Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wikipedia Blowback Machine

Over the past half century the government has increasingly marked documents as 'secret', essentially shielding them from critical reading or challenge, and ever-increasing amounts of dubious documents were labeled as such for exactly those reasons. 300-page 'reports' emerged from one door, blinked in the sun hardly long enough for anyone to read the titles, and then disappeared into another door, effectively, forever.

And then, one day, this dustbin of history exploded, scattering the 'secret' collection of secrets, rumors, information, and disinformation across the landscape- the real-life analogue of the moment that Jack Nicholson's wife, in The Shining discovers that the novel he is writing consists of the single sentence "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" written over and over and over.

A few people will be momentarily embarrassed by the releases, but all will take consolation from the fact that it can't possibly all be true. The only real secret they were hoping to protect is the fact that the US government has SFB, but the cat's out of the bag now.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cities Will Be Huge

Cities will be big players in curbing AGW. They can look for big gains if they play their cards right, and big losses if we fail. Conservation, by clustering people in high-density communities of new buildings using less energy, can replace many current forms of power generation and meet our needs.

It's a challenge, but the modern city has resources no previous cities had, and cities have done pretty well in the past. What aspect of modern life, always excepting the climate itself, is not ten times as fast or strong as what went before? And the 20th century offers plenteous example of the patchwork reconstruction of civilized life by private and government agencies performing iterations of social organizing to provide social welfare for the community and the individual.

Most cities know they won't get much help from their central governments, but they must prepare for the deluge of former suburbanites who will want to move into town, when the full cost of carbon emissions are understood and levied against the users.

Most of the former suburbanites will have suffered ruinous financial losses before giving up and moving into town, and this will be one problem among many in dealing with huge increases in population. Still, for a city, that's a good problem to have. It is, in a sense, the problem they've always solved so well.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Middle Ages- Not So Dark

The Roman era in Britain may be characterized by the country houses, with central heating and hot baths, of the wealthy landowners, protected more by the Roman culture of law than by the soldiers who could be summoned in times of emergency. This lifestyle is what Britain, and other areas governed by Rome, had to lose when the Roman Empire fell. And Britain did lose this when Rome failed, c. 400-550 AD.

But most of Europe didn't. Growth plateaued but did not become decline until an economic crisis, c. 800 AD, led to both famine and reforestation of abandoned farmlands, this event being well decoupled from the 'fall' of Rome. Arguably, the darkest thing about the Dark Ages is the zeal with which the monks and clerics destroyed any written document that did not affirm the latest rulings from Rome- the Rome of the Pope, busily engaged in 'catholicizing' the writings and laws of the church.

Even impoverished Britain, in those chilly days, could afford a few ermine furs, but Normandy, from the late 9th century on, was engaged in building cathedrals, universities, and the cadres of educated men to staff them. They were constrained by their technology, but they were not poor people. Northern Italy was prosperous, with walled cities fed by well-ruled hinterlands, financing and carrying on trade with Constantinople and the Levant. The Hanse had emerged as a loose coalition of prosperous and vigorous cities reaching out to expand their markets and trade. In general, prosperity, here defined as adding 1-2% each year to the economy instead of losing that amount, reigned.

At that point in European history, the nation-state lay in the past- they had tried that, and it failed. They had replaced it with feudalism, a complex system in which each person owed allegiance to, and was governed by, many different jurisdictions and levels, many of which could, and did, conflict with each other. Maybe we can see some of the force of feudalism when we contrast how the nation-states of the past had been gobbled like popcorn by an expansionist Rome, while feudalism knit the entire continent of Europe into a semi-cohesive whole.

The city-state, on the other hand, prospered. It proved unnecessary for the city to legally rule the hinterlands- the city did that naturally by controlling the markets- and cities became compact and powerful centers of productivity, petitioning for charters and special privileges. Ruling themselves feudally, as did their society, they also became the first pillars of self-government.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

In 1969 a blizzard hit NYC on Sunday morning. We rode the subway to where it came out of the ground and there it stopped. By noon the snow was 18 inches deep and the city unexpectedly silent. Nothing moved.

The next morning I put on a suit (I didn't own an overcoat) and hoofed it briskly to the subway to work. Everything on the surface was snowed under, but millions of us showed up on time.

So many, in fact, that the Bagel Crisis emerged, as we rapidly ate our way through the 179 million bagels that were on hand and looked longingly towards the bakeries of Queens and Brooklyn for resupply. Fortunately, civic leaders understood the importance of this matter and quickly opened transport lines to the bakeries. Don't mess with a New Yawkers bagel or his 'coffee'.

