November - December, 2008

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November 5. Now that the election is over, the next step is to influence the winners. Reid has discovered that you can work the system through careful lobbying of legislative aides:

In our respective congressional districts we may not be able to vote into office anybody who represents our interests, but we can still find individuals who are in office somewhere who are responsive. So far the most promising results have been through carefully crafted sentences and emails to staffers who work for the congresspeople who are on the right committees to work with me on my issues...

Probably the most important thing I've learned is that they are really busy people so you have to express respect for their time by keeping things really concise. If you have something with a deadline attached, I think it helps grab their attention. You have to give them a clear idea of what you need; you want to have a proposition ready, "here's our next step, and the next," etc... A useful phrase I've heard is, "you have to shepherd things along."

November 11. It's hard to explain demurrage currency, because it works by creating an economic system fundamentally different from the one we're used to. I'm going to call these two systems fire economies and water economies. (Coincidentally, there is already an acronym FIRE for "finance, insurance, and real estate", the main elements of the speculative bubble economy that replaced the manufacturing economy in America after domestic oil peaked in the early 1970's.)

In a "fire" economy, money makes money, the same way that fire catches more things on fire. A very small fire is hard to keep going, but a large fire is hard to put out, and it tends to grow and consume everything in its path. There's a saying: turning ten dollars into twenty dollars is very difficult, but turning ten million into twenty million is inevitable. This is not a natural law but a human law, created by human rules. The two big ones are interest and rent. Both depend on deeper rules that money and land can be "owned" by someone who is not using them, and on top of that, they allow the "owners" to leverage their wealth/power into more wealth/power, by charging fees to non-"owning" users. The result is a giant river of money flowing from the have-nots to the haves, so that wealth and poverty, power and weakness, are in positive feedback loops. Because the only negative feedback is collapse, collapse is inevitable, and often violent.

In a "water" economy, wealth and poverty have negative feedback, and masses of money are like waves in the ocean -- the higher they get, the more they are pulled down by gravity, and the lower the troughs get, the more they are filled in. There are waves, even big waves, but they move around, and individual water molecules are constantly moving up and down. It's easy to make money because it's easy to lose money. In fact, in a system without perpetual growth, the only way to have upward mobility is to have equal downward mobility.

We can build a water economy simply by setting up rules that make concentrations of money shrink over time. If this is the normal behavior of the system, and if everyone knows it, then people who find themselves with extra money will not hoard it, but spend it buying goods and services from people with less money, and then those people will spend it instead of hoarding it, and the wave will keep moving. And because negative feedback is built in, the system has equilibrium, and economic collapse is not necessary.

So how do we keep concentrations of wealth shrinking? The way it's been done historically is by setting up money itself to have built-in depreciation. This Charles Eisenstein chapter, The Currency of Cooperation, covers some examples. Another is the Brakteaten system. And several readers have argued that the same thing could be done with inflation, although I think their point was, "Inflation does the same thing as demurrage, inflation ruins economies, therefore demurrage is bad."

The difference is in the context. What we know as "inflation" is not a planned permanent mechanism to create negative feedback in wealth. It's a feature of an economy designed to create positive feedback in wealth. It's not an ocean of water, but water thrown on a fire, which can moderate the flames or put them out.

To use inflation to create a water economy, the rate of inflation would have to always be higher than the highest interest rate (and also the highest rate that wealth could "grow" through other mechanisms like rent). Now you might say, in that case, nobody would lend money. That's exactly the point! Lending would exist only as a charity, not as a means to profit. If you wanted to buy something big, you would do it by saving instead of borrowing. And if you wanted to profit, you would have to do real useful activity. Anyone who managed to stay rich in this system would be admired, and would deserve it.

The problem is, if you're trying to do this with inflation, and if it's still legal to charge interest, then the private institutions that want easy profits through lending will get in a race with the public institutions that set the inflation rate. The whole thing will be terribly unstable, unless you make a law setting a maximum interest rate. But if you're going to put a legal cap on interest, and make sure inflation is always high enough so that nobody wants to loan money anyway, then it's best to just cap interest at zero and forbid it completely.

Then the government could just constantly print money into existence, creating whatever it spent out of thin air, instead of collecting taxes. The exact rate would be negotiated through the political system to keep the balance between public and private interests, but suppose that the government created ten percent of the total money supply every year. Then the money supply would grow by a factor of ten roughly every 25 years, and you could just knock a zero off and keep going. It's not unstable because money is imaginary. The inflationary "tax" would be a flat rate, so fiscal conservatives would love it, and it would redistribute wealth, so socialists would love it. It would function like demurrage, but it would be logistically easier than requiring everyone to turn their money in every year.

