Thursday, December 29, 2011

Where We Can Go (3 of 3)

Read Part 1 and Part 2 first

What would an alternative look like? There is a great deal to be optimistic about once we discard our ideological blinders and use the tools at our disposal. This is not to suggest we don't face major challenges, we do.  Two out of every five calories mankind consumes are the product of nitrogen produced from fossil oil: this will have to change as the finite resource on which we are in fact feeding will eventually be depleted. While it isn't yet clear what the consequences of anthropogenic global climate change will be, it is clear the climate is changing with unending consequences: processes set in motion by our technologies are unpredictable and irreversible. Sustained adaptation, continuous change, will be the only viable response to continuous environmental evolution.

While the scale of these problems is enormous, their speed leaves them well within our ability to cope. These forces we have set in motion will affect everything we do henceforth. However they will not determine what we ultimately do. We simply know too much as a species to be materially constrained: as we organize ourselves to benefit from the oceanic reserve of knowledge embedded in the minds of seven billion reproducing souls it is pure fatalism to imagine we can't create opportunities from the challenges into which the future will inevitably crystallize.  And the history of civilization is the history of ever growing organizational systems that aggregate ever larger groups of people into effective, prosperous, healthier and longer living communities driven there by changing conditions.

There is no guarantee of success, there never is and never was. Rome was the first city in the Western world to reach a million people two thousand years ago. It sustained that population for several hundred years before going into a steep and permanent decline from which it only recovered in the last century. A hundred years after London showed the technological way, around 1800 CE when it became the first Western city since the classical era to cross the one million population threshold, Rome's population finally recovered. So getting it wrong can be an enormous human disaster and can set both population and standards of living back Milena. None the less, with our current organized stores of knowledge and the integrating powers of our new digital communications, a world of possibilities has opened up to aggregate bigger and more effective human institutions and human actions. The exhaustion of our ideologies along with the resource bases on which both we and they depend will force greater coordination and utilization of knowledge and information. This is already happening all around the world even as entrenched economic incumbents do all within their power to prevent it.

The problems the global economy is currently struggling with all revolve around political power distorting markets ability to efficiently distribute the benefits of civilization. The human failings that lead to these distortions have always been with us and always will be. Even so, our history is not an unbroken record of woe as we suffered the iniquities of untold generations of psychopaths who's indifference to compassion catapulted them to pinnacles of power while devastating their societies.  While history is mostly a story of misrule, this is as much because good rule leaves less to tell as that human folly makes gripping narrative. People build political and economic systems and when they are built well and used well they do exactly what they were designed to do, end of story. It is when we forget the purpose or the mechanisms of the design or abandon good use of what tools exist that we get breakdowns and conflict, and the ripping yarn of gripping history.

Our current difficulties are the result of a propaganda induced mass delusion that the richest and most technologically advanced civilization the world has known is somehow too poor to care for itself. It is a monumental confusion of categories where a money obsessed plutocracy, almost entirely insulated from the mechanics of the real world by the incredible opulence to which it is inured, imagines that the working billions are as obsessed with money as themselves, and judge, rule and extract from the people accordingly. Their own distance from reality is magnified when their unrealistic policies are implemented with destructive effects which are heralded as progress against all the evidence of everyday experience, experience about which they are both ignorant and uninterested. 

Our greatest risk is that institutionalized power and its propaganda machinery will be able to contain the cognitive dissonance between what the plutocracy imagines the world to be and what it actually is so long that ignorantly avaricious policies will actually destroy the infrastructure on which both plutocrats and everyone else depend. The buffer of wealth between our over class and ourselves is greater and more isolating than ever before, even as the coercive tools for the maintenance of existing power structures have grown in parallel. It is these barriers that the non-violence of Occupy Wall Street is trying to breach, banking on the good faith and humanity, even of elites, to listen. I continue to believe this a good bet as defects of character have not been proven hereditary. 

But the most stubborn stalwart of the ideological status quo is fear of the unknown and ultimately unknowable future. People are loath to change when they fear the future and when times are hard the future looks all the harder. It is when people are prosperous they are the most open to hope. The real improvements in the quality of life of the dominant white middle class between 1946 and 1970 finally redeemed what Martin Luther King called the "promissory note" of black emancipation that was the sine qua non of the American Civil War. It is only with broad based hope that change becomes possible. To the extent we have made progress on gender equality, and we have made progress, it has come from the same prosperity (although income insecurity has been a powerful force these last forty years in drawing women into the workforce, increasing labor force participation to cling to vestiges of that prosperity).

