Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Infinite Economy

Note: This is an essay I have written for my soon to be launched website - My current goal is to have it up and running by mid-November, but that might change if I'm lucky enough to find someone who actually wants to hire me for a real-world job. Anyways, I'd appreciate any feedback you have for this article. Also, if anyone knows how credit cards receive the authority to loan money or if reserve requirements differ for savings vs. checking accounts, I'd love to learn more.

Ever wonder why the business world seems obsessed with growth? Open up the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Economist, or the business section of your local paper. Growth, increasing profits, and expanding markets – this is the objective. When businesses don’t grow at expected rates, stock prices plummet and CEO’s get canned.

From microeconomic perspective, the point of view of the individual, our society offers countless reasons to work for growth. A salesman who sells more makes more money in commissions. A mid-level manager drives his employees to perform at a higher level so that one day she can be promoted to corporate. A CEO might point to his legal duty to increase the company’s equity for stockholders. A self-employed contractor knows that without building more homes, he cannot afford to send his daughter to private.

At just about every level, we are a society oriented toward growth.

I believe an unending growth economy is impossible in a finite world. An always-growing economy requires an ever increasing number of resources. Thanks to the laws of physics, we have little hope of creating an infinite world, so we best stick with creating a sustainable economy.

In this series, The Infinite Economy, I will examine various parts of our economic system and growth-oriented society. Once we’ve had a chance to explore our current system, we will be in a better place to forge a new economic paradigm.

First, a bit of background: I have been intrigued by business, the economy and investing for my entire life. My parents were especially careful to make sure I learned to be responsible with money. I was probably 8 years old when I opened my first savings account. The idea that someone would pay me to hold my money sounded really good. When I was about 10, I used a 1-year CD with my paper route money, since that paid out even MORE money than my savings account. When the year was up, I took the money and purchased shares in a mutual fund. This past summer I opened up an IRA and bought stock in several companies.

What does this have to do with anything? I’m not someone who has an innate dislike of business or investing. I am not morally opposed to corporations. When I say that our monetary, financial, and economic policy needs to be completely rethought and overhauled, I almost feel as though I’m condemning a loving uncle, someone has been good to me my entire life. Yet when I consider the facts of the world, I see no other alternative.

The Infinite Economy – Banking and the Creation of Money

Money is the primary median through which business is conducted in modern society. Most people think money is created by the government. I did. I’ve seen pictures of the mint and the printing presses. I’ve read the text on the bills: “This note is legal tender.” Its got those little fake signatures from the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer of the United States. Its government created money, right?

In a sense, this is right. Through laws and judicial enforcement, the government maintains this faith in the dollar by declaring any debt paid in dollars fulfilled. The money is deemed worthy by government fiat. But just as the FBI and Justice Department don’t create the laws, the government doesn’t create dollars, even if it facilitate its existence and enforces its acceptance in the market.

The responsibility for creating money is the duty of the quasi-governmental Federal Reserve and private banks. More importantly, the system these banks use to create money requires a growth-oriented economy to function.

I used to assume that for every dollar a bank loaned out (in the form of a mortgage, car loan, or what have you), was a dollar someone else had deposited at the bank. I deposit $100 in the banks, and they pay me a 2% interest rate. Then they turn around and loan out my $100 at 6% a interest rate and keep the 4% difference to pay operating costs and keep what they can for profit.

But that’s not how it works, at least not for members of the Federal Reserve system.
Modern banking operates on what is known as the fractional reserve system. A typical fractional reserve rate is 9:1, about the rate modern commercial banks operate under. This means that for every dollar of high-powered money a bank has deposited at the Fed, it can loan out nine dollars to customers. For this loan, Bank A must pay the Fed the going interest rate as determined by the Federal Reserve Chairman, currently Ben Bernanke. As I write this, the Fed’s interest rate is 1.0%, which is unusually low.

(Aside: Not all banks are members of the Federal Reserve system. As of April 2008, about 75% of all bank assets (loans) at FDIC-insured institutions are with member banks, so member banks make up the majority of domestic banking. Non-member banks include many small savings and loan institutions and credit unions.)

Lets start with a hypothetical Bank A, a member of the Federal Reserve. The Fed deems it necessary to increase the money supply. To start this process, they purchase $100,000 worth of high-quality securities (U.S. government bonds) on the open market from Hannah the stock broker. Hannah then deposits this money in her bank, Bank A.

When Mohamed the insurance salesman comes into Bank A and asks for a $90,000 loan to put an addition on his home, the bank types the loan into the computer and writes him a check. At that moment, the bank has created $90,000 that didn’t previously exist.

Next, Mohamed takes that $90,000 and gives it to his contractor, who in turn deposits the money in his account at Bank B (it could be any bank, as the cumulative effect on the system will be the same). So, when Jose the financier goes to Bank B and asks for a loan to buy herself a fancy new sports car, Banker B can say, “Sure, here’s $81,000. Knock yourself out.” Why $81,000? Bank B must keep a 9:1 reserve ratio for all deposits, the same as the Fed. Bank B is required to keep $9000 as “reserves” and may loan out the other $81,000.

Bank B’s loan to Jose creates another $81,000 in new money. Remember, Mohamed’s contractor still sees the full $90,000 in his bank account, and he can withdraw that at any time.

The cycle can continue indefinitely with shrinking amounts of money. Each round of lending creates new money. From the original $100,000 securities purchase, a 9:1 fractional reserve ratio has the potential to create upwards of $1,000,000 in new money. Before the 2008 financial crisis, some investment banks were allowed to have reserve ratios upwards of 30:1, though I don’t think they could borrow from the Federal Reserve.

Another interesting aspect of the current financial system is that if, theoretically, all debts were paid, no money would remain in the system. When a bank takes on a depositor, it creates a liability on its balance sheet, since it owes this money to the depositor. A loan, on the other hand, is an asset. It is money that is expected to come into the bank. Once the debt is paid off, the bank can “pay off” the liability, and keep the interest as revenue. The asset (money) that was created when the loan was written, disappears. Debt creates money. Payment of debt eliminates money.

I don’t take to the position that this system is an inherent sham, that creating money from nothing is somehow a moral failing on the part of the financial sector. Like every monetary system developed by human society, this system is based on symbolism. The money created by the fractional reserve system is just as valuable as the shells, stone disks, or gold coins used as money in the past. All of these are equally as good at feeding your family and keeping them warm in the winter (ok, paper has the edge there).

The problem with the current monetary system is that to function, it requires perpetual economic growth.

Banks don’t just give out money as a service for the good of society. They expect repayment of the principle, with interest. If all money is created as debt, where does the money to pay the interest come from?

The answer is that it comes from the creation of more debt. Debt/money increases exponentially while the economy – the number of products and services available – remains at a constant level or even contracts. In a world without growth, this system would soon collapse under the weight of inflation.

(Aside – Of course, instead of taking on more debt, the percentage of loans equal to the interest rate could default. But that wouldn’t lead to a functioning system, would it?)

Growth allows this system to function. Money is a claim on real things. If the economy is producing more and more goods and services every year, there is more stuff for the increased money supply to lay claim upon.

The unending growth that is required to support our economic system is not possible. As the supply of oil, timber, fish, fresh water, and fertile soil plateaus and decreases, our ability to grow ceases. We need a new paradigm, a system for living that is tenable over the long run.

Note on sources – Much of my analysis in this article is inspired by the video, “Money as Debt.” You can view it here. While I don’t agree the implications made in the video’s last few minutes and haven’t been able to verify all of the video’s assertions, it is an enlightening video. If anyone can send me (E-MAIL Link) an authorities source on the use of “high-powered” money as discussed in the video, I’d be much obliged. I’d also like to thank Wikipedia and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for publishing this helpful booklet

Monday, October 20, 2008

Where My Moral Compass Points

As I alluded to in a comment on the previous thread, outlining my moral compass last week has really helped put some things in perspective. It helped me to realize that energy/environmental/economic issues are very important to me. For whatever reason, these are things I think about (and have always thought about since at least 8th or 9th grade). When I brainstorm business ideas, I think of these issues.