November 13. Lately I've been leaning away from expecting a catastrophic collapse, but strangely, the thing that makes me lean back toward it is not energy depletion or financial collapse or climate change. It's the American health care system, because I cannot see any way to fix it without a catastrophe. I can think of two alternatives: One would be full-on socialized medicine, where the government owns everything, gives it to us free, pays for it with taxes, and keeps costs moderate. That's politically impossible. The other way, which I prefer, is to somehow reduce costs so much that medical care is cheaper than food. Don't laugh -- in the last ten years I've spent close to $20,000 on food, a few hundred on clothing, and not a penny on doctors or prescriptions, and our ancestors until very recently put much more work into food than medical treatment. Just as we do with food and clothing, we would have cheap but adequate stuff for poor people, and more expensive stuff for rich people, and everybody would pay for it out of pocket.

What stands in the way of both of these systems is the insurance industry. Insurance is a good way to spread the costs of very rare events, like your house burning down. When you apply it to common needs, especially needs met by for-profit industries, then it enables exploding costs. Now that doctors and hospitals are mostly paid by insurance companies, who are mostly paid by employers, consumers are so detached from the details that the market can't keep costs down, and because it's all run by corporations, there is no ethical mechanism to keep costs down.

The only way out of this mess is to tear down the medical insurance industry, and even Obama won't touch that. In fact, the consensus among Democrats is to expand the insurance industry by requiring everyone to pay into it. That would be the most regressive tax in history, a government-enforced poll tax paid to a private industry, and we're supposed to think of it as a benevolent left wing reform.

Two great books on the medical system are Medical Nemesis by Ivan Illich and The Health of Nations by Leonard Sagan. Those links go to reviews, and here's a place to read Medical Nemesis online.

Eventually the beast will get so bloated that no combination of public and private payments can afford to feed it. But I can't imagine how it could collapse gently. How do we get from a system where a short hospital stay costs a year's wages, to one where it costs a week's wages, without hospitals standing vacant while people with broken legs have them splinted by amateurs?

Dougald comments:

It's time to build parallel infrastructures which will be there when the ones we're told to rely on fail us... Is there any reason why a whole lot of amateurs couldn't learn how to do a decent job of setting a broken leg? A guy I met who'd worked with Illich told me about a conference of dentists, at which they'd challenged those present to work out how much of their knowledge they would be able to pass on to non-dentists, if the entire profession was going to disappear. They came to the conclusion that most of their useful knowledge could be taught in about three days. I wonder how much medical knowledge could be open-sourced in that way?

There is another set of obstacles to developing a parallel health infrastructure, though: the legal monopoly of the medical profession. But not every doctor is at ease with their priestly status. If some kind of parallel infrastructure could be created, I guess it would be with the help of those doctors who can see the craziness of the current system.

November 18. Remember how, in 2000 and 2004, many liberals said they would move to Canada or Europe if Bush won? And now that Obama has won, someone raised a funny question: where can McCain voters go? There is no place in the world that's to the right of America on both social and economic issues, not a total hellhole, and not ruled by Muslims. I suppose they could move to Alaska and secede.

But the more interesting point is that it's mostly Americans who think this way. It reminds me of the Lou Reed line: "I do believe, if you don't like things you leave, for some place you've never gone before." And also the Leonard Cohen line: "You, who must leave everything that you cannot control. It begins with your family but soon it comes round to your soul."

Of course, sometimes leaving is the right move. But in America we have a whole culture based on leaving. For hundreds of years, people all over the world who were inclined toward leaving have been coming here. And now that the world is full, and our economy is collapsing, the wealthiest habitual migrants will move on, while the rest of us will be stuck here, and we'll finally learn to make a good life where we are.

November 21. Antiwar politicians locked out of Obama administration: "It's astonishing that not one of the 23 senators or 133 House members who voted against the war is in the mix." We have to be careful how we think about this. Because of our biological history, we tend to think of the president as our father, or as the leader of a small tribe. Really he's like the driver of a giant train with massive inertia and not a lot of options for where it can go. I supported Obama because he's the best "driver" I have ever seen, but the fact remains that the "train" is loaded with slaves and nuclear warheads, and it's crushing baby pandas and headed for a cliff.

Another way to say it: having studied Obama closely over the last year, I trust him to do the best job that's politically possible. Now, by watching what he does, we find out what is and is not politically possible. He's like a scientific testing device, pointing to invisible forces. The observation that he backed Joe Lieberman keeping his powerful Reichssicherheits Committee chairmanship, tells us that the forces behind Lieberman are deep and powerful. The observation that politicians who opposed a disastrous and unpopular war are still blacklisted, tells us that the American military murder-suicide plunge is barely slowing down. I expect several million more deaths before the trend reverses.

On the other hand, the observation that Henry Waxman bumped John Dingell from the Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship, tells us that we have some room for progress on environmental and energy issues.

