it.

    It appears driven by Greed,

    Reply
    1. The Historian

      From all the history that I’ve studied, your comment appears to be true, from the Minoans, to the Myceneans, to Greece, to Rome, to Egypt, to the Chinese dynasties, to France, to Russia, to you name it. Fewer and fewer people control power and they become greedier and greedier until they destroy their countries.

      Reply
      1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

        Agreed on greed & it’s lesser variant materialism of which things become a mark of status, particularly for the power elites whose Midas touch is turning everything to shit for everybody else. I was as guilty as anyone else with my dream house & supposedly everything sussed, then due to bad timing & 2008 which led to me losing contracts I lost the whole damned lot. It hurt for quite sometime until I realised what really mattered in a material sense which turns out to be not very much in comparison to what I had. My partner took it very hard as her dream was to turn a half an acre into an animal refuge.

        I have 2 close friends who are becoming ever more desperate as they are overloaded with debt, their businesses have been gradually going downbank & they have young kids. One is married to a woman with 11 sisters who from what I have heard & seen are in a type of ” Beat the Joneses ” competition among themselves. An English comedian once quipped ” 2 cars in the drive & bugger all in the fridge ” which now I believe applies to him & I imagine that many others are walking that very same tightrope which now has a pretty flimsy safety net underneath it. The other fella only keeps going as his wife has a good position working for the NHS on a 5 year contract, which runs out later this year.

        We appear to be in a state of hangover with the bar tab yet to be paid for a party that for the majority was the best time to be alive in history & I am guessing that cutting back is inevitable for many, but as the parasitical class continues it’s extraction I think that something eventually has got to give.

        Reply
      2. ambrit

        Well, I suggest that the case presented works in a slightly different way. The increasing centralization of power and limiting of ‘vision’ accomplished by the steady progress of elites towards dominance sets the society up for failure. Several of the “Empires” you mention seem to have collapsed catastrophically, not gradually. The Minoans are believed to have collapsed after the eruption of Thera devastated the Eastern Mediterranean region.
        See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/minoan_01.shtmlThe
        Egyptian ‘Kingdoms’ generally seem to have succumbed to droughts, economic dislocations, and invasions, often linked events. Egypt is complex, just from being such a long lived culture.
        Read: https://www.ancient-egypt-online.com/fall-of-ancient-egypt.html
        The French Revolution is now theorized to have been set off by the aristocracy’s bungling of the food crisis produced by the Icelandic volcano eruptions of 1783.
        Laki eruptions: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/15/iceland-volcano-weather-french-revolution
        Tsarist Russia can be argued to have collapsed from the strains of a disastrously run World War.
        Read: https://www.history.com/topics/russia/russian-revolution
        I posit that the common element in these historical situations is an enervated ruling elite that is unable to meet the challenges of some catastrophe. When the ruling elites lose the virtue of Noblesse Oblige, the end is sure to come.

        Reply
        1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

          Eric H. Cline’s ” 1177 BC – The Year That Civilisation Collapsed ” details a scenario that would fit right in with your list . Global cooling rather than warming with other factors in their example in comparison to us of a miniature globalised world.

          Reply
        2. The Historian

          Wasn’t it Alexander deToqueville that said the most dangerous time for a badly run government is when those in power try to make some reforms to calm their angry citizens? Certainly we know that is what happened in France and Russia. I would note that every government’s failure that I mentioned happened very soon after their elite had experienced their “golden ages” of concentrated power and wealth. Other things, like drought, invasion, etc., may have contributed, but they weren’t the cause for government failures. The cause seems to be the concentration of power and consolidation of wealth into the hands of a few.

          Reply
          1. The Historian

            To make it perfectly clear: Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few = badly run governments.

            Reply
            1. ambrit

              Very convincing argument.
              I won’t sit around pining for another Younger Dryas event. Someone or other mentioned “Parallel Institutions” a while back. Being ready for opportunity looks to be crucial in transfers of power.

              Reply
    2. polecat

      Well, in the end … we’re all, in a fashion, Dead …. Neds !! ( sorry, couldn’t resist ..) as it is often the other, more powerful, to whom our fates so often lie. Tis a hard choice to not give in to the coerciveness of others .. be it the Royals .. Or the Mob !
      Who here on this blog .. or indeed on many others, for that matter, doesn’t sometimes feel one’self as a kind of witch, trying to foresee events or bad outcomes, attempting to buck awful trends .. whilst not feeling the trepidation at being pointed to as an agitator, rocking the boat of an ill-mannered and patronizing conformity ??

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Ha polecat!
        I seriously think that most of the commenters here are already on the FEMA Re-education Camp List.

        Reply
  22. russell1200

    Peter Turchin’s Elite Overproduction theory (or is it an hypothesis?), I think it does a reasonable job of describing the mechanics of our current problems. It’s big advantage over other alarmist theories (such as Tainter) in that it not only states why there is a problem, but how it plays out.

    External to his theory, reduced marginal productivity in resource extraction, and pollution (aka warming) concerns speak toward the Club of Rome. Within the United States the fallout from the return-to-the-mean after the post WW2 economic boom is still playing out as the boomers retire.

    Reply
    1. jsn

      Elite overproduction could be more usefully framed as opportunity over-concentration.

      Elite overproduction says there can be too many well educated people while opportunity over-concentration puts the focus on rolling out opportunity for everyone.

      It’s like calling kids lazy when schooling has carefully and forcefully taught them there’s no real point to making an effort.

      Reply
  23. Wyoming

    There seems to be an implicit assumption among many of the posts here that ‘risk’ takers are better citizens and taking risks is a social good to be desired. Is that really the case?

    I would say the answer is that in the majority of cases the answer is most likely no. Almost all risk takers are solely motivated towards the goal of increasing their net worth. The idea of taking some personal risk for the good of others is held in contempt by almost all of them. A large number of the successful risk takers are perpetrators of that ‘creative destruction’ our betters from the economic field so love. This destruction enriches them at the cost of damage to large numbers of others lives. Many of these successful risks end up in a net loss to society not a gain – think rural/small town America and the destruction wrought by WallMart. The growing success of the risk taking driving automation is going to really help society (s).

    Many of the worst ills of modern society are largely the result of having ruthless risk takers driving the bus.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      I think you speak too gently. How much risk did Bezos and Musk and Dimon and the rest take? Jay Gould? Rockefeller? Risk? Nah — they just seen therir opportunities, and they took ‘em.

      Reply
  24. Steve Ruis

    I think there is the more obvious reason … namely, in the ongoing capital-labor cycle, capital currently lords it over labor. For more than a generation, capital has had the upper hand and when that happens, things stagnate, especially progressive things. So as the rich get richer, the poor and middle class get poorer (at a minimum by comparison, for example when Jeff Bezos axes his pt workers health benefits for an amount of money he makes in just two hours). And government seems to serve only the wealthy (the Obamacare fight was a lesson in that).

    So, what is there is be cheery about? The future looks dull and much the same as the recent past. There is no feeling of “we are all in this together,” rather we are pervaded by an “us v. them” world and in that conflict, we are losing, losing, losing.

    Reply
    1. vlade

      So, you think that if capital was restrained, but the consumption by the labour wasn’t, we’d be all be living better? Sorry. I got bad news for you. Societies w/o capital can collapse too due to resource overuse. It’s a perfectly normal ecosystem feature – a niche is filled, overpopulated, overused, and collapses.

      Reply
      1. jrs

        Those on the bottom can be just as bad human beings as those on the top. But a balance of power is still better than all power in the hands of a few (what we have pretty much). And there are structural reasons that those on the top can become even more corrupted by being there.

        Still there are rotten human beings on the bottom as well, so it’s only so useful as a hope for salvation.

        Reply
        1. vlade

          Oh, I don’t disagree about having a balance of power. But balance of power is not “capital is evil and behind all the evils of the day”.

          Capital has no agency. People have agency (and agendas).

          I’d disagree that those at the top are more corruptible than at the bottom per se. They do have (way) more chances to be corrupted though, which definitely does mean more corruption in the end.

          Reply
    2. norm de plume

      The labour part of the cycle has only existed since about 1900. Yes there were periods in the past (eg after the Black Death) where labour made gains because of the widespread depopulation, but otherwise it has been almost unbroken capital/wealth/power dominance.

      Losing is right.

      Reply
  25. John

    United we stand, divided we fall.
    Hyper individualism is on the falling side of that equation. And of course, Mr. Ego just loves all that individualism at a personal level. Any oligarch with half a brain is going to promote anything encouraging that hyperindividualism.
    Nothing to look at here, just happy individuals shopping in the marketplace. Anything else is just Stalin’s communism.

    Reply
  26. Wukchumni

    The thing that is most worrying in regards to our future, is for the first time ever really, most every country is in lockstep with one another, certainly from a money perspective, it resembles the pre-WW1 interlocking alliances, albeit on financial steroids.