So I've decided, for the present, that this is the area I want to put my energies. I'm applying for a canvasing job with a local environmental group (not my ideal thing, but its a start and its a job). I've also been working on a business plan for starting a web page about these issues. I'm still working out exactly what tone I want to take. Maybe you have some thoughts? My overall goals are to 1) Provide balanced information and and analysis of issues, and 2) Propose solutions and discuss them with readers. Something like, but covering a wider variety of topics and having more accessible content.

I am also interested if anyone would like to help develop the site, contribute writing, etc. The reason I want to put ads on the website is to possibly eventually support myself (or ourselves) enough to dedicate more time to the project. I am somewhat concerned with moral implications of this, etc. I'm really not sure exactly where I stand on the issue.

Anyways, here is the business proposal. I've spent the week writing this and about a half dozen other partial or whole articles, which is why this is the week's "essay."

Business Plan

Description of Business

The business is an educational and entertaining website that teaches readers about all issues relating to this issue: “We have a finite world. Our economy is designed for ever increasing growth. How do we transition to a sustainable way of life? The site will cover environmental issues, propose solutions, promote activism, evaluate important news items, and offer numerous how-to articles and product evaluations.

The tone of the website will be serious overall, with bits of sarcasm, recurring references, and humor to add life and create a feeling of humanity and community.


Content will initially be divided into three subsets: 1) Essays 2) News 3) Evaluations. Essays will be published 2-3 times per week, and will cover a variety of issues. They will be longer, and address macro topics as well as micro. Most “Green” websites concentrate on micro issues, and many of them propose new, “green” products to help us change our ways. While this is a step in the right direction, the value of such things needs to be closely examined. This business will do that. It will also work to pose solutions, even if they need some work, to these problems, and not just identify the problem.

The Finite Planet wants to move beyond the generally agreed paradigm of the Green movement, which consists of small communities, locally grown foods and a local economy in general, recycling, renewable energy, (ADD). The Finite Planet sympathizes with these ideas, but finds them lacking in many regards and in need of explanation and expansion in every regard.

The format in which news is presented still needs to be determined. We will mostly cover important scientific discoveries, oil, environmental and economic related news.

The website will do some book reviews and product evaluations. Book reviews will be done for recent as well as older books, with the goal being that I only write reviews for things I like and can recommend. If I do negative reviews, they will be for popular products, like bottled water, and the tone would be more sarcastic. Product reviews will concentrate on the following questions: How oily is this product? How necessary is it? How oily are the alternatives?

The website will also include an ever-growing compendium of internet resources, which are expertly indexed and organized. The main page will include a link to *NEW* resources.

Game Plan

Phase 1: Pre-Hosting

1) Write initial static content. As with all content, as much emphasis as possible should be placed on teaching. This is ESPECIALLY true for static or “pillar” articles. This includes the following articles:
a. An overview of our economic and credit system
b. What is peak oil? (Initial entry)
i. Cover the “what” portion, and save the “when” for further investigation?
c. The Green Movement
i. An article describing the mainstream Green Movement. Define it, talk about its good qualities, but also be critical of it.
ii. Make sure to cover the pros and cons of the merger between environmentalism and business.
d. (TITLE TBD) – This essay will be a sequel to the Green Movement essay. The first looks at where we are and how far we’ve come. This essay will lay out The Finite Earth’s core principles and try to show how we will move the conversation forward.
e. The Myth of Energy Independence (Essay)
i. Go after Obama, McCain, and politicians in general for misleading American as to what this would actually take. It might be a good political talking point, but its not a very effective way of thinking about policy.
f. An article discussing/defining what we mean by sustainability. Base this on Dan and my discussion, so include population.
g. A review of solar laptop chargers.
h. An “About” page and mission statement.
2) Write first six essays (about two weeks worth of material).
3) Compose an initial compendium of resources
a. Go through wikipedia entries on various renewable energy. Consider cataloging them, and search them for links to useful reports, pages, etc.
4) Begin to write out an index of technical terms such as kWH and EROEI, with explanations. This will be an ongoing project.
5) Hand-draw webpage layout
6) Investigate blog networks.

Phase 2: Pre-Launch

1) Install and experiment with different web software (Wordpress, Drupal, etc.)
2) Build webpage
3) Sign up for Google Analytics service
4) Figure out how social aggregator’s work and sign up for appropriate ones
5) Scout for possible pages, blogs, etc. on which to promote website
6) Find blog carnivals to submit essays
7) Have Morgan do a copy-edit
8) Ask friends to visit website and give feedback

Phase 3: Launch

1) Troubleshoot
2) Promote site (Need to determine how)
3) List blog on places such as Eaton Web, Globe of Blogs, BlogShares and Blog Street.
4) Sign-up for advertising.
5) Add an “e-mail your friend” option.

Monthly Goals



The business’ marketing campaign will be internet based, word of mouth. Quality and consistency in our content will be the main force of attraction. The business will experiment promoting through aggregators such as Slashdot, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Delicious, and Digg. Articles and pages will also have titles that are search friendly, though we will not optimize for search engines to the detriment of content.

We will support RSS feeds, participate in blog carnivals, and network with other websites.

The business will also investigate doing a newsletter to help remind people of the site’s existence and keep them coming back.

The business does not plan on spending money on any sort of advertising.

The Finite World is one part policy, two parts education and teaching. The latter needs to be emphasized especially, because that’s what is going to attract traffic and attention.

The general approach for each article needs to be: This is what you need to know, and I’m going to tell you.

Articles will have informative yet catchy titles. Formatting for articles will be very important. Experiment with different formats, but remember to take a look at Mr. Electricity’s webpage and others for inspiration on how to arrange subtitles, bold first lines, etc.

The website will be relatively personal. Not so much that its called or anything like that, but it will include catchy, snarky phrases. This will include things like Mark’s rules of the universe. Rule #4, for example, is “that people tend to believe the end of the world is upon us. This is only warranted when it comes to things like nuclear holocaust. Otherwise, we need to think clearly, keep a level head, and take decisive action. The end of the world as you know it is not the same as the end of the world.”

Marketing To-Do List

1) Find blogs that you like with comment pages and comment on them. If it is allowed, link back to your blog when relevant.
2) Research and possibly use Feedburner.
3) Create a newsletter
4) Participate in blog carnivals
5) Submit to blog/webpage directories
6) Submit to Google sitemaps (if you’re using Wordpress, this might be useful:
7) Browse for other blogs on similar topics, find ones you like, and smooze on message boards, etc.
8) Make sure that you do trackbacks.


Initial start-up costs are as follows:

1) Domain Registration: $10/year
2) Hosting: About $10/month, depending on which plan is selected.

Domain registration costs are fixed. Hosting costs will increase as site traffic (and incomes) increases.

The website expects to earn money from a number of different sources. Here are the four types of income streams I will probably begin with:

1) Adsense – I anticipate Google’s Adsense to account for the largest percentage of the business’s income.
a. Problogger recommends to wait a little while before applying to adsense, because they want your site to have a reasonable amount of content. On the other hand, how do all of the typo sites have advertisements if this is true? The post was from 2004, so look into this some more and see if its changed.
b. REMEMBER – NEVER click on your own ads or encourage your readers to click on them.
c. Center, top left, and the footer are the best places to put Adsense ads. In-text ads are also very effective, though you should experiment with them so that they aren’t annoying.
2) Adwords – Another part of Google-based advertising
3) Affiliate Programs – Links to Powells, Amazon, and other online retailers, where the business earns money when people click through to purchase.
4) Donation requests – Visitors can donate money via PayPal.

Listed below are some more methods of earning money that could be used.

5) Custom Advertising – This is an option that I will probably only get into if someone approaches me, because this isn’t the place I want to put my time.
6) - This one in particular is recommended by Problogger.
11) Maybe some of these?: Azoogle Ads, Intelli Txt, DoubleClick, Tribal Fusion, Adbrite, Clicksor, AdHearUs, Kanoodle, Pheedo, TextAds, Bidvertiser, Fastclick and Value Click
a. Note: This list was taken off of a 2005 article, so you might want to look around for newer options. On the other hand, it should be obvious which ones of these are good by which ones have survived.