November 26. Awesome David Graeber essay, Hope in Common:

Hopelessness isn't natural. It needs to be produced... the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, to flourish, to propose alternatives, that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win... Economically, this apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and as a result, it's dragging the entire capitalist system down with it.

December 1. Tim Boucher's latest article, Carnival Culture: The Publick House, is a depressing survey of traditional customs of hospitality, generosity, and community that we have lost in the modern age. As always, I blame Descartes: He did more than anyone to popularize quantitative thinking, and if we have to justify our choices in terms of number and measure, it's easy to justify extreme selfishness and very difficult to justify being nice to anyone or anything. I wonder if the horrors of the industrial age are just symptoms of humans being beginners in quantitative thinking, and when we get better at it, we will be able to see the benefits of altruism by looking at numbers.

December 3. Photo gallery of an etymological atlas, which replaces names with their original literal meanings, and makes this world look like Tolkien! You can buy them here: Atlas of True Names.

December 4-6. A reader comments:

How nice it must be to not have a real job at your age and just sit around all day and live off others. You're obviously an intelligent fellow (smart enough to let others do the work and you reap the rewards) but be honest, do you ever feel guilty, do you feel good about living on someone's else couch in a house that they have to slave to pay rent for while you play on the internet all day?

Nobody ever asks this kind of question to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, even though they also sit around writing all day instead of having "real" jobs, and they consume a lot more resources and more of the labor of others than I do. Of course, the difference is that they operate in the money economy, while I operate in the gift economy. They treat their writing as a zero-sum commodity, and charge money for it, while I treat my writing as a sharable commons, which I can "give away" free without ever losing it. Likewise, when I stay with people, their housing is a sharable commons which they can give without losing anything -- and they feel like they're gaining something, or they wouldn't invite me back.

But from the perspective of Dominator or Prisoner consciousness, any activity seems respectable if money changes hands, even if it's exploitative, and any activity where money doesn't change hands seems like stealing, even if everyone benefits. People often say that money is "neutral", but I disagree. No tool has ever been neutral, and money is a dead thing that takes the place of love: If you love doing something, you will do it without being paid money, and if you are paid money, you will do something without loving it.

Now, I don't think that anyone should feel guilty for participating in the money economy. We should feel grief! I collect and spend several thousand dollars a year myself, because the money economy rules the present age and there is not much room to get outside it. But almost any step we take outside it will help. If I ever own a house, I'll let friends and family stay free, because one of the best ways out of our "slave to pay" trap is for us to move in together and collectively pay less for housing. Then the owning classes will have less power over us, we will consume fewer resources because there will be fewer houses to heat, and with fewer of us going to jobs, we won't need as many cars. And we will have a lot more free time to find productive activities that we enjoy, and to build them into a better society that will grow through the cracks.

Casemeau comments:

I think posts like today are perhaps the most helpful posts for your readers. The main barriers to getting outside the norms are not tangible (like, "where will I get food if I quit my job?") but are intangible. I've been living in a van down by the river for years now, and I quickly forget how hard it was to unlearn and overcome the negativity which was coming from within myself. Those are the most difficult obstacles to freedom. Finding food is a breeze.

I also want to say, concepts like "paying back" and "balancing out" do not apply to a gift economy. Of course, there are some individuals who go through life consistently taking more than they give. How much slack we give them, and when we cut them off, depends on how much we continue to enjoy giving to them, how much we can afford to give, and how much our whole society and landbase can afford to support them. It's an emotional and ecological question, not an accounting question. To paraphrase Fredy Perlman: Trade is something we do with our enemies.

But even that doesn't go far enough, because it's still inside the frame that says it's more desirable to receive than to give. When we have to be told "It's better to give than receive," that means that the opposite belief is embedded in our culture: Whenever something is given, we imagine that the receiver is being helped and feeling good, while the giver is being hurt or drained. But really we often feel more pleasure and satisfaction from giving than from getting.

This is only tangentially related to the issue of money economies vs gift economies. What it's really about is whether we have a psychology of scarcity or abundance. And that is not necessarily related to whether resources are scarce or abundant. It could even be inversely related: Many forager-hunter tribes have had a psychology of abundance while living barely above survival, and America of the last 60 years has had more material wealth than any society in history, while having a scarcity psychology, where no matter how much people have, they never feel like they have enough and they're always afraid of being ripped off.

In American culture, it's actually humiliating to give more than you get. We admire the charitable works of Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie because we know that on the whole they're still way ahead. If you give more than you get overall, you're a loser, a sucker! And it's only been possible for so many people to not be suckers because the whole economy has been "growing" by taking more than it gives, through loans from other countries and through ecological destruction. And now, as economic growth stops and reverses, almost everyone will have the opportunity to learn to enjoy giving more than they're getting, by restoring nature and helping people who are worse off.

