Friday, December 24, 2010

Bright New Horizons

As Gary pointed out—that I had pointed out—in the previous post, “being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice.” Since then, I have been tossing about in search of better career choice for myself. In this time of high unemployment it is important to think out of the box and look for opportunities to create a new market niche, preferably in a high-wage segment of the economy such as finance, medicine or law.

For a very short while I entertained the notion of establishing a new field of dentistry. Everybody knows of endodontics, periodontics, orthodontics and so forth. I am not a dentist; nevertheless, I thought that I might add one more: scrimshawdontics. I would serve people who desire to have a schooner under full sail scratched into the enamel of one of their upper canines, a likeness of Herman Melville into the other, and, across their upper incisors, a majestic scene of a harpoon boat chasing after a great big whale across storm-tossed seas, men straining at the oars, and, in the bow, a prominent peg-legged figure wielding a harpoon! But I was forced to discard this idea as soon as I realized just how few people would want to spend countless hours in a dentist's chair with their mouth open while I scratch away at their teeth with an etching needle.

And so I have tried to think of another plan, and decided to borrow a page out of Matt Savinar's book. After running a rather popular “doomer” site for some years (the term “doomer” is self-applied in Matt's case; he even referred to himself as a “Juris Doctor of Doom”) Matt decided switch gears and to devote himself entirely to astrology. But the field of astrology seems far too general to me; I want to specialize further, and combine astrology with another discipline, preferably in a high-wage segment of the economy. I also want to use my technical and scientific education and put astrology on a more sound scientific footing by informing it with certain key insights from fields such as astrophysics and information theory. And so here is my new profession: astroeconomist. I will join the ranks of those who profitably combine astrology and economics.

Astrology concerns itself with the relative positions of planets within our solar system and their mysterious effect on the course of human events. But let me ask: Why do planets in this solar system exert greater influence on the course of human events than the planets that orbit all other countless stars within the billions of galaxies that populate the universe? Why is proximity of stellar bodies to us a key factor? This would plausibly be the case if the influence of planetary alignment were known to act through some known physical mechanism whose effect were attenuated by distance, such as the spread of facts of some sort, of the general form “A causes B through mechanism X.” But being unable to attest to the existence of any such X, we are forced to concede that the statement “A causes B” is not a piece of information but, in a strict epistemological sense, the absence of a fact—a statement of ignorance, of the general form “It is not known that A causes B.” Now, while information requires time and energy to propagate through space, and degrades in quality long before that energy becomes diffuse enough to be detectable as single photons, as it does in the vastness of interstellar space, ignorance is not bound by any physical constraints and is in fact instantaneous at all points in the universe. Therefore, we could justifiably assume that it is not just the nearby planets that guide our destinies but all planets in all solar systems in all galaxies, in equal measure.

You are probably used to thinking that the universe is finite; very large, but not infinitely large. However, it may well be the case that the universe is infinitely large, extending infinitely in all directions in both time and space. The leap from very, very big to infinite may seem like a technicality, but it is really a quantum leap, because infinite things have some dramatically different properties from finite ones. For instance, the national debt is very large, but it is not infinite; if it were, the interest on it, for any non-zero rate of interest, would be infinite as well and national default would be instantaneous. Aside from their insidious bigness, infinite things also tend to be infinitely complex, and contain an infinite amount of information. Take, for instance, the transcendental constant π (3.14159265...). It is an infinitely long non-repeating sequence of digits. When calculated with infinite precision, converted to binary and treated as digital data π is guaranteed contain an infinite number of each of the following:
  • A high-quality video of you in flagrante delicto with every other person that ever lived
  • An infinite number of Wikileaks documents containing irrefutable proof that Senator Joseph Lieberman is a Mossad agent, Obama is from the vicinity of the star Betelgeuse, while Dick Cheney is, in some unfathomable fashion, not from but the Crab Nebula itself
  • An infinite number of copies and variants of this very article
More to the point, an infinite universe contains an infinite number of galaxies, stars, and planets, and, it follows, an infinite number of simultaneous planetary alignments. If, as I argue above, all of these alignments, through the force of ignorance, act together in concert irrespectively of distance and time, then the signal conveyed by astrological data is complete randomness: pure, high-grade noise. It is not just any old ignorance but the purest, highest-grade, most reliably fact-free signal imaginable.

And this brings us to astrology's sister discipline, which likewise benefits from purity of ignorance: economics. It is well-known that stocks picked by expert money managers do slightly worse, overall, than stocks picked by monkeys throwing darts. (Good monkey! Here's your bailout!) The reason for this should be obvious: monkeys produce better results because of the superior quality of ignorance that drives their decision-making process. Similarly, economists who struggle with econometric models and statistical data collected by government and industry are sometimes accidentally correct in their predictions, raising expectations and creating false hopes. But if instead economists plugged in the pure nonsense of astrological data averaged across an infinite universe, they could easily achieve a six-sigma rating, being repeatably wrong 99.99966% of the time. And wouldn't that be exciting!? Oh but wait a minute...
Come to think of it, perhaps astroeconomics is not a promising career choice either. Back to square one, then...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peak Empire

[This is a guest post from Gary, who presents data that indicate that the US military empire is already past its peak and may collapse suddenly. Gary uses a methodology for calculating peak empire that is similar to the Hubbert curve which successfully predicted Peak Oil for both the US and, more recently, the world.

It should be noted that the DOD base structure reports on which Gary's analysis is based don't include Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the secret (black) installations all over the world, but it is unclear whether the inclusion of these data would change the picture materially.

As far as the speed of imperial collapse, it varies: Rome took five centuries to collapse but USSR took just a couple of years. Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently wrote: "empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003." My hunch is that McCoy's 22-year estimate is overly generous, and that the collapse of the USA will set a speed record, unfolding over just a handful of very strange days. When will this happen? According to Chris Hedges, it could happen any time now.]

Predicting Collapse

In February, 2009 Dmitry Orlov said the following about predicting the collapse of the US empire: “I have learned from experience – luckily, from other people’s experience – that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA (“F” is for “Former”). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn’t make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person.”

As far as predicting the collapse of the US empire, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting it for 2010, and Johan Galtung has predicted it will collapse before 2020. Hubbert predicted in 1974 that global peak oil was incompatible with constantly growing money, triggering a cultural crisis (See Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon).

Andrei Amalrik died in a car crash in 1980 at the age of 42. Nevertheless, at the risk of making a poor career choice, I will attempt to offer a methodology for determining peak US empire, if not a prediction for its demise. Now that global peak oil is history perhaps it’s time to work on predicting peak empire instead. If you followed the work of Joseph Tainter, he offered the theory of diminishing and eventually negative marginal return to territorial growth and complexity of societies. (See The Collapse of Complex Societies) He offered the following graph to illustrate:

As a result he expected complex societies to reach a peak in size and then begin to decline, similar to an oil peak.

He offered the following examples to demonstrate the principle with historical examples of defunct empires:

From: Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies
Shown above are the territorial areas of the Roman, Ottoman, Russian, and US Empires. The curve for the Russian Empire ends abruptly at 1917 where the curve for its heir—the USSR—takes off. The main point is that empires follow a typical bell curve type of shape.