Similarly, on the global scale, the sustained economic growth of the last fifty years has raised both living standards and life expectancies. In the immediate post war years the rapid growth in Marshal Plan countries coupled with US growth to create a new Western Civilization from the devastation of war. Leading to the establishment of liberal democracies in all the affected countries a popular capitalism transformed the West. The opening of China that followed Mao's death has allowed that nations authoritarian leadership to import those capitalistic structures that best distribute opportunity and income: the effort has succeeded to the extent that central Party leadership has come under the sustained pressure of its own success to maintain the improving conditions or risk its own survival. 

With the collapse of Soviet rule thirty years ago, nations held back from the tide of prosperity by authoritarian misrule have begun to participate fully in what finally became a global prosperity in the 1990s. But the fertile conditions for growth and prosperity the Marshal Plan conceived in the devastation of World War II have been consumed. The institutional inertia of first movers, who with early success entrenched their advantages into underlying political and economic infrastructures, now choke possibilities for change. The structural position of the American "military industrial complex" corporations is central to this sclerosis. With seventy or more years of fixed Capital and concentrated economic power invested in the post war order, the new world that must come into existence is a very real existential threat to these legacy institutions. We must look past the interests of these entrenched winners, they have had their day and it has held its glories, but the attempt to hold on to the past in a rapidly changing world will be deadly sooner rather than latter and the efforts made in that direction today are central to our current stagnation.

Prosperity and security in a shared future are preconditions for the political viability of meaningful change. So lets set aside historical and ideological disputes for the moment to look at the kinds of changes that could become possible were we to agree to make the mutual effort to engage our real wealth, the property, capital and most of all the human creativity and energy at the heart of our civilizations, in the progressive work of building a better world that can support even more of us. The tools are there should we simply agree to use them, what follows are thoughts as to what we could do in our era of exponential technological improvement.

At the essential level of feeding billions, a growing movement in organic agriculture has begun to approach the yields of fossil fuel fertilized industrial farming. Output is not yet on par, but revival of and improvements to ancient technologies like topsoil enrichment , crop rotation and multi-crop practices draw more and more diverse caloric output from a given piece of land without poisoning it with pesticides or tying it to oil. While some imagine that technology will continue to displace human labor, to achieve the yields we need, technology in agriculture must flower in the same way it did in communications in the wake of the ATT breakup.

In an evolving civilization where food production grows in both cultural and economic importance it is reasonable to expect that food prices will rise and with them the wages paid in their production. As people begin to reclaim the level of detailed ecological knowledge our forefathers had for the biological systems they depended on and integrate this wisdom with the advances in technology that have revolutionized other industries over the last thirty years we can create a truly sustainable agriculture. Enough nitrogen exists in the atmosphere to feed quite a few more of us if we properly develop the technology for its capture and use. 

Agriculture could again become a viable livelihood on a meaningful scale and again engage our creativity with detailed and integrated botanical and technological knowledge. Working the soil need not be the back breaking toil of the ignorant and impoverished it has been historically. Technology, biological knowledge and a highly educated workforce can ramp up yields even as they integrate the living systems that enrich the soil and naturally manage insects we now view as pests. The scope for applied knowledge of botany, genetics, chemistry, robotics and biotechnology in agriculture is huge and blocked largely by the economics of an industrial policy that has left this essential infrastructure in the hands of several vertically integrated oligopolies associated with the military industrial complex who enjoy the rents they now collect from our universal dependency. 

The overwhelming wave of innovation in telecommunications unleashed by the break up of ATT thirty years ago could be replicated by a return to reasonable patent and copyright time frames for the genetic patents and copyrights of monopolies like Monsanto, monopolies that should be broken into manageable and competitive businesses. Anti-trust enforcement in the chemical and oil industries at the center of our de facto Energy/Military Industrial Policy would unleash real competition there as well and facilitate the energy transformation we need. While our current monopolists have put substantial downward pressure on prices, just as ATT did up to the 1970s, the cost to the economy has been in innovation and employment, costs that always accompany monopolies: look at what happened to information technology after the ATT break up and you can begin to imagine the possibilities for a new agricultural revolution. The tech boom came with all kinds of price, cost and employment adjustments, most importantly a rise in wages for tech workers and a fall in price for tech products. While the resulting technologies have on aggregate reduced the cost or digital communication, they have done so over time while along the way creating innumerable good, high paying new jobs. This is the kind of creative destruction that Schumpeter celebrated that our current policies suppress in the interests of incumbent monopolists.