    In the past, a country could go through harsh travails and it would have scant effect on others, but that was then and this is now. Information used to flow like molasses (I would pop into the US Consulate in Auckland in the early 80’s, for I knew that they had 3 day old Yankee newspapers fresh off a 747, NZ papers had essentially bupkis in terms of international news) and as a result, events had much more time to play out, whereas we react instantly if there’s a cat in Oslo that bears much resemblance to Hitler, news is in our face and then some, inescapable essentially unless one is in the wilderness, as far as i’m concerned.

    Chain reactions can go nuclear almost instantly, as far as information flow is concerned.

    Reply
  27. The Rev Kev

    When historians come to write about our present era, I do believe that they will call this the Age of Cognitive Dissonance. It is the tensions of believing one set of beliefs when direct evidence gives lie to our beliefs that accounts for so much craziness right now. Several examples. We are taught that things get better with each generation but instead we see our lives going back to the 19th century. We are told that technology will solve our problems but what we see is technology being used to make our working lives harsher and our personal lives put under minute surveillance.

    We can see catastrophic climate change in action, right here and right now, and yet our leaders are incapable of making the changes required in order that a tiny sliver of the world’s population can continue to accumulate billions that they personally have no hope of being ever being able to spend. We see our billionaires class themselves who could easily fund schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, roads and other desperately needed projects as was done in earlier eras instead refuse to have anything to do with the bulk majority of the population but are content to fund vanity projects, Mars shots and toy cars for other rich people.

    Perhaps Caitlin Johnstone had a point about the education of our young. When I was younger I sat down and thought hard what the average person should be taught in school and noted that what I put together bore little resemblance to my own. Anyway, as the author John Wyndham once wrote, it is the habit of each society to form the minds of its young in a mold and to introduce a binding agent of prejudice. I believe this to be true but when a pattern of living becomes broken, it becomes difficult to adapt to a new one much less that having to construct one because of this prejudice.

    So many of our problems we have been content to kick down the road because of our flawed beliefs but we have now realized that we are at the end of an cul de sac. All these problems we were hoping to leave gracefully to the next generation? We now find we will have to deal with ourselves. For decades we have been having a great time on a great big roller coaster of a civilization but now it has stopped and it is time to pay up. I hope that we enjoyed the ride.

    Reply
    1. Summer

      “We are taught that things get better with each generation but instead we see our lives going back to the 19th century.”

      It’s been the equivalent of passing the torch to successively more shell-shocked generations. And we’re coming upon a generation, especially in the USA, that will be literally shell-shocked.

      Johnstone ended with this: “Can all humans become deeply sane and untainted by their ancient heritage of madness? It would take a miracle. A whole lot of miracles. Billions, to be precise.”

      I’d counter that with it didn’t take ALL humans to lead us down each f’ed up path. It’s amazing that we always adopt the position that big change will take ALL or 99% when it didn’t take that many to lead down the path currently being traveled.

      Reply
      1. Summer

        “And we’re coming upon a generation, especially in the USA, that will be literally shell-shocked.”

        I should modify that and remove the “especially in the USA” and say “including the USA” out of acknowledgement of all the children bombed in various US overseas interventions/wars/occupations.

        Reply
    2. norm de plume

      ‘When I was younger I sat down and thought hard what the average person should be taught in school and noted that what I put together bore little resemblance to my own’

      I did something similar years ago with others in a blog discussion. It included basic food gardening, cooking, animal husbandry, carpentry, driving, sailing, motor repair, coding, etc. One of the contributors noted that Dmitry Orlov emphasised how much less prepped the US would be if it faced what Russia did post Yeltsin, because the relatively impoverished Russkies had not lost those skills. Plus they all owned their houses and had no debt…

      Reply
  28. Mikerw0

    I think what is essentially depressing all of us, or at least me, is that the world has seen this movie too many times before. The sad reality is that most people are just trying to get by. I suspect that followers of NC are in a slightly different cohort. We are trying to find workable solutions to big issues, or at least we think we are. The challenge is that those that currently hold all the power are not inclined to permit the modest changes required, even though those would be in their long term interests. Why would you if you could have it all and then some?

    I recall a link a few years ago (to an article I downloaded and can’t seem to find) that laid out the conditions for “revolution”. Though revolution in this case is defined as changing the basis for how we organize society; e.g., feudalism to national monarchies, or monarchies to representative democracy. The point the article made was that when a short list variable conditions had been satisfied a revolution always occurred. What is unknown a priori is whether the change would be violent or peaceful, what the catalyst would be and if the new principles of organization would come from the left or right?

    As I recall my history of FDR, and not the sanitized version, in his first Sunday in the White House he faced the prospect of fighting back socialism in the US; something like 1/3 of the population supported it in response to the crisis of the depression. His responses fundamentally changed the way the US was organized, changed the rules of the economy in seemingly radical ways at the time, increased general suffrage and arguably set the stage for the civil rights movement to follow. While peaceful domestically, it was anything but through much of the rest of the world and we installed what we thought to be durable “liberal democracies” throughout.

    Today looks eerily like the 1920s with the addition of potential global climate crisis. Yet, our exiting institutions from both sides offer platitudes, but no real solutions that will result in any meaningful change as the elites won’t accept them.

    The great fear then is that nothing short of economic collapse (don’t say it can’t happen here), climate catastrophes or war(s) will bring the needed changes. Hence, a feeling of overwhelming dread.

    One other note. We insulate our elites to this point from the cost of climate change. We rebuild their homes after each hurricane or brush fire, or at least subsidize reconstruction. We allow, nee underwrite and subsidize, construction in flood plains and windstorm exposed coastlines. Why should our elites incur any inconvenience to their lifestyles while we continue to do so?

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      The Great Depression: A Diary

      I found this critical thinker’s diary to really allow me to see what the country was up against in the years leading to FDR taking office. Benjamin Roth was an attorney who lived in Youngstown Ohio and took in all the events transpiring with a keen understanding.

      The issue then was a profound lack of faith in banks in particular, they were closing all over the place in 1931-32, with no FDIC coverage as we enjoy now, you were quite simply screwed if you had money in them and they went out of biz, adios bucko!

      And money which is given out presently as if it was presents, was incredibly scarce, Roth relates that he could buy a bushel of apples for 25 Cents, that’s 125 of them for those of you scoring @ home.

      Reply
  29. jefemt

    Great Essay, great comments. Social Atomization. Where is the collective, ‘We, the people’?
    Rugged Individualism. Admiration of ‘false idols’ in Wall Street, DC, Hollywood. Because Markets.
    Panacea Expert leadership. Nation-States versus a shared spaceship earth. Myriad of problems, to be sure.

    Seems we need charismatic, clear thinking leadership all over the world– that can point to the positive possibilities, the unrealized potential, with a plan to take us there, fully asking for help, cooperation from and believing in the team, not just the smartest guys in the room, her faith and God, or his own pocketbook, balance sheet, and family.

    Respect, social justice, recognition of the closed loop ecosystem that is the earth, that we are a part of, not apart of. Sharing and love.

    We are conditioned that leadership / governments/ enterprises will do it. Abdication- license and consent- needs to be questioned. We each need to act mindfully, give some love, and demand that the few who aspire to leadership are in it for the right reasons. Doing well by doing good. I’m not seeing that in most leaders- admittedly – I wear poop-tinted spectacles..

    New Year, new decade, perhaps the biggest one in the history of Homo sapiens…

    Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.
    Goethe– excerpted from:

    “Until one is committed, there is a hesitancy, the chance to draw back; always ineffectiveness.
    Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
    All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred.
    A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man would have dreamed would come his way.” Scottish mountaineer WH Murray.

    Intention, metaphysics, a right mind, do no harm. Time to dump the poop-tinted spectacles and Get a Move On!

    Reply
  30. Bugs Bunny

    The disappearance of birds has been depressing to me. I love watching birds flying, eating, nest building, walking around, singing.

    Reply
  31. The Historian

    Yves, you’ve written a very deep essay and I don’t think off the top of the head comments will do it justice. I definitely have to think hard and long about this one. You are basically asking what is the real essence of being human – is it what we feel we are instinctively or is it what we are told we should be? Perhaps that cognitive dissonance is the reason for our ennui.

    Reply
    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      As cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character “Pogo” said in Kelly’s famous 1971 Earth Day poster, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

      Reply
    2. Mel

      “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ja, in meiner Brust” (is that the accurate quote?) Maybe my New Year’s resolution will have to be to read something serious for a change. Only in English translation.

      Reply
  32. Norb

    The re-emergence of a multipolar world might force some internal change in America. Maybe as a Nation we can rediscover our true, lost heritage. I would suggest that America’s heritage and gift to the world is of the possibility to free oneself from the shackles of oppression, and create a new sovereign Nation.

    All this talk about Nation building abroad is a way to mask the need to build our Nation here at home- in our own land. Foreign wars are a way to mask our unfreedom and subjugation here at home. A Nation living in peace is primarily concerned about its own culture and prosperity.

    Our current forever wars are actually counter revolutionary- a betrayal of what our Nation could be. We need to seriously reevaluate our place in the world and what we as a people want to accomplish.

    Fear of China and Russia needs to be seen as unAmerican. It is very late in the game, but regaining some American thinking that centers around pre-WWI political economy might be in order.

    American was sane at one point in our development. The more I try to educate myself on these matters, the more I come to the conclusion that the British way of doing geopolitics will be the death of us all.

