Steady-State Capitalism

In previous posts, I’ve offered a rather bleak prognosis for capitalism.

I’ve proposed a definition of capitalism that seems to cover the many kinds of capitalism we’ve experienced in the last five centuries. I’ve observed that the central flaw in all these forms of capitalism is the expectation of sustained exponential economic growth. I’ve noted that this expectation is based on the false premise that wealth is created rather than being moved and transformed, and that capitalism has been devouring the natural economy — the ecosystem that supports our very existence — in order to create our human economic wealth. I’ve pointed out the obvious fact that this isn’t sustainable — certainly not on Earth, nor in a non-material “information economy,” nor even if we develop starships and ravage the whole galaxy. I’ve suggested that capitalism is probably pretty close to its end, with the caution that it has been on its deathbed before, then gotten back up; it may well do so again, perhaps multiple times, before it goes down for good.

I’d like to explore a bit what might come after capitalism.

Note the following, in bold red letters:

We are now entering the time-honored tradition of purest speculation. 

While I speak of “likelihoods,” it’s my opinion. I have no idea what will actually happen. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughtful alternatives.

The Likely Scenario

images-1The most likely way this all plays out is an extended repeat of the boom and bust cycles we’ve seen throughout our written history. Think of Babylon, Greece, or Rome. Think of the Mayans, or the Anasazi. Think of Easter Island.

Our future most likely holds the collapse of our global capitalist civilization into a world-wide dark age, followed by the rise of subsequent civilizations that make ours look — to the people of that future time — grand, in its way, but also primitive and violent. Just as we now view ancient Rome, or Greece, or Assyria.

Civilizations have a life-cycle. While every such rise and fall has unique elements, there is a common structure to most: a rhyme-scheme, if you will, for those of you familiar with the statement that history never repeats, but it always rhymes.

One of the common rhymes in the fall of societies and civilizations is the appearance of a huge and growing gap in status and wealth between the upper and lower classes.

One way of looking at this, to follow with the language I’ve been developing in this series of essays, is that the society’s economic system, whatever it is, switches from an aerobic form to an anaerobic form — in the former, it really is creating human wealth for that society by taking it from somewhere else (Nature or other societies), while in the latter, it is simply going through the motions of wealth creation while, in fact, it is the rich stealing from others within the same society. This impoverishes the very people who provide the machinery for enriching the wealthy, and the society then becomes so weak that it either falls apart, or becomes prey to some other society.

Regardless of the mechanism, however, a large and growing wealth-gap between the rich and the poor is a strong indication that a society has peaked, and is ripe for decline.

This boom-and-bust cycle doesn’t require capitalism by any means, else we wouldn’t see it throughout history. However, capitalism feeds the cycle with enthusiastic abandon by attempting to expand the wealth of the owners at an exponential rate, leaving the other classes to suffocate as the economy turns anaerobic.

John Michael Greer takes this approach of boom-and-bust, and talks about our civilization being the first and most wasteful (and destructive) of a long sequence of rising and falling “technic societies,” which is an interesting, and actually rather hopeful way to look at this cycle.

It’s impossible to predict what greatness or depravity future high societies will embody, or what they will look like, after the intervening dark age. Will they build floating cities made of aerogels? Will they live in huge networks of self-sufficient rural villages linked by a solar-powered Internet? Will they form martial empires, or peaceful enclaves of philosophy, art, and music?

No one knows. It’s rich ground for speculative fiction.

The End of the World

A few people have preached that the end of our current global capitalist economy is the End of Humanity.

This is based mostly on the belief that Our Way of Life is also the Only Way of Life Worth Living — which is both childish and absurd.

But there is the idea of “technological overshoot.” This means that we do so much damage to the Earth’s ecosystem using technology to sustain our unsustainable way of life, that when our society falls and we lose our technological edge, people can’t find their way back to a simpler lifestyle. Soil is too damaged to farm, and fertilizer is no longer available; water is polluted at the source, and there is no technology to clean it; unprocessed air is unbreathable. In the extreme case, we trigger a cascade of extinctions that wipe out humans and other species, right down to the bugs, and evolution has to start over; or, if you’re of a religious bent, God has to dip his hands into the clay again.

This has certainly happened in isolated cultures. Easter Island is a classic example, and it isn’t the only example.

While global overshoot is possible, I personally think it unlikely. I believe our global civilization is a whole lot more fragile than people think. I believe we’ll blink before all of Nature does: our civilization will collapse, and stop destroying the environment, which will slowly recover. Our descendants may spend millennia herding goats in a steamy, rainforested Antarctica, but there will be descendants.

My biggest objection to this story, however, is that it’s not very interesting to talk about. Humans pollute their environment and go extinct. Meh. End of stories and storytelling alike. We can argue about whether Mother Nature’s “human experiment” was a tragedy or a farce, though we have to adopt a transcendent viewpoint to make the argument on either side. What else is there to say?

The more interesting question is whether there is a way to climb down from the capitalist money-tree before the branches break off and tumble us into either a dark age, or extinction.

Steady-State Capitalism

visittodowntownhdExponential growth isn’t part of the definition of capitalism. Perhaps we could have a capitalism that supports a more modest kind of growth.

The basic problem with any sub-exponential growth in a capitalist system is a scaling problem. Perhaps I can explain it this way.

If I want to invest $100, I’m expecting some return on that investment. If I want to invest $1000, I’m expecting roughly ten times the return. It doesn’t matter whether I invest the $1000 in a single enterprise, or try to spread it out over ten $100 enterprises, or whether I’m representing ten different investors, each of whom wants a return on his $100.

Returns are expected to be proportional to the total investment. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere, proportional returns are one way of defining exponential growth. Proportional growth and exponential growth are two different names for exactly the same thing.

So if you don’t have exponential growth, then returns can’t be proportional to the investment.

My son was arguing for linear growth the other night, but once he grasped this scaling issue, he saw the problem. Linear growth means that the economy grows by a fixed amount each year: it generates (say) a total of $100 in new human wealth every year. So if you are the only person to invest $100 in the economy, you get a return of $100. If you are the only person to invest $1000 in the economy, you still only get a return of $100. If ten people each invest $100 in the economy, and they have to share the $100 return, then each of them gets a return of $10. If a thousand people each invest $100, each of them gets a return of ten cents.