Transportation infrastructure is ripe for similar revolution, and with it massive job creation and technological innovation. The logistical abilities of the IT age are evident in WallMart's supply chain. Again with anti-trust enforcement this could be turned to universal public benefit. In fact IT logistics management is a natural monopoly where government regulation as a utility will eventually revolutionize the movement of goods and people. 

In a metropolitan area like New York City, trucks generally operate at less than twenty percent capacity as a result of communications failures. Cities contain numerous natural efficiencies that the era of the internal combustion engine has inverted into costs making cities the most expensive places to purchase goods. This is a simple information processing problem that has already been solved technologically by creation of the Internet and the bar code scanner. But the scale of investment required for the shift in transportation technology to exploit the communications advance is so large that private investors will not pursue it and our expiring ideological fixations insist that governments shouldn't. 

Goods handling automation is very advanced at the warehouse level, but the effort to automate goods handling, within individual trucks and between trucks to allow in-route goods transfers, real time pick up and delivery scheduling maximizing utilization, is too big and too complex to be attractive to private capital. With government investment, or backing of investment, in applying these existing technologies to urban movement of people and goods, cities will again become the engines of efficiency and quality of life they have historically been. While this will displace low skill trucking jobs, it will create more and better jobs in robotics and information systems and invert transportation cost structures to again favor dense urban development. 

The energy used to power all these infrastructures is itself prepared for a revolution if we can rid ourselves of the centralizing will to power that wants to convert it to rents. New technologies exist that will create a broadly distributed base for the production of all the energy we will need when we organize the political will to meet actual human needs in the present rather than obsessing about how our present money will meet future needs we simply can not know. Of course this revolution will be resisted from the very soul of existing energy monopolies in production of oil, in massive centralized generation and in the distributive networks both depend on.

On the human side, rail transit as seen in the rest of the industrial and industrializing world is an obvious first step. Google's (another monopoly, but one still within the historical copyright/patent time frame) experiments with vehicular automation hold huge promise for public transportation at the micro, individual level. Managed as a utility it could do with a compact integrated system what we do now by happenstance with a fleet of hundreds of millions of car that run mostly empty, when not sitting idly on the curb or in the garage.

Information technology itself, Americas most recent and crowning technological achievement, is already ossifying here into monopolies that charge the public rents rather than increase universal living standards as better regulation is leading it to abroad. The regulatory capture American government is subject to is preventing the majority of Americans from benefiting from our most recent breakthroughs even as those Americans are reduced to cash cows for technology monopolies who use them as a base income stream to subsidize their penetration of better regulated foreign markets (our pharmaceutical monopolies are even more egregious abusers of the American people). These multi-nationally owned infrastructure monopolies may simply choose to abandon the US market altogether when their profitability in more growth oriented foreign economies is firmly established, leaving us with obsolete and decrepit systems.

Should we pursue opportunities like those above, many jobs will be destroyed, and probably many more created. If the political effort is made to see to it that the increased productivity created with the new jobs is shared equally between wage earners and the holders of the capital invested, as happened in the US until the Reagan Revolution, the increased demand from wage expenditure will bring the broader economy into the benefits of the new efficiency. Jobs we can't even imagine will result from the freely made spending decisions of wage earners who's income will grow with their productivity. And as the making of utilitarian things has grown increasingly capital intensive, reducing the labor required in such production, the vector of demand will likely shift to the qualitative sphere of aesthetic experience, to those things that make life worth living.

In a world where more people make more money in a high tech agriculture using human knowledge as the input to replace fossil fuel, fertilizer and pesticide, the centrality of food culture, recently awakening in the US but present from time immemorial in most of the rest of the world, the final stages of food preparation and the shared experience of consuming it will make creative and rewarding new income earning positions in the economy. These jobs are poorly paid now because they sit on a base of heavily subsidized meat and crop production, again a policy choice to put cheap ahead of good that is essential to our existing structure, but that has produced with it an epidemic of obesity and innumerable public health risks. The disruptions of creative destruction, managed over a period of mildly inflationary growth can redistribute incomes to make food once again a central human value with both sustainable and aesthetic qualities.