    Trump is the wrong messenger, but America does have its great moments. Collectively we need to focus on the positive aspects and chuck all the rest. The sooner the better.

    Positive Nationalism. The world needs more Win-Win.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      WHAT “true, lost heritage?” The US has been a murderous empire from the git-go. Ask an indigenous pre-Columbian, an African slave, any “beneficiary” of the Monroe Doctrine and the Carter Doctrine and “We’re an empire, now, and we create our own reality.” There are some seemingly nice words in the Founding Documents, including “three fifths of slaves.” There’s been several Gilded Ages and looting on a continental and now planetary scale.

      Who’s going to look to the US for anything other than Hellfires and depleted uranium and overthrows of actual elected governments?

      The models may be there, there may have been Americans who embodied some of what might be helpful to address the horrors that confront the biosphere thanks to “Made in the
      USA” credos. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a few others. Not much material, if one looks at it barefaced and honestly, to ground a great upwelling of comity and decency and the kind of self-denial that seems to be the sine qua non.

      Reply
  33. Summer

    Consider a thing like this:
    “Polio Eradication Program Faces Hard Choices as Endgame Strategy Falters” Science.

    Viruses…now there’s some “AI” and “machine learning” for ya (although not exactly artificial). It’s known that viruses evolve, so this day was bound to come.
    When science and theory gets exposed to life itself, people get uncomfortable about how there is so much that is not “settled.”

    Reply
  34. Summer

    “I am personally upset at being part of the problem. I now live in a freestanding house, which means energy inefficient. I use a car to get about. Public transportation here is pretty much non-existent, and please don’t advise walking or biking. Both are physically impossible.”

    And think of the not always subtle cheerleading and encourgement you received through cultural cues when you made those decisions, in spite of how you may now or have been upset by them.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      How dare you accuse me of liking this arrangement or worse, choosing it in response to social pressure.

      You apparently are not up on my recent history, with which regular readers of this blog are familiar. I lived in Manhattan from 1981, with a two year break in Sydney when just as I did in Manhattan, I lived in an apartment and managed to find just about the only ‘hood in Sydney where it was possible to function pretty well without a car.

      I have made clear I hate houses:

      https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2019/08/why-i-hate-houses.html

      Do not accuse me of choosing a house out of a desire for social approval.

      I similarly detest cars but have no choice living in a suburb.

      I am in this setup to take care of my 92 year old mother. This is not an arrangement I ever would have chosen.

      Reply
  35. vlade

    I broadly agree with your “hierarchy of obligations”, but would add a few things there:

    – humans IMO assume that life is a martingale – what was here today, will be here (more or less the same) tomorrow. Which means they can’t _really_ deal with rapid change.
    – that is because while the humans can, and do, fundamentally, imagine anything, they have very hard time assuming they can imagine it happening to _them personally_ (because most of the time it’s way outside their real experience, which is what they base their world on).
    – majority of humans (ex some freaks, and I do mean it, I do not believe it’s an innate human nature) can’t deal with complexity. Humans didn’t evolve to deal with massive complexity, and they work best when they can simplify stuff. But sometimes you can’t, and all attempts to simplify will backfire.

    Take it all together, and basically we’ve outgrown our evolutionary niche.

    A coda:
    Historically, humans were kept in check by various disasters – natural (plagues, famines etc.) and manmade (war) or both (plagues due to ubranization). That kept the population relatively stable-ish and manageable. That started to change in the early 19th century (and would have been faster except for Napoleonic wars and Mt. Tambora), and accelerated exponentially. There’s approximately 11 times more of us on the Earth now than arond 1800. In most ecosystems, exponential growth in population is a good indicator of the impeding collapse.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      While the people population of the world hasn’t reached St. Matthew Island numbers in terms of buildup of reindeer, our monetary system certainly has!

      In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to the island by the United States Coast Guard to provide an emergency food source. The Coast Guard abandoned the island a few years later, leaving the reindeer. Subsequently, the reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963 and then died off in the next two years to 42 animals. A scientific study attributed the population crash to the limited food supply in interaction with climatic factors (the winter of 1963–64 was exceptionally severe in the region). By the 1980s, the reindeer population had completely died out. Environmentalists see this as an issue of overpopulation. For example, ecologist Garrett Hardin cited the “natural experiment” of St. Matthew Island of the reindeer population explosion and collapse as a paradigmatic example of the consequences of overpopulation in his essay An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Matthew_Island

      Reply
    2. The Historian

      I tend to disagree with you.

      I think humans love change – it is only those in power who hate change because it challenges their power. Look at the technological changes that have occurred in just the last century: cars, radios, TVs, computers, satellites, etc. And look at the revolutions that have occurred in the modern age, like in France, and Italy, and Russia, and China, etc. These things didn’t become a part of our lives because people hated change.

      And yes, humans can deal with complexity – think of how complex the world must have seemed to those first humanoids coming down from the trees. And look at how fast children and young adults adapt and use the ever more complex tools that are being developed, like computers, iphones, social media, etc. Growing up in the boonies where nothing is supposed to change, I saw people purposely making their lives more complex and complicated by social interactions, if nothing more. And I remember the first family to get a TV – we were all staring in their windows and begging our families for one.

      I will agree that there is a strain of optimism in humans – that they will take risks without thinking there will ever be consequences.

      As for population, I’m not sure where that is going to go. I do know that since 1965 that the number of births worldwide has declined from over 5 births per woman to about 2.4 births per woman and that wasn’t due to famines or wars, but to changes in lifestyles where children weren’t considered so needed economically. Will that trend continue? I hope so.

      Reply
      1. Summer

        “changes in lifestyles where children weren’t considered so needed economically…”
        The powers that be often want more children…blank slates that haven’t lived through the “okey-doke” to worship the brands.

        Reply
        1. Anarcissie

          I recently read that the population growth of that #1 poster child for capitalism, the United States, has fallen to the lowest point in many years, maybe to the lowest point ever. This includes such immigration as has been allowed to take place. The native-born population has already been in decline for some time. On this question, the powers that be have not proven very effective.

          Reply
      2. vlade

        Saying that you want change and actually wanting it are two different things. People who really want change tend to be people who have the least to loose – young and/or desperate (cf the revolutions). People do revolutions because the status-quo became unbearable, not because they would want change for change’s sake.

        Plus, all changes you name were initiated by a very small part of the population, often initially very forcibly resisted by majority of the population. I’d point out that for most of the human history change and innovation was socially ostracised and often actively discouraged. It’s relatively recent (17th/18th century) when it started to gather steam and only really fairly recently (post WW2, but really even later) when innovation stopped being put as “mad and/genius scientists” vs actual teams that do science. Same goes for social change, cf feminism, voting franchise etc.

        Resistence to change by humans is there for a very good reason – too rapid change means that society cannot be stable (because the only stability is change), and at any time large parts of the society feel unmoored and alienated. Chaotic societies crash, often violently.

        Arguably, for the same reason you need some change, because otherwise the societies stagnate and then even small, unavoidable changes, destroy them. But the mix between change and conservativism cannot be on the side of change, because of the positive feedback there.

        From that perspective, you’d argue that the problem really IS the US – beause the change, entrepreneurship etc. is what was culturally really driving the US since its inception, and even more so post the Civil War, which you could view as change vs staying in place, with change winning. So you get the full change is good for its own stuff.

        Humans deal with complexity by mapping it onto simpler, already understood concepts. In technology (and elsewhere) it’s said that somehting is “intuitive” – which really means we can readily map it to our existing experience.

        Reply
  36. Wukchumni

    The really big conflagration around these parts was the Rough Fire in 2015 which scorched 151,000 acres and it was in the wilderness mostly, and only a few structures were lost, no biggie in the scheme of things, although it loomed large that summer and into the fall, a smoky mess.

    10 million acres and counting have been consumed in Aussie, and there’s an interesting test match coming, the test to see if we can do away with idiotic politically based denial, and the ¿Lucky Country? is a perfect proving ground with a hapless happy clapper leader whose heavily into his faith, and a place where Murdoch rules the roost. both must be rousted out and ridden out of town on a rail, if we’re going to get started on making a dent in the problem.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      Hah! Speaking of test matches in Oz. Our Prime Minister seems to have a lot of slack time on his hands. I like the bit where he talks about the fires and says ‘“Whether they’re started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be,’ as a form of denial-

      https://www.news.com.au/sport/cricket/scott-morrison-slammed-for-insensitive-comments-about-australian-bushfires/news-story/c000756d5f2253495e3fd9fdc2042ac6

      Due to a previously failed career, he has picked up the nickname ‘Scotty From Marketing’ which I find apt. He went out to the partly burned out town of Cobargo yesterday and was basically heckled out of town.

      Reply
      1. norm de plume

        He won’t be running a gauntlet like that again in a hurry. Though I enjoyed his discomfort, it was a poor decision by whoever made it. There was always going to be a risk of that sort of reaction and the doo-doo he’s in is deep enough. I guess it was thought he simply HAD to get out amongst it, given the animus he is copping worldwide (my wife just told me Bette Midler called him an effwit) but surely a photo op of him in a huddle with uniforned fireys, pointing to maps and stroking his chin, looking decisive and manly, would have been better than the sort of ‘stroll around and shake hands’ business we saw yesterday.

