Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fundraising in Extremis

Chen Wenling
Catch of the Day

[日本語訳] [en français]

There are some important projects that need to be up and running starting like yesterday, because they are key to human survival. Unfortunately, they cannot be funded in the usual ways because of the warped nature of market economics and global finance, which dictates that the only goal of investing money is to make more money. The project of averting disastrous outcomes is not a money-maker, per se, and does not get funded. But shipping in millions of plastic orange Halloween pumpkins from China every year is a sure bet, and so the free market prioritizes orange plastic pumpkins above doing what is essential to keep us all alive. The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot.

A good example of this sort of project is shutting down nuclear power stations before the electric grid goes down and they all melt down à la Fukushima Daiichi, poisoning land and sea around them for thousands of years. The electric grid is indeed going down: the rate of power supply disruptions has been increasing exponentially in the US. Just recently a large and important piece of central Boston went dark because of a transformer explosion. The response was to roll in diesel generators to provide emergency power.

The transformers within the grid tend to be old, sometimes decades old, are at this point only built overseas, and, since they are expensive, there aren't too many spares sitting around. As this infrastructure ages (as it does, and will continue to do, since there is no money to update it) such incidents increase in frequency, putting greater and greater pressure on already scarce and expensive diesel supplies. Already in many places emergency diesel generators are run not just in emergencies, but to fill in gaps in the power supplied through the grid during peak load hours. Diesel is already used for sea and land freight, as well as for most other heavy machinery, and there is not much of it to spare anywhere in the world, so the idea of replacing the electric grid with local diesel generators runs into a very serious problem almost immediately. In fact, looking at the many reports of diesel shortages around the world, it already has.

An extended blackout is fatal to a nuclear power plant. Without a grid to power, the reactors have to be shut down, but they still need to be cooled in order to avoid a meltdown. The power to run the cooling pumps comes from the power plant itself, or the electric grid, or, if both are down, from, you guessed it, diesel generators. There is usually only a few days' worth of diesel on hand; beyond that, cooling water boils out, the zirconium cladding of the nuclear fuel assemblies catches on fire, and the whole thing melts down and becomes too radioactive to even go near, never mind clean up.

Worse yet, most of the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the US are full of spent fuel rods. The spent fuel is no longer potent enough to generate power, but a lot of it is still quite hot, and so the rods are kept in pools of water, which has to be circulated and cooled to keep it from boiling away. The spent fuel contains decay products that span the entire periodic table of elements, many of which are both radioactive and toxic. If the water boils away, the fuel rods spontaneously combust, blanketing the surrounding countryside with a plume of radioactive and toxic products of nuclear decay. The solution is to fish the rods out of the pools, put them into dry casks, and place the casks deep underground in geologically stable formations away from seismic zones. This is a slow and expensive process, for which there is currently no money.

Another, associated and equally important project, is in helping populations, especially those in developed countries, transition to a life without much electricity. In most places, some combination of technologies based on renewable sources of energy needs to be put into place to provide electricity for illumination and communications (the only uses for which electricity is critical). In addition, passive and concentrating solar installations can provide thermal energy for domestic and even some industrial uses. This, again, is a large-scale, expensive project, requiring a high level of funding over an extended period of time. It is also not expected to be any sort of money-maker: nobody will want to pay to have their multi-kilowatt domestic electric system replaced with a few LED lights and chargers for portable electronics, and go back to washing dishes and clothes by hand in solar-heated water. They'd rather just stay comfortable, and then, when that is no longer possible, just sit silently in the dark wearing dirty clothes.

And so, where would all of this money come from? Certainly not from governments: they are too busy bailing out the banks and finance companies that provide the politicians with their political campaign funds. That only leaves private individuals, so let's examine them as a potential source of this critical funding.

Taking the United States as an example, and going up the economic food chain starting from the bottom, we have the downtrodden: the various victims of slavery, genocide, economic exploitation and racial and ethnic discrimination that made this country great. Let's just call them “the poor people.” They serve a key function in society: that of making the slightly less downtrodden worker drones feel superior, thinking “at least we are better off than they are” and continuing to labor for a pittance. Funding large projects is not one of the functions of either of these population groups, although they may be tapped to provide labor, and they do buy an awful lot of lottery tickets. Most of them are either destitute, or poor, or surviving paycheck to paycheck, mired in debt.

