The next day I wandered out toward the center of town, and on the way saw an apartment building which had burned down, it turned out, the day before. The building had been heated badly, and the fire was caused by an electric space heater. “Windows” had plywood nailed over them, there were blooms of soot over many of them, and the doors were boarded up and posted “Danger, keep out!” The whole structure seemed to be sagging and caving in on itself. The displaced residents stood around wondering what to do. Ironically, this building happens to be across the street from the local fire station, but you see, the fire station doesn't happen to have any “windows” on the side that faced it, and so the firemen were quite unaware of the blaze right next door and slow to stir to action. I later found out that the fire got so out of hand that they had to call in help from the neighboring town.
Heat, house fires... see, living in Russia, I almost forgot about these things. In St. Petersburg, apartment buildings are heated using waste heat from power plants. Steam is distributed throughout the city using a network of buried pipelines which provide both heat and hot water. Their cost is just the cost of distribution (which is, at this point, mostly a matter of upkeep) since the energy would otherwise be wasted. The buildings are so warm that nobody wears sweaters indoors, and it is usually warm enough to lounge around in lingerie. On day one of a cold spell it can get a bit chilly indoors, but then somebody somewhere gives a giant steam valve a quarter turn, and things are again toasty. On the first day of a warm spell it can get positively sweltering indoors, and people start cracking windows open even though it's still below freezing outside, until somebody somewhere gives that valve a quarter-turn in the opposite direction. If you find this arrangement inefficient, then you must be sketchy on the concept of waste heat. Power plants are heat engines, subject to thermodynamic limits which cause 2/3 to ½ of the energy consumed to be released as waste heat. Now, there is enough heat wasted by all the power plants in the US to heat every single inhabited structure in the entire country, but instead that heat is vented to the atmosphere or used to heat the rivers and the ocean, and then quite a bit of the electricity they generate is wasted using electric space heaters. In turn, these space heaters cause a lot of house fires.
During my stay in St. Petersburg I did not see a single fire or fire engine, or hear a single fire engine siren. Buildings in St. Petersburg do not have fire exits or fire escapes; they don't need them. The place does not burn. The Emergencies Ministry publishes weekly statistics for things such as fires, and they bear out my casual observation. The reason for this is that houses in St. Petersburg are made of nonflammable materials: masonry and, more recently, reinforced concrete, insulated with hard plaster. If you proposed building something out of flammable materials, such as wood or vinyl siding, your project would not be approved. The walls tend to be thick—5 courses of brick or more—to provide both insulation and the thermal mass to hold in heat. Doors are made with a core of steel plate. Thus, the worst that can happen there is an isolated apartment fire.
Here in Boston, however, houses are made of flammable sticks covered in flammable plastic, the walls are kept thin to waste as much heat as possible, and the “windows”... you see, windows are like doors in that they need to both open and to close tightly to avoid leaking heat, with the additional requirement of letting through light. And so, Russian windows are basically doors with glass panes in them, that swing open on hinges. But not in the US, all because of some loon of an Englishman who—back in that country's dim and miserable past when the English were so poor that they couldn't even heat their houses and just sat shivering around a fireplace—decided that “windows” should consist of two empty glass picture frames (square ones) that slide up and down and rattle around in loose-fitting slots, letting through as much air as possible even when shut. The English then started calling normal windows “French windows,” to signal that such continental tendencies would not be tolerated. This curse of an invention then spread to all the other English-speaking countries, including the US.
And so the Russians heat with waste heat from power plants, build well-insulated houses out of nonflammable materials and sit around in their lingerie even as mercury freezes solid and snow-dunes drift slowly past, while the Americans heat their flammable, badly insulated stick-built houses with oil, gas and electricity, do their best to battle hypothermia and are often forced to choose between turning up the heat and being able to pay for food. Does this mean that the Russians are smart and the Americans stupid? I don't think so. People are people. But there is a cultural difference that's worth pointing out, and it comes down to just one thing: short-term thinking. Historically, the Russians seem to have been less susceptible to the short-termism that afflicts so many Americans. This may be less true now, with the recent hectic pace of development in Russia, but still there is plenty of social inertia causing people to continue to ask and re-ask the same inconvenient question over and over again: “And then what?” (“Ну а потом что?”)
Wouldn't it be nice if short-term decisions had short-term consequences and long-term decisions had long-term consequences? Well, too bad; it's the other way around. Short-term decisions have long-term consequences because they tend to lock you into an arrangement that is beneficial in the short term but detrimental in the long-term. Long-term decisions have short-term consequences because planning for the long term incurs short-term expenses. For example: in the short term, it is cheaper to nail houses together out of sticks and put them up in places far removed from the power plants that could heat them for free, but in the long term the heating bills, the house fires and the expense of keeping up a temporary structure tend to get out of hand. On the other hand, in the long-term, it is cheaper to build houses next to steam mains supplied free of charge by a power plant, out of solid masonry, and with steel plate doors and insulated double-windows (saving on fire alarms, fire escapes and fire departments) but in the short term this is more expensive.