Possible Topics

- Shale Oil
- What is Peak Oil? (Series)
- Electricity
- Geothermal
- Solar Power
- Wind
- Extranaloties, externalized costs - Those things where something has a cost that isn’t included in the dollar estimation of it. I.e. air pollution from a car.
o Compare externalized costs as robbery with the argument used to say that graduated taxes are robbery.
- Why efficiency is so more important than increasing supplies.
- Natural Gas
- Coal
- Liquid Coal
- Ethanol
- Ethanol vs. Bio-diesel
- Cellulose-based Ethanol
- Fertilizer
- Industrial Farming
- Can organic farming feed the world?
- Transportation
o Cars
o Planes
o Boats
o Trains
o Buses
o Share-car programs
o Bikes
o Walking
o Scooters
- Water scarcity
- Collapsing fish stocks
- Forests, and why we need them
- Local food
- Gardening
- Small Wind
- Personal solar
- Solar thermal
- Drill heating (or whatever you call those systems that drill into the ground to heat homes)
- Metal
- Industrial energy use
- Helium
- Concrete manufacturing
- We need a world-oriented approach.
- Meat
- Energy efficiency and reducing use (multiple articles)
- Global warming vs. other problems
- Buy used, buy less
- Commercial buildings
- Plastics
- What’s the difference between bio-diesel and ethanol?
- Hemp and Marijuana
- Batteries
- The electric grid
- Water problems
- Building materials
- The Genuine Progress Indicator (See wiki article)
- Tourism
o What is “eco”-tourism anyhow?
- Ordering online vs. driving to the store
- Home size
- Growth economies
- The need for a new economic system (see:
- Two good, related articles for thinking of article ideas: 1) and 2)
- Netflix vs. Driving to video store vs. Walking to video store.
- Moving beyond the generally agreed paradigm of the Green movement, which consists of small communities, locally grown foods and a local economy in general, (ADD). The Finite Planet sympathizes with these ideas, but finds them lacking in many regards and in need of explanation and expansion in every regard.
- Eating out vs. eating in.

Monday, October 13, 2008

My Moral Foundation

This week’s post is a bit different. A thought experiment. A bit more personal.
I have been struggling, for at least my entire adult life, to find a moral compass. What should I do with my life? To reason out a direction for my life. What is the most logical action to take? I’ve searched for inspiration in books, in the lives of others. Who do I want to emulate? Whose path can I use for inspiration and guidance?
These investigations have not been fruitless. The conversations I’ve had with my friends have been priceless. The books I’ve read, informative and instructional.
The conclusion that I’m reaching is that this isn’t something to be reasoned or taught. Others can provide inspiration for achievement. The overall direction is something written deep inside the soul (for lack of a better term). My moral compass, the values that I believe in, has been more or less engrained inside me when I was young by forces I cannot really comprehend. Conditioning, or something like that.
And it is definitely, definitely a predominately emotional thing.
I don’t claim I can always follow every part of my moral compass. It would be untrue.
Below, I list as many components of my moral compass as I can think of, as I think of them. By trying to lay my moral compass out, I hope I can become more aware of my moral compass and use this as a guide to discover what I will find most fulfilling in life. I’d be interested to know what you think of this exercise, if you think I’m on the right path, if you think my premises are off, or how you have discovered what you may want to do with your life.

1) Promote understanding.
2) Do not hold every error a person commits against them.
3) Be responsible with money.
4) Do not live beyond your means.
5) It is important to work toward your goals.
6) Accept responsibility for your actions.
7) Value friendship.
8) Beyond meeting basic physical needs, fulfilling human relationships are the most necessary thing for happiness.
9) “Natural areas” or “the outdoors” are good and worth preserving.
10) Being greedy and selfish will not make one happy.
11) Privacy is a right.
12) A person’s actions should cause no undue harm on other people.
13) Polluting and littering are not good things to do and should be avoided.
14) People have the right to consenting relationships, to create, share, and promote ideas, and to assemble.
15) If one comes across another in need, it is good to help them out.
16) Every person has obligations to every other person. For example, we have an obligation not to torture.
17) My knowledge of the world is imperfect and subject to change when new facts present themselves.
18) When making value judgments or moral decisions, the specific circumstances of the situation should be taken into consideration.
19) Waste is bad. We should reuse and recycle. Energy should come from immediately renewable and long-lasting sources, such as the sun, wind, hydro, and geothermal.
20) Concerning government or society, a more long term view is always needed.
21) I believe in secularism in government (i.e. no religion is favored) and freedom of religion in private life.

I am sure this is an incomplete list, and I will update it as I think of more items.
Should I accept these as an unchangeable part of myself, like my height or the color of my eyes? Or should I strive to change my moral compass to something else? If so, how would a new path be chosen?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Foreign Policy? Searching for a Coherent Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War

Its seems to me that the United States hasn’t had a coherent foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With our “existential” enemy vanquished, we have become free floating, wandering in search of a purpose. While the Bush administration has put forth some opinions on foreign policy, I do not consider them to constitute a coherent policy because they revolve around the administration’s doctrine of the unitary executive.

From the late 1940’s or early 1950’s until 1988, U.S. foreign policy (as I understand it from reading in books) was to prevent to spread of communism and the influence of the Soviet Union. This logic influenced a number of wars we directly participated in (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Afghanistan to name a few). It also influenced our relationship with Europe through NATO.

That’s not to say that fighting communism was the only pillar of our foreign policy, nor that it was followed in every case. But it was a coherent, understandable policy that was applied with regularity. Different presidents might have fought communism differently, but they still all fought communism with the same end-goal in mind.

The Bush Foreign Policy

George W. Bush would probably point to the following doctrines and say “This is our current foreign policy.” 1) preventative strikes, 2) preventing our enemies from developing or acquiring WMDs, 3) fighting for democracy, and 4) defeating the terrorists. While this might be our current foreign policy, it is not a coherent foreign policy.

The Bush administration’s theory of the unitary executive works to place as much decision making policy in the hands of the Executive branch, with the President as its unambiguous head. Though a unitary executive and coherent foreign policy are not mutually exclusive, Bush has used the former as an excuse to ignore the latter. Foreign policy, like most of Bush’s policies, rely solely on the pleasure of the president, and not on any reasoned or thought out policy that is transferable to the next president.

A coherent foreign policy provides U.S. leadership, across administrations, with the same outline under which to make decisions. A new president can change the former’s policy, but should do so in a form that they can hand off to their own successor. A foreign policy that is coherent can, for the most part, be carried out by the Secretary of State and her deputies down to the rank and file diplomats without the President’s direct knowledge or consent. With a coherent foreign policy, a lower-ranking official can make decisions if needs be at a moment’s notice and be fairly confident that their actions are in line with the overall objectives of the President and the country.

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, President Bush reminisced that he knows what it takes to be president, because every day he looks at the daily intelligence briefings, at the reports of attacks and threats to our national security. I am arguing that, while it is important for the president to be briefed and kept up-to-date with the state of things, he shouldn’t be spending his time pouring over daily threat reports, but should instead be considering the bigger picture.

Lets take a look at each Bush policy and see why none are coherent.

Preventative Strikes

The “doctrine” of preemptive strike is probably the worst. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive strike is based in what I call Rumsfieldian logic. Rumsfieldian logic is based on the fact that there are things you know, things you know you don’t know, and things you don’t know that you don’t know. If you know something, you can act on it. If you know that you don’t know something, the subject can be investigated.

But how does a leader deal with the “unknown unknowns?” Well, you strike before they strike you. Cheney explained how this logic leads to the 1% doctrine: “If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.”

I don’t even know where to start. Luckily, John Stewart has already did my job for me in his two-part interview with Douglas Feith, a proponent and enabler of the 1% doctrine:

I want to emphasize the fact that the 1% doctrine has not been followed through on. The Bush administration has not treated all . It is simply just another smoke screen thrown up to pretend that we have a coherent foreign policy.