US Empire

In the case of the US empire, it has not continued to expand by territorial acquisition. The last territory acquired was the Marshall Islands in 1947, which then became a UN Trust Territory, followed by Independence in 1986. What has continued to expand is the presence of US military installations all over the world. As the recently deceased analyst Chalmers Johnson explained, the US is an “empire of bases”, not an empire of colonies. The US has 800-1000 foreign military bases and 4-5000 bases in the US. Colonies are so passé these days. Why bother with colonies when you can impose your will with a few bases, and you don’t have to manage the whole country. Besides you can outsource most everything to contractors, so you don’t even need the consent of the governed. All you need is their tax money, which the sheeple continue to provide with barely a bleat.

Looking at the DOD Base Structure reports it is possible to graph the total acreage owned by the US military both in the US, in foreign countries, and in US foreign territories. Since both foreign countries and territories are occupied, I will lump them together. It is also valid to use total military acreage including the US, since the 50 states of the US are essentially occupied territory of the US military as well.

I was unable to find data before 1957, but total acreage under management by the US military had a recent peak in 2007, while foreign acreage peaked in 2004. This data is from official US DOD base structure reports, which according to Chalmers Johnson leaves out quite a bit, but from a relative point of view over time, it is probably adequate. I have included the excel sheet data, and others are welcome to add to the data and do a more thorough job graphing this data.

Military spending

Looking at US military spending below, it has continued to rise, despite the recent decline in acreage under management. This is entirely consistent with Tainter’s theory of declining marginal utility to expanding empires, as imperial overstretch becomes more and more expensive, and returns to expenditures begins to decline, and even become negative. It would be entirely consistent for the expenditures to continue to rise as the empire attempts to hold onto its existing level of military acreage, until interest on the debt causes a default, and then expenditures also collapse.

Imperial Reserves

Like oil, the empire has reserves to continue fueling the military machine. It has its AAA bond rating in order to continue deficit spending by selling Treasury bonds to foreign countries, although the rating agencies have taken somewhat of a hit on their credibility after the financial crisis. Foreign governments may also be thinking twice about the future viability of the dollar. It has the Federal Reserve to continue creating money out of thin air by key strokes on a computer, and engaging in open market operations like “quantitative easing” and purchasing existing treasuries, or even monetizing the debt by buying treasury bonds directly from the US government, giving it more money to play with. Finally they have the credulous and supplicant taxpayers who continue to fund their own demise by turning their tax dollars over to an empire, which throws it down three rat holes simultaneously: The $1 trillion dollar annual military budget, the Afghanistan War, and the bankster bailouts. Like the oil reserve/production ratio, the empire has a reserve/territorial expansion ratio which is declining rapidly. If interest rates increase adequately, the interest on the debt is going to swallow up all of tax revenues, such that a tax increase might be required. Will the sheeple rebel then? We’ll see. In any case, I welcome others to comment on the viability of military acreage as a measure of peak empire, and to expand on the analysis.

[Update: Gary did some more plotting, and here are the results: graphing acreage vs military spending shows diminishing total returns on military spending, and negative marginal returns since 1991 at least.

One more thing to keep in mind: as William Pfaff, writing in Foreign Affairs, puts it, "U.S. military bases have generated apprehension and hostility and fear of the United States, and they have facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now seem to be inviting enlarged U.S. interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The 9/11 attacks, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the "blasphemy" of the existence of U.S. military bases in the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. The global base system, it seems, tends to produce and intensify the very insecurity that is cited to justify it." Not only is American Empire post-peak, but, just like the Soviet Empire before it, it was operated at a loss throughout, even as it grew, in each case making national bankruptcy just a matter of time.]

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Fleeing Vesuvius (by sea)

This hefty tome was recently published by Féasta, Ireland's Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. It contains two articles by me: the first is a text version of the presentation I gave at the Féasta conference in Dublin two summers ago, which you can read right on this blog.

My second article in this volume—Sailing craft for a post-collapse world—is a long piece that I wrote exclusively for this publication. It spells out the transportation options that will still exist once fossil fuels are no longer available, concentrating on sail transport. It pulls together pertinent information that is currently scattered across many academic disciplines, and is also informed by my personal experience as an ocean sailor and live-aboard who does all of his own maintenance.

The full table of contents can be found here. The book can be purchased through Amazon.

Fleeing Vesuvius draws together many of the ideas our members have developed over the years and applies them to a single question—how can we bring the world out of the mess in which it finds itself?
Fleeing Vesuvius confronts this mess squarely, analyzing its many aspects: the looming scarcity of essential resources such as fossil fuels—the lifeblood of the world economy; the financial crisis in Ireland and elsewhere; the collapse of the housing bubble; the urgent need for food security; and the enormous challenge of dealing with climate change.

The solutions it puts forward involve changes to our economy and financial system, but they go much further: this substantial, wide-ranging book also looks at the changes needed in how we think, how we use the land and how we relate to others, particularly those where we live. While it doesn't discount the complexity of the problems we face, Fleeing Vesuvius is practical and fundamentally optimistic. It will arm readers with the confidence and knowledge they need to develop new, workable alternatives to the old-style expanding economy and its supporting systems. It's a book that can be read all the way through or used as a resource to dip in and out of.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Space Enough and Time: An Expat's Siberian Experience

[Another guest post by Sandy. There is something deliciously ironic in this story of a former American corporate efficiency expert transplanting himself to a place where time never goes any place special and patience is too cheap to meter—and being happy there! Here's the executive summary for all you “TL;DR” hyper-efficient power web surfers: as you prepare to leave the US behind—whether physically (recommended) or just mentally—you should be ready to slough off you compulsively American old self and be prepared to grow yourselves a new, better-adapted, saner one.]

For the past five years I have made my home in Barnaul, a town in the Altai region of Siberia. Much about life here initially chafed against some deeply engrained cultural assumptions that I carried around with me. No matter how hard I’ve tried, sometimes I just couldn't quite fathom the alienness of the Russian perspective.

I quickly became aware of an almost palpable sentiment that here in Siberia there is space enough, and time, for anything to occur—and a certain resiliency to carry one through it. The immense distances and open expanses provide spatial and temporal horizons that seem to recede forever. The endless boreal forests of the Siberian taiga and the barren steppes are not typical “environments” in the Western sense. They are not places. They have no frames of reference. These enormous expanses seemed to set the rhythm for much of the daily life here, which is often spent waiting countless hours, or walking endless kilometers, or just sitting there. Americans would never have the patience for any of it.

Given this perspective, I found it curious that people here spent so much of their time crammed into very close quarters in the bustling city of Barnaul, located between Novosibirsk and the point where the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together amid the snow-capped ridges of the Altai mountains.

How do you suppose people here experience personal space and time in their daily life? I will always remember my first of many trips around town in a public transport van called “gazelle.” Pleasantly named for its size, which is diminutive compared to a full-size city bus, “gazelle” accommodates as many as fourteen passengers, always uncomfortably. Although there are plenty of automobiles in town, the majority of people do not own vehicles or drive. “Comfort” is a term that Siberians do not appreciate as we do in America; it is not something they expect or particularly seek. They accept certain things as given. They can be rather disparaging of our American habit of whining over the lack of comfort. They see it as a weakness in our national character.

The first time I climbed aboard a “gazelle” with my wife Anna, I suddenly found myself in very close quarters with about a dozen complete strangers. Keeping our heads down to avoid bashing them into the low ceiling, we took off like a shot through traffic barely before the door was closed. The other passengers took no notice of our assault on their space as we stumbled across their legs and packages to split between us the last remaining seat in the back of the van. Here, the phrase “public intimacy” takes on a new meaning: clearly, close physical proximity or bodily contact is not something Siberians shy away from—not in the gazelle, or the tram, or the bus, or the theatre. Our fellow riders seemed unfazed by their close quarters during this galloping ride through town, maintaining a stoic and formal outward appearance in the midst of this forced intimacy.