With linear economic growth, all of the investors (and investments) are competing for the same fixed amount of wealth generated by the economy. Over time, as the investors’ fortunes grow (albeit slowly), they will want to invest more of their money, but they are still all competing for that $100 in actual growth. Investing more reduces their proportional return.

There’s no real point to investing $100 in such an economy, because the best you can hope for is your $100 back. It might make sense to invest $90, to get that $100. But if that makes sense, then lots of people will want to invest $90, which means the $100 gets split by lots of people, meaning the return is now far less than $90. The only way this could possibly be worthwhile as a financial investment, is if the number of investors is strictly limited.

The same is true of any sub-exponential economic growth. One of the examples I’ve used before is the science fiction concept of an expanding galactic empire that collects resources from entire planets and distributes the wealth instantly through teleporting star gates. The fastest this empire could grow, economically, is quadratically — that is, as the square of time, representing the surface of a sphere expanding at the speed of light (since new resources are only available at the frontier). This is faster than linear growth, but it’s still sub-exponential. Investors are still going to see diminishing returns over time, unless the number of investors, and the amount they can each invest, is strictly limited.

So we might as well jump right in and ask how capitalism would fare in a steady-state, zero-growth economy with zero returns on investment — in the long run, this is what any sub-exponential growth looks like.

Can capitalism survive in a zero-growth setting?

The Owners in Steady-State Capitalism

We have to be careful with this idea of “steady-state.” Nothing lasts forever. And just about anything, no matter how nutty or out-of-balance, can last a few years. So let’s set an arbitrary bound of 1000 years. Anything that could last 1000 years, clearly doesn’t have a systemic problem built into it, as capitalism does, though it still might fail for other reasons.

Thus, we’re imagining a kind of steady-state capitalism that’s going strong 1000 years from now, with no economic growth, no expectation of growth, and good prospects for running another 1000 years.

I’ve proposed that the only real innovation that capitalism introduced to the Medieval European idea of hereditary feudal landholdings, was the idea that entitlements could be bought and sold.

I believe the late Medieval period actually came to this point, even within the aristocracy: in the late 1300’s, impoverished knights were quietly selling off their holdings and their titles, which they could no longer afford to support. In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written a few centuries later, we see a long section of gossip about whether Comte Edmond Dantès’ title was inherited or bought. This still persists in the concept of “old money” versus “new money.”

Medieval European feudalism, unlike our modern society, believed in steady state. God appointed the clergy, the clergy ratified the rulers, the rulers assigned the land to lords, the serfs were bound to the land and worked it for themselves and everyone else, and all the other professions, from hooper to whore to moneylender, worked within this static system. World without end, Amen.

imagesSo some kind of feudal capitalism, consisting of semi-hereditary fortunes with ownership trades among the owners, is not at all unthinkable. The House Atreides and House Harkonnen in the Frank Herbert novel, Dune, both come to mind for me. In fact, we already see modern corporatism headed in precisely this direction: Coke and Pepsi are, essentially, feudal estates, and their controlling shareholders, board members, and executives are the aristocratic court. The corporation holds market share rather than land, and the aristocracy holds controlling stock rather than titles.

Open acknowledgement that economic growth has ceased will, however, cause a few not-so-minor shifts in the economy.

Our current model of Federal Reserve and fractional-reserve banking will have to be replaced or radically revised. Fractional reserve banking is an odd beast, only a little over a century old: it loans money into existence, and demands repayment with interest, meaning that every dollar you have in your wallet is a promissory note that obligates you (or your descendants) to pay back more than a dollar. This is one of the root causes of both inflation, and the endless need for exponential economic growth. Such a money system simply can’t survive in a zero-growth economy, because there is no place for the interest to come from.

We’ll also lose the idea of the interest-bearing US Treasury Bond, which is the bank-note the Federal Reserve issues: the US economy won’t be growing, so again, there’s no place for the interest to come from. That, in turn, will force governments back into balanced budgets based on taxation, or (bad idea) borrowing money directly from the rich for really big endeavors, like putting on a war. I’m thinking now of the amusing and recurring situation between the Medici and the Popes in the 1400’s, where the Pope requests a loan, both parties proclaim eternal admiration, gratitude, and friendship, the Pope glibly refuses to repay the loan, the lender lays siege to the Papal vineyards, the Pope excommunicates everyone involved, renegade priests defy the Pope and offer Mass anyway, and — in the end — the Pope coughs up the money with proclamations of kissy-kissy-friends-forever-again.

Municipal bonds will go the same route. These are currently a relatively painless alternative to voting for a municipal tax to support some community enterprise, like a water plant or a school. In a zero-growth economy, no one is going to buy bonds as an investment.

Commodity markets might persist, because they serve as a seasonal hedge for both buyers and sellers of commodities. But they’ll change a lot, because non-renewable resources won’t generally be commodities. Things like wheat, bananas, and pork-bellies will remain: things like oil and coal will not. There’s more room for speculation as to how precious and useful metals will shake out, and whether speculative buying on margin will still work. What seems certain, however, is that speculating in the commodity markets will be even more risky than it is now.

Stock markets will vanish. Stock won’t vanish — it is the new aristocratic title — but corporate stock will be more like real estate: not the mortgage papers, but the actual properties. Like land holdings in feudal Europe, they’ll be valuable for the rents (dividends) they return, and the power they offer. Properties that are easy to acquire will be generally worthless. Valuable properties will not change hands often, and the trades will be personal, and limited. That trade will doubtless support brokers — but I can’t see it supporting an open marketplace.

Overall, “investments” of any sort won’t yield wealth. Investment will still happen, but it will cease to be about making money, and more about getting things done: more like Kickstarter campaigns.

In particular, corporations and the wealthy holders of controlling shares will use investments, not for wealth-generation, but for ego-feeding, political power, and even general social benefit. I’m thinking now of the funeral tombs of Egypt, the sculptures of Greece, the Medieval cathedrals, the artwork of the Renaissance, or the Italian and German patronage of music during the classical period.