The Bush administration’s efforts to deny our enemies access to WMDs would be a coherent policy if whom we considered to be our “enemy” could be determined by some measure besides identification by the President. Before Bush, this issue might have been handled under the coherent policy of non-proliferation. But Bush canned this possibility when he withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Spreading Democracy

A foreign policy that promotes the spread of democracy could conceivably be a coherent foreign policy, though it has not been under the Bush administration. For this to be a coherent policy, we would need a definition, or at least an outline, of what “democracy” means. Is a democracy a place where people vote? If so, does it count if women can’t vote? An answer of “no” would mean the U.S. only became a democracy in 1920. I don’t propose to set a ridged definition of what a democracy is because there are countless such issues. One important aspect of democracy as a governing system is its flexibility.

Another important reason why spreading democracy doesn’t count as a coherent policy for the Bush administration is that it has never sacrificed anything to promote it. “Fighting for Democracy” is just a veneer used to cover pre-existing policy. Until a month ago, Bush offered nothing but praise for Russia and Vladamir Putin. The invasion of Georgia sparked outrage from the administration not because it is a democracy, but because it is a U.S. ally. The U.S. stood by when ally General Musharraf ousted judges and otherwise ruled as a dictator. Musharraf only recently resigned as a result of internal opposition. The U.S. supported Palestinian elections, until they elected the wrong side.

As for the “War on Terror,” I’ve shared my thoughts here.

Americans, and especially their political representatives, like to say that the United States is the greatest or most powerful country on Earth. Whether we are or not is a matter of taste, a matter of how you measure things. What is true, I believe, is that acting like we are the greatest country is not smart foreign policy. In order for the world to progress

Politicians from both political parties spew more platitudes relating to foreign policy than almost any other topic besides the economy and the War on DrugsTM when its in. Why do these topics attract such brain numbing commentary? Because unlike issues such as abortion, education, the environment, veteran affairs, and national infrastructure, the Federal Government can’t really do as much about foreign policy.

As far as the economy goes, the Feds can indirectly effect change through monetary policy (interest rates, money supply, etc.), trade policy, tax policy, and by regulating interstate trade. While that may sound like a lot, the Feds can’t really do a whole lot to “help” or “save” the economy (as is often claimed) without major shifts in the country’s attitudes (in which case you can throw out almost everything I’ve written on this blog as no longer relevant). For reasons why the Feds can’t effect drug use, see my essay here.

Likewise, the United States government has very limited control over other countries without military intervention. This is increasingly becoming the case as the economic success of China, India, the EU – just about everywhere – limits the amount of impact sanctions and other sorts of financial actions have.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rational Stewardship: A Way Forward?

I wrote in my last essay on some of the philosophical problems at the foundation of the modern environmentalist movement. Specifically, that Nature is currently defined as something opposed to Man and his Civilization, and that this dualism is counterproductive to the goals of environmentalism and not an accurate way to describe the world around us. In this essay, I will offer an alternative, albeit incomplete and in development: Rational Stewardship.

Infinite Capitalism

The market economy is the most efficient social system the human world has ever witnessed. It allows resources to be allocated quickly with a minimum bureaucracy to maintain the money supply and curb abuses. The system, however, has a built-in problem that if left untreated, will lead to the system’s collapse.

Most people believe that for the market economy to remain healthy, it must grow. There are two ways for the economy to grow: to produce more, or to produce the same amount with greater efficiency. However, greater efficiency in one area usually ends up freeing capital and labor to go produce more somewhere else. In the end, a growing economy means more consumption.

This would all be fine and dandy if there were an infinite (or at least ever-growing) number of resources to be turned into consumable goods. The problem is that there isn’t. Oil, coal, natural gas, and the other hydrocarbon fuel sources take millions of years to produce, and are definitely a non-replaceable resource on the scale of time on which human Civilization operates.

Our renewable resources, our food, forests, fish stocks, and fresh water, are only renewable to an extent. A 2002 study by the U.S. National Academy for the Sciences estimated that world consumption exceeded Earth’s replenishment capacity of renewable resources around 1980.

One of the elements of the market economy that makes it so efficient is that many of society’s wants and wishes are reflected in it. Instead of a political leader guessing what people want and assigning resources to produce said item, the market provides products and sets the price based on supply and demand. Producers can then react accordingly to produce what society “wants.” Though this is horribly simplified telling, this remains the core appeal of the market economy and it is a tool that any would-be reformer ignores at her peril.

However, the only costs reflected in an items price are those directly relating to its production and distribution. Environmental costs, health hazards, wars fought to preserve access to resources – these represent untold costs that the market economy fails to incorporate into the cost of its products. In the case of a car and the gasoline it takes to run it, some hidden costs include environmental damage caused by mining, health problems associated with obesity, respiratory illness caused by smog, and dealing with natural disasters due to carbon-induced climate change. In the United States, non-drivers subsidize the costs to drivers by paying taxes for roads and other infrastructure that they rarely use and to pay police officers to patrol the roads.

The problem is not just for us as citizens. As businessmen, only a very short-sighted view allows for continuing our present course. History has shown that the most successful businesses are those that look to the long term, recognize lasting trends, and change accordingly.

Consider if a mining company knew that at their current rate of production, their mineral reserves will become depleted in 75 years. No new mines are likely to be found or become available. The company’s board of directors have many choices. One director proposes that the company invest current income in increased production, which will increase efficiency and income. When the minerals run out, the company can simply sell off its equipment and close up shop. This option, the director says, should result in a higher stock price (“Mr. Market can’t see more than 3 feet in front of him,” the director quips) and make them all substantially richer, enough to pay off the second vacation house and leave some money to their kids.

Another director, an older gentleman who helped found the company, disagrees with his younger colleague’s assessment. Why cash in now, he asks, when millions more could be made if we take a longer term view. I already have more money than I need, and my children have careers of their own. If we enact this plan, the stock that I hope to leave to my grandchildren won’t be worth as much, for surely in 10 or 20 years investors will see the impending collapse of our company on the horizon. Instead of investing in more mining capacity, we should diversify. We already have drilling and digging equipment, and employ several geologists have been looking particularly bored recently. Why don’t we research geothermal electricity? If there are adequate sources below our mines, we would have already done much of the work necessary to develop these resources.

This is the sort of choice we currently face. If we want our great Civilization to continue, we must honestly consider the long-term view in everything we do – even if it means less profit over the next hundred years.

Rational Stewardship

To become rational stewards, we must “be present in the brutality of truth.” (This is a phrase I have shamelessly co-opted from my friend Ben Colahan). “Truth” is a concept with which I have had a rocky relationship, as I have written about before. To be present in the brutality of truth means that we accept our understanding of the truth for all it is, not just what we like about it. It also means staying informed, being curious, and investigating the world to reveal more of its truths, whether they be good, bad, or just plain strange.

Not everyone need be an expert in everything – the division of labor is still a vital part of rational stewardship. But being present in the brutality of truth means learning to trust expert opinion while trying to maintain a healthy skepticism. Experts might not always be right, and they will almost never agree 100% on any given issue. But to ignore their opinion because it does not fit preconceived notions or wishful thinking is not rational, and it is certainly not being present in the brutality of truth.

Here is just one cogent example of NOT being present in the brutality of truth. According to the International Energy Agency, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil consumption stood at about 85 million barrels a day in 2006. Both agencies project that consumption will reach about 120 million barrels by 2030. With the recent spike in oil prices, it seems reasonable to assume that the demand for 120 million barrels a day will be a reality in 2030, if you assume that we can produce 120 million barrels a day.

The problem with this projection is that there is no indication that such a production level is possible. Many experts are skeptical that we will be able to maintain current levels of production, let alone add to capacity. The problem is that there is no evidence that we can increase production. There are few wells under development, and almost no large oil fields have been found in the past 30 years. At the same time, oil production in mature wells, such as those in the United States, continue to decrease.

For these reasons, I do not consider our government’s estimate merely optimistic (one who is standing in the brutality of truth can and hopefully will remain optimistic), but negligently and wrong.

I consider the “rational” part of rational stewardship to be closely linked with this idea of bring present in the brutality of truth. Rationality has many aspects to it and I will not try and fix a firm definition to the word, if only because to be rationality is in part practicality. An important part of being practical is being adaptive. Being rational is not being fatalistic, but to try and enact some sort of control over the given situation. On the flip side, rational people should be reflective, and always recognize their limits of influence. The rational steward should have a firm moral foundation, though the frame built on top should have enough give so as not to crumble in an earthquake.