I imagined this to be a hold-over from the Soviet era when there was little expectation of privacy. People seemed to understand the importance of keeping up a dispassionate public appearance, especially in close quarters. They were unruffled by the physical proximity. But their complete lack of emotional closeness or openness in such circumstances was a bit of a surprise. As an American, my first thought upon entering the womb of the gazelle was to introduce myself, and then to apologize for interrupting their ride, but luckily Anna stopped me before I had a chance to embarrass myself. The silence was deafening, with not a word exchanged among any of the accidental traveling companions. Even speaking with the person seated on your lap is kept to a minimum because others would be forced to listen to your conversation. The erupting blast of a cell phone’s ring tone made everyone reach for their purse or pocket. The unlucky recipient answered, trying to speak softly and to end the conversation quickly.

This was my first encounter with the different structure of personal space within the public domain of the city, and coping with the huge mismatch between it and my expectations became more and more difficult with each passing day. It wasn't just when taking public transportation that my conception of my personal space was being tested to destruction. It seemed to be under assault in innumerable circumstances, but especially when I found myself standing in a queue somewhere, waiting for service.

There is so much idle waiting in Siberia that, as one Russian writer describes it, here the empty passage of time reveals its “authentic substance and duration. But all this waiting did not seem to inconvenience the local population as much as it bothered me. It appeared as though our often frantic, Western sense of urgency was relatively absent here, and that enormous amounts of time were regularly squandered without giving rise to frustration. If the bus did not come as scheduled we could idle away another thirty minutes anticipating the arrival of the next one, or just walk home. We could easily linger for forty-five minutes in line at the telecom office to pay our monthly phone bill. If the hot water or heat in our apartment building shut off without warning (as it frequently did) we could do without it for several days or even a week until it would be equally unexpectedly restored.

What I found most striking was that all this waiting apparently did not upset the locals as it would Americans. Even as time seemed to nearly stand still, people would just wait it out. Everything seemed to be taken in stride; things would work themselves out sooner or later. I observed this attitude daily in the behavior of all those around me. There was almost never the need to rush; there was time enough for everything to get done. “Everything will be fine” was Anna’s constant refrain in response to my endless anxiety and frustration.

I sensed an unusual attitude here for ignoring or perhaps for denying time’s plodding passage, which became particularly apparent during the endless waiting in queues—at banks, ATMs, ticket counters, the phone company, the post office, the housing registration office, the tax office, medical clinics, and at the innumerable public notary offices which officially certify all documents. And I too waited, like everyone else, because almost everything here must be done in person, and almost nothing here can be accomplished by phone, or by mail, or via the Internet. It was as if these modern efficiencies have not been invented yet, and perhaps never will be. Apparently, there does not seem to be any premium on “saving time.” The massive state bureaucracies and even the commercial businesses here require that you physically present yourself and wait somewhere if you want to pay bills or to conduct any other business; and make sure you can pay in cash, because nobody accepts checks or credit cards.

Not only was such waiting an assault on my patience, but on my sense of personal space as well. People stand literally breathing down one another’s necks, in such close physical proximity to each other that they are very often touching. When it is finally your turn to approach the service window, other people often flank you on either side, watching everything that transpires. They might even interrupt your transaction, finding any opportunity to make contact with the person on the other side of the window before their turn. This seeming impatience, or perhaps a lack of concern for others, seemed at odds with the general disinterestedness in time’s passage that I witnessed daily, but it turns out to be another thing entirely: it's just that your time at the counter is not strictly delineated as yours exclusively but overlaps with that of others around you.

There was seldom any linearity to these queues, which look more like rugby scrums than actual lines. There was certainly no queuing theory informing waiting, as there is in America, no rope-barriers or other accoutrements of control. Something that looks like a queue often materializes spontaneously. As you approach a service window or enter a waiting area, you find that people are not necessarily standing in single file. Some of them might be sitting idly to the side, or outside having a smoke, or leaning against a wall, or haphazardly milling around. You have to inquire who is last in the queue, and often find out that nobody really knows or cares, or that the person or persons in question just stepped out but will come back later. The Russian queue is not so much a physical as a mental construct, its details scattered across many distracted minds. When the office closes for “dinner” for an hour or two in the middle of the workday, the queue dissolves, then spontaneously reconstitutes itself after the dinner break is over.

Back in the USA I always felt that a queue, like time itself, has to be well-structured, arranged, managed, and always moving forward productively. Space and time both have to be well organized for us, for we Americans, it seems, are incapable of enjoying so-called “free time.” For us, free, unscheduled time is wasted time—time not filled with meaningful content or purposeful activity. Even American vacations are routinely crammed full of productive activities, and good planning is seen as a crucial element in recreating with efficiency and purpose.

In America, time-consciousness is run strictly by the clock. Is Siberian time our clock-time, or is it informed by natural and circadian rhythms rather than by a strictly linear, mechanical progression? I surmised that there are no unambiguous expectations of strict linear continuity here. What at first appeared to me as interruptions in the queue, for example, or a general disregard for overall time management, might not have been construed in this way at all by the locals. This was further confirmed in other circumstances. For example, when speaking by phone with Russian colleagues or friends about arranging a meeting or rendezvous, they would invariably suggest getting together immediately rather than scheduling something for later. I found this to be true even of busy executives. Trains and government offices have schedules, and mostly run on schedule—except when they don't, but it doesn't occur to anyone that creating more schedules, and then running on them, is something that they should be wanting to do.

People kept telling me: “Sandy, this is Siberia; you can’t plan things here.” It was hard to absorb the message that the American control of time’s passage is illusory, that the flow of events from past to future can suddenly be interrupted, come to a halt, or change direction. After all, the flow of heat, electricity, and water certainly can, and often does. If Siberian experience of time is more naturally dynamic than our artificial clock-time, this might explain their seemingly paradoxical attitude toward time’s passage.

Siberians seem to have a split consciousness of time, as though there were two concurrent experiences of temporal movement. One is an archaic, pastoral sense of timelessness, associated with a more feral existence in the taiga and the steppe, lived in close proximity to nature and its cycles. The other is a nascent and constraining sense of clock time, with a focus on punctuality and productivity that is finding a tentative and clumsy foothold in the complex framework of urban bureaucracies here. Is it just the nature of life in the city that creates such temporal incongruities and juxtapositions?

I began to see real challenges to the deeper cultural transformation that Siberians have embarked upon. Or was this transformation being thrust upon them, making the incongruities even more severe? Could Russia, could Siberians, continue to survive in a world rife with such contradiction? Should we presumptuously drag them kicking and screaming into our long-gone twentieth century?

For me this was not simply a rhetorical question. The steady gallop of Western-inspired progress is quietly overtaking Siberia, more rapidly each day. “Business lunches” are now advertised by new American-owned cafes with the promise that they are “served in fifteen minutes.” Credit cards are being offered more liberally by lending institutions advertising “quick financing.” A pricey fitness club called Aurora is all the rage in Barnaul, claiming “fast results.” (Of course, my friend Keith and I—the only two Americans in town—are both members.)