The only way to gain more wealth in a steady state system is to acquire it from someone else.

That means there will be war. I’ll return to this in a moment.

Commoners in Steady-State Capitalism

Let’s look briefly at the situation of the commoner, the serf, in our steady-state feudal corporate capitalism.

The first issue is population.

People breed like bunnies: that is, exponentially, at least until they eat all the lettuce and starve, or become numerous enough to attract wolves. Modern people have considered this an intractable problem that leads to inevitable doom, but there’s an odd thing: human societies have, in fact, been able to control their populations. One of the most astonishing to me is the little island of Tikopia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which can support no more than about a thousand people. They’ve apparently been there for at least a thousand years. So they clearly figured it out — they’ve proven it’s possible (as have other cultures) to put limits on population growth.

Having a stable population, however, means cultural, legal, religious, and economic commitment to keeping the population stable. There cannot be an economic advantage to having too many children; if there is, there will need to be extremely strong legal, cultural, or religious taboos to counterbalance the economic incentive. That would require a very different culture than the one we currently live in, here in the US.

There also needs to be a good mechanism for dealing with “normal” bulges and troughs in population, such as our “Baby Boom” generation, or the Black Death in the fourteenth century in Europe, which so drastically disrupted the Medieval system. Zero population growth does not mean people can’t have children: it means that, on the average, two breeders must have exactly two children that live to reproduce. But things will happen, and the population will rise and fall. The system needs to withstand this.

The current economic and cultural forces that drive people from one place to another, looking for work, in the process breaking up families and communities, will vanish: with no epidemic economic reason to move and keep moving, and stronger communities that lack our modern expectation that kids will go to a distant college and then move to a distant city to get a job, more people will simply stay put. Not everyone, of course: there will always be free spirits and malcontents.

Our current process of trying to prepare for old age, illness, and such through personal “investments” will vanish, since there is no economic growth to provide these returns. It’s quite possible that the common folk won’t even have access to banks: banks may be useful only to the wealthy. However, overall inflation should be zero, so if you put a coin in a box and bury it, then dig it up fifty years later, it will still be worth what it was worth when you buried it.

Our hyper-individualistic current outlook, as US Americans, sees this as leading to people hoarding coins, other people stealing those coins, brutal police forces and/or vigilantes seeking to get their parents’ money back, and so forth. It’s a well-worn plot cycle: kindly old restaurant owner is robbed by thugs of the Evil Triad Cartel, renegade Shaolin Monk appears from nowhere and defeats the bad guys and gets the money back, then rides into the sunset. You can set the same story in the American Old West. Or Gotham City.

In practice, this is romantic nonsense. In a stable system, you can’t have the Dickensian horror of most old people dying as beggars in a dark alley, trying to keep warm, nor can you have the free-for-all of a lawless Old West with individuals stashing a few coins in a hidden box under a mesquite tree. What real people in real societies do is, in general, called a mutual aid society. US Social Security is an example, scaled up to the national level. Before there was Social Security, there were mutual aid societies, like the Odd Fellows, or the BPOE. Before that, there were trade guilds — or at the rural level, real local communities.

Beyond those basic features, I can’t see too many constraints on the common life imposed by steady-state capitalism. There’s room for all kinds and levels of social mobility based on skills and merit, room for technology (though not for wasteful extractive technology), room for all kinds of social conventions (that don’t result in population growth).

On the whole, life for most people will be good, and satisfying. If it isn’t, people will get restive, and the system will become unstable.

The Art of War

Ownership, in capitalism, is individual and sovereign, and in a world with a finite number of things to own — specifically in a zero-sum economy that is not growing and is not expected to grow — it is inherently competitive.

The traditional way of increasing ownership of this sort has always been to take it by force. If the current owner objects, you kill him. It’s called right of conquest. It’s also known as war.

The positive side of the capitalist innovation is that it gave people an alternative to war. Ownership of the critical resources could be bought and sold, rather than inherited or granted by divine right or taken by right of conquest.

The thing that free-market fundamentalists don’t seem to understand about marketplaces, is that they depend on impartial law to validate and enforce ownership claims.

It’s like the Medici and the Pope. If you lend money to the Pope, to what authority will you appeal if he simply decides to not pay you back? If you buy controlling stock from another aristocrat in a steady-state capitalist economy, what can you do if he takes your money and then refuses to turn over the executive washroom key?

If there is no such authority to appeal to, then our steady-state capitalism will turn into an unending series of wars among the owners, using commoners as soldiers. This is not a stable system.

If there is an overarching authority, with sufficient power to reign in any individual owner or small group of owners — a corporate government, if you will — then its courts, and its bureaucracy, will be more corrupt and intrigue-ridden than any imperial court the world has ever known. That opens covert routes to increasing wealth and power, and a kind of war in the shadows. The system will not long remain impartial. Again, I think the system will prove unstable.

I would be very surprised to see any form of steady-state capitalism last a thousand years. I’d love to hear others’ thoughtful explorations of how it might be made to work.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to explore some alternatives to capitalism by playing with the concept of ownership.

The Shifting Sand of Context

“He has the right to defend himself from deadly force.”

That’s a line that gets tossed around a lot these days, particularly whenever a cop kills a black person.

It’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it isn’t true. For instance, it doesn’t apply to a citizen who defends himself when a cop pulls a gun and threatens to shoot.

So there’s an asymmetry here. A context. “It was self-defense” applies to a cop who shoots a citizen, but it doesn’t apply to a citizen who shoots a cop.

So, if we want to be clear, we have to say that a cop has the right to defend himself from deadly force. A citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop.

Let’s broaden the context a bit. What if you shoot a cop who is off-duty, in plain clothes, who pulls a gun and threatens to shoot you over a matter of your dog pooping in his yard?

Well, your life is probably over, either way — if the cop doesn’t kill you, then the lawyers will make you wish he had, and you’ll almost certainly go to prison, even if you only winged him. But that’s our current fuckup of a legal system. In theory, you would have the right to defend yourself. I think.