Stewardship means promoting sustainable life. Though humans will naturally place sustainable life for humans as a higher priority, I believe that what is best for a long-lasting Civilization is good for the rest of life on earth. This means clean water, large forests, and a stable and healthy atmosphere.

There are rules of the physical world that all rational stewards must keep in mind. The most important of these is that there is a constant, but limited supply of energy available on our planet. We cannot continue to use more than this amount indefinitely without crashing.

Some argue that some wonderful new technology will dig us out of the whole we’re in. One of the most popular of these fantasies in the last few years has been cellulose-based ethanol. While this technology is worth strongly pursuing, we should not expect it or rely upon it to save our car culture. To allow a possible future technology to drive our government and social policy is not rational, but speculative and akin to gambling. Some small technological advances can be relied upon, and it is possible some wonderful technology might save us, but for now the smartest thing to do is to proceed with the technology we have as we invest responsibly in future technological advancements. To do so otherwise is unnecessarily risky.

Humanity has basically three resources to deal with. The first is the physical elements on and in the Earth’s crust. Some, like iron, are limited in supply but may be recycled. Other, rarer elements such as helium are extremely limited in supply and cannot be easily recycled. In the long term, we will almost assuredly run out of these elements.

Another key supply is water. Like iron, we are unlikely to run out of water. However, fresh and clean water is a bit tougher to come by. Lakes and streams can only be filled as fast as the rain can fall, and underground reserves take hundreds of years to replenish once depleted.

The second basic resource is the energy provided by the Sun. In terms of human time, this source may be considered steady and unending. The Sun’s energy is captured by plants, which use it to fix atmospheric CO2 into the plant matter that we consume for food directly or indirectly through animals. A very small amount of the sun’s energy is also harnessed in the forms of wind, hydroelectric, and solar power.

The third resource we have is the energy contained in the bonds of weak nuclear force, currently provided to us by nuclear fission. Because fusion reactors require rare heavy metals such as uranium to operate, they cannot be considered unending like the Sun, though for now it doesn’t seem like we’ll run out in the near future. Though they are a real and possibly useful energy source, they are expensive and produce deadly waste that takes thousands of years to decompose. I believe that nuclear power should not be ignored, but nor should it be relied upon as an “easy” solution. Another theoretical source of energy is nuclear fusion, which also takes advantage of the huge amount of energy stored at the atomic level. The ITER Fusion Reactor, an international effort to create a model for a viable fusion reactor, is currently at the very beginning stages of construction and is not planning to enter operation until 2018, which is optimistic given the track record of large-scale, international science projects.

The word “sustainability,” like “green,” has become a buzzword in the past few years, a decentralized effort to brand the environmental movement. This branding is incredibly important for bringing rational stewardship into minds of consumers, voters, and policy makers. However, these words faces a constant threat of dilution from companies that adopt them to brand products that are assuredly not green or sustainable.

As a step toward solving this problem, I propose a definition of “sustainable” that can be used to evaluate whether or not the branding is appropriate. A sustainable product or service is one that consumes materials and energy at a rate equal or less than the replenishment rate for those materials and energy sources. That means, of course, that a sustainable Civilization will be free of hydrocarbon and nuclear sources of energy. This doesn’t mean that these energy sources should be discontinued immediately, but knowledge of their future status can help us determine how to make the best long-term investments we can.

I have tried to keep this definition simple so that it can be applicable to a variety of situations. The industrial mindset has achieved much for human Civilization, and still remains useful. Its mechanistic approach tacks us toward homogenization and one-size-fits-all approaches. Achieving Civilization sustainability, however, will require flexibility and regional solutions. Development and transportation plans that mold themselves to local geography, localized food sources, and building low-consumption buildings are just some examples.

For a long time environmentalists have reminded us how an ever-rising global population is a threat to the Earth and its environment. However, the measurement of population alone is fairly useless when considering how to build a sustainable Civilization. Following Professor of Geology Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, the statistic policy makers should focus on is the population multiplied by consumption per person. This kind of analysis shows that, even if population growth could be magically halted, sustainability is threatened as populations with high consumption rates try to maintain their high standard of living while poorer populations play catch-up.

I hope that research is soon done on what levels of population and standard of living are possible with current technologies and sustainable supplies. While this kind of research will be politically fraught and will assuredly be open for debate, even ball park figures will be useful to estimate what economic activity is sustainable and what is not.

Sustainability should be a goal for every rational steward.

Science in Rational Stewardship

The scientific method is an essential tool for rational stewardship. Technology, without which we would have no hope of maintaining humanity’s current position, is tied to the hip with science. Scientific studies tell us how the planet’s biological and weather systems work, and help us make informed decisions about how best to be rational stewards.

In order to use science most effectively, we first need to understand the distinction between strategic and tactical decision making. Generally speaking, strategic decisions relate to how overall objectives are decided. Should maintain a large troop presence in Iraq? Would it be best to keep the ship maintenance division of our company, or sell it off and concentrate on constructing cranes? Do I want to have children? Strategic questions are the bigger, longer-term decisions that drive future actions. When answering strategic questions, it is important to consider what we value most, and what we consider to be morally correct.

Tactical decisions answer the question, “How do we accomplish X?” where X is the strategic decision that has been decided upon. This basic question will produce many more tactical questions, as well as more strategic questions. Lets say our strategic goal is to bring oil independence (defined as producing all oil requirements domestically) to the United States. “How do we become energy independent?” is the basic tactical question. Suppose we decide this can by accomplished in two ways: reducing demand and increasing domestic production. Some sub-strategic questions could then be posed: “Should we allow off-shore drilling? Drilling in Alaska’s nature reserves? Should we force people to drive less? Should the government increase its tax on gasoline?”

In order to achieve a strategic objective, the rational steward should ask many of these how questions and evaluate as many different angles are reasonable. Quality, scientifically gathered data should play an important role in considering these questions. Accurate information is of the utmost importance when trying to make educated and informed decisions.

However, there is one thing that science should not do. Science, that is the reports and collections of data collected by scientists and others, should not be used to pose the answer to a strategic question. Scientific data can be used as evidence to support one opinion, but the answer for a strategic question should be based in values and moral outlook. We should strive to keep the scientific data separate from our values and moral outlook.

This effort will never be pure, simple, or 100% successful for the simple reason that all scientific theories and collections of data are effected by pre-determined value systems. Quantum mechanics provides the clearest, physical proof of this phenomenon that reaches into every branch of the sciences. Quantum mechanics states that the position and velocity of an electron (or any particle for that matter) is most accurately stated as a probability, a range of possible positions. Depending on what method of observation we use, the electron’s position will be ‘fixed’ differently. There is no definite physical reality outside of our observations. In biological or medical studies, our definitions for specific concepts, the questions asked, and the methods used can all have a profound effect on the conclusions reached.

If scientific data is already laden with human value, then why try and keep it separate? When unconsciously mixed, it becomes harder to see the value-laden judgments and how they effect scientific research. Analysis leads to answers that do not necessarily reflect the state of the natural world, but reflect instead the state of the researcher’s mind. This is why I am suspicious of any answer to a strategic question that includes the reason, “Because science says so.”

Rational stewards need to be open and honest with themselves and others about where their values lie. Otherwise the best results will not be reached. That said, there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will misrepresent their true feelings and lie about yours. We should not sink to their level, but fight back with ever greater effort.


The Ishmaelists are losing. I do not believe their innate moral system exists or is actually innate in the world. The problem is that this line of thinking and defining the terms of the discourse still has tremendous sway within the environmentally-minded community, even among people who might also take issue with the Ishmaelite approach.

In the case of invasive species I mentioned last week, many are harmful not only to our environment but to human life. One source estimated that they cause $137 billion of damage to the U.S. economy every year, though that estimate seems a bit high to me. On the other hand, most crops in the world are invasive species, and I don’t think it would be very wise to be rid of them.