In America, our franchise based prepared food industry is again a vertically integrated monopoly, or oligopoly, depending on how you look at it. Like the US automobile industry, a true vertically integrated monopoly where three nominal brands purchase all their components from a single supply chain, the three big holding companies managing the vast majority US prepared food franchises  purchase supplies from a common set of giant petroleum intensive agricultural producers. This franchise model allows capital holders to receive rents from local entrepreneurs in return for entrepreneurs access to brands that make local franchises a known quantity to itinerant populations of customers. This organization also serves to convert the purchasing efficiencies of industrial scale to rents when the holding company charges markups when re-selling to franchisees.  

While a break up of this model will raise prices, it will raise quality and create jobs as well. And so long as the productivity gains of the new jobs are captured in income growth the rise in cost will translate into economic expansion at a rate greater than any resulting inflation. Again, managed over time, the break up of monopolistic food distribution and preparation will create more jobs than it destroys and so long as efficiencies gained in the new jobs are shared equally with wage earners, the process will be self sustaining. This would engage the new agriculture discussed above in a mutually beneficial reciprocity.

If a different and better world is available with present technology for our food, the same is true for our shelter. The man made environment at this point includes all the world and the sooner we take responsibility for our stewardship of it the easier the task of housing ourselves will be. The basic infrastructures of food, energy, transportation and information are all poised for revolutionary changes that will all relieve pressures we place on the biosphere even as our population growth continues and slows. Housing, the thing we all live with most intimately every day, can again become the engine of both economic and quality of life improvement: people make and make beautifully as a natural impulse, making is the thing we do that sets us most apart from all our genetic cousins and we can and should continually make our environment better. Making our homes should be a task for each successive generation. This does not mean each generation will tear down what it finds, but that each will successively improve and modify and beautify their inheritance. 

Of course as an architect I may be talking my own book here, but my experience with innumerable doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals and businesspeople telling me they had wanted to join the profession but for the pay leads me to suspect otherwise. At present architects are involved in a tiny percentage of residential construction. The growing modular industry removes design and craft even further from the mass market suburban residential development model. The stultifying sameness of American housing, coast to coast is another result of monopolistic industry consolidation that the modular industry is trying to push to the auto industry extreme. 

These efforts have provided square footage for Americans beyond the dreams of other nationals, but these industrially cheap buildings are plumbed with plastic pipe, sheathed with plastic paper and vinyl siding, roofed with asphalt shingles and finished with plastic paints synthetic floors and nylon carpeting. All of these construction industry staples are manufactured with unstable petroleum hydrocarbon polymers that disintegrate into short chemical strings of superfine dust that when it comes into contact with our bodies has the effect of mimicking  estrogen. 

That this story has not caught on in mainstream journalism is shocking and as clear a testimony as one could find to the propagandistic nature of our national press. These Estrogen Mimicking Compounds (EMC) are actually and demonstrably making male sex organs smaller and less healthy while having the opposite result on females , possibly to cancerous effect. Like the obesity epidemic, this public health disaster is a profit engine for the entrenched core industries of America's de facto military industrial complex industrial policy. Maintenance of this status quo, while lucrative for the central industries is in fact neutering the American people. 

An alternative model would use human energy, as urbanism did for its first five thousand years, to craft by hand ever better and healthier structures. While we have carpenters and masons, they have been conditioned to an exponential laziness by a laissez-faire conception of construction that rewards purely economic efficiency. Our carpenters should be as skilled and as exuberant as those that built medieval Colmar  and our masons should be as skilled and exuberant as those that built San Chapelle and Notre Dame. People naturally want to do this. Professionals like myself can help them to organize and plan, but the beauty of these late medieval buildings is only half design in the architectural sense, the balance is the joy and determined skill that the actual tradesmen embodied in them in craft, with the innate human love of making and making beautiful.