We would have to clarify again, by saying that a citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop who is doing his assigned duty.

Let’s broaden the context a bit further. What if the cop’s assigned duty is to provoke a violent response?

There used to be a concept of “fightin’ words” — the idea that normal people can be provoked, sometimes with words alone, into a violent action. I don’t know if this actually had any legal standing, but it certainly served to take the edge off a judge’s sentencing in the past.

Think of that scene in the film Crash, when Matt Dillon’s cop character is feeling up the black man’s attractive wife while “searching” for weapons, just to try to provoke a violent reaction from the husband. It resonates, because we all recognize the asymmetry of power in this scene. The cop can do whatever the hell he wants, and get away with it.

“That’s a movie, it doesn’t happen in real life,” is one predictable response. Uh-huh. That’s exactly why the scene resonates so strongly.

“There are always a few bad apples,” is another predictable response. “And they are prosecuted vigorously and drummed out of the … well….” Uh-huh. We see lots of that vigorous prosecution, and bad cops getting drummed out.

This is basically saying that no one assigns cops the duty of stirring up trouble. That just doesn’t happen. Right?

Except when you look at a place like Ferguson, where the dim-witted city officials decide that they are short on funds, and decide to take up highway robbery.

Jaywalking? Fine ’em. Double parking? Fine ’em. Sleeping on a park bench? Lock ’em up and fine ’em. If they can’t pay the fine, double it. If they don’t show up to pay the fine, put out an arrest warrant and fine ’em again. If they can’t pay that, put them in the prison system and get kickbacks, as well as giving the “perp” a police record that effectively ruins their life.

That’s not stirring up trouble? Really? Before you make that your final answer, are you sure you don’t want to call a friend?

The fact is, it is increasingly the official duty of police officers to enforce laws that stir up trouble.

In many cases, these laws are the legacy of our national history of racism and slavery: the laws are intended to enforce an inequality in society that was considered natural and just at the time — at least by those (white) people with legal voice and standing — which is now considered natural and just by almost no one.

In many other cases, these laws are merely intended to keep the poor impoverished, and out of sight. No one wants beggars on the street, or sleeping on park benches, and we’ve always had this strange, Puritanical, Calvinist belief that the poor somehow deserve their lot, so it doesn’t matter much if we make their hard life harder.

The biggest problem is, of course, the disastrous Drug War, which has been going on for nearly a century. The Drug War was founded in racism, and resulted in the twisted vision of “law and order” that we see flourishing around us now: something that any American citizen from the 1800’s would have viewed as standing in complete antithesis to the ideal of Freedom this country was presumably founded upon. Virtually every criminal law on the books regarding “drugs” is a legal abomination, and its enforcement is all but guaranteed to stir up huge buckets of flaming trouble.

Finally, adding spice to this unholy mix, we have the neoliberal economics of the last forty years, which has twisted our nation’s vision from freedom, to “free markets,” in which the whole of human activity and governance is reduced to competing against each other for money in the marketplace. Entire cities are being effectively defunded, though they are still expected to provide all the normal services. City officials have been reduced to extorting money from their citizens, and it is the cops who are officially ordered to go around breaking the knees of people who don’t pay up.

So let’s look at the question again in this still-broader context.

A cop goes to the door of a person who already lives on the edge of ruin, to serve a warrant that is going to destroy that person’s life: force them to pay trivial fines they can’t afford, take time off work that will cause them to lose their job, brand them with a police record that will make it hard to get a new job afterward, get them evicted from their home and have their children taken away, and — to top it off — all this in an environment where cops can do whatever the hell they want.

Even if the cops don’t, they can. And everyone knows it, including the cops.

Is it any real surprise that someone might come to the door with a shotgun?

So it leads me to the question: when you hold the power to stop someone on the street and do literally anything you want to them, right up to killing them without consequence, and then deliberately provoke a fight with that person, holding not only their future, but their children’s future hostage, do you give up the right to defend yourself from deadly force?

I’m not asking the legal question. I’m asking the moral question.

Go watch the movie, Rob Roy. This is not a new question.

Home Projects

“Honey, the tires on the casita are still flat!”

“They’re not flat!” I replied. “I looked at them this morning, and they were still round.”

“You haven’t been outside the house since you got out of bed.”

“Fine, I looked at them recently.”

“They’re soft, and it’s going to ruin the tires, and then we’ll have to buy new tires. Just put some air in them.”

“Fine. Later. After I’ve had my coffee.”

“Your first cup, or your seventh? It’s already getting hot outside. Just go put some air in the tires.”

I hate home projects. Virulently. Meaning — literally — like a virus. My dislike is actually contagious. If someone even mentions a home project in my presence, my aversion reaches out through the psychic aether and affects everyone nearby. The person talking about his home project starts wanting to hire it out. People who do that kind of project for a living start thinking about changing careers.

I especially hate little home projects. Because there is no such thing. Only puny expectations.

Put some air in the casita’s tires. Fine.

Our casita is a little 8′ pop-up camper that has lived in our driveway since we moved into the house last December. As I inspect it, it seems that the tires have, indeed, gone a little soft.

The first thing is to get rid of the spider webs. We have spiders, here, and those little bastards can web over a doorway faster than Spiderman. They’d had a couple of generations to craft the little spider Manhattan in, on, and around the tires of the casita. I don’t want to reach in and have my hand look like lunch to a city full of eight-legged New Yorkers.

I need to get into the garage to get the spider-brush. I don’t have my keys. I search in three places before I find them. I unlock the garage. I find the spider-brush, which was (of course) right where I’d left it, but not right where I looked.

After evicting the eight million residents of Spidopolis, I need to get low enough to read the tire. My knees don’t work like they used to, so I end up sitting on the ground. My hand sticks briefly to the cement as I lift it: there’s a 100-foot pine tree shading the casita, and little drops of pine sap are everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ruined another pair of shorts.

Tires always have a big logo on them, telling you who takes credit for making it, but the PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) rating is, if present at all, in the middle of a long paragraph of specifications involving load distribution on a single axle mount under lateral shear from winds up to 30 MPH, provided you aren’t at the North or South Pole, where gravity is slightly stronger. All of this is written in raised black-on-black, so if the light isn’t exactly right, you can’t read it at all.