Why are environmentalists always trying to “save the planet?” This enforces the dualism between the “Natural” planet and humans. We are not independent of our planet, but reliant on it. We shouldn’t be trying to save the planet as it once was, but mold it to promote life in general, which will in turn promotes our own livelihood. We shouldn’t be saving the planet – we should be saving ourselves, and have the wisdom to recognize that to do so means preserving Earth as a place that is fertile to life.

In the end, we are a species competing for resources just like any other. Our greed, tenancies toward conflict – everything the Ismaelites hate – are short-term evolutionary competitive advantages. To maintain our position, however, we must evolve. I do not expect a revolution in the classical sense, but a swift repositioning of our greatest assets – our educational system, our creativity, our rule of law, our reason, our kindness, our love. Humanity must use its most important competitive advantages – cooperation, communication, and problem solving abilities – to bring rational stewardship to our most valuable resources – our land, water, and air.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Is Nature Natural?

The environmentalists are losing. The destruction of the rainforest continues, greenhouse gas emissions are rising, fish stocks around the world are collapsing, the polar ice cap is melting, species continue to go extinct, and the United States will probably reinvigorate its nuclear energy program within the next ten years. Nature is being slowly being overrun, consumed, and destroyed by man and his Civilization (that is, manufactured objects, and the landscapes sculpted by human interaction).

I’ve been an “environmentalist” for my entire life. I watched the T.V. shows Nature and Nova on PBS, hiked in the woods, recycled, lamented the spread of human development, and donated money to environmental causes. For the most part, my behavior has followed in the footsteps of other environmentalists, repeating their behavior though not necessarily understanding why. And enjoying it along the way.

But what is Nature? Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the environmental movement, Nature is the world in its theoretical state without human interference. We may visit it, but it is separate. The birds living in the backyard tree or the rafters are not in Nature, but are some sort of visitor or cling-on. The Natural world is the world that would exist if humans society could suddenly be replaced with what would be there otherwise. Wikipedia agrees: “Manufactured objects and human interaction are not considered part of nature unless qualified in ways such as ‘human nature’ or ‘the whole of nature.’”

In this essay, I will argue that this definition, inherently people-centric, is not a useful paradigm for environmentalists. Philosophically, this dualistic definition of nature leads to one of two ultimate conclusions: the elimination of Nature or the destruction of Civilization. The world may hang precariously stuck between these two options, but one or the other will occur at some point (Though, in the case of human civilization becoming omnipresent, it could always revert back). Under this definition, it is no surprise that nearly all human members of Civilization do not side with Nature, especially when it threatens their livelihood.

In other words, few among our species are willing to sacrifice themselves (or their children’s future) in order to halt the destruction of Nature. In the following essay, I will try proposing an alternative philosophy that will preserve our Civilization as well as Nature, (both re-defined, of course).

The Ishmaelites

For me, Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael represents the height of Nature vs. Civilization (or “Takers”, as he calls them) dualist thinking (or at least, the height from the pro-Nature side of the argument). The philosophy contained within its pages lies at the heart of much of the environmentalist movement and its definition of Nature.

The fansite summarizes the book’s core philosophy well:

“For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

For Ishmaelites, biodiversity and co-existence are not merely facts commonly associated with the functioning of the Natural world, but moral imperatives, defining what is and is not good behavior. They are also considered natural “law,” organizing biological existence in the same way gravity organizes the stars and planets. Most species (the “Leavers”) that follow the law, “environmental conditions permitting,” continue to exist, while some humans (the “Takers”) live in violation of the law before quickly becoming extinct. The law includes the following rules, which the Takers break: 1) Never exterminate competitors; 2) Take what you need, leave the rest alone; 3) You may deny competitors access to the food you are eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In conclusion, “Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves.”

On one level, they have it right. Humanity cannot consume a finite number of resources at an increasing rate indefinitely. At some point, the music will stop and there won’t be many chairs left in the room. The earth’s resources are limited to the energy dispensed by the sun (at a very constant rate) and the material resources found on and in its crust. Unless long-term space travel is realized, this is all we’ll ever have.

Besides this basic point, which I will return next week, the Ishmaelite’s worldview is plain wrong. The so called invasive species are an easy, recent example. Invasive species are species that have been introduced by humans into an ecosystem. Typically lacking a predator or having some other competitive advantage, these species quickly inhabit the new ecosystem, often driving out a “native” species it either consumes or competes with. While this phenomenon has been exacerbated by human travel, it is a normal occurrence in Nature.

Here are some examples:

  • “The predatory brown tree snake, introduced in cargo from the Admiralty Islands, has eliminated ten of the eleven native bird species from the forests of Guam.”

  • “The first sailors to land on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in the 16th century introduced goats, which quickly extinguished over half the endemic plant species.”

  • “The zebra mussel, accidentally brought to the United States from southern Russia, transforms aquatic habitats by filtering prodigious amounts of water (thereby lowering densities of planktonic organisms) and settling in dense masses over vast areas. At least thirty freshwater mussel species are threatened with extinction by the zebra mussel.”

  • “ When the Asian chestnut blight fungus virtually eliminated American chestnut from over 180 million acres of eastern United States forests in the first half of the 20th century, it was a disaster for many animals that were highly adapted to live in forests dominated by this tree species. For example, ten moth species that could live only on chestnut trees became extinct.”

  • “Rainbow trout introduced widely in the United States as game fish are hybridizing with five species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Gila trout and Apache trout.”

  • “The endangered, endemic Hawaiian duck is being lost to hybridization with North American mallards introduced for hunting.”

The first two examples, the snail and the goat, might be good examples of what the Ishmaelites get right. If you eat your food supply to extinction, it is likely you will follow. Except that both species continue to live on said islands, 500 years after introduction in the case of the goat and over 50 in the snake’s.

The zebra muscle might not actively hunt down and destroy its competitors, but it is on the path to eliminate its competition and is surely breaking the second rule: eating more than its need. Likewise, the Asian chestnut fungus breaks rule #3, denying many species access to food and driving them to extinction. Yet like the snake and goat, it continues to thrive despite having violated the supposed laws of nature.

And what sadistic, lawless animals those ducks and trout are, fucking their competitors out of existence! Surely these species will some day meet their doom for breaking Nature’s moral code? Perhaps, but I doubt it will come about as a result of said immorality.

It is possible that Quinn just didn’t do his research. However, Ishmaelites and many environmentalists in general make a basic philosophical mistake when they deny “conscious intent” to all non-humans. Or, perhaps more precisely, when they grant it to humans. Either way the outcome is the same: living things are by and large designed to eat and reproduce (or assist fellow members of its genetic group in doing so), and if they do it better than another species competing for the same environment or food, the later species will either evolve, or see its population reduced, even extinguished.

The problem – and it is a problem – is that when a species is much, much better at eating and promoting the growth of the species, then it can threaten its own existence. This is not a moral issue, but a physical fact.

I strongly disagree with the Ishamelites on the moralizing of the Natural law, not because it isn’t a viable moral system (its as good as any), but because it is counter-productive to their cause. The Ishmaelites condemn humanity for living the way that feels normal, for the way most people prefer, and the way human culture pushes them. The Ishmaelites offer no redemption, no salvation – only damnation. This, as I have said, does not have a wide appeal. Most people do not want to condemn the poor to starvation, which Ishmael portrays as Natural, and therefore morally correct. Starvation in the modern world often has little to do with the state of Nature and more to do with the state of Civilization.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dissecting the ‘War on Terror’

In the previous article, “Egocentrism in the War on Drugs and Supply-Side Economics,” I wrote about the relationship between the War on Drugs and the ‘War on Terror’:

“I fear that the same mistake that was made in the war on drugs is being made in the latest war, the war on terror. Much of our military policy has been about killing the terrorists and assassinating their leaders. If we destroy the producers of terror (whatever that may be – I’m not arguing that the war’s philosophical groundings make sense to begin with), then we end terror. Our policies do not recognize, however, that the terrorists fulfill a demand for an ability to fight, a demand for empowerment, a demand to fill power vacuums, a demand to fulfill Allah’s word as interpreted by some Muslims. There are a variety of demands that feed our declared enemies, and I think that a concerted effort to eliminate these demands instead of merely eliminating the producers of violence will lead to a more robust and sound solution.”