What's worse, the consequences of short-term decision-making are cumulative over time: the long-term consequences of short-term decisions just keep piling up. But people are loathe to admit the errors of their ways, and can rarely be made to accept the consequences of their decisions. Instead, the tendency is to regard these consequences as new, entirely unexpected short-term problems to be solved with more short-term thinking. The result is a tendency to double down on every bad bet, and beyond a certain point the consequences magnify and feed on each other until they add up to an intractable, systemic crisis where no more short-term solutions can be found.
* * *
The monkey trap is, as the name suggests, a device for trapping monkeys. It is ingenuous in its simplicity, and also in the fact that it does not actually trap the monkey at all: it is the monkey that does the trapping. The trap consists of a hollowed-out gourd tied to a tree using a vine. The gourd has an opening just big enough to admit a monkey's paw when it isn't clenched into a fist. Inside is a banana. The monkey reaches inside, grabs the banana, but cannot withdraw it. Even as the hunter approaches to collect it, it cannot bring itself to unclench its fist, let go of the banana and escape. What traps the monkey is the monkey's own internal cost/benefit analysis, which is slanted toward the short term, coupled with its inability to consider the long-term effect of its short-term decisions. It is a perfect metaphor for what has caused the US to go off the rails.
Let us take another look at Russia. St. Petersburg now has a standard of living that compares favorably to many places in the US, including some of its more prosperous cities. Salaries are still considerably lower, but then so are the costs. In Russia, many consumer products, such as clothes, electronics, furniture and all of the other things that can cost almost arbitrary amounts of money, are quite expensive, and few people can afford to own closets full of clothes they hardly ever wear. On the other hand, necessities are quite reasonably priced: housing, education, heath care, communications, transportation and all the other basics are far more affordable. The US is the polar opposite. Here, all sorts of consumer items can be had for next to nothing, but when it comes to the necessities (housing, education, health care, communications and transportation) the norm seems to be to bleed people dry.
With housing, the major issue is that incomes have been falling for decades, but housing prices have only gone up. Housing is a cost, not an investment, because a residence is not a productive asset but a place to eat, sleep and recreate. The obvious long-term solution is to crash the real estate market, bulldoze unpromising suburban subdivisions and revert them to farmland, then build non-flammable apartment buildings next to power plants to provide affordable housing. Next thing you know, everybody suddenly has plenty of disposable income and the economy takes off. But that's long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to prop up ridiculous real estate valuations by buying up defaulted mortgages at face value and hiding them inside the Federal Reserve. And so that's what's being done.
With education, the monkey trap was assembled in stages. First, the value of a college education was inflated to the point where only college graduates could get the remaining good jobs. Next, college education was pronounced a birthright, and financial aid was extended to make it universally accessible, on terms that amount to a lifetime of indentured servitude. Next, the price of higher education was inflated out of all proportion to its value, to cash in on the bonanza of free government-guaranteed money. And so now we have a ridiculously overpriced higher education system that is considered mandatory even though for most people earning a degree no longer guarantees an income sufficient to repay the loans. The obvious solution is to do away with the now meaningless college degrees and fall back on certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and other ways of getting people directly into the workplace. But that's long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to make higher education even more mandatory, but somewhat more affordable, by automating it: instead of an actual lecture hall, students are now treated to a virtual experience of listening to a talking head robo-prof over the Internet from the comfort of their parents' basement. The only two subjects that can be taught using this method are test-taking and masturbation.
I could make a similar argument with respect to health care, communications and transportation. Perhaps I will do so next week. Or perhaps you've caught on already. I hope that this will be enough to make you allergic to short-termism.
* * *
But who, you might ask, are the monkeys? Well, that's the funny bit (at least to me). The real monkeys are the people running the system: the people who think they have it made. You see, they can't let go of the banana inside the gourd, because holding onto it gives them power. They are all the people who benefit outlandishly from the current system of bleeding the system dry: the college administrators, the health care administrators, the various managers who make six figures and beyond, and who are all lavishly rewarded for bringing in good quarterly and year-end results, a.k.a. short-term thinking. They think that holding onto that banana inside the gourd for another round will make them even better off. But I believe they are wrong.
Their prize “banana,” expressed in financial terms, consists of stocks (propped up by endless quantitative easing), bonds (issued by a bankrupt government drowning in debt), real estate (which will have to be protected by a private army as the land lapses into chaos), and cash (fiat currency, subject to sudden bouts of hyperinflation). Where are they going to escape to with all this loot? Costa Gringa? El Gringador? The fabled kingdom of Abu Gringadabi? Once the abovementioned pieces of paper all turn out to be worthless, they may not get too far beyond “¡Sus papeles, por favor!” You destroyed your own country; what do you plan to do with ours? Or are they going to construct a luxury artificial island anchored on some shoal in the middle of the ocean and live there? If so, whose navy is going to protect them from the pirates who will show up and say: “What nice island you have! You want something bad to happen to it?” (They only watched the dubbed version of that movie, and something got lost in translation.)
You see, their short-term thinking is... short-termist, enough said, while their long-term thinking is mostly a work of fantasy. You don't want to be like them, do you? In that case, stop thinking for the short term! Oh, and if you do get stuck in a monkey trap: let go the banana, withdraw your paw, hold the gourd hole-down and shake out the banana, grab the banana, run up a tree and eat the banana while, optionally, making eye contact with the hunter. Got that?
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