The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: April 2021 Page 1 of 3

Commentary on Biden’s Speech

Biden’s turning out better than I expected on domestic economic issues, though that isn’t a high bar. This speech (full transcript) is very interesting, though the question of how much he can get through Congress remains. My telegraphic thoughts on reading it.

The IMF predicting six percent growth isn’t that impressive, just because after Covid there was always going to be a boom.

Getting rid of all lead pipes is really good and has needed to be done for decades.

Getting high-speed internet to every home is good. Hope there’s some price controls in there, because the ISPs definitely rip people off (I’ve seen profit numbers as high as 97 percent.) They also need to be sure it actually gets built; money has been given to providers to build before, and they haven’t bothered.

Upgrading the power grid is absolutely necessary. We’ll see what the details are. It needs to be done in a way that forces proper maintainance. PG&E has let literally thousands of fires happen because they’d rather pay dividends than fix their infrastructure.

The green plan is pretty good. Insufficient, but better than anyone else has done. Half a million charge stations, more energy efficient buildings, planting over crops and some industrial policy to create green machinery in the US. Someone has finally got it through their thick skull that most of the jobs required in upgrading buildings and so on can’t be offshored and outsourced, something I and others have been arguing for decades. Happy about this.

Some stuff about $15/minimum. Doubt Manchin will let it through, but if I were Biden, I’d use it as a cudgel for 2022 to get a majority he can use. Really, even $15 is stupid. It should be about $22 and indexed, ideally to the increase in CEO compensation.

A lot more money for research. Excellent.

Universal pre-school. I think it’s a terrible idea, but I know most experts disagree. Have to take the kids from the parents and soon as possible and train them to be obedient workers.

Two years of free community college; give workers slightly better, but non-elite jobs.

Some ACA fixes, none of which will make it good or people not hate it, because insurance companies controlling what you can get and whether it gets paid for is always going to suck.

Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. See if Congress lets it through, but a good thing.

Top bracket for those earning 400K or more up to 39.6 percent. No way Machin lets this through, but a good market for a start. It should be 90 percent, of course.

The fixes to capital gains are great, and something America (and most other countries) have needed for ages. Taxing capital gains less than income was always ridiculous and unfair.

Lots of red meat rhetoric against CEOs and execs. Nice.

China cold war still on: China must play by American rules, and the US military will stay in the East. (More on this in future pieces, this is important.)

Red meat on Russia. Self congratulation on Afghanistan (earned, but continuing drone bombing it is bad.)

Gun control talk: wants the loopholes closed and background checks on everyone (I doubt this can get past Congress. If it does, the Supremes will veto it.)

Immigration: don’t blame me, I sent a bill and Congress won’t pass it. Also we should help nations where we’re getting a lot of refugees from so they don’t need to flee to  us.

Call back to FDR. They clearly want to make Biden the next FDR. He ain’t that, but domestically he’s the start of the end of neoliberalism, perhaps, and if so, that’s enough and more than I expected. None of this stuff is exactly radical, or sufficient BUT it is a reversal of trend, and that matters.

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Why Progress Always Required Space Travel

When  I was a teenager I read The Club of Rome’s “Limits To Growth.” The Club ran consumption, pollution and population numbers thru some simple models to see what would happen. The model misses climate change, so we’re worse off than they expect (much worse off) and some other factors, but the stuff it models has been coming in approximately as expected.

The standard model of progress, often assailed by thinkers like John Michael Greer, assumes that there aren’t significant limits to growth that we can’t substitute out of. Run out of oil? Switch to solar? Run out lithium, figure out another way to make batteries? Run out of water, mass-desalinization? Run out of soil, make soil or grow plankton in water. Run out of fish? Fish farms.


But the people who created the model, who championed it, aren’t as optimistic and stupid as their opponents often indicate: the standard future model of people who believe in progress requires space exploitation precisely because we can’t assume we can always find a substitute on Earth for what we lack.

If you want, in other words, to keep GROWTH you must exploit space. Send out the space miners! Harvest solar above the atmosphere. Explore, exploit, grow!

You don’t necessarily have to colonize space in any meaningful way to do this, though the earlier imagineers thought we would: this can be done by robots and telepresence mostly, with a very few actual humans in space.

Note that this side-cuts most of the standard complaints about space colonization: other planets nearby all suck, and are worse for life than Earth (even shitty places on Earth like Antarctica) and space itself is full of deadly radiation and other problems we don’t know  how to fully mitigate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re just sending out robots to get stuff (lithium, say) and bring it back.

BUT none of this matters in a larger sense because the real problem isn’t running out of lithium or copper or helium or any other simple substance like that.