Dan rightly pounced on my intellectual laziness:

“I definitely think that there is some truth in the matter. Personally, I am inclined to believe that much of terrorism is a response to the hegemony of the United States and the bandwagon of Western (and increasingly Eastern, as well) Europe. Thus, I agree that terrorism currently fulfills some psychological need(s) and that the use of the all-powerful military fist of the United States to destroy the current “producers of terror” will only serve to place terrorist leadership into new hands.

“However, I'm not sure that I can really accept this fact as a flaw in the war on terror, because I don't believe that the ultimate goal of this war is to end terrorist activity. This war is really about so many other things and terrorism is really just a very marketable excuse. I consider one of the primary aims of the war to be a style of militarily-compulsed democratic nation-building in order to produce nations that are more amenable to joining the bandwagon and thus supporting US hegemony. Thus, the goal of the war may be to decrease the level of international dissent, but not by destroying terrorists, but by using terrorists as an excuse to remove particular governments.”

Dan is definitely on to something. In this article, I will explore some of the meanings of the “War on Terror,” how the idea relates to Bush policy, and where I think U.S. policy should be headed.

The “War on Terror” Disassembled

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “War on Terror” predates the hijackings and subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, commonly known as the “9/11” terrorist attacks. Originally used to describe efforts by governments to combat late 19th century anarchists, the phrase was also used by the British to describe their efforts to quell violence perpetrated by Jewish fighters in the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1940’s and by Ronald Regan in the 1980’s.

At face value, the phrase “war on terror” is a bit silly. The U.S. is not fighting against the emotion felt when extremely fearful. The “war on terror” is a shortened version of “war on terrorism.” What qualifies as “terrorism” is tricky to qualify. Generally, terrorism is considered to be violence perpetrated for political reasons with the intent of inflicting psychological damage or terror. Other common limiting factors or beliefs about terrorism are that the violence takes place against civilians, and/or that it is illegal or in some way an illegitimate use of force. The idea of legality is especially important to governments considered legitimate, who by this definition cannot be the purveyors of terrorist activity.

The modern War on TerrorTM began immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and includes the war in Afghanistan, the “homefront” efforts to tighten security (armed soldiers patrolling airports, required passports to enter from Mexico and Canada, increased port inspections, etc.), and the detention and torture of terrorist suspects.

Though the stated purpose of this war was to hunt down the terrorist haters of freedom dead or a alive (or something similar, defined in such an elegant manner), Dan has a point in saying that the War on TerrorTM’s ultimate goal is not to end terrorist activity. I do not believe that the War on TerrorTM’s explicit purpose is “to produce nations that are more amenable to joining the bandwagon and thus supporting US hegemony,” though this might be a very real effect of the War.

Instead, I don’t think there is a clear purpose or objective in the War on TerrorTM. Instead, the government is flailing around, trying to fulfill the marketable mission to protect the United States from her enemies. Its almost as bad as government attempts to “fix” the economy.

For better or worse, the Cold War had an easy to identify enemy – Communism. Even though we often saw Communism where it did not exist, there were indeed people who declared, “We are Communist, and we believe X, Y, and Z,” even if X, Y, and Z varied greatly from Commie to Commie. However, no on stands up and says, “I’m a terrorist, and I want to take away American freedom and kill your children.”

Even attempts to define the terrorist enemy as “Islamo-Facists” fails because all this says is that the terrorists are Muslim, which limits the enemy to only a billion or more people, and “facist,” which has lost nearly all of its analytic-descriptive power since the end of World War Two. We might as well label the enemy in the War on TerrorTM “Muslim Fuckheads.”

I understand that many of these terms have benefits when it comes to PR. The problem is that the U.S. Government (Bush, most of the Republican party, and probably the majority of the Democrats as well), have bought into the PR without having any real analysis. Once the policy has been sold, the government uses the logic of their bullshit PR to execute the policy. Its as if the bio-chemists working for a drug company believed they would reach a breakthrough if they could excrete the essence of grandchildren smiling, a lovely golf course, and an expensive country club dinner and put it into a pill.

This is all too apparent in Bush Administration’s “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” published in February, 2003. The strategy specifies that we should, “defeat, deny, diminish, and defend” against the terrorists. This “4D” strategy doesn’t get all that much more specific The document is full of pithy quotes from Bush speeches:

“We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions – by abandoning every value except the will to power – they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

The Strategy defines terrorists as those who commit, “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents...[and] strive to subvert the rule of law and effect change through violence and fear. These terrorists also share the misguided belief that killing, kidnapping, extorting, robbing, and wrecking havoc to terrorize people are legitimate forms of political action.”
The terrorists are also enemies of civilization, who represent “a treat to our way of life.”

But tactical strategies for fighting Ted Kaczynski, IIPB (Chechnya) the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, and Al Qaeda are all very different. Also, should we fight all groups that fall under this definition? Is this even the best definition for identifying the groups against whom our efforts should be placed?

And how do we define “noncombatant” or “subnational” anyways? The War on TerrorTM does not offer coherent answers. Until it does, our policy will continue to be strategically ineffectual.

The Nation’s War on Terror

Separate but related to the War on TerrorTM are local efforts to root out terrorists within our communities. Since 9/11, American citizens have looked out from their fenced yards to engage with their neighbors in efforts to protect us from the next terrorist attack. Neighborhood patrols, gun control laws, store-initiated background checks for fertilizer purchases, you name it. The American people have began to take their security and safety seriously after the 9/11 attacks.

What was that? You don’t know what I’m talking about? Ok. Fine. You caught me. I made it all up.

There are few if any new security policies implemented over the past 7 years that have not been implemented from the Federal level. The fact is that we are not fighting terrorism individually at the local level, but collectively at the Federal. And even then, most efforts are made out of public view – container checks at U.S. ports, baggage screening beneath airports, secret FBI wiretaps, Guantanamo, the war in Afghanistan – the American public is kept in the dark about the actual efforts being made in the name of their own safety.

Our war is the War on TerrorTM. People may claim to worry about terrorism, but on the whole the worst intrusion most of us must deal with is taking off our shoes at the airport.

On one level, this is a good thing. I’d be very worried if Americans allowed the government to overtly intrude into their lives. The problem is that we allow intrusions into the lives of those not deemed “real” Americans. For example, the FBI is currently considering official racial profiling as a way to out potential terrorists. And as long as it doesn’t directly affect the lives of most people, the multi-billion dollar War on TerrorTM will continue so that politicians can say they’ve made us safe.

While I think there are legitimate security concerns and things that actually can be done to address them (nuclear proliferation comes to mind), most of what we do seems to me to be a bunch of hand waving. At the very least, there is very little bang for the tax-payer’s buck. Personally, I feel more threatened by a lack of bike lanes, a proliferation of potholes, and the rickety Sellwood Bridge.

Iraq, and George W. Bush’s Dream of a Democratic World

From what I have seen of the evidence coming out of the Bush White House, which includes accounts of insiders such as Scott McClellan, Paul O’Neill, and Richard Clarke suggests that the Bush administration did have an unhealthy relationship toward Iraq from the get-go, and that the War on TerrorTM was merely a branding.

Though Iraq had almost no relation to the terrorist networks that were threatening the United States following 9/11, it became part of the War on TerrorTM due to the confluence of the two for the purposes of PR. Again, the War on TerrorTM doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with providing protection for Americans.

Many people have speculated as to why Bush decided to focus on Iraq. Oil is a popular theory. WMD, even though we didn’t find any, is believed to have been a major motivating factor. Douglas Feith, who manufactured evidence linking Iraq to a 9/11 hijacker from his office in the Pentagon, has since stated that he believes the Administration could have made the case for war without WMD.

I argue that Bush’s motivations were rooted in his desire to become a Great President, not a mediocre footnote like his dad. The conscientious student of history that he is, Bush believed that all great presidents were 1) war presidents and 2) a person who, in some way, fought for democracy. Thus, Bush saw in Iraq the opportunity to spread democracy via war.