        Reply
  37. Rod

    Thanks to our host for this timely and thoughtful essay. Betting many of us are experiencing the same reflections and I wanted comment on two things.

    I am personally upset at being part of the problem…–there is a lot of transition going on and all with conscience seem to be in that mode now. And, like this essay constructed one word at a time from the concept vision, so is the lifestyle that’s coming. You already are in action, have been for awhile, and have brought many with you–and they, maybe others.

    and

    thanks PK–This is why I think a central part of any future progressive agenda has to be based on optimism, even if this is not justified by the facts.
    I think optimism kindles imagination, visualization, confidence, empathy, hope, etc.–even that smoke to blow through stark lulls.
    Despite that myth of the Rugged Individual: history accounts that many on the Prairie of our West must have felt powerless, alone, and feeble in their life. They countered their situation by unifying in their need and by forming Co-Operative Alliances. People working with people of common need in common effort. I believe it not a stretch to say a great Progressive Movement emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century from these fields of common labor.
    Sometimes we forget the solutions to problems we have encountered already( I read that in an essay here at NC a few days ago)
    and sometimes forgetting can be part of the plan

    http://foodforchange.coop/cooperative-organizations/

    https://www.alabamaco-ops.com/

    Reply
  38. proximity1

    I’m a firm believer in accepting facts (which, of course, always entail some degree of disputable interpretation) even when doing so does not enhance one’s self-esteem or make one more optimistic about the present or the future.

    On the other hand, my contrarian impulses, which are long-standing and deep-seated, lead me to question some of the bases you list for looking pessimistically at our circumstances and concluding that the picture is especially bleak. My default mode is pessimistic rather than optimistic. But numerous of the items you cite as portending ill for some or many of us are things which, as I see it, are also carriers of life-shortening prospects for things which I should be pleased to see lessened or eliminated.

    On to an alternative assessment of our plight.

    My first and most practical suggestion is that you dispense with comparing your present socio-economic conditions and their supposed impact on the natural environment with the supposed impact of the conditions in which you lived when in New York City. You live in Alabama now, not New York City and these cannot possibly be the same from an environmentalist’s point of view. But there is more than one way to judge environmental “pluses” and “minuses” and I think some of your assumptions are questionable.

    As an example, allow me to begin with what strikes me as the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit: “Student debt.” If, as I suppose, you deplore high and growing student-debt loads for their presenting a barrier to wider, more equitable access to university education, I would like to counter by suggesting that this is greatly over-rated. I do not share the commonly-accepted view that goes, “the more people going to college and university, the better, in general, for society and its future prosperity—to say nothing of the students themselves who attend up through graduation.” Much about our troubles today is, as I see it, indeed, because, while no longer strictly true, until relatively “recently” (very roughly, the 1980s), in the U.S. and much of Europe, there’d been some thirty to forty years of near-“universal” post-secondary education. That is, the vast majority of those born after 1930-33 could, if they desired, attend at least a state university in their home state. This meant that, from the 40s through the 70s (at the end of which I graduated) people in California, New York, Massachusetts—virtually the whole of New England in the U.S., really—Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, North and South Carolina could get what today would be considered an enviable university diploma for anyone who wasn’t already going to have an assured place an Ivy League private college or university. In other words, for many areas of study, these states had universities which compared well with the Ivy League colleges and universities. In certain respects—such as being in firmer touch with what could be called the “real world” of ordinary mortals, the state-university student had an advantage over his average Ivy League peer. Something roughly comparable was true in Britain through roughly the same period and in much of Western, though certainly not Eastern, Europe.

    These were the generations which bore the burdens of World War Two and Korea but they were also the generations which saw what was believed to be, with some justice, rapid progress in life-sciences, agriculture, transportation, near-orbit space-exploration, medicine, manufacturing, food safety, road-safety, air travel, the advent of the conservation and environmental movements, more equality for women and many so-called “races” of people of non-white skin-color, higher literacy, and, all the things which today have produced so much of our present sources of grief: the vast explosion of population and, with it, a mass-consumer-society.

    This treatment could be applied similarly to other dreaded prospects you name—including global warming and species-extinction.

    You write, “It would be better if concerns like these were wrong, but unless we have a decent definition of the problem, we aren’t likely to get anywhere. And we need to recognize that we, meaning our social organization and values, are a big and potentially insurmountable part of the problem.”

    While not necessarily “wrong,” I think that in more than a few instances the concerns you cite are over-estimated for their actual or potential social harms—human and non-human. Our social organization and our values are certainly an important factor in these concerns but the “good news” is that we really do not (and I believe we cannot) know what is or isn’t ”insurmountable.”

    On a personal note, my manner of living now presents me with a quite short life-expectancy. That is not because I already have some untreatable fatal illness. It’s because, as I reckon it, at this rate, living on the street affords me about another two to, perhaps three years of a none-too-pleasant life. Only the intervention of something quite unlikely and unexpected could change that prospect for the better, assuming, of course, that living longer is necessarily better.

    But, on that point, it’s precisely because I don’t subscribe to this view that I have chosen to occupy myself doing what most matters to me now: studies of, studies in, the life and work of the rightful author, as I see it, of “William Shakespeare” ‘s work. To do this for me means doing it unpaid and that, in turn, means, in effect, living on the street. There’s no academic welcome for the kind of study I do. It’s heretical. But, for just the reasons described in your citations of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, (viz. “You can define a free person precisely as someone whose fate is not centrally or directly dependent on his peer assessment .”). I count myself “lucky.” “Assessments”, whether figurative or literal, are the very last things I need or shall submit to. And I made this clear as recently as yesterday when I was told by a homeless-shelter’s administrative in-take worker that any second use of the center’s facilities would require my submitting to a formal in-takeassessment. I immediately explained that I should not be expected back a second time.

    Why detail these matters here? Because, with just a short time remaining for me, one of my major regrets springs from what I regard as the very pessimistic prospects for the longer-term survival of a wide and useful and interesting appreciation for “the works of ‘Shakespeare.’ ” Before much longer, I fear, if things go on as they have been, the study of and a valid (astute and aesthetically accurate), useful, knowledge and appreciation of this literature shall be about as common as that of Egyptian hieroglyphics is today.

    Still, this is not an absolutely certainty and I am aware that I might be wrong about it.

    “Life is a tale told by an idiot” *…

    And, if we “lose” “Shakespeare”, it shall be an even less interesting tale told by an idiot.

    _________________

    “Life is a tale told by an idiot”… is a phrase from a character’s speech in its author’s play. It’s author did not intend us to understand that he regarded his plays themselves as being “full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”

    Reply
  39. Wukchumni

    I notice a fair amount of ‘rugged individualism’ on here when it comes to being politically correct in terms of usage of plastic or being energy efficient or what have you, lots of virtual signalling in that regard, not that it isn’t a good thing to do, but it seems to seldom transcend solo individual’s efforts, more of a look at me and what i’m doing! guise.

    My pet peeve is visible trash on the road, can’t stand it. I make an effort to ensure our road is clean a few times a year, and yet i’m cognizant all i’m doing is cleaning up after slobs who couldn’t be bothered to put their trash in a proper place where it gets shunted to the local dump, so it isn’t as if the trash fairy makes it disappear, only from public view.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      virtue signalling . . . virtue signalling . . .

      ” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
      –Inigo Montoya

      Using less plastic or being more energy efficient is not virtue signalling. It is virtue thing-doing. And bragging about it is virtue horn-tooting. But it is not virtue signalling.

      So what is virtue signalling? Virtue signalling is where YOU sign a petition about how OTHER people should use less plastic or be more energy efficient. And brag about signing that petition. THAT . . . is what virtue signalling is.

      Reply
  40. Jesper

    Something I see is often situations like this: https://dilbert.com/strip/2019-10-07
    Solutions that fixes everything are rare and the people who chose to wait for solutions that fixes everything tend to wait a long time (if not forever)….
    The incrementalist approach has a bad reputation now. As far as I can tell the reputation comes from how the incrementalist approach is currently being done. The incrementalist approach is about prioritising and somehow the first (sometimes only) steps taken are the ones that benefit the rich and the powerful. Once those steps have been taken and the rich and the powerful have gotten their benefits then there is no drive to continue.

    My depressing insight from last year is something I heard during Christmas in Sweden. The Social Democrats in Sweden currently believe that the reason why they are losing votes to Sverige Demokraterna is that the Social Democrats are not advocating sufficiently for individualism, therefore their plan is shift their politics further away from solidarity and co-operation to focus more on individual liberties and individual rights…. Once upon a time I liked their politics, now I see them aiming to get 100% of the votes from the voters in their small bubble and their strategy is clear – politics for the bubble-dwellers. My prediction is that they’ll become irrelevant before they change course.