And then, there’s bifocals. Not only does the light need to be exactly right, you can’t tilt your head to the side, or your glasses go wonky, and then you can’t read the E on an eye chart at three feet.

I finally puzzle out enough of this black rubber vowelless Ogham to think it’s calling for 80 PSI. Which is — for a tire — kind of high. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, so I have to go check the other tire. First, evict Los Spidangeles. Then back down on the ground on the other side.

More pine sap.

It would be normal at this point to find out that I have two entirely different tires, with two different pressure ratings. But it appears they are both the same, which gives me pause: this looks entirely too easy.

It turns out, that would have been entirely too easy.

I have to hunt down the tire gauge, and find it exactly where it belongs in the car, giving me another twinge of foreboding. The tires are at 40 PSI, so they are soft — no escape in that quarter.

All I have is a bicycle tire pump. It should do the job, I think, since 80 PSI for a bicycle tire is pretty normal. I dig out the tire pump, which is also right where it should be, another bad sign.

This is when I get reintroduced to Boyle’s Law, up close and sweaty. Bicycle tires are kind of, like, really, really thin. You know? They may have 80 PSI in them, but there isn’t a whole lot of actual air. So I pump until I am sweating pretty hard, and check the tire pressure again. 45 PSI. I remember Boyle’s Law. I do a quick calculation: if 20 vigorous pumps will top off a bicycle tire to 80 PSI, a tire with this volume, will, conservatively speaking, take about 20,000 vigorous pumps. Or maybe it’s 200,000 vigorous pumps. I invoke Themon’s Law of Large Numbers, which states that any two large numbers which apply to sweaty, physical labor, are equivalent.

“I’m off to the hardware store!”

Every home project, no matter how small, ends up at the hardware store, usually multiple times. I actually had a second, also-stalled, home project I needed something for, and thought it would be just grand if I could take care of that and get an electric tire pump, or at least one of the old foot-pumps like my father had in his car: those things have a big, fat air cylinder on them that can move a lot of air.

Three stores later, I come back empty-handed. No tire pumps of any sort. And the other project — well, I think it is going to be a custom design that requires a hand-crafted alloy of osmium, beryllium, and transparent aluminum. That’s for next weekend.

It’s lunchtime, now. So after lunch, I decide it’s time to just get smart and take the stupid thing to the gas station and fill the tires. The tires are still round, after all. It can be towed.

But the lock on the ball-and-socket has been out in the rain since December. Oops. It opens, but I’m concerned it won’t open if I close it again. So out comes the WD-40, the 3-in-1 oil, and a million paper towels. Now the lock works.

My wife helps me hitch the thing up. The hitch itself is where it belongs, the lights work once connected, and we’re off. Just down the street a quarter mile or so.

“Stop!” my wife yells at me. “You need a license!”

Sure enough, the trailer doesn’t have a license plate. That was a whole different story, from last June through December, dealing with the California DMV, and we actually got the plate a week after we’d already parked the casita against the fence. The plate is in my wife’s office.

I look at the spot where the license goes, and there are no screws. There are no screws with the license plate, either.

So what kind of idiot takes the old license plate off the back of a trailer, and doesn’t put the screws back in the holes?

Oh, right. I guess that would be an idiot like me.

This would, of course, have been the perfect opportunity for the second trip to the hardware store. It would have been, if my wife hadn’t been involved.

We spend five minutes searching through the “screw box” containing every screw I’ve ever collected over the last fifty years, for something close to the right size. My wife pulls out two candidates. From traces of rubber and glue on the head, I realize they are actually the original screws from the old license. In the box with every other screw from the last fifty years.

I finally get on the road, and when I arrive at the gas station, I discover that the the air pump needs quarters. Guess where my wallet is. No, don’t guess, it’s obvious.

I drive back home, pick up my wallet, and return. I go inside to get quarters, and the clerk tells me I don’t need quarters, the air is free. I give him a strange look, and ask how I turn it on. He tells me that I don’t: he turns it on.

I go back out into the rising afternoon heat — it’s well after noon, now — and the air machine is chugging away as advertised. So I finally — finally — put air in the tires.

Up to 60 PSI. The pump is for car tires. It doesn’t even go to 80 PSI.

I return home, the job half-done with no real prospect of completion in sight, and wrestle the casita back into its spot, which involves a ninety degree turn at the end of the driveway. By this point, piece of cake.

A reasonably successful home project. Hey, the tires are up to 60 PSI.

The sad thing is that I’ll have a work meeting tomorrow, and before it starts, people will compare what they did over the weekend.

“Oh, I put in a deck in the back yard.”

“That’s nice! I rebuilt the engine on my 1966 Mustang.”

“Some buddies and I went hang-gliding.”

“So Themon, what did you do this weekend?”

As God is my witness, I have no idea what to tell them.

The Bigger Picture

Like many people, I’ve been pretty upset about this 2016 election.

Then a very odd post showed up in my Facebook feed this morning, and I was upset enough to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Here’s the link. It’s only nine minutes out of your life, and she speaks well. Go watch it, then come back here to laugh at me for listening to a psychic.

The thing is, I think she’s right. Let me cast her message in a slightly different light.

Who is Donald Trump? By himself, he’s just everyone’s asshole uncle. We’ve all met this kind of guy: we’ve put up with his rants, endured Thanksgiving dinners with him, rolled our eyes and talked about him when he wasn’t around. He’s a thick-headed ignoramus, he’s a bigot and a fool and annoying as Hell, but he isn’t much of a threat to anyone. He’s just an everyday asshole.

What makes Donald Trump different from everyone’s asshole uncle is not anything about the man. It is the mob that has flocked to him.

That mob is not a person, nor even a movement. It’s as much about the Latin Massacre in Constantinople in 1182 as it is about NAFTA in 1994. It’s about slavery in the seventeenth century, and the South losing the Civil War. It’s about Gandhi, and Hitler, and the Sack of Beziers, and Genghis Khan. It’s a collection of expectations and resentments with deep, deep roots. It is a force of history and nature playing out in particulars on the 2016 political canvas.