In Seattle in 2010 a mini-blizzard dumped 3-6 inches of snow on Seattle. Surface transportation was paralyzed and workers were advised not to come to work if they could avoid it. The only thing that ran on time was the light rail line out to the airport. There's a lesson in there somewhere, if we choose to see it.

Cheney Spins Bush

A brief excerpt from George Bush's book provides a view into the 5-year-old minds of the Bush White House. As it opens, Dick Cheney is treating Bush as though he's one of the manly men -

"Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?" Bush "appreciated Dick’s blunt advice" but "told him I wasn’t ready to move yet." Suddenly, Cheney realizes that Bush is not the manly man he appeared to be, but is, instead, a stuffed shirt, a boss, someone from headquarters.

"Okay, Mr. President, it’s your call,’ he said.”

So, now it's not 'George', it's 'Mr. President', and it's going to stay that way until George can prove to Dick and Don that George can be a member of the gang too. It's the white guy equivalent of a 'beating in', just like you remember from grade school.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How About NOW For That BRT?

We've heard a lot about 'Bus Rapid Transit', the perennial gimmick of the transit-impoverished. Could there be a better time to make the central principles work than in a civic snowstorm emergency? Give the buses space to work in. Clear the streets of other traffic.

Reports from Monday's commute in Seattle show 3-4 hours commutes on the bus. This is wrong. Some thoroughfares should be kept open for buses only- doubling their speed, which in this case would be the very achievable increase from 3 MPH to 6 MPH, effectively doubles the number of buses available to passengers. Every rider is one potential stalled car that's not on the road.

This would send the strongest possible signal to improve productivity, because people could come to work in a snow emergency. As matters stand now, workers are being advised to stay at home. Nobody wants to do that, it just happens because we do not have an all-weather transportation system.

When it snows, convert some streets to handle fleets of buses, traveling faster than a man can walk, carrying people to and from the business of the city. It just might work.

The Autonomy of Cities- Part Two

From Tim Shorrock at Common Dreams:

"In 1980 a terrible event occured in Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea that was the birthplace of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's former president and its most famous dissident. On May 18, 1980, hundreds of students and democratic activists were shot down and bayonetted to death in the wake of a violent military coup...In response to the savagery of the Korean Special Forces who were responsible for the bloodshed that day, the citizens of Kwangju, who were well organized after years of oppression, took up guns and chased the military out of town. For seven days a citizens' committee held the city, negotiating with the military to seek a peaceful end to the crisis. It was the first uprising against military rule in South Korea since the Korean War and is widely seen there as a turning point in Korea's democratic movement."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ur-Myth of the Americans

The American conceit is perhaps the least charming of all nations. We're told that "free enterprise" outperformed all other economic systems, accounting for our wealth, and presaging the future.

In reality, we took a continent from the natives, and, protected by two oceans, developed an immense interior market jumpstarted by the discovery of oil. It's not liberal economics that brought prosperity to America, but America that brought prosperity to liberal economics.

Liberal economics were the economics of the surging European mercantile classes in the early 19th century, the justification for freeing economics from feudalism- and a timely development they were, as the thermal power of coal and oil transformed the underlying structure of the economy.

The United States, having extinguished feudal tenure by killing the original owners, did not need liberal economics. In the US liberal economics have grown, in reaction to the demands of the industrial state for predictable inputs and markets, into a lunatic fantasy of what never was and what will never be- a sort of Disney CGI animation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

What actually happened, should we choose to wander those deserted bylanes, is not only illuminating, but often, in addition, charming. We're starting another great change in the structure of the economy and we can use all the clues we can get.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Funded National Debt

The 18th century is often regarded as the pre-industrial run-up, when the necessary organizations and products were developed to industrialize with. In reality, the markets, trade routes, sources, and products had been through successive iterations over centuries. Central to the nation-state was the funded national debt, and, allied, the development of pension funds.

With no attempt at total accuracy, the French and the British had both, by the year 1800, developed systems by which a person could buy a share, which would then pay a small income. In this way the lower and middle classes of the bourgeoisie could buy a share in the stability of the state. The state became more adept at issuing notes and bonds, freeing the state from the financial markets.

Initially regarded with considerable misgivings, and muttering about how any squire doing their accounts at the kitchen table could tell you it wouldn't work. Wielded with skill, these tools worked well- the British funded the whole of the Napoleanic Wars on their national debt and the promise to pay later- and became fantastically wealthy by doing so.

By 1900, France, German, and Great Britain all had mature and functional pension systems providing some degree of financial assurance to citizens and a column of financial stability for the state. I believe the importance of pension systems, in maintaining a stable and predictable base of demand for the economy, is generally underrated.