It’s destroying the biosphere, climate and ecosphere

Earth’s true wealth is an intricate web of life, from creatures simpler than bacteria all the way up to blue whales, including plants and fungi and insects and a wild variety of creatures we don’t understand or haven’t even discovered.

That, along with Earth’s climate, is what you can only get on Earth, at least within the solar system. That’s what we’re destroying.

So… space exploitation? Why not. It may help deal with some bottlenecks. But it still won’t let us continue GROWTH and the standard progress model, because the real limit to growth is simply that if we go past the Earth’s carrying capacity — which I will say, despite some disagreeing with me — we unequivocally have, we then start destroying that carrying capacity and all the things we must have that only Earth supplies.

Earth is the Jewel, the most important place in the universe for humans, right now. We cannot do without it and what is important about it is not copper or lithium, it is precisely climate and LIFE (ecosystems). Our destruction of those two things is what makes the standard model of progress impossible.

We’ve got a limited resource, created by processes of evolution which take millions of years to work. We are so ignorant we cannot even create a self-sustaining biosphere; we cannot fix what we are breaking.

Anyone and any system destroying the Earth’s climate and ecosphere is thus, then, doing the greatest wrong possible for the future of humanity, and of much life on Earth. Our mass genocide of other species is a slow form of strangling ourselves.

Space can help, but it won’t get us around the real issues. Only true respect for the genuine non-renewable resources we MUST have and which exist only on Earth can create a positive future for humanity and for all the species we have held hostage and not yet murdered, who are unfortunate enough to be trapped on Earth with us.

(Writers need dental care, so subscriptions and donations help.)

All the Futures that Will Not Happen

I’m often amused and saddened by the techno-optimists among us and their fantasies of great futures. Or even the woke folks who think that color and gender and whatnot are the great political frontier.

Let’s run through this. Water.

Baseline Water Stress

To put some numbers on it:

New modeling of the world’s groundwater levels finds aquifers — the soil or porous rocks that hold groundwater — in the Upper Ganges Basin area of India, southern Spain, and Italy could be depleted between 2040 and 2060.

In the US, aquifers in California’s Central Valley, Tulare Basin, and southern San Joaquin Valley, could be depleted within the 2030s. Aquifers in the southern High Plains, which supply groundwater to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, could reach their limits between the 2050s and 2070s, according to the new research.

The thing to understand about this is that it doesn’t show permanent aquifer damage. If you overdraw aquifers, they lose the ability to hold as much water; that reduction is permanent.

Then there is fracking and other forms of poisoning groundwater, though how much is difficult to determine. (It’s not small.)

Meanwhile, the next thing is that important rivers tend to be driven by snowpack runoff and glaciers, but snowpack is becoming less and less and glaciers are receding. We’re talking about rivers like the GANGES and the Yangtse, not to mention all the European rivers which start in the Alps.

So we have groundwater depletion, some of it permanent. We have poisoned groundwater, and we have a reasonable expectation of reduced water in rivers, which in some cases will dry up entirely.

Let’s move on to more fun stuff: ecosystem collapse.

Wildlife Reduction

This number is from 1970, which was already very reduced. You can read accounts of what the Grand Banks were like originally: They could literally dip a pail into the ocean and come up with fish. We’ve massively reduced wildlife everywhere, insect populations are collapsing, and so on. Recent estimates are that the Amazon is no longer a net producer of oxygen, but now produces Carbon Dioxide.

Phytoplankton produce half the world’s oxygen. From 1950 to 2010, the population of phytoplankton dropped 40 percent. We can safely assume losses were not even, but are accelerating.

The general picture in terms of climate change is all bad:

Climate Dashboard 2018

Note that first graph very carefully. There is NO sign in the actual numbers that we are doing anything of importance to stop this trend. Kyoto and Paris have achieved nothing, which is to be expected, since they were voluntary.

Let’s put this all together: massively rising temperatures; more extreme weather events; changes in climate, including rainfall patterns; massive depletion of aquifers at the same time as we can expect many rivers to lose volume or dry up; no effective political action.

One thing that India’s Covid crisis clarified for me is that India won’t be able to handle climate change, so let’s make some predictions.

India breaks up within 20 to 30 years. It dies amid great famines which kill two hundred million or more people. Bangladesh, of course, will go oven sooner, and unleash a tsunami of over 150 million refugees which India does not want, as they are mostly Muslim.

China breaks up 30 to 45 years from now and descends into warlordism. Prior to the breakup, there is a better-than-even chance of war with Russia for Siberia. Again, hundreds of millions of deaths.