    The hope for this year is that instead of talking about left/right (which is a divide benefiting the few) we go back to talking about collective good as balanced with individual rights. It is unlikely to happen, still I want to hope :)

    Reply
  41. remmer

    Thanks, Yves. You wrote what I’ve been thinking for the last four or five years. I’m old enough to know how big a change this is. I’ve moved from youthful optimism through calm acceptance, resignation, and pessimism to end up not just with the loss of hope that anything will get better but with the fear that things will get even worse. History isn’t linear, so it’s possible that the country and the world will take a positive turn. But that’s what I know from reading history — it’s not how I feel. I think we’re on the brink of big political and economic changes that will be made worse by climate change. And I suspect that Trump will win again.

    Reply
  42. Algobot Artificial

    Could it be that the word fesithism,
    is a typo?
    Could it mean fetishism

    diet festivals? or diet fetishism?

    Feeding the word fesithism to a given search algo/ engine
    brings up these articles:

    https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/01/a-theory-or-two-of-these-grim-times.html

    and this one:

    https://ilovetheusarmy.com/index.php/2020/01/02/a-theory-or-two-of-these-grim-times/

    My guess is that it means something like:
    There is way too much value attached to certain diets.

    Reply
  43. Pym of Nantucket

    Is it neoliberal values or is it the growing reliance on disconnected methods of interacting with other humans? There is a heck of a lot of money put into structures of interaction with transactions instead of interaction.
    For millions of years humans interacted in small groups of about 100 relying on verbal communication and visual cues and signals of the face and body language. The rate at which we have rushed in to replace that with screens and keyboards is fascinating. How could we expect that to work out? Persuasion is a massive tool used to manipulate our actions, without much effort put into safeguarding our mental health. This is why the series Mad Men is so compelling: a psychotic but lovable hero Don Draper struggling with his addiction while he creates the very world which is toxic to him. A good analogue for our species.

    Reply
  44. Wukchumni

    A timely book tip:

    The Big Burn by Timothy Egan.

    The great fire of 1910 consumed 3 million acres in primarily Idaho & Montana, and was responsible for a sea change in how we went about things in future fires, in a way that brought on much misery now.

    We decided that Mother Nature wasn’t up to the task and we had to extinguish every eventuality, and our forests now are a clogged mess with no chance of a fire being a productive thing, it got stupid.

    Lets play with matches in accordance with Mother Nature instead, as the aboriginals did down under and here in North America.

    We missed a perfect opportunity to have staged hundreds if not thousands of prescribed burns here in California shortly before the powerful first storm of the year arrived and would’ve put them all out, we could have done so much, and we didn’t do diddily squat.

    Reply
  45. Susan the other

    I like Caitlin’s description of our genetic haplessness. I do agree with it. But in hindsight of course because since I was a kid there have been 3 more generations of humans, all learning and progressing and evolving. Not that people a century ago were stupid, they just didn’t have much to go on. It’s hard for us humans because we really live in a swamp of symbolism. And fantasy. So we almost have to resort to BS to create consensus. Our BS is absolutely institutional.

    Reply
      1. Susan the other

        Well, if the EU does clear out all the “deadwood” aka deeply indebted zombie banks and businesses, they will also decimate what jobs are still functional. They should just chill on the debt part, even if they are German, and start investing in Green. They should start a revenue sharing mechanism too. For now?

        Reply
  46. Craig H.

    Stocks are up and the yield curve looks bullish and unemployment (official number) is low and inflation (official number) is low. If you think this environment is bad you might want to brace yourself. I have friends who have an interest (that I do not share) in accumulating gold, ammo, and long-lived foodstuffs.

    According to the CIA torture program’s favorite psychologist, Martin Seligman, optimists are happier, have better personal relationships, make more money, and live healthier and longer lives. I happen to think he is scammer but I cannot prove him wrong.

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26123.Learned_Optimism

    You probably do not want to get me started about the debt. : (

    Reply
    1. Jokerstein

      Wanting to add a little optimism here, this is one of my favorite quotes about optimism and pessimism, from the unmistakable Wodehouse pen:

      “Yes,” said Gussie, “it is a beautiful world. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, there is optimism everywhere. And why not, boys and ladies and gentlemen? I’m happy, you’re happy, we’re all happy, even the meanest Irishman that walks along Broadway. Though, as I say, there were two of them–Pat and Mike, one drawing out, the other putting in. I should like you boys, taking the time from me, to give three cheers for this beautiful world. All together now.”

      Presently the dust settled down and the plaster stopped falling from the ceiling, and he went on.

      “People who say it isn’t a beautiful world don’t know what they are talking about. Driving here in the car today to award the kind prizes, I was reluctantly compelled to tick off my host on this very point. Old Tom Travers. You will see him sitting there in the second row next to the large lady in beige.”

      He pointed helpfully, and the hundred or so Market Snodsburyians who craned their necks in the direction indicated were able to observe Uncle Tom blushing prettily.

      “I ticked him off properly, the poor fish. He expressed the opinion that the world was in a deplorable state. I said, ‘Don’t talk rot, old Tom Travers.’ ‘I am not accustomed to talk rot,’ he said. ‘Then, for a beginner,’ I said, ‘you do it dashed well.’ And I think you will admit, boys and ladies and gentlemen, that that was telling him.”

      The audience seemed to agree with him. The point went big. The voice that had said, “Hear, hear” said “Hear, hear” again, and my corn chandler hammered the floor vigorously with a large-size walking stick.

      “Well, boys,” resumed Gussie, having shot his cuffs and smirked horribly, “this is the end of the summer term, and many of you, no doubt, are leaving the school. And I don’t blame you, because there’s a froust in here you could cut with a knife. You are going out into the great world. Soon many of you will be walking along Broadway. And what I want to impress upon you is that, however much you may suffer from adenoids, you must all use every effort to prevent yourselves becoming pessimists and talking rot like old Tom Travers. There in the second row. The fellow with a face rather like a walnut.”

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Correlation fallacy. Optimists are often people who were lucky with health, family, etc and weren’t tested with adversity early. Correlation is not causation.

      My father’s family is chock full of pessimists and even outright depressives yet they were exceptionally long lived. So there.

      And America prizes optimism and punishes people who are not optimistic, yet we have falling life expectancy. So please explain.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        You can go back to Seneca and the other Stoic philosophers to confirm the idea that informed pessimism is the healthiest approach to live.

        Reply
  47. farmboy

    There is plenty to be frightened about. We are aware of the suffering of peoples all around. Animals, birds, whole species going extinct. Unimagined piles of trash and toxic waste seething in our sphere. The extent and pervasiveness of our polluting over time is guilt and awe inspiring at the same time. We are challenged, required even to assimilate, to internalize all this if we are to understand, and respond, and make right. This used to be done in religious moments and came to be organized, codified, and limited to once a week. That to is corrupted, polluted, selfserving and dangerous even. This is what its like to be enlightened, you suffer. John Lee Hooker sings “Serves Me Right to Suffer” and it is so. Now that we are face to face with creative forces there is nothing between us and perfection, pretense is stripped away. We’ve fouled our nest and for the first time ever, we can’t move to the next savannah, oasis, verdant valley, or eden. We’ve found every last one of them. It is on a species level, a learning moment, decade, millennia, epoch.

    Reply
  48. Adam Eran

    I’d suggest opportunism, and lack of shared sacrifice play a role here… That, and defective mental “software” (see here).

    As for Taleb, I’ve always been skeptical since I heard him promote his “resilience = diversity” meme by noting that national ‘debt’ is an indicator of lack of resilience. Truly bizarre, in MMT terms. National ‘debt’ equals, to the penny, the dollar financial assets of the population. If that’s not a source of resilience, nothing is.

    Reply
  49. David in Santa Cruz

    Yves, my heart goes out to you.

    Things that should be blessings do start to feel like curses in these times. Previous generations would have marveled at socks neatly wrapped in plastic delivered to our doors. They would have been grateful for the mobility provided by an automobile when their joints failed them. A peaceful slide into one’s sixties with a whole house to share with one or two others would have seemed like a miracle compared with being crammed into the Workhouse or left to moulder in a dank bed at the back of a crowded tenement.

    However, with 7.656 Billion human beings currently crowding our planet, such blessings now seem wasteful and even profligate. We do our best, but 80 percent of those human beings live in East Asia, South Asia, and Africa — and there is no longer a moral argument for denying them our level of comfort, even if it is clearly going to destroy the ability of the planet to sustain life. Perhaps we can organize our own societies, but there is little that can be done to change the consumption patterns of the 80 percent of the world who will never vote in an American or UK election (although with the coming climate migration, many will).

    I’ve become resigned that we can stop the coming mass extinction. I do believe that what we can do is try to be a more compassionate society in the face of it, rather than attempting to ration resources or insanely trying to cull the herd.