I feel that things are fast reaching critical mass here, with what remained of long-standing traditions eroding while society moves chaotically into our Western historical present. What, if anything, could or should be done to change the course of these events, or to circumvent such a cultural transformation? I can hypothesize that the tensions created by life in the increasingly anonymous urban sprawl of Barnaul, which still seemed in some respects so foreign to these people, is beginning to create fissures between the generations and between newly emerging classes of citizens. But I can also imagine that this sense of "quickening" is just part of the ebb and flow—of Siberia living through its own version of the 1950s, made possible by Russia's sudden prosperity, but that it is just a moment, and that, once it passes, Siberia will once again relapse into its age-old timelessness.

[Sandy's book, The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia, is available from Amazon.]

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Korea: The Fate of a Cold War Vestige

[We are currently witnessing increasingly nasty displays of deadly force on both sides of the Korean divide. The North appears to be getting ready to call America's bluff. What will the South do, faced with growing belligerence from the North and progressive paralysis in the US? Our thoughts should be with the Korean people—both North and South. What follows is the introduction to the Korean edition of Reinventing Collapse which I wrote earlier this year.]

[Update: Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, Seoul, South Korea, has a singularly lucid view of the recent cross-border shelling: North Korea is peculiar (we knew that) and this is how it asks for money. South Korea must not overreact and provoke a hugely destructive military conflict when all it has to do is part with a little bit of money.]

Over the course of the Cold War, the two superpowers—USA and USSR—built up an inventory of unresolved conflicts, which they, by tacit agreement, placed in deep freeze for the duration of their combined existence. In some cases, ethnically homogeneous entities were split up across artificial political boundaries, while in other cases disparate ethnic groups were held together by force within a single artificial political unit. Once the USSR collapsed, the multi-ethnic entities—Georgia, Moldova and Czechoslovakia—did their best to break apart, while the partitioned ones did their best to try to reunify. While some of these frozen conflicts—most notably Germany—needed both superpowers to remain refrigerated, one particular example—Korea—remained well-preserved even after the the collapse of the USSR, with the North providing its own, self-sufficient source of refrigeration.

For now, the US military continues to maintain over a thousand foreign military bases around the world, including South Korea. Most of these serve no real purpose. Even while it was still opposing the Soviets, the US military morphed into a sort of grand extortion scheme: the American intelligence community exaggerated global threats, and the military spent copious public funds pretending to counter them. To this day the military remains Washington's single most powerful political lobby (Israel is a distant second) and thanks to its efforts America spends more on defense than most of the other nations of the world combined. But what it gets for all this money is in fact quite meager. There are just two things that the US military can do well: it can shoot civilians and blow things up with wild abandon (as it has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan); it can also hold a proud and purposeful pose while doing nothing (as in South Korea and many other countries around the world). There is not a single country that is sufficiently defenseless, defunct and impoverished—not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not even Somalia—so that the mighty US military can successfully conquer and control it. (Perhaps Haiti—but only just after a major earthquake.)

It is something of a law of history that sooner or later all empires must collapse. It is also something of a law of group psychology that people always underestimate the probability of large and sudden changes, and so are they are always taken by surprise when they occur. Nobody was more surprised by the collapse of the USSR than the professional sovietologists. As Reinventing Collapse explains in detail, the collapse of the United States of America is already a given. Only the timing of its collapse remains uncertain, because it can be triggered by any number of relatively minor, unexpected events. Inevitably, the US will be forced to repatriate its troops and to liquidate its overseas military bases, in order to concentrate its efforts on attempting to rein in the forces of chaos on its own territory. We can only hope that the unwinding and scrapping of the US military empire will proceed in a controlled manner. There are few countries in the world that have more of a reason to think forward to that day and to plan accordingly than South Korea, and so it is quite appropriate that Korean is the second language, after English, in which Reinventing Collapse has been published.

The collapse of the American empire is certain to be accompanied by a long cascade of global crises. International trade and finance are sure to be disrupted. Countries around the world will be subjected to an experience similar to what countries in the former Soviet sphere went through after the USSR collapsed. They are sure to experience economic dislocation, numerous bankruptcies, mass unemployment and impoverishment, political crises, and many lives will be cut short as a result. Some countries did better than others in adjusting to the new circumstances, and can offer useful lessons. For instance, when Cuba was cut off from the Soviet oil supply, it pioneered the use of organic urban agriculture, and it did succeed in feeding its population without the use of fossil fuel inputs. North Korea is generally not seen as a success story, but it too may be able to offer a few useful lessons on surviving superpower collapses. Moreover, it does have a population accustomed to extreme hardship, and that, in the new circumstances, may itself turn out to be an asset.

Over the course of my life I have known many Koreans, both in the US and in Russia. (There is one particular North Korean student of nuclear engineering I remember: a very serious and sober young man living quietly in a fraternity of hard-drinking Russian engineering students. "Our little Chernobyl" we called him.) From what I have been able to piece together based on what I've been able to observe, Koreans are quite patriotic, very resourceful, detest foreign meddling in their affairs, and are exactly like everyone else in wanting a peaceful and prosperous existence for themselves. It may very well be that Korea's 21st century will make up for the horrors of the 20th, while most of the former USA devolves into a collection of lawless, ungovernable, sparsely populated territories that, gradually or abruptly, fade from the world scene. But such a positive result for Korea is by no means automatic. Fierce beasts are at their most dangerous right after they have been fatally wounded, and it is hard to predict what sort of damage a fatally wounded America might cause in its agony. Korea will have to reinvent America's collapse to its own advantage. Being a foreigner, and not wishing to meddle in Korean affairs, all I can say is, think ahead, plan ahead, and may you have the best luck possible!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

America—The Grim Truth

[Guest post by Anonymous. I was planning to write something a bit like this, but found that someone has done some of my work for me. Please give it a read, while I concentrate on the part of the topic that interests me the most: "What's Keeping You Here?"]

[Update: Judging from a lot of the comments, many people seem to think that the rest of the planet might not offer any good places for American former middle class persons to continue to pretend that they are successful. I don't find this particularly relevant; the life of a refugee is rarely comfortable. Some people even think that the US military is somehow going to be helpful moving forward, (by stealing other countries' oil, I suppose). I can't think of an occasion when it was helpful, being incapable of victory and a huge waste of resources. Apparently, to stay in the US is to stay in denial; perhaps that is what it takes to make the continuous psychological trauma of living in this country bearable. The one encouraging sign is that this condition is curable: not a single expat has voiced anything but complete and enthusiastic agreement with this article.]

Americans, I have some bad news for you:

You have the worst quality of life in the developed world—by a wide margin.

If you had any idea of how people really lived in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many parts of Asia, you’d be rioting in the streets calling for a better life. In fact, the average Australian or Singaporean taxi driver has a much better standard of living than the typical American white-collar worker.

I know this because I am an American, and I escaped from the prison you call home.

I have lived all around the world, in wealthy countries and poor ones, and there is only one country I would never consider living in again: The United States of America. The mere thought of it fills me with dread.

Consider this: you are the only people in the developed world without a single-payer health system. Everyone in Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand has a single-payer system. If they get sick, they can devote all their energies to getting well. If you get sick, you have to battle two things at once: your illness and the fear of financial ruin. Millions of Americans go bankrupt every year due to medical bills, and tens of thousands die each year because they have no insurance or insufficient insurance. And don’t believe for a second that rot about America having the world’s best medical care or the shortest waiting lists: I’ve been to hospitals in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Singapore, and Thailand, and every one was better than the “good” hospital I used to go to back home. The waits were shorter, the facilities more comfortable, and the doctors just as good.

This is ironic, because you need a good health system more than anyone else in the world. Why? Because your lifestyle is almost designed to make you sick.