The US is going to hurt worse than is obvious: Core areas will hit depletion, and many rivers will dry up. Large chunks of the Southwest will become completely uninhabitable. California’s population carrying capacity will drop massively, unless it moves to mass de-salinization (a dicey prospect).

We’ve just had ourselves a lesson in what exponential growth looks like. There is every reason to expect that at least some parts of ecosystem collapse and climate change will act that way: When break points are reached, they will accelerate, and nothing we can do will stop them. Worst case scenario is a hothouse Earth in which humanity goes extinct, but entirely plausible scenarios see the Earth losing half or more of its carrying capacity. The process will involve a lot of death, suffering, and war.

There’s a decent chance we get a marine inundation event. Rather than water rising by small amounts every year, at some point it rises very quickly, and large amounts of the coast flood permanently.

Remember that the “moderate” estimates have almost all been wrong. The “worst case” scenarios, for decades now, have been coming in correctly.

All of which is to say, whatever future you think you’re going to have, you need to run it past this lens. Does it survive this? Does society spend resources on whatever it is in the face of hundreds of millions of deaths and billions of refugees?

So, no, your future, whatever it is, unless you can instantiate it in the next two decades, probably isn’t going to happen.

The clock is ticking, we are running out of time to do whatever it is we want to do, and it is very likely that we are past the point of no return; that even if we were to go all-out to stop climate change and environmental collapse (we won’t), we could — at best — limit it to “losing half the population.”

lf you’re old enough, none of this matters, of course. But we are now at the point where, if you aren’t 60 and in poor health, or 70 and in good health, you’re probably going to get see at least the start of the really bad times.

We’ll come back to what this means in more depth later, but for now, just make your plans based on this understanding of what the future holds.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – April 25, 2021

by Tony Wikrent

Strategic Political Economy

Plato, Aristophanes and Aristotle on Money-Lust, 399-380 BC
Michael Hudson, April 23, 2021 [Naked Capitalism]

Delphi’s warning that lust for monetary silver (philarguria) was the only thing that could destroy Sparta was echoed by Plato, Socrates and other philosophers accusing wealth addiction of leading to greedy and hubristic behavior that impoverished society at large. Creditors were singled out for reducing debtors to bondage and taking their land.

Near the outset of Plato’s Republic (1 at 331c-d, written c. 380 BC), Socrates (who was put to death nearly twenty years earlier, in 399) discusses the morality of repaying debts in circumstances where this would lead to anti-social consequences. Cephalus, a businessman living in the commercial Piraeus district, states the typical ethic that it is fair to pay back what one has borrowed. Socrates asks if it would be just to return weapons to a man who has become a lunatic. If a madman is intent on murder, Socrates asks, will not returning his weapon to him enable him to commit unjust acts? In view of the likely adverse social consequences, paying back such a creditor would be the wrong thing to do. It all depends on what creditors will do with their returns, and how their actions affect society. Book 8 of the Republic elaborates upon this discussion, describing how wealth leads its owners to act in ways detrimental to society.

Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe

Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, April 19, 2021 [Washington Post]

Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.

Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.

Divisive’: How Corporate Media Dismiss Ideas Unpopular With Elites

[FAIR, via Naked Capitalism 4-19-2021]

The carnage of mainstream neoliberal economics

Capitalism as a Suicide Cult

[CounterPunch, via Naked Capitalism 4-24-20]

…the problems causing such widespread social misery are systemic, means that the solutions need to be so as well. To understand why, the difference between socialism and social welfare liberalism is that socialism requires a redistribution of power— from corporate executives and capitalist owners, to workers. A transfer of power, if not ownership, is what the New Deal accomplished. Conversely, welfare state liberalism subsidizes capitalism. One third of the recipients of food stamps (SNAP) who work, work at Walmart. Seventy percent work. SNAP is a subsidy of low wage employers, not its recipients.

The transfer of power of the New Deal was accomplished 1) through reforms that constrained business in its ability to rob people and crash the economy, and 2) through building public institutions that redistributed power from oligarchs and executives to workers. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 separated investment from commercial banking, thereby leaving investment banks to speculate with their own money. This effectively ended the financial mania that cascaded into the forced sales of bank ‘assets’ in the early years of the Great Depression. As readers know, Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999. The result: a world-historical residential real estate bubble and the Great Recession.