    Reply
  50. Susan the other

    I think we already had our roaring decade, 2000-2010 – it was as irrational as the roaring 20s ever were. But there were big changes going down. Like the GFC – I’ll never believe that was just an accident of the economic cycle. The economy crashed because it was better to bring it down than let it spin out. And it was choreographed and controlled and is still. I consider that a good thing. It sobered us up and restricted our expansive nutty behavior. The part I’ll never forgive is the way Obama blithely allowed 10 million people to lose their homes. And decimated jobs with no fallback. And was utterly impotent as a politician and caved and gave us all Obamacare. I believe George Bush would have been a much more responsible president even in view of the fact that he cooked up weapons of mass destruction and jetted us all off to commandeer the middle east. It was a strange decade to say the least. But anything that is not sustainable will not be sustained, to paraphrase Michael Hudson. That global crash and oil grab also crashed the implausible global economy, even the carry trade and the vigilante parasites; and financialization (although it is going down still). The spinoff of all that is that billions of tons of CO2 did not get produced and did not increase global warming. Of course plenty did. Both China and Africa are building like mad. Manufacturing has settled down. Trade has eased off. It was a decade to be remembered because it was the turning point. It took a while, but we now have a view of other options. A new trajectory. I’m not pessimistic. But I concur we need to radically conserve energy; minimize manufacturing; optimize local economies and etc. There are synergies of conservationism – we can scale down grandly if we try. Especially by going local. And whatever happened to passive solar – it works even in the dead of winter if there is a little sunshine. And also too, whatever happened to geothermal energy? The only place we hear about is Iceland. I say good riddance to the precious child of neoliberalism: global trade and free capital flows to the best grand theft. We don’t need all those “goods.” So where’s a diehard neoliberal globalist to go? I think perhaps Nowhere. I see it all being replaced by good social policy, including safety nets, and regulation. I’m an optimist.

    Reply
    1. newcatty

      Yes, Susan the other…”Where’s a diehard neoliberal globalist to go”? Nowhere men and women. It brings to mind that the fact that when bottom of the cliffs are now the only exit from the long journey into global hearts of darkness, then the choice to choose to take a turn to try to find a new path around the drop off point is an optimistic one. I like your vision.

      Reply
  51. smoker

    For just one thing, regarding the US, sovereign in its own currency, so much could be changed for the better with a massive Jobs with Dignity and Livable wages program – and I don’t mean sending poor youth to die in never ending wars -it’s criminal that it hasn’t been done. (Will never forgive Obama for his utterly faux Stimulus™ and STEM™.)

    Reply
    1. smoker

      Also, something that’s never discussed is the fact that for decades people did not have to go to an Ivy League School to earn a decent living,or to be considered Educated. Many who never finished school, became quite successful, there used to be on the job training and even free college courses provided by companies.

      Reply
    2. Off The Street

      Future historians may look at what has been called the Late Obama Age Collapse, echoing the Late Bronze Age Collapse. When the gap between public and private actions, rationales and quickening consequences became too large then people started noticing and reacting. Once they started noticing theme hard to stop, or to contain disgust. One great aspect of decentralized communications is that motivated networks of people can research and publicize what had once been hidden.

      Prior eras had their scared knowledge, high priests or similar guardians of some truths. That has been trending toward democratization but not without a lot of distress and dislocation.

      Reply
      1. smoker

        Sigh, seems to me that trending toward democratization didn’t last but a decade. And then, only to pretend that The Web™ would free all Truths™. But all, on that web, became ensnared by 24/7 thought and data surveillance. We’ve yet to see the major truths brought to justice, and it’s now heading right back to total censorship.

        Reply
        1. Off The Street

          Social media attempts to censor are being resisted as alternative platforms and independent efforts bring up issues that face memory-holing. They also put more pressure on conventional media like NYT, WaPo and others mentioned in NC to address stories that they ignored or lied about.

          I certainly agree that surveillance will be a problem for everyone, even with legislation like GDPR and other efforts to rein in purveyors and monetizers. Vigilance and action remain required by all to try to maintain one’s data security.

          Reply
  52. Joe Well

    The gaslighting by the media is what is most directly destroying my mental health. For instance, a close friend wants to start a small business or a startup (he is not clear on the distinction and I am not going to try to explain it to him), and of course he volunteered that one of his models is Elon Musk’s Tesla.

    I tried to explain that Tesla has received vast investments of cash and has never been profitable, and so could not be a model for him as a first time entrepreneur in 2020 who has no hope of accessing such resources.

    Really, he thought I was an idiot. How could I, who drives a beat up car and doesn’t even own a house, doubt The Elon? I would be fighting against a whole world view propped up by a massive media machine if I tried to continue the discussion, so I didn’t.

    My small business is a huge part of my life, and because of this mass media propaganda, I can’t talk about it with almost anyone. It is easier to talk about politics.

    Anyway, thank you, NC family, for being a light amidst the gaslighting.

    Reply
    1. polecat

      Don’tcha just love how, in order to launch .. and maintain a small business, YOU, dear lumpin, have to abide by numerous bureaucratic kafkaesque hoops & regs. …. whilst the likes of Jeffery, Elon, in fact ALL of SiliCON Gulch’s finest, big Banksters, Nancy .. Mitch, and the Gang, just to name a few .. that go on, uncumbered, often taxfreed .. gaming and lying, hording all that cheddar !.. without paying their fair share to the society from which they have arisen. But yet, They .. and their enablers in the media, think-tanks, and whatnot .. have the gall to state, balled-faced .. how much concern and support they place upon the drowning Liliputians just trying, with baited imagination, to better their lot !

      Reply
    2. smoker

      Silicon Valley’s newspaper of record the [San Jose] Mercury news gas lighted for decades about the God Like Meritocracy of the Silicon Valley Boys Technocracy; it was Steve Jobs’ favorite newspaper due do its totally uncritical slobbering over the likes of him. I don’t even want to know how many Apple workers may have called the paper to note that he was no Gandhi (recollecting the billboards that littered Santa Clara County at the time, with Ghandi and an apple icon in his hand.

      I had subscribed to Bay Area Local Newspapers for years, and finally stopped when I realized they would never offer any consistent exposes about some of the horrid things that went on behind the doors of those technocratic oligarchies – particularly not the [San Jose] Mercury News – and the devastating effects of those oligarchies on those who lived in their vicinity.

      Whatever critical pieces were written, such as the one referred to here, regarding Oligarchy Demographics, you can bet that it was due information seeping out nationally that could no longer be obscured.

      Regarding Elon Musk, the Tesla purchases (by fricking millionaires who don’t need subsidies of any sort) and sales tax subsides that California – and the California Bay Area – gave it alone, were criminal, and I don’t recollect reading any expose on that, written by the [San Jose] Mercury News.

      Reply
  53. Lobsterman

    “most parents bring up their kids to function in their world, get married, and find a measure of happiness”

    Not my experience, sadly. A sizeable minority does, I’ll grant.

    Reply
  54. Mary Houghton

    While the essay and comments are very thoughtful, when combined with the ongoing mediocrity of US leadership, I offer an example of efficacy and risk taking by Fazle Abed, who died on December 20 in Bangladesh. Today’s Times just acknowledged his leadership in an obituary. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/01/world/asia/fazle-hasan-abed-dead.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share
    He founded BRAC, the world’s largest and most effective NGO in the seventies and it executed on a national scale in banking and non-bank lending, education, health, legal rights for decades. 60,000 informal schools, $4 billion in new micro loans last year alone, a system that worked to reach the ultra-poor. Go to the BRAC website to see what is possible. Abed was an accountant who managed and delegated effectively but we Americans don’t believe this level of successful ambition is possible. Ten thousand Bangladeshis went to his funeral. He was knighted by the British and the Dutch. It can be done.

    Reply
  55. newcatty

    We just watched the “Democracy Now”( yes, I know…) show that played here on New Year’s Day. Comments on Yve’s essay brought up FDR and the radical change in government policies. By keeping the wolves from utterly devouring the people’s in the country ; he and his allies and supporters brought about a society that provided for the basic needs of many Americans. A shinning example is the CCC, which saved many a young man and his family from real starvation and homelessness. The show featured an historian who has dedicated her career to writing about Eleanor Roosevelt. Did You know that she looked at the CCC and, yes, lauded it. But, she noticed that young women were left out. IIRC, she started a program for women called something like Sister, Sister Corp. Don’t have time to provide more details. Most of us have a general, surface knowledge of Eleanor in relation to being FDR’s wife and First Lady. She was so much more and one of the most pivotal persons in our history, as a nation and the world.

    As we watched the show, I kept thinking of that old comment made that ” You sir, are no John Kennedy” in a past presidential debate. I sighed and thought about another former First Lady, who many thought ( think) is the Democratic embodiment of enlightened “progressive or leftist” policies and ideas.

    I would say Eleanor cries in her grave, though I hope she is either on New adventures or a guardian Angel for her beloved country and world. I looked at my husband and said, that former First Lady is no Eleanor. He wisely replied, and she would never say so…

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      Civilians Conflagration Control teams could emphasize preparing prescribed burn areas as the mainstay of their work, in bringing our forests back from the brink of beyond help.

      Reply
    2. Prairie Bear

      I would mostly agree with this, but as for FDR, I think he basically did the bare minimum to keep the pitchforks coming out. It seems quite likely that Eleanor was the primary force pushing him to do even that. Of course, then he pissed away everything by dumping Henry Wallace from the ticket in ’44 and replacing him with that evilly banal machine hack Harry Truman. Talk about crying; I want to weep when I think about how much different a world we might have had with a Wallace presidency.