Next we have the much smaller group of people who do have a non-negligible net worth. Since the term “middle class” has become all but meaningless, let's just call them “the rich people.” This group is shrinking every day, as more and more people come to measure their wealth not by how much then own but by how much they owe. If you think that savings and debt are diametrically opposed, you may be right, in a strict sense, but only if you ignore the essential purpose of money for the rich people, which is to make them feel rich. To feel rich, they need two things. The first includes all sorts of accoutrements of being rich: flashy cars and clothes, latest gadgets, women with large silicone breast implants, ski vacations and so on, and it doesn't matter too much whether these are procured by spending money or by running up debts; they feel rich either way, or at least richer than someone else they can look down upon, which is all that really matters. The second includes the abstract and addictive thrills of handling large sums of money, be they theirs or borrowed; the purpose of money is to make more money, and the purpose of debt is to make more debt. Parting with their savings to avert disaster and accept a more humble way of living will not make them feel rich in either of these ways.

Lastly, we have the über-rich: those who have simply too much money. People like George Soros or Bill Gates make a big deal of their philanthropy, promoting democracy or fighting malaria; couldn't they help? Theoretically they could (they certainly have the money) but we have to understand what they are. They are vampires. They suck not our blood, literally, but our time and our toil. We get a “living” and an increasingly empty promise of retirement (once we are too old to be useful to them) on an increasingly devastated planet; they get everything else. The way they confiscate our wealth varies—Soros stole people's savings by speculating in currency markets; Gates charged a “Microsoft tax” by foisting on the world a buggy, bloated and insecure operating system with the complicity of the US government; the Waltons who own Walmart did it by shipping US jobs to China while driving small businesses in the US out of business. But the way they extend their largess does not vary: its purpose is to make them look like they are good men. To gain some perspective on what that means, here is a poem by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Slavoj Žižek:
The Interrogation of the Good

Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.
You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?
Hear us then: we know
You are our enemy.
This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall.
But in consideration of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.

The über-rich thus have two functions in society. The main function is to suck wealth out of the Earth and out of humanity as efficiently as possible. The ancillary function is to spit some of it back out in a way that makes them look like the Earth's and humanity's benefactors. But there is a problem with this balance of payments: in order for the Earth and humanity to derive a net benefit from their activities, they would have to spit out as much, if not more, as they suck in. In the process, they would cease to be über-rich; in effect, they would cease to exist.

And here we come to the crux of the argument. The only possible sources of funding for our project of making the planet survivable for future generations are the über-rich, but in the process they have to cease to exist. Brecht's approach is both simple and dramatic, but a more humane option can be imagined. There is a certain point in time when people are particularly malleable when it comes to the question of disposing of their money: on their deathbed. Lying in extremis, one inevitably ponders the fact that “you can't take it with you,” thoughts of a potentially unpleasant world beyond death begin to bedevil the mind... With the right sort of persuasion, dramatic results are often achieved by priests, heads of nonprofits and other mendicants. It is at this point that a pitch for saving what's left of the planet may succeed.

Imagine our über-patriarch lying in extremis. Arrayed before him are his various (ex-) wives (in a Western harem the wives are spaced out in time as well as in space, to abide by the local bigamy laws) and their various children, all waiting for their bit of the legacy. There is the leathery old harpy who came first, the now wilted trophy wife who tried to hold it together with facelifts and implants and Botox, but now looks like a partially deflated balloon animal, and the pretty but sociopathic young nymphomaniac that's been keeping him (and his bodyguards) company of late. They are all hideous in their hypocritical concern for his well-being/wish for his speedy death. The children are hideous in their own way: all practiced at the healthy sibling rivalry in who can do the absolute least to appease the daddy-monster and avoid being disowned. Maybe somebody becomes suspicious that the old ogre will leave all the loot to his favorite, and the favorite is found in the wine cellar, choked to death with a silk scarf. There is a reason why posh English-language writers write so many murder mysteries, and it's the same reason that landscape painters paint so many trees: it's what grows there.

But then a group of dignified and austere gentlemen arrives and asks for an audience. They are all bona fide members of a secret society with which our ailing patriarch is well acquainted, and they lay out a plan: his legacy is to be added to their war chest, which will be used to wage total war to win a survivable future. He will die so that the Earth may live. The lawyer is summoned, the Last Will and Testament is hastily amended and signed, and the patriarch expires in bliss.

And if that doesn't work, then there's what Brecht suggests.


Deskpoet said...

Easily one of your best posts, Dmitry. It has everything I've come to expect from you: wit, insight, fairness, all blended with a touch of venom.

And it ends with a nice fantasy coupled with a practical solution. Well done.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Conscript labour seems inevitable.