Let’s start with your diet: Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics. In most other countries, the government would act to protect consumers from this sort of thing; in the United States, the government is bought off by industry to prevent any effective regulations or inspections. In a few years, the majority of all the produce for sale in the United States will be from genetically modified crops, thanks to the cozy relationship between Monsanto Corporation and the United States government. Worse still, due to the vast quantities of high-fructose corn syrup Americans consume, fully one-third of children born in the United States today will be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives.

Of course, it’s not just the food that’s killing you, it’s the drugs. If you show any sign of life when you’re young, they’ll put you on Ritalin. Then, when you get old enough to take a good look around, you’ll get depressed, so they’ll give you Prozac. If you’re a man, this will render you chemically impotent, so you’ll need Viagra to get it up. Meanwhile, your steady diet of trans-fat-laden food is guaranteed to give you high cholesterol, so you’ll get a prescription for Lipitor. Finally, at the end of the day, you’ll lay awake at night worrying about losing your health plan, so you’ll need Lunesta to go to sleep.

With a diet guaranteed to make you sick and a health system designed to make sure you stay that way, what you really need is a long vacation somewhere. Unfortunately, you probably can’t take one. I’ll let you in on little secret: if you go to the beaches of Thailand, the mountains of Nepal, or the coral reefs of Australia, you’ll probably be the only American in sight. And you’ll be surrounded crowds of happy Germans, French, Italians, Israelis, Scandinavians and wealthy Asians. Why? Because they’re paid well enough to afford to visit these places AND they can take vacations long enough to do so. Even if you could scrape together enough money to go to one of these incredible places, by the time you recovered from your jetlag, it would time to get on a plane and rush back to your job.

If you think I’m making this up, check the stats on average annual vacation days by country:

Finland: 44
Italy: 42
France: 39
Germany: 35
UK: 25
Japan: 18
USA: 12

The fact is, they work you like dogs in the United States. This should come as no surprise: the United States never got away from the plantation/sweat shop labor model and any real labor movement was brutally suppressed. Unless you happen to be a member of the ownership class, your options are pretty much limited to barely surviving on service-sector wages or playing musical chairs for a spot in a cubicle (a spot that will be outsourced to India next week anyway). The very best you can hope for is to get a professional degree and then milk the system for a slice of the middle-class pie. And even those who claw their way into the middle class are but one illness or job loss away from poverty. Your jobs aren’t secure. Your company has no loyalty to you. They’ll play you off against your coworkers for as long as it suits them, then they’ll get rid of you.

Of course, you don’t have any choice in the matter: the system is designed this way. In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

If you’re “lucky,” you might even land a job good enough to qualify you for a home loan. And then you’ll spend half your working life just paying the interest on the loan – welcome to the world of American debt slavery. America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

All this begs the question: Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

And that’s just physical freedom. Mentally, you are truly imprisoned. You don’t even know the degree to which you are tormented by fears of medical bankruptcy, job loss, homelessness and violent crime because you’ve never lived in a country where there is no need to worry about such things.

But it goes much deeper than mere surveillance and anxiety. The fact is, you are not free because your country has been taken over and occupied by another government. Fully 70% of your tax dollars go to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon is the real government of the United States. You are required under pain of death to pay taxes to this occupying government. If you’re from the less fortunate classes, you are also required to serve and die in their endless wars, or send your sons and daughters to do so. You have no choice in the matter: there is a socioeconomic draft system in the United States that provides a steady stream of cannon fodder for the military.

If you call a life of surveillance, anxiety and ceaseless toil in the service of a government you didn’t elect “freedom,” then you and I have a very different idea of what that word means.

If there was some chance that the country could be changed, there might be reason for hope. But can you honestly look around and conclude that anything is going to change? Where would the change come from? The people? Take a good look at your compatriots: the working class in the United States has been brutally propagandized by jackals like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Members of the working class have been taught to lick the boots of their masters and then bend over for another kick in the ass. They’ve got these people so well trained that they’ll take up arms against the other half of the working class as soon as their masters give the word.

If the people cannot make a change, how about the media? Not a chance. From Fox News to the New York Times, the mass media in the United States is nothing but the public relations wing of the corporatocracy, primarily the military industrial complex. At least the citizens of the former Soviet Union knew that their news was bullshit. In America, you grow up thinking you’ve got a free media, which makes the propaganda doubly effective. If you don’t think American media is mere corporate propaganda, ask yourself the following question: have you ever heard a major American news outlet suggest that the country could fund a single-payer health system by cutting military spending?

If change can’t come from the people or the media, the only other potential source of change would be the politicians. Unfortunately, the American political process is among the most corrupt in the world. In every country on earth, one expects politicians to take bribes from the rich. But this generally happens in secret, behind the closed doors of their elite clubs. In the United States, this sort of political corruption is done in broad daylight, as part of legal, accepted, standard operating procedure. In the United States, they merely call these bribes campaign donations, political action committees and lobbyists. One can no more expect the politicians to change this system than one can expect a man to take an axe and chop his own legs out from underneath him.

No, the United States of America is not going to change for the better. The only change will be for the worse. And when I say worse, I mean much worse. As we speak, the economic system that sustained the country during the post-war years is collapsing. The United States maxed out its “credit card” sometime in 2008 and now its lenders, starting with China, are in the process of laying the foundations for a new monetary system to replace the Anglo-American “petro-dollar” system. As soon as there is a viable alternative to the US dollar, the greenback will sink like a stone.

While the United States was running up crushing levels of debt, it was also busy shipping its manufacturing jobs and white-collar jobs overseas, and letting its infrastructure fall to pieces. Meanwhile, Asian and European countries were investing in education, infrastructure and raw materials. Even if the United States tried to rebuild a real economy (as opposed to a service/financial economy) do think American workers would ever be able to compete with the workers of China or Europe? Have you ever seen a Japanese or German factory? Have you ever met a Singaporean or Chinese worker?

There are only two possible futures facing the United States, and neither one is pretty. The best case is a slow but orderly decline – essentially a continuation of what’s been happening for the last two decades. Wages will drop, unemployment will rise, Medicare and Social Security benefits will be slashed, the currency will decline in value, and the disparity of wealth will spiral out of control until the United States starts to resemble Mexico or the Philippines – tiny islands of wealth surrounded by great poverty (the country is already halfway there).

Equally likely is a sudden collapse, perhaps brought about by a rapid flight from the US dollar by creditor nations like China, Japan, Korea and the OPEC nations. A related possibility would be a default by the United States government on its vast debt. One look at the financial balance sheet of the US government should convince you how likely this is: governmental spending is skyrocketing and tax receipts are plummeting – something has to give. If either of these scenarios plays out, the resulting depression will make the present recession look like a walk in the park.

Whether the collapse is gradual or gut-wrenchingly sudden, the results will be chaos, civil strife and fascism. Let’s face it: the United States is like the former Yugoslavia – a collection of mutually antagonistic cultures united in name only. You’ve got your own version of the Taliban: right-wing Christian fundamentalists who actively loathe the idea of secular Constitutional government. You’ve got a vast intellectual underclass that has spent the last few decades soaking up Fox News and talk radio propaganda, eager to blame the collapse on Democrats, gays and immigrants. You’ve got a ruthless ownership class that will use all the means at its disposal to protect its wealth from the starving masses.

On top of all that you’ve got vast factory farms, sprawling suburbs and a truck-based shipping system, all of it entirely dependent on oil that is about to become completely unaffordable. And you’ve got guns. Lots of guns. In short: the United States is about to become a very unwholesome place to be.