If Donald Trump were to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow, this force would remain, and sooner or later, someone else’s asshole uncle would rise up and become the next Donald Trump. The same mob will form.

This is bigger than all of us put together, and it is going to play itself out.

Is it really 100,000 years old, as this psychic claims?

Very possibly. That’s roughly when “modern humans” made their debut, according to anthropologists, mixing with, breeding with, and eventually pushing aside the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and perhaps many other early human species. Certain wheels were set in motion 100,000 years ago that are still rolling along: in particular, our explosive, exponential population growth as a species.

Does this force represent a perennial dilemma that we’re doomed to play and replay forever?

No, and the difference is rising population. It’s like rising temperature in a pot. It causes things to cook; it causes new chemical reactions to take place.

It causes transformation.

The human race has been through numerous transformations. There was a time before cities, when all people hunted and gathered and lived a very easy life: ask any anthropologist. Once cities formed, there was still a time before kingdoms and empires arose. Once the idea of empire was well-established, the nation-state came into existence.

People didn’t invent these things because they were a good idea. They invented them because rising populations forced them to find new ways to live.

We’ve now reached a population level where — as I’ve put it before — if everyone inhales at the same time, birds fall out of the sky. Human population is beginning to show long-term, global consequences on every aspect of life on Earth. We’re once again being forced to find a new way to live.

And we will.

In the process, however, the old way of living has to end. It has to die. Cain (the agriculturalist) must again slay Abel (the hunter-gatherer).

Donald Trump represents the dying scream of the old way of living as it is forced out of existence.

Unlike this psychic, I can’t claim to be very good at reading energy, particularly the energy of the entire United States, much less the energy of the whole world. So I can’t personally be quite as confident that the dying scream of Donald Trump won’t drown out the voices of the living for a while.

I am confident that the Trump energy is dying. Just as I am confident that capitalism is dying, and with it, all of the social perversions that have come with it, including our reckless endangerment of the natural environment we need in order to live.

So, let us acknowledge and even honor the Trump phenomenon for what it is: a desperate, dying scream of something that can no longer continue to exist in the world.

Then, let us — together — bury it.

Nobody Hates Bernie

The 2016 election is starting to shape up: the Republican convention is over, with a Trump/Pence ticket, and the Democratic convention is coming up soon.

I’m feeling a little foolish for not thinking through an essential part of the Trump candidacy.

I’ve been puzzled from the start how a narcissistic blowhard like Donald Trump would ever withstand the job of being President of the United States. It requires skills that he not only doesn’t have, they are skills that he apparently can’t even grasp. I can’t imagine him staying awake through an entire national security briefing without shouting at some five-star general, “You’re Fired!”

How could Trump be President?

The answer is both simple, and obvious. He won’t.

He’s going to delegate the entire job to his Vice President. Every bit of it. From persuading Congress, to appointing Supreme Court justices, to managing the nuclear codes. Donald Trump will be an absentee president.

I guess I did kind of see it coming: I mentioned in an earlier post that Trump would surround himself with sycophants who would stroke his bottomless need for inflating his own ego, a machine that would make him a puppet inside the machine, a machine that would turn to purest evil. What I missed is that Trump won’t even be inside the machine. He’ll be out on his yacht, when he’s not preening in front of a camera. He’ll get “regular reports” from his Vice President on how that worthy is doing his job, which he won’t have time to read, because he’ll be too busy Tweeting grade-school insults to foreign heads-of-state who slighted him in some way.

“Mike, just give me the bottom line,” he’ll say to his Vice President, adjusting his cummerbund for some state dinner, turning sideways to the full-length mirror to check his waistline. “Is the country moving in the right direction?”

“Oh, yes, Sir!” the Vice President will say. “You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

“Great! Keep up the good work. Let’s make America Great Again!”

Trump is already a catastrophe for the Republican Party, and if he wins the election, a catastrophe for the nation.

In the meantime, we have the Sanders/Clinton situation. I still have no idea how the super-delegates are going to vote, nor does anyone else. At this point, given the polling numbers, it’s irresponsible for them to nominate Hillary. On the other hand, I have no idea whether responsibility is anywhere near the top of their list of priorities. So we’ll have to wait and see.

But here’s the thing: nobody hates Bernie.

A lot of people hate Trump. Pence is — if anything — worse. I’ve never seen such a broad outpouring of open contempt, hatred, and fear of a US Presidential candidate. I’m not sure it has ever happened in US history.

A lot of people hate Hillary just as much. The level of insanely violent hatred she inspires in extreme right-wing quarters is actually frightening. Since I have relatives in that quarter, I’ve seen this hatred first-hand.

Both of these extremes are matched by a broad tail of people who should be supporters, according to the pundits and their conventional political theory, who actually are not. Trump is driving lifelong Republicans completely out of the party, and those who remain to support him appear to occasionally choke on their own vomit. Hillary has a lot of lifelong Democrats wringing their hands and making excuses for her declining poll numbers; the Independents are not coming together under her banner, even when faced with a monstrous buffoon like Trump.

Nobody hates Bernie. Not everyone likes him, or his politics. People certainly get upset about his young, loud, disruptive supporters.

But nobody hates him.

It’s actually not clear who earned the majority vote in the Democratic primary, but it seems safe to say that that both Bernie and Hillary were close enough to tied that, even if we reversed all the suspected fraud in the election process, the nomination would still be up to the superdelegates.

What’s growing clearer is that a Hillary nomination offers a much better chance of handing us President Trump. Or rather, President Mike Pence, a franchised subsidiary of President Trump, Inc.™

The latest poll numbers I’ve seen have Bernie beating Trump by ten points. Hillary actually loses to Trump. Polls change, but there are disturbing trends. Hillary’s numbers keep going down, and neither she, nor her campaign, seems to have any idea how to improve them. Bernie’s numbers keep going up, and he’s not even campaigning.

Bernie has the potential to unite the Democratic Party, draw in much of the Independent vote, and even draw Republican votes away from Trump.