      Reply
  56. ThomPaine

    Caitlin’s essay reminds me of the famous Larkin poem, which has some great advice at the end:

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    Reply
  57. Jessica

    The First World hit an inflection point, a fork in the road in The Sixties. The choice was either to continue with the hierarchy and mindset that fit an age of scarcity even though considerable abundance (by historical standards) had already been reached or alternatively to grow up into something more mature that the partial abundance made possible.
    The decision was made, mostly unconsciously, to stick with scarcity by unleashing the elites to hoard so much as to recreate scarcity for many and by using advertising and other forms of manipulation to spread limitless appetite for superficial material goods and block the emergence of higher desires (in a Maslow sense).
    Japan hit that choice point with the occupation of Tokyo University in the 1960s (and its crushing). For China, it was Tiananmen. (For some reason, the first wave industrial nations hit the choice point close to peak mass material prosperity, but the second wave industrial nations hit it just before mass material prosperity was rolled out.)
    However, the choice to hold back and stand still automatically became a choice to fall back and degenerate. We are now reaching the point where the non-viability of that choice is becoming clear.
    It may be that we have reached an even deeper choice point. It may be that if we continue to be unconscious as a species, making these choices in a fragmented, conflicted, unconscious way, then there is no way forward at all. If so, then we will have to wake up as a species, which would be a shift as momentous as the invention of fire or language.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you watch Adam Curtis’ four part BBC series, The Century of the Self, which you should be able to find free online. He’s done considerable archival research, which he presents in this series. He would not be on board with your thesis.

      First, consumerism way predates the Sixties and it was not directed at the elites (which was not a well-received term back then, if you used the term “elites” before say 2010, you would have been treated as a Alex Jones level nutter. It was the widening increase in wealth inequality that led the concept to be seen as descriptive) but the mass market.

      Second, Curtis shows that the self-actualization movement threatened established marketing approach (both consumer product marketing and political marketing) via creating a group that didn’t map onto traditional demographic groups and they could not figure out how to reach. They eventually did via libertarian messaging and to a significant degree subverted them. He has way more detail and evidence.

      Reply
      1. Jessica

        Yes, consumerism predated the 60s. Yes, it was not aimed at the elites. It was more aimed at that part of society that newly had enough prosperity in order to ensure that they spent that prosperity within the system rather than engaging in exploration outside the system. The top of society was on board with the status quo. The bottom had its back against the wall even in pre-precarity days. In between were the folks that consumerism was designed for. Originally (by 1920s), the point of stimulated artificial demand was to lessen over-production. I don’t know how much the intensification of consumerism in the 60s and the shift to a more openly hedonistic justification for it (The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank) was a lucky (for the system) by-product of simply trying to sell stuff and how much it was a deliberate attempt to stifle cultural innovation.
        And I am grossly simplifying this to sketch a big picture point. The relationship between 60s culture and consumerism, especially status marking avant garde consumerism, was quite complex.
        Curtis’s description of the use of libertarian messaging to undermine/co-opt the self-actualization movement is one example of blocking the emergence of higher desires (in the Maslow sense).

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I’m at a loss as to your insistence on the 1960s regarding consumerism. It’s widely seen as starting after WWII, with citizens on a wide-spread basis having cash due to WWII rationing and the economy running for years in excess of theoretical potential GDP by having women in the workforce. You had a housing boom and those houses needed to be furnished. This was the era of mass purchases of consumer durables like washing machines as well as relatively new types of kitchen equipment like blenders and electric mixers.

          Reply
  58. Joe Costello

    “humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex.”

    In a speech in 1958 J. Robert Oppenheimer put it this way:

    “The notion of deciding something, really one of the basic traits of being a man, and perhaps that function where one is most concerned with its integrity. This whole area of responsibility has become extremely befogged and clouded. We talk to each other about our responsibilities and duties and in simple situations, the family, parts of the community, we recognize them, we try to live up to them, but our duty to the larger units, to mankind and so on, these are very foggy notions…No one really has any sense of what does devolve on him, what he, as a person, can do. There is a frightful disproportion between our willingness to undertake a true or a secular responsibility and our ability to find anyway at all to do it.”

    This of course has been caused by technology, in Oppenheimer’s case “the bomb.” Technology created corporate globalization. Technology, specifically industrial technologies, in 200 years have changed the planet’s ecology and while the feedback of various elements of destruction almost totally ignored.

    Technology has also, in every way, run roughshod over this 200 year old republic, which was instituted before the industrial era. Television destroyed the local in politics and the present TV show that passes for politics has become entirely concentrated in the Executive, the limited political identities people overwhelmingly tied meaninglessly to this.

    Maybe the greatest technological shift for the world and especially for the US was oil and since the first oil shock in the early 70s we’ve done nothing, except in 91, Old man Bush started the American military occupation of the Gulf. Mr. Bush in 92 said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” in response to preserving our resource wasteful life, also known as the post-war American Dream. And Mr. Bush was no fanatic in this, he had the bipartisan agreement then and now of 90% plus of the American public.

    Almost two decades later, trillions of dollars and buckets of blood, 2008 candidate Obama said, “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.” 8 years later, in his last State of the Union, Mr. Obama, listing his self-judged achievements, uncharacteristically went off-script, smugly stating, “And $2 a gallon gas ain’t bad either,” made possible by the last great industrial project on earth – shale. The $2 price only possible because of hundreds of billions of dollars of bad debt.

    So, the post-war American way of life is done, each year less and less people can grasp it and more and more fall out of it, never to return. Yet, the present presidential reality tv contest, all candidates tell Americans, and the vast majority whether Republican, Democrat, Progressive, or Conservative all want to hear it, how electing one of them will keep and restore the American over-consumption dream.

    One way or another, we will get a new politics and a new economy, though its pretty slim chance at this point it will come by choice. Once new ways begin to be met, and the past let go, people might find it not so bad, but it will be different, very very different.

    Reply
  59. David

    Fascinating discussion which I have only caught up with this evening so I’ll only make one point.
    The current angst (which I have to say I rather share) is the natural result of a society that has no guiding ideology which explains how individuals and society are to prosper and have better lives.
    Consider (generalising madly) until the 18th century you were encouraged to believe that peace, happiness and prosperity would result from obeying lawful rulers and traditional and religious codes of behavior. If the glories of the past could never be recovered at least society could be prevented from getting worse. That changed of course with the advent of liberalism, which claimed that human beings were perfectible and that society could be made better. When I was young, progress towards a better world was an observable pragmatic reality.
    Today we have none of that. Our leaders tell us that the future will be worse than the present and we have to accept that. Our life experience tells us that’s true. Our only hope is to improve our situation (or stop it getting worse) by taking things away from others. The great hope of the future is that a few positions of wealth and power will be held by people with a different skin color or genital arrangement than the present incumbents. And that’s your future, people.

    Reply
  60. BoyDownTheLane

    My first reaction in scanning this article was to ask the frequently-asked question “Why do you care what other people think?”, a phrase which if you put it into a search engine will cough up a qualititative investigation of social influence and telecommuting; an article by an expert [ Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed] on relationships, family development, education and behavior which leads next to an article on establishing individuation and finding your sense of self; a bunch of YouTube, Answers @ Yahoo and social anxiety forum links; and a link to the site through which you can buy a book by that title written by the late great Richard Feynmann, an American physicist known for the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as work in particle physics (he proposed the parton model). For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman was a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, together with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. Feynman developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams.

    ““Why make yourself miserable saying things like, “Why do we have such bad luck? What has God done to us? What have we done to deserve this?” – all of which, if you understand reality and take it completely into your heart, are irrelevant and unsolvable. They are just things that nobody can know. Your situation is just an accident of life.”

    Reply
  61. Sol

    Thank you very much for the timely article. Reading NC is like balm to the soul. I appreciate a venue willing to actually have that adult conversation about facing our problems.

    I’ve been doodling something. Not seriously, just for idle amusement. Something with which to occupy my mind, you know how it goes. It’s a floorplan for… I’m not sure what one might call it. Its a large mixed-use building, start there. Filtered runoff and cisterns, on-site waste management, electrical generation – it’s challenging to figure out how to account for all the needs, play around with possibilities. IF how we currently manage utilities is borked, THEN how to solve these issues with the resources and knowledge available.

    And then moving on to how we arrange our space itself. The largest apartment so far is, in front, a well-appointed classroom with seating for 24 and a teacher’s desk, an office, and in the back a two bedroom with private bath and laundry. The classroom/office space could become a restaurant seating 16 instead.

    There’s other apartments, all sorts of sizes. A nice office space with a waiting room. Could be a GP doc’s private practice, a barber shop, a bakery. Large workshops, or laboratories, or maybe a successful tailor/cosplayer’s design-and-showroom.

    You see what I’m saying. It’s big, it’s weird, I’m basically playing a game with myself called Make A Sustainable Human Habitat. And what I come up with isn’t the point. Even if I had capital, I would have trouble getting this built. It might even be impossible.