December 13 -- a plot twist! The original email's author, Bret, writes:

I wasn't criticizing you nor defending the domination system, but rather trying to make sense of my own guilt for living the way you do. You and I lead very similar lives. I understand how you felt attacked and I sort of wanted it to feel that way so I could see how you would respond, because obviously people who live the kind of lives we do are going to come under heavy attack by a lot of people who think we are simply freeloaders as opposed to someone making a conscious effort to become more free.

December 10. Been thinking about last week's Archdruid post, Taking Evolution Seriously:

...evolution has no levels, it just has adaptations. There is no straight line of progress along which living things can be ranked. Instead, evolutionary lineages splay outward like the branches of an unruly shrub. Sometimes those branches take unexpected turns, but these evolutionary breakthroughs can no more be ranked in an ascending hierarchy than organisms can. They move outward into new niches, rather than upward to some imagined goal.

Therefore, it doesn't make sense to say "that the approaching crisis is part of our transition to a new evolutionary level." Industrial civilization is not "more evolved" than agrarian or forager-hunter society -- it's just better adapted to fossil fuels. And as fossil fuels run out, different kinds of human society will become dominant, but Greer argues that these adaptations will not lead to utopia, any more than industrial society did.

Basically he's throwing down a challenge: Using "evolution" to mean adaptation, can we still make an argument that human societies of the future will evolve to be much better than societies of the present and past?

Yes, because we are adapting on more than one level. There's no reason to think we're going anywhere merely by adapting to changing food/energy sources. But we are also adapting to our own expanding body of experience from trying different kinds of cultures and societies.

Now, you could say, hominids have been around for millions of years, so if we were going to find utopia we would have done it already. Or if you're a primitivist, you would say we already did. But to repeat a point I made in Beyond Civilized and Primitive, we're not the same hominids that our ancestors were 50,000 or even 10,000 years ago. Specifically, we developed enormous intellect that gave us godlike powers much more quickly than we could develop godlike wisdom and foresight.

We have barely begun to adapt to these powers. As gods, we're still infants. Eventually our wisdom and foresight may catch up, and we can build stable, enduring, non-repressive and ecologically beneficial societies -- but only if our power stops growing! That's not something we want to do, but if we're lucky, we'll be forced to do it.

December 15. Activist Moving Homeless People Into Foreclosed Houses in Miami. And here's the guy's home page, Take Back the Land. I expected this, but not this soon.

December 22-23. Brian asks:

Why is it so important to get out of debt? What do you think are the possible repercussions for me to stop making my car payment, getting another credit card, taking out the available in cash and buying nitro-pak/gun/boots? Maybe the goons come out hunting down debtors? Highly unlikely.

Don't assume an action can't harm you just because you can't imagine how it could harm you. Certainly the owners can't put all debtors in prison, but they could have other ways of making your life much more difficult. To willfully take on debt with no intention of paying it back is to initiate a zero-sum conflict with forces that are much more powerful than you are, and even if that's morally defensible, it's tactically reckless.

If you already have debt, your best move depends on how easily you can pay it off through frugality and honest wage labor. If that's a realistic choice, then it's a great opportunity to scrutinize your lifestyle, to practice self-discipline, and to learn skills that you will need to thrive in the depression. But if you owe so much money, or interest is compounding so fast, or income is so scarce, that you see yourself struggling for decades and still being in debt, then your best move will be something more drastic. And as the economy collapses, more and more people will be in that position.

December 24. Last night on the radio I heard the funniest song ever, and just tracked it down: The Abominable "O Holy Night"

December 28. Teiji writes:

I'm from Honolulu, and last night our whole island experienced one of the longest blackouts in recent history, 12+ hours. Just for fun, I took my motorcycle out for a ride around town, and instead of chaos and traffic jams, things were orderly. Without police or traffic lights, lanes of traffic would stop to let the other direction go, then those lanes would stop after a while to let the first direction go, and so on back and forth. Only a few of the biggest intersections had cops directing traffic, and I wonder if they were even necessary. I heard on the radio that one pedestrian took it on himself to direct traffic, until the cops told him he wasn't allowed to do that. My theory is that without control and authority, people still know what to do and can manage themselves.

I agree! But control and authority have ways of infecting human systems, both through government and through private power, and both from the inside and the outside. What would happen if the blackout lasted a month?

My current host told me that a few years ago, a ice storm hit the county, and the power was off for weeks. Most people left. They had no skill or confidence in living without electricity, and no animals to take care of, so they got in their cars and drove to places where they could be comfortable. I never completely put this together until he said it, but if America has concentration camps, that's how they'll fill them. We won't have to be forced at gunpoint -- we'll pound on the gates and beg to be let in, if they're called "Evacuee Facilities" and they promise us food and warmth.

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