Hillary simply doesn’t. She might unite the Democratic Party, if she tries really, really hard, but Independents are and will remain indifferent, and she will not draw any of the Republicans who can’t stomach Trump. The only way she can bolster her position is to convince more people to vote against Trump.

We’ll see what happens next week.

Bernie or Bust

I need to discuss the Bernie or Bust movement now, I think, because in a few more weeks, the Donkey Party nomination will be over and either a) Bernie will be the Donkey Candidate in a “surprise” turn-around1, in which case Bernie or Bust will become a moot point, or b) Hillary will be the Donkey Candidate, in which case Bernie or Bust will throw a loud temper tantrum and then fade away — and though it probably won’t actually have much effect on the election, if Hillary subsequently loses the election, the media will pull it out and polish it up to a fine sheen as the reason for Hillary’s loss.

I recently watched Susan Sarandon’s interview with Chris Matthews; she’s a Bernie supporter, and though the interview is now two months old, she was at that time on the fence about whether she would vote for Hillary.

Much as I despise Donald Trump and everything he represents, I’m also on the fence about Hillary. I’d like to talk this through.

There are a lot of people out there who think Hillary would be a horrible President. They see the three major contenders in the race at this point as a choice among FDR, Hitler, and Stalin. If FDR is thrown out of the race, they are compelled — if they vote at all — to choose either Hitler or Stalin, and they don’t want to participate in that process.

Should Hillary be nominated, people who feel this way about Hillary probably should conscientiously abstain from voting for President. They aren’t so much Bernie or Bust, as they are Never Hillary, and probably Never Donald as well, so there’s little point in them casting a vote for President. They can write in Bernie as a protest, but no write-in candidate is going to do well. I’d still encourage them to vote for the local and Congressional races — it will make a bigger difference, anyway.

I agree with Robert Reich: Hillary is the best choice for the government we have, while Bernie is the best choice for the government we need. Because I think our government is broken, with massive corruption from legalized bribery that is driving us toward collapse as a nation, I want to see changes that Hillary will not even try to bring about.

But in simple choice between Hillary and Donald, there isn’t much contest. Donald is a pathological liar and a narcissist, and has risen to his current position on the coattails of a movement that is brutish, ugly, ignorant, and nihilistic. Because he is a narcissist, he attracts sociopaths and flatterers to his circle of power. As a narcissist, he’s easily managed by sociopaths who have power. In four years’ time, he’ll be the prisoner and puppet of the machinery he surrounds himself with; being a narcissist, he won’t even know it has happened, and won’t believe it if he’s told. That machinery will be pure evil.

But it isn’t just a simple choice between two candidates. There’s the deeper issue of how we find ourselves in this situation, and that inevitably leads us back to core defects in our election process.

These have come garishly to light in this election cycle.

The Elephant Party was taken over by a brutish mob, following a demagogue. The Party barely resisted. The candidates they put up against the demagogue were — I don’t like using the word, but it fits — pathetic: pale shadows of cartoon cutouts of real candidates, rigid ideologues preaching a failed and increasingly unpopular ideology.

This happened because the Elephant Party made a deal with the Devil back in the 1970’s, to pander for votes, and in two generations, it has destroyed the Party. It may have tarnished the brand beyond redemption: the Republican Party may well vanish in the next generation. If it doesn’t, it will have to rebirth itself.

The Donkey Party has been corrupt — meaning bought-off — for a long time: it was seduced by union money in the 1960’s, and then switched allegiance to the bankers in the 1990’s. I’m sure its love of money goes back to the beginning: it was, after all, originally the party of the Antebellum South, the wealthy Southern land and slave owners whose ancestors came to the US to get rich.

The thing is, this love of money has led the Donkey Party into a lot of stupid behavior over the years, including the widespread vote-tampering in this primary election. If Hillary had been as strong a candidate as they want us to believe, none of that would have been necessary, or even tempting. The problem was, she wasn’t a strong candidate to begin with, and Bernie became a legitimate, and then serious, threat to her campaign. The Donkey Party leadership all across the country panicked and started vote-rigging.

That was a stupid move, because we’re not living in the 1800’s any more: that kind of open-handed vote-rigging gets easily caught and exposed.

Now, in defense of the Donkey Party, I have to point out — again — that it’s a club, and neither Bernie nor the Independents he pulled into this primary are (to put it delicately) their kind of people. They gladly took our money, and our votes for one of their own, but they really, really didn’t want to put out our candidate. They thought Bernie would be a fringe candidate who would bring in a few extra bucks, and it blew up in their faces.

This brings us close to the real problem: an arguable plurality of people in the US do not have any political representation at all. It isn’t that this group can’t vote — though there is a lot of overt vote suppression — but that the entire election is rigged. We routinely are forced to choose between Hitler and Stalin. It’s how the system is set up, and it’s been that way for generations.

Even then, though it’s a horrible shock to anyone who has grown up with the idea of fair elections in a democracy, that’s still not the real problem. In fact, we can argue that rigged elections are necessary to protect us all from the mob. Even if you don’t buy that argument, our flawed system of vote-rigging has been getting by, more or less, for quite some time.

The real problem is that the Parties — the vote-riggers — have lost touch with reality in a changing world.

The point of elections is not to give the people control, but to give the people voice. It is the job of the elected officials to listen to that voice: not to pander to it, nor to “help their constituents” line their pockets, but to pay attention to what is really going on in the country. That’s what representation means.

What’s perfectly clear right now is that they are not paying attention. They are paying attention to the money, and nothing but the money. As the money leaves the middle class and goes to the rich, the government has become an oligarchy. The unrepresented masses are getting restive.

The dysfunctional political parties are creating a disgruntled mob.

So let’s bring this back to the Bernie or Bust movement. A lot of people wouldn’t vote for Hillary on a bet. That’s fine — then they shouldn’t. But if the Donkey Party nominates Hillary, a lot of people who don’t really have such strong feelings about Hillary herself, will still want to punish the Donkey Party for being a Jackass. They want to confront the Jackass Party with an existential crisis, by pulling out their financial and political support. They want to make Hillary lose, to punish the Jackass Party for their failure to listen.