In America in the same year of 1900 the only national pension system was the system of payments to veterans. Americans could put their money in banks, which frequently went broke, or invest in railroads, which always went broke and wiped out the smaller shareholders in bankruptcy proceedings. America did not begin the 20th century with any clear idea about social security, or the role that a national social security system might play in the national finances.

Since the beginning of Social Security the propaganda din against it has been almost deafening, but the real outlines of the system are easy enough to discern. This popular system collects almost a half of the federal revenues from taxation and is wholeheartedly supported in doing so by the general public. For 25 years the amounts collected have been greater than the amounts paid in pensions, and the Social Security system has supported the federal government financially by using the surplus to buy US treasury notes. This is the success we need to emulate in the matters of healthcare, and low-income housing linked with LEED development.

Running through all of this is the concept of a funded national debt- an important tool of good government.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Is A Market?

A market is a concretion of a fair. A fair, where people gather to buy and sell, is commerce stripped to the barest essentials. Fairs happen regularly; markets are generally open on a continuous basis. Structures- financial, social, and political as well as physical- are built to improve the function of the market.

Collecting and reusing the wealth from all this commerce is the primary task of the market, and the most direct way to do this is to charge admission, and, incidentally, provide some protection from the world outside to those admitted. The medieval city, with burghers who also don battle gear or stand watch, and nobility competing with the commercial classes in the market, provides a vibrant image of a market.

Even in the earliest times we can see the distinction between the market of the hinterland, which supplies the city, and the international market for goods that are bought and sold over vast distances. The interior market of the city can function somewhat independently of the international market and vice versa. With the development of the nation-state came the notion of interior markets for nations, and this notion is of particular import for Americans as for over a hundred years the US has had the largest interior economy of the world.

The US has the world's largest interior market and it's not hard to see why- we've built highways and airports, and we send our children to school where they become proficient and highly productive of modern goods and services. For over 200 years we've been investing heavily in productive capacity, and any sober review would award the government with credit for many of those improvements. In short, the people of the US have a legitimate claim to some say in how this market is run.

Of course, this is hardly the only original thought we'll encounter on our journey to self-government. To be honest, many of us have a depth of historical knowledge that would fit comfortably in a few Classic Comics books. On the plus side, it can be a lot more fun learning about this stuff when you're old enough to reach the top shelf. Recommended reading- The Disastrous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman .

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Our Marketplace

The city was the basic building block of the modern democratic nation-state. The cities provided the mercantile intercourse without which any amount of innovation in the countryside would have been meaningless. Cities absorbed, distributed, and ultimately demanded improvements in agricultural output, eroding the feudal economy and fueling improved production within the city walls.

The city walls were not defenses for times of war, but for times of peace. To do business in the city, you had to enter the city and play by their rules. They went to a lot of expense to create the market, had every intention of being successful, and felt fully entitled to make their own rules.

How much expense? Enough to survive sieges, both of the military and economic variety. Enough to build cathedrals that reigned in height until the era of the skyscraper. Enough to transform the economy of surrounding regions and distant lands. Enough to defy the landowning nobility and make kings their debtors.

Because cities were corporations of commoners, and because the productive forces were pent in city walls, real forms of democracy emerged- enough, at least, to ensure that any prolonged starvation of the workers would be rewarded with destructive urban rioting. A crude tool, but, over time, sufficient.

This is important because cities harnessed the forces of 'market capitalism' by unashamedly regulating and taxing markets- markets that could not have existed in a 'state of nature'. The proposal is that the US of A is, in fact, a market that we have every right to control democratically- and that "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

This is our market. We've spent trillions creating it, surrendering vast amounts of personal agency in the process, but, strange to say, usually at great benefit to ourselves and others. No imaginary "invisible hand" has ever come anywhere close to the ability of democratic government to create value. The history, first of the city-state, and then of the nation-state, illustrate this, but what will come next, in the context of global warming?

That is hard to tell, but putting our own house in order would be a good first step in preparing to deal with whatever it may be.

No Earmarks Here

In a recent article at Common Dreams, Nick Turse looks at American base building in the mid-east, and finds quite a bit of it. In fact, you would be astounded if these construction projects came to your town, and for a brief time there would be no recession there.

But this highlights the difference between the chronic cyclical cratering of the poorly regulated capitalist economy, and the chasm of the structural depression that is opening before us. There may be some value in these construction projects for those who take them over after we leave, but there is none for us. They are every bad thing you can imagine doing to an economy wrapped in one giant regret-now and pay-later down elevator to Hell.