It would not surprise me if, at some point in my remaining lifetime, I or people I know are forcibly marched to install (or produce) electrical transformers (or do some other, similar task.)

And I'm not certain that I, for one, will have to be marched at gunpoint. In overall societal usefulness, it sure beats babysitting servers and other IT junk - idiotic makework that has stolen away the waking hours of what seems like half of all of the thinking people on this continent.

Anotherplayaguy said...

As to the fantasy of the uber rich leaving their money for the good of the planet, let's finish the story. After leaving his wealth to the earthers, the relatives, partners, and money hounds sue to have the new will thrown out, keep the case in the courts until far past the time it is too late and then end up, a la Bleak House with nothing except richer lawyers.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Another -

What part of "total war" don't you understand?

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

I fully expect to see total war between "us," and, well, "them." But I will be pleasantly surprised if "we" were to win.

There is no historical precedent for such a thing. The aftermath of a revolution is a sort of Petri dish for sociopaths.

Unknown said...

You wrote: "The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot."

Mrs. Romney's Secret Service "handle" is "Golden Glove." "(AssociatedPress) Mitt Romney laid claim... with a fistful of primary triumphs, then urged all... to "hold on a little longer, a better America begins tonight."

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to imagine "They" can not see what is happening, yet they continue to do what they have always done. It does seem that "Total War" is fast approaching.

deflationista said...

"The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot."

One of the finest sentences ever written. Good job, DO.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

invisible hand attached to invisible idiot. Yes, I think that is an accurate assessment, but perhaps a fortunate rather than a tragic state of affairs. After all, the hand attached to the idiot created the good as well as the bad in our society apparently without any forethought and maybe it is fitting that the idiot's works get abandoned with the same lack of forethought. I think it is the engineering viewpoint that if you engineer yourself into a corner, you can engineer yourself back out of it. But what if the idiot who stumbles into a corner also manages to stumble back out of it?
I think that we are capable of planning as individuals but in aggregate stumble along like idiots.
It might be convenient to blame the rich for our predicament but I think they are more of a result of a larger dynamic than the cause of it.

Tom O'Brien said...

It would make a nice reversal to the way that people were driven off their land to force them into wage labour! Now we drive them off their money and give it to the poor and needy. Professor Michael Perelman has done some great research on the early economists that shows how the said one thing in public about the liberty of free-markets, and in private talked about how they could drive people from their land and self-sufficiency and keep them employed and hungry on subsistence wages. Here is an interview I just did with Michael Perelman on the topic:


Unknown said...

You mention "vampires". I have the scenario illustrated here:


Spaz Galore said...

Thank You DO.
Even though all the bad bio-feedback loops with the machines of the species and the machines they create - like beauracratic profit structures that reward socio and psychopathic behavior - the computers MLK warned about - are too tragic to talk about as the species goes kicking and screaming in and out of failure. DO still finds a way with his curt style to express some humor.

Lance M. Foster said...

‎"Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.

The war on the Native Americans, like the wars waged by colonialists around the globe, was waged to eradicate not only a people but a competing ethic. The older form of human community was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the primacy of the technological state and the demands of empire. ...Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. "

Chris Hedges: Welcome to the Asylum - Truthdig
The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. - 2012/04/30

colinc said...

Astute and, indeed, unequivocal and irrefutable observations in your opening paragraphs, Mr. Orlov. Alas, I will posit that that is but the merest tip of the iceberg, no pun intended. I beseech you to "look MORE closelier" at the cornucopia of "catastrophes" to which your example alludes. The whimsical fantasy of the remainder of the article was... amusing.

Thank you, Mr. Foster (above), for the Hedges link. That is perhaps the most cogent and coherent article I've seen from him in some time. Moreover, he, too, is "dead-on-the-money" with his observations and conclusion.

Any notion of "crossroads" is now a distant speck in our rear-view mirror. Globally, we're still accelerating down an increasingly narrow path with no "good" way off. One side is a cliff where "more than 1/2 die" (and really, really horribly) and the other side is a cliff where 99+% die, some more horribly than others. When the "path" finally ceases to exist under the carriage, it will be one or the other.

For further rumination I submit the following. A large portion of the USA recently experienced "summer in March," which was a delight to many, a disaster to others (see MI grape-growers, 1 among many). I see a high probability event within the next 5-7 years that 1 or more major crop regions (e.g. USA "grain belt") will be subjected to a "winter in July," where temperatures drop to freezing or below for a week or two. What happens then?