I know: I feel that way, too. But it’s the wrong way to go about this.

It’s time to form a new political party. One that will kick the Jackass Party from here to the moon, and give it a real existential crisis, and nightmares, and weak bowels. We need a true and enduring threat to their oligarchy and their corruption and their smugness. We need a party that offers us the kind of government we need, not the broken and out-of-touch kind we have.

Let’s call it a Progressive party.

In that context, we have to ask the question. If Hillary is nominated for the Jackass Party, which will aid the most in supporting the creation of a Progressive Party? President Hillary? Or President Donald?

Arguments can be made for either approach.

Electing President Donald will, if we survive the experience, unite a lot of people with a common enemy, but I think it will strengthen the Jackass Party in the end. And we might not survive the experience.

Electing President Hillary will buy time to set up a political party that has some clout. It will give people four (or eight) more years to see the flaws in the Jackass Party and its candidates’ policies. We still might not survive the experience, because our continuing out-of-touch oligarchy is actually destroying the country by inches: but I think we probably have eight years left.

I’m still waiting to see what happens at the Jackass Convention. The superdelegates should promote the stronger candidate, and that’s Bernie. I suspect they won’t. If they do nominate Hillary, I’ll probably vote for her. Just to buy some time.

But I’m good and ready to put the Jackass Party out of business. Who’s with me?


[1] Meaning a result other than the one the corporate media has been trying to push on us.

Feeding the Poor

Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store, and on my way from the parking lot to the front door, I was approached by a young man who asked me for money.

We have a substantial homeless population in the area. I’ve never gotten a convincing answer as to who these people are, though there are many opinions and theories. They could be homeless people from San Francisco. They could be the home-grown poor. They could be part of the itinerant population of illegal pot-harvesters in the area. There are some theories about how this is the only county in northern California that is “soft” on the homeless, so they come here because they get free stuff. There are other theories about mental patients from Ronald Reagan’s war on mental health care back in the ’80’s, still wandering the streets like zombies. There are still other theories about other counties actually busing their homeless problem here. Some of the homeless are clearly mentally ill: they walk down the street shouting angrily at people who aren’t there — or at least, who aren’t visible to me. Others look healthy and capable.

This young fellow was one of the latter. He said he was trying to raise $60. It was a complicated tale he tried to spin in the twenty seconds between me and the door, involving some official social program in Ukiah that had put him up in a hotel south of town that cost $60 a night to stay in, that he somehow had to come up with. He said that he had most of it, but he needed another $22.

I’ve been around long enough to not really believe anyone’s story on first hearing, especially when he’s asking for something. I knew I didn’t have any idea what the kid really needed the money for.

But it touched me that he was so specific. Twenty-two dollars. Not twenty. Not fifty. It wasn’t a sob story about getting back to his dying maiden aunt in Oregon, or how he hadn’t eaten in a week, or how he was a homeless veteran. It was a simple financial goal, to have a roof over his head tonight, and he said he was close to reaching it.

Doubtless a con, I thought. He’s figured out that people fall for the old I’ve-got-a-financial-goal approach. And this business of being in a program that sends him out, unsupervised, to drum up sixty bucks by begging stinks like bullshit. Just give him the brush-off.

The angel on the other shoulder whispered, What a fine Republican way to look at this. Congratulations! Why don’t kick him, while you’re at it, and scream, “Get a fucking job!”

The heart has its reasons. I stopped, pulled out my wallet, and handed him a twenty.

He thanked me, politely and sincerely, and then he said there aren’t many people like me around: most people would give him a quarter, or a small handful of change, or a dollar. He said it was hard to come up with sixty bucks, begging: an all-day, exhausting effort. When someone like me came along, it really, really helped.

I’ve been thinking about that interaction on and off all week.

UnknownEveryone cites the old metaphor about teaching a man to fish. If I knew how to fish, I could probably teach someone, and yes, that would be better than giving him a fish.

The problem is, I don’t know how to fish.

Yes, I know how to fish, that thing with the pole and the hook and the bait — at least well enough to get good and wet and come back to a cooler full of beer and brats without too much more injury than a sunburn and a rash of mosquito bites. I can even make up stories about how much I enjoyed every hot, itchy minute of it. But if I actually had to live on the fish I caught, I’d starve to death. So no, I don’t really even know how to fish.

But this metaphor isn’t about fishing, it’s about surviving in our modern US society. And I don’t really know how to do that, either.

The truth is, I’ve never had to struggle to survive. It’s partly this thing that racial minorities in the US call “white privilege.” It’s partly that I was raised in a stable middle-class family during that brief period in US history when stable, middle-class families were common, with enough to eat, enough to take an annual family vacation, enough for piano lessons, swimming lessons, and summer camps. It’s partly that I was fearsomely school-smart in that brief period of US history when public education was valued and funded and offered career paths. It’s partly that, pretty much by accident, I picked up some mad skills in software design and development, and then sleepwalked into that brief period of US history when those skills were not only in demand, but proved — unlike almost every other profession in the country other than larceny — to be relatively recession-proof.

Now, I have a killer resume, top-game skills, experience, strong personal references, and that white privilege isn’t going anywhere soon.

What if I had none of that? What if I’d never had it? What if it all became somehow worthless?

I don’t know this young man’s story. Abusive home? Meth problem? Mental illness? Police record? Running from bad people? A trust fund baby who spent it all on whores and whiskey and is now flat on his face in the gutter?

Or maybe just an ordinary guy who lost his job, his family, and his home.

What would I do in this young man’s shoes? I wouldn’t even know how to beg. I’d probably die of hypothermia before I starved. If flu didn’t kill me in the first year, depression would.

My so-called “survival skills” in the modern world are the lucky product of privilege and leisure, useful only in a profession that is the product of privilege and leisure, in a society that is the product of privilege and leisure.

I don’t know how to catch a fish — I buy my fish at the grocery store. I can’t teach someone else how to catch a fish if I don’t know how, myself.

What I can do is give someone who asks for help, twenty bucks to buy a fish.