Even worse, we don't even know how to change. Amazingly enough, most of us are still enjoying ourselves so much that we can't find the time to master tedious details about saving energy or preventing global warming. Amongst average university grads, the conversations on these topics typically are about as sophisticated as chimpanzees showing each other children's blocks, and agreeing that they like the 'train' block and don't like the 'car' block.

Will this be enough? In democracy, it's always hard to tell. But if we were a hockey team, there'd be no plans for the post-season. Because, in this game, if we're not good enough to make it into the post-season, there won't be any post-season. And right now, we're nowhere close.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Never Saw That Coming!

On the one hand, the solvent-for-thirty-years Social Security program has nothing to do with the deficit the deficit reduction commission was supposed to be dealing with.

On the other hand, every rich person in America agrees that Social Security, the one government program running in the black, must be changed. The very plumpness of Social Security assets quietly returning dividends is an affront to rich people who can never have too large a slice of the pie.

What goes on here? Let me connect the dots. They mean to keep the tax, but take the revenues for themselves. Even better, every dumb company in America will be paying the tax, as the employers part, but the money collected, after being suitably laundered in Washington DC, will be given to no-bid contractors and other slimy Cheneyite creatures of the sort we became so familiar with under George Bush. Ba-da-BING! The oligarchy scores again!

The demands of the oligarchal warfare state have simply outstripped the ability of the nation to pay. If the oligarchs don't find something new to steal, and soon, they're finished. You can't cut the subsidies and military spending on the industries of the oligarchy, leaving only SS as a large asset to be looted. Whatever the question, the answer will be plain- end Social Security!

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Streetcar Suburbs Here

Seattle's young transit lovers cherish certain holy relics, occasionally removing them form their velvet wrappings to flash their glory upon us, and among these are "streetcar suburb", a reference to suburban development originally reached by streetcar. Seattle supposedly shows traces of this development, but it ain't necessarily so.

The early transportation in Puget Sound was by water. In other regions, railroads drove development, or rather, overdevelopment, that built a fine mesh of lines around every major city. In Seattle, and especially after the coming of the cable cars to Lake Washington and West Seattle, suburban commuting usually involved a boat. As a region, Puget Sound went directly from the ship to the automobile without a streetcar interregnum.

The areas which we perceive today to have been "streetcar suburbs" were actually infill, the original wave of suburbanization having passed early to the shores of Lake Washington. The Wallingford area is more convincingly of the "streetcar and land" developer mold, but no argument is made that development there would not have occurred if the streetcar had not been built.

They say "you can't miss what you ain't never had", but you could plainly see, driving around in Seattle 25 years ago, that Seattle was vitamin deficient, or even severely anemic, in the quality of buildings that weren't built on streetcar lines. The buildings built on the lines had that extra quality that person puts in the building when it is expected to last. They were the kind of building you want to see in your city.

On another level, planners today are still flying on instruments. Because water transport is so diffuse, and requires so little investment on the land side of the business, the change from the ship to the automobile left most of the region as small and very poorly connected communities. What to make of all this? Planners survey needs, whether perceived or projected, and then attempt to design routes that meet those needs.

In the case of the eastward extension of Link, the planners are trying to justify the route with references to daily boardings, and the easiest way to do that is to run the rails past the park'n'rides, and assume you collect all the riders from those buses. The rails become a tool, not for making communities work, but for making the park'n'ride system work.

But the park'n'rides are inherently sprawl inducing. They were built in low-density locations (to cut costs) and exist to serve people who use cars for the first part of their commute. In allowing the location of park'n'rides to determine the route, we lose a major opportunity to shape our community.

This loss, indeed, is not noticed, because the same thing happened the last time we changed transportation systems. For fifty years we've been building highways on the projections that people will come, and indeed they have come, but does anyone seriously believe they would have come if the roads had not been built? Leaving the pattern of this development to the random mutation of financial DNA among real estate developers had been a total disaster.

It may be too late to create an inspiring past, but there's still time left to create an inspiring future.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Perfect Storm In Pakistan

Recent heavy flooding in Pakistan was intensified, or even created, by upstream timber poaching that denuded slopes. The sediment will raise the river bottoms, leading to more flooding. The money from the timber poaching will be used to buy government officials, quite literally buying bad government.

Our ability to assist the Pakistanis in this matter will be limited, not least by the resemblance of their system to ours. We have a few more bells and whistles, but basically business goes on as usual, with drearily predictable flooding and sedimentation following each rain event. Aid agencies that do not understand the basics of conservancy will be unable to demand the changes or improvements that are needed.

*Fortunately*, the increasing tempo of world development will reveal the needs in short order, as recently happened in Pakistan. Unfortunately, we have a lot less time than we thought.