Right now, the government is building fences and walls along its northern and southern borders. Right now, the government is working on a national ID system (soon to be fitted with biometric features). Right now, the government is building a surveillance state so extensive that they will be able to follow your every move, online, in the street and across borders. If you think this is just to protect you from “terrorists,” then you’re sadly mistaken. Once the shit really hits the fan, do you really think you’ll just be able to jump into the old station wagon, drive across the Canadian border and spend the rest of your days fishing and drinking Molson? No, the government is going to lock the place down. They don’t want their tax base escaping. They don’t want their “recruits” escaping. They don’t want YOU escaping.

I am not writing this to scare you. I write this to you as a friend. If you are able to read and understand what I’ve written here, then you are a member of a small minority in the United States. You are a minority in a country that has no place for you.

So what should you do?

You should leave the United States of America.

If you’re young, you’ve got plenty of choices: you can teach English in the Middle East, Asia or Europe. Or you can go to university or graduate school abroad and start building skills that will qualify you for a work visa. If you’ve already got some real work skills, you can apply to emigrate to any number of countries as a skilled immigrant. If you are older and you’ve got some savings, you can retire to a place like Costa Rica or the Philippines. If you can’t qualify for a work, student or retirement visa, don’t let that stop you – travel on a tourist visa to a country that appeals to you and talk to the expats you meet there. Whatever you do, go speak to an immigration lawyer as soon as you can. Find out exactly how to get on a path that will lead to permanent residence and eventually citizenship in the country of your choice.

You will not be alone. There are millions of Americans just like me living outside the United States. Living lives much more fulfilling, peaceful, free and abundant than we ever could have attained back home. Some of us happened upon these lives by accident – we tried a year abroad and found that we liked it – others made a conscious decision to pack up and leave for good. You’ll find us in Canada, all over Europe, in many parts of Asia, in Australia and New Zealand, and in most other countries of the globe. Do we miss our friends and family? Yes. Do we occasionally miss aspects of our former country? Yes. Do we plan on ever living again in the United States? Never. And those of us with permanent residence or citizenship can sponsor family members from back home for long-term visas in our adopted countries.

In closing, I want to remind you of something: unless you are an American Indian or a descendant of slaves, at some point your ancestors chose to leave their homeland in search of a better life. They weren’t traitors and they weren’t bad people, they just wanted a better life for themselves and their families. Isn’t it time that you continue their journey?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

But what is "Community"?

[Auf Deutsch. Vielen Dank, Alexander!]


[This is another guest post from Yevgeny, which he wrote in response to my article How (not) to Organize a Community. He poses what, to a Russian, seems an obvious question: “How (not) to organize a WHAT?” You see, upon close examination the English word “community” turns out to be all but meaningless. English speakers all assume that they know what they are talking about when they say it, but a Russian speaker who tries to translate it ends up with the following list: “society, union, locality, district, hostel, state, population, residents, communal ownership.” One begins to suspect that “community” is just a pompous and self-important way of saying “people,” just as American nannies (sorry, “daycare specialists”) refer to the little sprogs in their charge as “doing activities,” instead of “playing games” as normal, non-robotic children do. How did I manage to lose sight of this? “It's because you listen to idiots,” says my wife. In any case, it is good of Yevgeny to reel me back in.]

[Update: Looks like we ruffled some feathers in the Transition Towns neck of the woods. Here I am doing my best to bring to you stories of real survival by real Russians (so you don't have to limp along with your hackneyed Mad Max/Waterworld clichés), and for that I am painted as being part of an "apocalyptic cult" that rejects the sacred idea of "komyooniti!" This, they say, is a "direct assault on the optimism of people who accept peak oil!" I am happy to be able to assure you that this is all complete nonsense. Jean, who attended my talk in Lincoln, MA last week, wrote this: "I found you very reassuring in your reminding me that despite all the upcoming disaster life will go on; perhaps not as we would like but then perhaps not so bad either. Somehow I had lost track of that. It may not be the life we're familiar with but then it might be a better life too."]

[Update: Thank you Dave Ewoldt for straightening out the "apocalyptic cult" nonsense I quoted above. Let's be straight with each other: Transition would have required some Solutions, like Powerdown and Relocalization, to have already been implemented by now on a large scale, so we won't be making our scheduled stop there. Our next, emergency stop will be at Collapse. Let's make the best of it.]

[Update: It just keeps going. Now Eric Curren of the "apocalyptic cult" nonsense referred to above has provided some more commentary on this ever-exciting topic:  "Too much scary talk won't help us recruit people; instead, it will just scare them away," he says, and this will prevent us from "preaching beyond the peak-oil and eco-choir." So, choir, are you scared? All 16,641 of you who have visited this blog since this article got published six days ago? (That, by the way, is a stunning 0.00065% of all of humanity; we are doling out planetary salvation by the heaping teaspoon!) I for one definitely am scared—that this blog will become too popular and turn into a job—an unpaid job, of course. "Preaching"—now that does sound like a job, and may J-Zeus the hip-hop god strike me down if I ever get preachy. Believe me!—or not, and think for yourselves, because you are on your own.]

I read your article about differences in “komyooniti.” Let me ask you as a linguist, what's the most adequate Russian word for it?

It's been hammered into my head that the most important things are food, a roof over your head, security and mobility—the first two especially, and everything else is just there to tempt you. And it seems that the best way to procure food is not to take it away or steal it or buy it, but to grow it and to guard it, because there are always people to guard it from. That is, to be close to food. And when the local industrial agriculture kicks the bucket and the food will stop being delivered to the cities, won't the residents of backward little villages be the winners? You can imagine gangster raids into rural places, rifling through barns and fields, and forcing people to pay a tribute, as in feudal times—but that's only if they find enough fuel to get there and back.

I know that no matter what economic or political regime prevails, my Russian village kin will survive, provided they hold on to their land and provided climate change doesn't kill off all the flora and fauna around them. I believe that the Russian, conditioned by centuries of serfdom, the GULAG and the entire Soviet experience, is a very hardy beast, in spite of alcoholism, drug abuse and moral decay. Also, as a child of the industrial ghetto, I entirely agree that the underclass is better-prepared. Our city is a smelly, dusty port city, industrialized in the extreme. It is inhabited by exasperated, embittered, bloody-minded people. Mothers often have to bring up children by themselves because the husbands spend half the year out on the sea. The merchant marine offers about the only way to rise above poverty. The criminal element is prosperous and well-organized, just as it should be in a port city. Every child knows the names of the celebrated local criminals (the so-called “authorities”), including the legendary ones, who perished in the maelstrom of the 1990s. The little children play at Cosa Nostra and go around mugging people. Every one of them belongs to a neighborhood or even a specific courtyard. Sometimes there are wars between kids from different apartment buildings. The most important question in any meeting, during any time of day or night, is “What neighborhood are you from?” If you are unlucky enough to be from the wrong neighborhood, you might still have a straw to grasp if you know one of the local criminal “authorities.” If you decide to get the police involved, then you are in for some additional, official abuse. Smart people don't stray outside their territory in places where they don't know anyone. Children know who lives where and who would mug them, and keep out. The parents aren't particularly concerned about the safety of their children, and the children are quick enough to learn what they need: how to break noses, how to be on guard, how to talk like a gangster, how to spot easy marks for grabbing a cell phone or a wallet, how to be a street-fighter. They start from about age seven, as soon as they start going to school. This all happens quite spontaneously, without any conspiracy. This is how it will always be in my city. It's not a pleasant way to live, but it is survivable.