    If our utilities management is borked, well, borked it is and must stay. There’s only one proper way to manage utilities, and if even the proper way isn’t working, then we should invite utter chaos by changing anything, seems to be the thinking. No mixed-generation with battery backups, living roofs, full-cycle water systems, and definitely no sustainable materials. We’ll use drywall to build ranches and like it, right up to the bitter end lest the animal spirits that live in the building codes awaken.

    And we haven’t even gotten to the violation of zoning yet. Commercial right in there with residential AND education AND services AND manufacturing AND agricultural. Madness. Bring me the smelling salts, Karen, I feel faint.

    I like my little game. My floorplan and I have great fun together, and yet it troubles me. Someone (not me) is surely out there with decent ideas and is putting together quite a workable improvement. I fear no one will ever see it, since our environment itself has become hostile to anything that doesn’t favor the status quo.

    We’re meant to sort and wash our recycling while holding up a sign that says “Yay Sustainability!” and nothing really changes. So… I’ll just be over here doodling. I’m not sure what else to do.

    Reply
    1. MichaelSF

      Perhaps you can become a tycoon by creating an “Eco-sim-city” game, and do a little bit of propagandizing/indoctrination to the players in the process. If kids grew up playing a game like that things might be different from when they grow up playing “Monopoly”.

      Reply
  62. Jeremy Grimm

    Each Summer’s fireflies fascinated me as a child watching their tiny beacons dancing in the late dusk light above the grass. But now, many years later, I watch the gradual dimming, Summer-by-Summer, of the firefly light. It were as though magic seeps away from the world.

    The times of my youth were not quiet or a peaceful times but they were times of optimism. We had recently put footsteps and a small flag on the moon. If Humankind made the effort – there was no limit to what we might achieve. Cheap, clean, efficient fusion power would soon become available. With enough energy and ingenuity we could do anything, fix any problem. But sometime in the 1970s, a new ideology gained control of the political-economy driven to ascendancy by a long campaign of Big Money. Using this new ideology as tool, Big Money pushed through laws and lax enforcement of existing laws to enable the assembly of giant cartels and assure that the wealth and income flowed to the very wealthy. Big Money changed election laws to lock-in their control of the election processes so they could pick who was allowed to run for office, who would win, and what they could do after they were elected. Big Money bought up the news media to control what and how the populace might think, built-up and militarized the municipal police forces, and criminalized the known forms of effective protest.

    In echo of the transitions of our times Science fiction which grew popular around thr time of our successful Race-to-the-Moon began life telling stories that saw marvels in our future: Galactic Empires, space travel, remarkable inventions – but this optimism was soon replaced with cyberpunk visions of a dystopian post-industrial wastelands. These dystopian visions grew too much reflected what we might see as we drive longer and longer distances to our places of work or glimpsed in images from the slums of our own or poorer nations.

    As the nearly eight billion human souls endure fires and floods, heat waves, cold spells, droughts, crop failures, and wait for rising ocean waters to swallow great cities, as we burn up our legacy of petroleum, coal and natural gas and waste what remains of our resources — our society is in the control of organizations and Corporations that have acquired their own sense of identity, their own personhood, and morals which they imprint on the humans from whom they are assembled. As infrastructure crumbles they extract near-term profits from just-in-time inventories and repairs only after failures attempted using too few spare parts kept in stock in the supply room and too few experienced staff to make repairs. And as we enter the second decade of the third millennium they appear to own the government, Science, and Law.

    Reply
  63. VietnamVet

    Cognitive dissonance is a screen hiding reality. An Empire creates its own beliefs until the real world no longer supports them anymore. In the past, power moved and evolved. But since 1954, one hydrogen bomb can totally destroy a city with a 10 mile radius blast zone that makes civil defense pointless. Civilization’s pollution is no longer regional, it is global.

    The Western Empire is in its death throes. To me, this was pointed out by Barrack Obama and Joe Biden’s restart of the Cold War with Russia and Donald Trump’s gutting of the EPA and the Paris Accord. The End of the World is back on steroids.
    https://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2013/08/20-best-end-of-the-world-movies.html

    The movie “Miracle Mile” that I missed the first time around is once again relevant along with “On the Beach” and “The Day After”. The human tragedy is that the nightmares that disappeared 30 years ago are once again reborn. The wealthy are replaying Rome’s salting of Carthage and calling a desert “peace” except this time the destruction is global and there is no coming back. Once destroyed by flooding, winds, fire or nuclear war (like Puerto Rico) civilization will not be rebuilt.

    Reply
    1. DHG

      This Earth is going to be returned to a paradise with humans living on it forever. What is coming is the end of this entire worldwide wicked system of things and soon now at the hands of Gods Kingdom, the Anglo-American world power remains fully functional right up to the moment it is destroyed by same along with all the other nation/states.

      Reply
  64. Sy Krass

    I agree with Vietnam Vet, except just one nuclear weapon won’t just destroy one city, it would likely cause a chain reaction that would destroy civilization itself. – Imagine retaliatory strikes, heck the financial knock on effects alone would cause world wide financial market collapse in as little as a few weeks, and this would beget more wars and so on…

    I think everyone is a little psychic, intuitive, etc. we’re sensing an imminent large disaster coming…

    Reply
  65. proximity1

    (apologies if I’ve already related this tale somewhere in NC’s threads before this. It seemed appropriate to this thread’s context.)

    _______________________

    When my mother died suddenly and very peacefully, leaving my father alone in the house they’d shared for over twenty years, I decided mostly on my own to pack up all my things and leave an apartment-share in the upper Midwest and move (a comparable distance to your move from NYC to Alabama) back to my father’s house. My other two siblings had families and roots in distant towns or cities and weren’t at all as readily displace-able as was I.

    In this case, I was moving back to a major city I knew and was happy to have left behind (I’d gone to high school there.) My father imagined that he was doing me a great favor letting me move back in and I, for my part, imagined that I was doing him a great favor by moving back in. He was 79 years old and had never lived as an independent bachelor on his own. He went from his parents’ home as a youth into the military and married and divorced before re-marrying (the woman who then bore me, an older sister and a younger brother). So he’d never really learned to cook or keep house in anything like the way he’d been accustomed to living family-life as he and I and my siblings knew it with our mother, his second wife.

    In short, we each resented the other for having disrupted our former living arrangements. He’d taken it for granted that I’d get myself new work and take an apartment somewhere conveniently nearby and come over as often and needed and help him out. But my only interest in being back in this city was based on the idea that I was being helpful to him.

    When it gradually became clear that each of us had been expecting something different in the arrangement, relations degraded to the point that I decided that I’d made a mistake to have returned there; and so in the end of this episode, I decided to leave him to fend for himself. And did. Whether related to that decision or not, he decided to sell the house and move to the small town (which, as a place to reside,he detested–but this attested to the fact that he very much needed some family not far away) where my sister lived with her husband and kids, And that’s where he spent the rest of his life–in a retirement community. I eventually reconciled with him and visited him there on a number of occasions.

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  66. meeps

    I also suffer some guilt for those instances where my existence has negative consequences for the collective whole. My life is presently as small as it is within my power to make it (it helps that I’m not exactly in high demand, lol) which also means that my personal austerities don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Guilt about that is useful to a point, but I wonder at a standard whereby I should hang my head in shame that I must travel 30 miles round-trip to buy food for my family while un-elected Lords of Finance gallivant lavishly around the globe whilst wailing publicly about their victimhood. Sometimes, during my (generally once a week) errand running I’ve thought, is this the day someone will assault me in the parking lot for driving an old jeep instead of an electric car? Misdirected hostility could manifest in such a way. It’s hard to maintain perspective while things are burning but since most of us don’t spend our days brushing up against our ‘betters’ one can imagine who’ll likely end up in the fray.

    I’d do more personally if I could but, ironically, it would take an influx of energy in the short-term to re-organize my life differently for the long-term. That’s a consequence of our civilization being built from a massive resource availability, and it was deployed without concern for conservation. Dwellings the size of my modest rental could be far more efficient had they been conceived to use little energy to begin with, but they weren’t. If there is slack in the system (in affordable energy terms) to deploy for reorganization, it is not available to me. The other meaning of slack, (of business) characterized by a lack of work or activity; quiet, is one result.

    An administration that would pass M4A might alleviate the latter slack by infusing the system with the former. The questions are, where are we dealing with real resource constraints? Have we burned through too many or is the 1% mostly sitting on them, Smaug-style? Does guilt prevent the rest of us from claiming the right to live with dignity on this planet, too?

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  67. MichaelSF

    A discussion of slack needs a reference to J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_SubGenius

    SubGenius members believe that those in the service of the conspiracy seek to bar them from “Slack”, a quality promoted by the Church. Its teachings center on “Slack” (always capitalized), which is never concisely defined, except in the claim that Dobbs embodies the quality. Church members seek to acquire “Slack” and believe that it will allow them the free, comfortable life (without hard work or responsibility) which they claim as an entitlement. Sex and the avoidance of work are taught as two key ways to gain “Slack”. Davidoff believes that “Slack” is “the ability to effortlessly achieve your goals”. Cusack states that the Church’s description of “Slack” as ineffable recalls the way that Tao is described,[9] and Kirby casts “Slack” as a “unique magical system

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