“Local Economic and Political Effects of Trade Deals: Evidence from NAFTA” (PDF)Jiwon Choi, Ilyana Kuziemko, Ebonya Washington, Gavin Wright [National Bureau of Economic Research, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 4-22-21]

From the Abstract: “We show that counties whose 1990 employment depended on industries vulnerable to Mexican import competition via the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) suffer large employment losses (relative to the bottom quartile of counties, counties in the top quartile of NAFTA exposure see 5-8 log-point declines in employment by 2000). Despite large employment losses, we can reject even modest population declines. Trade-adjustment-aid relief rises, but covers a tiny share of the job losses we document, and Disability Insurance in fact displays a much larger response. Exposed counties (many in the upper South) begin the period more Democratic in terms of votes in House elections, but as NAFTA is debated in 1992-1994 they shift in the Republican direction and by 2000 vote majority-Republican in House elections. We show with a variety of microdata, including 1992-1994 respondent-level panel data, that opposition to free trade predicts shifts towards Republican party identification.” • Bill Clinton, good job.

Open Thread

Use comments to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

The Catastrophic Covid Crisis in India

I follow a fair bit of Indian media, as a lot of it is English language, and the last few days in India have unveiled a Covid situation far worse than the stats suggested. People are scrambling for oxygen in particular, with patients in hospitals dying because of its lack. There isn’t enough medicine and bodies of Covid victims are being burned in vast numbers.

At the start of the Covid crisis, I figured that India, with its vast population, inadequate health infrastructure, corruption and idiotic leadership in the form of Modi would be a fiasco. It seemed like it wasn’t so bad, and I couldn’t figure out why, but decided that since I haven’t been  there in decades there was a factor I was missing.

Turns out the main factor was probably under-counting Covid cases.

Meanwhile, where I live in Ontario, Canada, the situation is also dire, though not as bad as in India, with ICUs in the largest metropolitan center so full, they’ve had to move patients in large numbers out.

Worse, the Premier had non-ICU Covid patients moved to long-term care homes — exactly the move that New York governor Cuomo made that caused New York’s LTC disaster and which amounted to him committing mass manslaughter, for which he should go to prison.

Again, Ontario is a place where, at the start of the pandemic, I figured it would be a catastrophe because Doug Ford, the Premier, is a noted incompetent who’s also probably a sociopath or psychopath. In his youth, he was a drug dealer who allegedly enjoyed beating people  up.

But Covid seemed to be going better than I expected, until it wasn’t.

It turns out that bad leadership (Cuomo is also a psychopathic incompetent) is a good predictor for who did catastrophically bad with Covid.

In India, Modi is the fool who demonitized India, getting rid of large bills in an effort to crush corruption, but instead massively damaging the informal cash economy which most Indians live in. Any idiot knew that India, of all countries in the world, was one of the least candidates to move hard towards more e-cash, but Modi is an idiot’s idiot, enamoured both with right-wing Hindutva religious ideology and with neoliberalism, because Indian socialism didn’t work well, so the solution is obviously to do the opposite form of stupdity.

I don’t really have a moral here, except the obvious: that leadership does matter, and that one’s initial impression of competence is usually right. Modi’s incompetent. Cuomo’s incompetent. Trump was incompetent. Ford is incompetent. All of them are also malign: They don’t care about what happens to other people. Ford famously stole money from his brother’s widow, so he isn’t even in the Biden class of at least being good to his own family.

Probably, electing evil, incompetent people is a bad idea, and we should do less of it.

If I wind up dead from Covid, feel free to blame Ford, with a sidecar of blame for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has refused to treat Canada as a country and take charge of Covid efforts in provinces, where the Premiers are incompetent.

As for India, the Indians have my deepest sympathies, and if you don’t care about them, remember that India has the world’s largest vaccine industry, and those vaccines will not be leaving India until Covid is under control there, which means catastrophe in India will hurt many countries, allow even more variants to be created, and kill a hell of a lot more people, far from India.

Turns out that electing an evil moron like Modi effects countries far from India, just as electing Trump, Obama, or Bush effected countries far from the US. Leaders of powerful countries, and India is powerful, matter beyond their borders.

Good luck to everyone led by shitty leaders, Indian, Canadian, and other. In the future, let us remember that mean assholes are usually also incompetent, and to stop electing them.

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The Ugly Reality of America’s Powerful

It’s been a while since January 6th, and on economic domestic affairs, Biden’s turned out somewhat better than I expected, but nothing’s really changed in terms of his legitimacy:

78 percent of Republicans think Biden stole the US election.

That is a broken country, folks. Fourty-five percent think the January 6th occupation was justified, which seems oddly low; I’d certainly think it was justified — if I also believed the election was stolen. In fact, I’d think it was mild, and that far more than that was justified. In a democracy, stolen elections can’t be tolerated, which is why Gore was wrong to stand down in the face of Bush’s theft in 2000.