I have already lived through some of the experiences mentioned in Reinventing Collapse. Some of my friends took the crooked path in childhood, some have done time, some more than once. But I was certain that they won't touch me, or let anyone else touch me. On quite a few occasions they saved my skin and even helped me out with money. Some have lived with me, some I've sheltered from police: they are “our people” and the police are “the enemy”—along with the rest of the government, and we must defend “our people” from them.

None of this was the case in my father's village. There were plenty of alcoholics and drug addicts, but everyone was “our people,” and so there was no-one to fight. If any one of them got assaulted, the entire village would be out looking for the offender. Theoretically, a misbehaving stranger could get his comeuppance right there and then, but in fact street crime was all but nonexistent. Bicycles would get stolen, but that is about it.

The people there are a gregarious lot. At all the weddings, funerals, army send-offs, birthdays, anniversaries the house is full of people, there is a ton of food, and plenty of singing and dancing. Everybody has their own domestic food source, and, of course, everyone brews their own alcohol. All passers-by say hello to each other, even if they don't know each other. Friends and neighbors are treated as part of the family. Russians don't use the word “cousin”—everybody is just a brother or a sister—and that says a lot about our culture. In that village, I have so many brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers that in every tenth house they are happy to receive me. Growing up, I was bored there, and was attracted by the excitement of the concrete jungle in the city. But village was real life, the way life should be.

My father's family did not live on this land for centuries. They migrated from the hungry Urals to the fertile Kuban in the 1940s. But nothing held them back from becoming “our people” in just one generation. My grandfather had so many brothers and sisters that the village was a sort of clan—a very large family. Everybody was either related, or friends, or friends of friends, and so everybody could always find a sympathetic policeman, inspector, doctor, teacher, social worker, military representative and so on. All business was transacted in this way only: through acquaintances, which is the one and only guarantee of helpful and excellent service.

The black market flourished to such an extent that nobody depended on official employment or deliveries to stores. Many men fished illegally, and having connections at the Fisheries Service helped a lot. Everyone had kitchen gardens, chicken coops, cattle, pigs. We bought salt at the government store, and bread, although my grandmother could bake the bread just as well herself. But the most pleasant part of the black market is, of course, controlled substances. Dear reader, why do you think it is that Russia lags behind Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in per capita consumption of alcohol? Well, that's because actual alcohol consumption in Russia is incalculable. To say that not all of what Russians drink is purchased at a store is to say nothing. Black market alcohol manufacturing and distribution thrives in Russia as nowhere else. Superpower politicians seem to have poor memory for history. Everyone knows how the Prohibition in the USA gave rise to powerful criminal syndicates and enriched the Kennedy clan. Well, on May 17, 1985 Gorbachev passed a “dry law” which proved catastrophic for the Soviet economy. Black market production blossomed and thrived right through the 1990s. Before that law, profits from the sale of alcohol made up 25-30% of the state budget of the USSR, and so Gorbachev's decision was quite possibly the last nail in the Soviet regime's coffin.

As far as transportation, the busiest street in the village saw maybe one car a minute during the busiest part of the day, and so the air was very clean. At night the village and the surrounding farms turned dark and quiet. But even this small village was served by buses from different directions, and the drivers of these buses could be asked to stop at any house. My uncle drove one such bus, and so on special occasions our family had the bus to ourselves, to go on a mass excursion somewhere—at government expense, of course! (Everyone knew of this, and nobody was opposed.)

The level of poverty sometimes looked quite frightening, but there was something about it that provided a sense of safety and security. I remember watching news reports of street demonstrations in Moscow in 1991: a crowd chanting “Yeltsin is a traitor” marches menacingly toward a line of riot police, and a melée ensues. But we couldn't care less, because none of this had any effect on us. We were poor under the Soviets, and we were poor afterward, but we stuck together. Whenever we need to marry one of us, bury one of us, get one of us a government job, a solution always presented itself. Family celebrations never involve just the nuclear family. The house is always open, the food is brought in by the guests, and there is always a musician or two present, because after eating and drinking Russians like to sing. At moments like this you can forget that you are living in a third world country and that life is really hard. Saturday is sauna day—another excuse to receive guests, since a sauna relaxes and predisposes to conversation. These are the simple ingredients that make up a real society: Family, Clan, Home—where you feel safe in any situation.

It seems to me that Russia and other former Eastern Block countries have already gone through hell and are now on the way to recovery, while the USA and other formerly rich countries are yet to go through this hell, and nobody knows what it will look like. The take-home point is simple: to survive in a third world country, you have to know who your people are, and who are the strangers. The more of your people there are, the better, but it is absolutely unacceptable if everyone beyond the confines of your family nest is a stranger. Then there is simply no chance that you will survive.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Limits of Incompetence

Our social instincts compel us to think well of our fellow man. In spite of much evidence to the contrary, we think him competent to cast votes, to decide how to spend and borrow money, and how to bring up his own children. We persist in this conviction even as the manifest lack of competence at every level of American society causes it to careen toward ruin. We recoil at the thought of government bureaucrats separating the competent from the incompetent, making those who are incompetent, along with their children, wards of the state, remedying their incompetence through strict discipline when possible, and consigning the rest to a lifetime of manual labor in service of society. Many of us quite justifiably think that the government bureaucrats are themselves incompetent, or worse. Those who no longer trust the competence of either the government or our fellow man instead put their faith in corporations or in churches or even in bloggers and internet newsgroups (pathetic, I know). They may preserve their sanity by doing so, but it does nothing to change the big picture. Presumably, it is better to be a competent observer of collapse than an incompetent one.

Of course, the label of generalized American incompetence seems to cast too wide a net. After all, most of us have the competence to not starve when provided with cans of baked beans and a can opener. But it seems that each and every one of us is forced to plead incompetence when presented with the task of judging the value of various figments of financial imagination which comprise fully half of the increasingly fictional US economy, for the depths of incompetence on which this crumbling edifice floats are truly unfathomable. It started with incompetent public officials who blithered on about “ownership society,” which is a boneheaded idea. This, in turn, empowered individuals who were incompetent to make financial decisions to borrow vasts sums of money, with the loans backed by an implicit government guarantee. It proceeded to incompetent appraisers, who inflated the value of the collateral based on circular reasoning (value = price = value), and to incompetent bankers, who improperly documented, resold and bundled the loans into unfathomably faulty Collateralized Debt Obligations. It proceeded to incompetent government officials who treated these faulty documents as valuable and backed up their value with public money which they are yet to collect in taxes. It proceeded to incompetent judges who rush through foreclosures and throw people out of their homes based on faulty or nonexistent documentation of ownership.

Some people express umbrage at all this, harrumphing about this and that technical defect in the paperwork, throwing around big words like “personal responsibility” and “fraud.” Some of them claim that a concerted effort by brilliant legal and financial minds must be made, to flush all of this illegality out of the system, to determine what all of this soiled paper is really worth, to punish the guilty and to restore dignity to the innocent who were harmed along the way. In this they have so far been quite incompetent: they have vociferously yet impotently complained about a matter over which not a single one of them is competent to exercise any degree of control. An attempt to unscramble all of the faulty financial paperwork is bound to lead to a ridiculous death by a thousand paper cuts. About half of the US economy consists of financial froth that is floating above an unfathomable abyss of incompetence, and once that froth blows away, what will remain of the US economy will turn out to look like a deflated, shriveled little thing, at a standstill because it will be unable to borrow internationally to finance fuel imports, full of defunct financial institutions right up to and including the Federal Reserve, with a worthless currency that nobody is willing to accept as payment, and full of people furiously shaking their tiny fists, hurling their impotent rage at an indifferent sky.