Who knows what innovations of craft and style, and even plan and section will arise from millions of empowered people making their dreams real for themselves? All the technological and informational potential of the last hundred years has largely bypassed construction. Huge industrial manufacturers of key building products like glass, steel, concrete and gypsum have structured the commercial building sector to suit their profitability largely through wage suppression. By substituting industrially manufactured buildings and building components, these industries have created the palette from which all designers and builders must now build. They have at the same time made every effort to preserve the built environment from labor "cost", the only metric of meaning in  a purely market driven system. The result is a labor-less, soulless global design monoculture where the design stars of the propaganda machinery build indistinguishable buildings on every continent with building materials from the monopoly supply chain engineered to remove wherever possible the human touch from their construction.

Replacement of these concentrated industries by local industries built around human skills could simultaneously free our economy of an enormous demand for resource depleting industrial extraction, shipping and production and employ millions in directly improving their own and their neighbors quality of life. Something like this has been undertaken in Japan over the last two decades and it has registered in the western world as "stagnation" because real improvements in the quality of life of aging people do not necessarily translate into the escalating GDP numbers our economic ideology insists on as the only value.

The misconceptions embedded in our ideologies conceal from us where the real joy and quality resides in human existence. We are a species of tool, symbol, song and story making beasts. These are the things that make us happy, but in making them we occasionally loose sight of the larger social construct of civilization in which we act. That larger construct is one of increasingly enormous and intertwined infrastructures. Over the last hundred years as our population has grown by an order of magnitude these have centralized an unprecedented amount of control in key central institutions. The scale and complexity of these institutions had been necessary to compensate for the insufficient technological reach at the dawn of the that era, but have come to be the central brake on innovation now, the dawn of a new one.

There are seven billion people in the world dependent on vast technological infrastructure for their survival, and for any hope they may have for the future. The "conservation" of existing fixed capital that both depletes natural resources and degrades the remaining environment that will be the inheritance of the future makes a lie of all the "conservative" concerns about the "costs" to future generations of our current political and economic arrangements. The cost of obsessing about the "national debt" is much greater than any interest burden any monetarily sovereign government who looks after the real value of things and people within its sphere will ever face. 

The central reality of our present condition is that with the exception of the internet, all of our essential infrastructures have become too concentrated. There has been a real economic efficiency in this centralization, but as power has concentrated in a plutocracy, any benefit has been converted to rents that create no real present value and slowly deplete the macro economy of purchasing power. Power always tries to concentrate while markets always try to distribute. In the post Reagan Revolution world power has been allowed to concentrate enough to wrest control of markets from representative governments. This reality leaves the central distributive function of markets on the brink of failure. There is no reason a sane nation would not put all of its resources to work to improve the quality of the lives of its citizens and yet here we are. We have become something other than a sane nation.

But my daily experience with the broad spectrum of skilled and unskilled people necessary to build real things in the real world leads me to believe that as a people we remain sane. It is the political marketplace our Republic has degenerated into that robs the common citizen of a voice where political speech is bid beyond their reach by political investors. If you look at the paltry efforts the Federal Reserve has made toward its mandate for full employment, it looks like a shocking failure, but if you understand that in the political marketplace the role of the Federal Reserve has been incorporated into the new Plutocracy you see that in fact the Fed has done a spectacular job of getting income into the hands of those plutocrats who have purchased political representation and in turn have been rewarded with nearly unlimited money. 

Something between 16 trillion and 29 Trillion was given as support to the financial institutions who's criminal behavior led to the global financial crisis in 2008 and has resulted in a sustained collapse in both growth and employment. The beneficiaries of this largess have turned around and spent huge portions of it to bribe our representatives to prevent real reform of the systems that allowed this. They have then gone on to fund propaganda campaigns to convince us we can't afford to do anything else. We afforded 16 to 29 trillion when it was plutocrats money on the line. We can afford several trillion of real stimulus, real public investment right now. In fact, to bring to fruition the possibilities outlined above, and necessary for us to have a future other than want and collapse, we must make these public investments. 

At the same time we will have to reform our politics to restore one citizen one vote to meaning. We will have to break up our monopolies and dismantle all of our centralizing control structures. It seems like a monumental task until you consider the millions of unemployed and the trillions of unproductive capital both in financial and real form sitting idle. Forget about the money, it is nothing but a tool and anyone who says otherwise is confessing an obsession with it. Look around you at all the real things and all the people in the world. Leadership has failed. It is time to just start doing things and drag our leaders along.

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