What the US has, is a broken media system: There are two sets of facts circulating, and often more, on many issues, and people live in completely different worlds. Most Democrats don’t have any Republican friends, and vice-versa.

The weird bit is that false narratives are driven by facts with ur-truth. “Q” is wrong about the specifics, but not wrong that many American elites are pedophiles. Part of the Q myth is that rich people use a drug made from the pituitary gland of tortured children: That’s not true, but some elites do use the blood of young people (in their twenties) to help rejuvenate themselves.

Ironically, there was a great deal of election fixing, mostly by Republicans. It’s like the old joke from the Iraq war era: “We know they have WMD, we have the receipts!” Biden won despite vast Republican efforts to suppress the vote, but Democrats also suppressed the third-party vote, keeping Green candidates off the ballot wherever they could in a sickening anti-democratic display, and did a great deal during the primary that was anti-democratic against Sanders. It’s not that Democrats don’t believe in suppressing votes; they don’t believe in suppressing their votes, and in general elections, the more people vote, the more Democrats win, unless they’re pesky third-party voters.

The UR-Stories told, then, are true. US elites are evil, anti-democratic, and many are at least pedophile-adjacent (see all the pictures of famous politicians and other rich people with Jeffrey Epstein, including Clinton and Bill Gates.)

Even leaving aside the blood bit, the rich do live off the health of young people: The younger the generation, the poorer they are compared to previous generations. The US economy destroys the health of poor people for the benefit of rich people. Ordinary people, by the time they’re sixty tend to look old; rich people tend to still look young, and keep charging around well into their seventies due to avoiding hard physical labor, eating very expensive food (which is, overall, better for them) and using far superior health care, which they can afford, and the poor and middle class can’t.

The US is an oligarchy where the rich and powerful live longer and are healthier and richer because they oppress everyone else. That’s a fact. The mechanisms of how they do so are boring: Obama immunizing all the bankers and helping them steal people’s homes. Trump’s gigantic tax cut for the rich. The IRS hardly auditing rich people. Laws that make it easy to hide money offshore. Private islands where unspeakable lusts are indulged, and entirely legal use of young people’s blood to feel younger.

Most of this is done out in the open. If you were in the right circles, “everyone knew” about Epstein, but he was protected by the intelligence agencies, presumably because pictures of important people with underage girls are very, very valuable. The laws are passed in the Senate; the Treasury and the Department of Justice bail out and immunize the rich and everyone who belongs to the club is taken care of unless they steal from the club (Madoff) or egregiously embarrass the club by constantly talking up their evil like Martin Shkreli, the so-called “Pharma Bro.” Plenty of other pharma execs have jacked up prices and killed people, including for epi-pens and insulin, but those execs didn’t scream about it to the rooftops.

So conspiracy theories like “Q” are garbage, but they work because the ur-truth is that US and Western elites are, in fact, evil and engaged in hurting and killing ordinary people. It’s just that most of how they do it, Epstein aside, is boring and at scale.

So the US is broken. Republicans think the election was stolen. Back in 2000, an election was actually stolen, and voter suppression and election fixing is routine. Rich people do kill and hurt you for money, and a lot of rich people do seem to like under-aged girls, but certainly don’t need to go to some pizza joint to indulge.

There’s no need for “Q” or most other conspiracy theories (though surely, there are conspiracies). Most of the evil is done in the cold light of day.

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The Point People Miss About Navalny’s Imprisonment

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny

So, the “opposition” leader Alexei Navalny is in prison, and is apparently very sick and perhaps near death.

Navalny is not popular in Russia, he is popular in the West. For years he’s been a gadfly for Putin, and little more.

But what got Navalny in prison, and may get him dead, is simple enough: His revelations about Putin’s family, including an alleged illegitimate daughter.

That stepped over a big bright red line. Putin was chosen as Yeltsin’s successor in large part because Yeltsin believed Putin would protect his family after Yeltsin’s death, which he did.

Putin is 68. He recently put in place a law immunizing past Presidents from any crimes they may have committed. He’s not going to be in charge forever.

The trick of being a dictator is leaving peacefully, surviving retirement, and keeping your family safe. For years, Putin has gone to great lengths to keep his family out of the spotlight, and Navalny attacked Putin’s family.

Navalny had an eye for the thing Putin cared most about — for his weakness. He was right.

But if you come for the King’s family, you’d best not fail to take out the King.

(As for Navalny, he’s not a good actor, and if anything, more violently anti-Muslim than Putin. There is no “good” side in this fight.)

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