How does a “can do” nation degenerate to such depths of incompetence? A key insight is offered by the Dunning-Krueger effect, defined and experimentally tested by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning proposed that, “for a given skill, incompetent people will:
  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.”
Krueger and Dunning, and other experimenters, have shown this effect to be quite pronounced. Competent people initially assumed that others were competent as well, and were able to correct their misperception once they were allowed to examine the work of others. Incompetent people, on the other hand, were only able to recognize competence in others after being taught to recognize their own incompetence. Thus, a weaker version of point 4 above suffices: incompetent people do not need to become competent, but to able to judge the superior competence of others they do have to gain some insight into their own incompetence.

But now comes an embarrassing fact: Krueger and Dunning carried out their initial research on American subjects, and their results squared well with their hypothesis, but when their experiments were repeated with Europeans and East Asians, a different picture emerged. With Europeans, the effect seemed barely measurable, while with East Asians the exact opposite picture emerges: Dr. Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia has found that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, focusing on self-improvement and group cohesion. I have come across examples of such a systematic error before. I recall listening to a certain researcher of human behavior at Yale, who was discussing the results he got by doing experiments on his students, which he blithely extrapolated to all of humanity. But I suspected that an error had crept into his experiments, due to his unstated and unquestioned assumption that his little sample of Yalies was representative of the inhabitants of Planet Earth rather than Planet Yale (which is what I walked away thinking).

And so it turns out that this blind faith in everyone and sundry's competence is quite specifically an American trait. I invite cultural anthropologists to concentrate their efforts on finding out how this cultural trait could have ever evolved, seeing as it is quite obviously maladaptive. I would venture to guess that it will come down to a false incentive for fostering “inclusive fitness” rather than fitness per se: one's ability to work and play well with others being emphasized and rewarded over and above one's ability to work and play well, others be damned if they can't keep up. A certain vital part of humanity has been bred out of us. How many of you Americans have sat through endless meetings, listening dutifully (or pretending to while doodling on a pad or daydreaming) whereas what you really wanted to do is to stand up, extend the accusatory finger and say: “This is bullshit. You, Sir, are an idiot. How dare you waste our time with this nonsense? Shut up and get out.” Were you to do this, you would have found your American colleagues cringing pathetically and trying desperately to smooth things over while avoiding your eyes like whipped puppies, while your foreign colleagues would be doing their best to stifle their guffaws while looking at you with newfound respect.

Now, if you have ever worked for a Chinese, a Russian, or especially an Israeli company, chances are you have been witness to a few variants of the scene described above, all accompanied by easy laughter and cheers, and a general sigh of relief: idiot expelled, sanity restored. But here in America we are now a bunch of pathetic cringing ninnies branded with a peace sign and mooing dolefully. Some Mr. Gnang-Gnang or other from Planet 10 can get up in front of us and tell us that printing half a trillion dollars will create jobs, and not a single person jumps up an screams “WHAT? WHAT?” No, we don't do that here, plus it's almost lunch, so let's just chew our cud until somebody comes and feeds us. Here's a prime example: just a week ago Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called US policy “ratlos,” which translates into the local vernacular as “clueless.” Immediately some apologists popped up, saying that “clueless” is too harsh a translation. Well, here is “ratlos” done unto English via Russian, thanks to Google Translate: “ignorant, embarrassed, helpless, indecisive.” Does that work for everyone?

To recap, we have three categories of incompetent people, whose definitions at this point in our exposition should seem uncontroversial. First, we have the proud, the few—the competent. They are becoming rather thin on the ground in the US, because Americans have largely forgotten how to make new ones, and the ones that exist are getting a bit long in the tooth. Their main problem is that they have been conditioned to think the best of others; in essence, to suffer fools gladly. They can be turned around simply by setting the right incentives.

Second, we have the incompetents who know the limits of their competence. These are potentially useful: they just have to be matched up with tasks at which they can become competent. They are less likely to have inflated expectations for what they can expect to achieve through their labors, and although their lavish habits may not be in line with what their increasingly impoverished country can provide, they can be brought around.

Third, we have the vast army of the deeply incompetent, some of whom look upon themselves as paragons of home-spun self-reliance, have a “who the hell do you think you are to tell me anything” attitude toward their betters, and with their clueless bungling pose a grave danger to themselves and to everyone else. They are a problem, but many of them can be rehabilitated. You see, being pointed and laughed at when you do something stupid is something of a human universal, and most people are wired to accept that message, remember it as a formative experience, and struggle to avoid it in the future.

But there is also a fourth category of incompetent people: those who are so deeply incompetent that nobody can assess their competence, or lack thereof, because they cleverly shy away from all forms of productive activity, thus making their competence, or lack thereof, impossible to assess. Wouldn't it be nice if they displayed some telltale physiological trait, such as tufts of hair on the earlobes or the nose? Or if some genius were to devise a hand-held sensor that, when pointed at them, would blink a red light and sound an alarm? Alas, nothing of the sort exists. What's more, pointing at them and laughing serves no purpose, for they inhabit a rarefied bureaucratic realm where human cultural universals do not apply, and where anyone who calls them incompetent can be treated as a security risk, to be handled by those who are competent at just one thing: dispensing violence.

The final refuge of the deeply incompetent is in economics and finance. It is easy to see why this is so. Think of any very useful object you happen to own, and think of its value. Do you know how to use it well? Do other people? (The fewer the better, of course.) Is it ruggedly built, to last a long time, or is it flimsy? If it breaks, do you know how to repair it? Can you live without it, or are you hopelessly dependent on it? Is it a popular item, and therefore a thief magnet, or is it sufficiently unusual to be passed over by the casual thief despite of its usefulness to you? Does anyone know that you have it? (The fewer know, the safer it will be.) Do you know one or two people who like it as much as you do, in case you have to sell it? And so on. Now usher in a bunch of financial incompetents. What can they tell about the value of your very useful object? Just its price. How can they tell? By asking other incompetents how much they would pay for it. To this bunch, value equals price equals value equals price, at various times and in different places, until the whole thing crashes and burns because nobody actually knows the value of anything to them.

What empowers these people is our love of money. The last vestige of sanity an American seems to be able to cling on to is in his ability to count his money. While he still has some money, he adds up his “net worth,” and the higher the number, the better he feels about himself. Once all he has left is debt, he adds up the money he doesn't have, and the more “credit” he has, the better he feels about himself, because of all the things he can still “afford.” And once he finally defaults on his loans and no longer has any credit, it is as if, in his own minds, he ceases to exist. “I lost everything,” he is apt to say, as if his earthly existence amounted to a number written on a piece of paper. A population that is in thrall to arbitrary numbers written on bits of paper is what makes it possible for the financial incompetents to remain undetected, practicing their sort of low-grade magic. It is as if everyone is blindly in love with them and thus unable to see their faults. But this spell can and will be broken, because the rest of the world is now quite ill-disposed to tolerating any more of this financial nonsense. A day will arrive when America's sages and high priests of finance, together with their wealthy clients, will suddenly turn out to be, for all to see, what they have been all along: clueless incompetents unsuitable for any task that is worth doing.