Though this justification for the Iraq war didn’t surface until after the invasion, this motivation can be found dating back to the beginning of Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999. In his speech, “A Distinctly American Internationalism,” given on November 19th of that year, Bush laid out his vision for American foreign policy: “American foreign policy must be more than the management of crisis. It must have a great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace.”

He added: “America, by decision and destiny, promotes political freedom – and gains the most when democracy advances. America believes in free markets and free trade – and benefits most when markets are opened. America is a peaceful power – and gains the greatest dividend from democratic stability. Precisely because we have no territorial objectives, our gains are not measured in the losses of others. They are counted in the conflicts we avert, the prosperity we share and the peace we extend.”

Perhaps these were merely platitudes inserted by a speechwriter. But, as we’ve already seen, PR and actual policy making are often mistaken for each other in the Bush administration. The rhetoric has replaced reality.

What were the motivations of the other members of the administration? Cheney? Rumsfeld? This is less clear, though it is interesting that so many members of Bush II’s administration were in Bush I’s as well. Though at the time many, Cheney in particular, defended the decision not to take Saddam out of power in 1991. It is possible that these statements did not represent their true feelings at the time, but those of their boss, George H.W. Bush.

Is it possible that I am giving the government too much credit for its stated reasons and that underneath lie hidden, devious intentions? Yes. However, I don’t think it is likely.
A focus on what I will pejoratively call “conspiracy theories” distracts us from the more likely and subtle problems not created by the conscious efforts of a few, but the semi-conscious actions and partially thought-out ideologies of the many. It makes much more sense to me that the policy really is as bad and incomplete as it sounds. I see the role of Iraq’s oil and the military-industrial complex (MIC) as grease on the tracks that allowed the train to leave the station where there might have been too much friction without the $$$ lubrication oil and the MIC brought.

Re-creating the “Good War”

World War Two (WW2), and the narrative that has risen around it, has been disastrous for peaceniks and an invaluable rhetorical tool for hawks. WW2 was a fluke – a war with a strong moral underpinnings which have not just been accepted and incorporated into the mythology of the victors, but also by most surviving Germans and Japanese. We do not have to reevaluate the rightness of the U.S.’s involvement in WW2 to recognize that involvement is recognized – almost universally, as correct and worthwhile. Hence WW2’ nickname – “The Good War.”

The Revolutionary and Civil Wars both carry a similar sort of mantle as well, though with a lack of slaves to free or a repressing empire to fight off, not to mention the separation of years, they are rarely used as parallel examples. On the other hand, WW2 has handed down to us a classic Good vs. Evil dichotomy, where the U.S. plays the Good and whomever the hawks don’t like (in the most recent case, the so-called Islamic Fascists), plays the Nazis. We attempt to create and fight another “Good War.”

But of course, war does not fit into this neat dichotomy. Even if one accepts the premise that WW2 was a “Good War” (this is an argument that I have no intention of entering), then it was a once in a millennium event. The American wars to followed – Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq (not to mention the nearly countless conflicts where we played arms dealer or the CIA otherwise had a hand) – do not as easily fit into the “Good War” rubric, despite the efforts of a great many.

While the “Good War” mentality makes for some useful propaganda, it doesn’t lead to coherent or thought-out strategies. It is important that we stop trying to put every war into the rubric of WW2, and instead consider parallels with a whole variety of wars.

Most importantly, American leaders as well as Americans of all affiliations should not simply rely on parallels with other wars but evaluate the facts of the current conflict in a level headed manner without the influence of ideological biases. Though in recent years reality has taken on a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert likes to say, this has not always been the case.

In contemporary political affairs, little at the strategic level happens that is impossible to predict. I do not mean to say that tactical details of events are predictable. I do not believe we should have known about the 9/11 attacks in their every aspect. But we knew that an attack of some sort was on the way (i.e. the memo entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”, released in August, 2001).

Many problems emanating from and regarding the Iraq War – Iran’s support of insurgents, sucking American resources from other problems, occupation lasting 8-10 years (instead of 2-4), ethnic strife within Iraq – were all predicted by some members of the Bush Administration, not to mention countless lawmakers and citizens who opposed the war from the start, but were overruled and ignored by ideologically driven wishful thinking. To build a coherent strategy in the current fight against Al Qaeda, we must ground ourselves in good old-fashioned facts and rationality, not dreams of re-living the victories of our parents or grandparents.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Egocentrism in The War on Drugs and Supply-Side Economics

Supply-side economics and the war on drugs have had an enormous impact on our national consciousness and government policy for the past 30+ years. They are also both based in large part on the same flawed logic – that the driving force of the economy is the supplier. Instead, I believe the failure of the war on drugs highlights the role of the “invisible hand” in our economy and the peril of ignoring it.

The War on Drugs in 180 Seconds

Both supply-side economics and the war on drugs find their intellectual roots in the 1970’s. Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” a phrase he coined, in 1971. Nixon’s method of fighting was a bit different than the later war and the one we are continuing today. For example, Nixon’s administration was the only period of the war where the majority of funds went toward treatment rather than law enforcement. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) was founded by Nixon.

Though later presidents made Nixon look “soft” on drugs by comparison, he exemplified the typical law-and-order approach that has come to define the war on drugs. For example, he appointed a commission to look into the best ways of dealing with the menaces of pot and heroin. When the commission recommended decriminalizing minor possession for marijuana, Nixon (and Congress) ignored them.

The war on drugs as we know it – distorted sentencing laws, lots of jail time for users, multi-billion dollar anti-drug wars in far flung locals – is a product of the later administrations. In 1986, Reagan signed a drug enforcement bill that set up a system of minimum sentencing standards and the extremely disproportionate sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. George H.W. Bush doubled the war on drug’s budget to $12 billion and spent most of the money on military machinery to battle drug cartels. After flirting with drug treatment in the first two years of his administration, Bill Clinton followed these failed policies by targeting growers in Bolivia and other South American countries.

The problem, as Adam Smith and countless other economists to follow have taught us, is that if there is a high demand for a product, the price will rise. The same thing occurs when there is a short supply. In the case of the war on drugs, we continue to remove producers from the streets and throw these deviants into jail. However, as Wallace-Wells points out, “We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes - a twelvefold increase since 1980 - with no discernible effect on the drug traffic.” As long as the demand for drugs remains high, new dealers will always fill the place of those we kill or put in jail. Even if we could instantly remove half of the drug supply and dealers from the market, this would only serve to drive prices up, further increasing the incentives for new producers and dealers to enter the already lucrative market. The consumer – not the producer – drives the market, and until we reduce the demand for illegal drugs, the market will create one.

This isn’t just theory. Wallace-Wells points to an early 1990’s study by RAND researcher Susan Everingham that the only cost-effective strategy to reduce drug use is drug treatment. Other studies have shown the same thing. But Everingham’s study, and Clinton’s drug tsar Lee Brown’s requests for more drug treatment funding, were ignored. After the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, Clinton gave up on treatment and began sending the U.S. military against South American growers.

For a great article on the war on drugs by Ben Wallace-Wells, (from which I have borrowed liberally), go here: How America Lost the War on Drugs

All in all, the war on drugs has cost $500 billion over 35 years. Although many of the old drug cartels have been broken up, the availability and use of drugs hasn’t changed much.

While I’m on the topic, here is another article that points out some of the insanity regarding our current drug regulatory system.

Supply-Side Economics

The phrase “supply-side economics” was coined by journalist Jude Wanniski. At its most basic level, supply-side economics is based upon the theory that if tax rates were set to 0% or 100%, no money would be collected (I personally don’t see the logic behind not collecting any money with tax rates at 100%. Its not likely that this will ever happen, but I believe the government would collect something). Under this theory, there is a point between 0% and 100% where the maximal amount of tax revenue will be collected. Though I cannot speak for the original economists who put forth this theory, supply-sider politicians usually believe this number is lower than current tax rates.

Regan (from what I’ve heard) and Bush II both used supply-side economics to justify their tax cuts, and both policies led to massive government debt due to a reduction in taxes collected. Bush II has argued that by cutting taxes, we put more money in the pockets of businesses and individuals, which in turn stimulates growth, creating more revenue sources for the government which in turn make up for the money lost due to the tax cuts. While tax cuts stimulate some growth, the government only recoups 15-20% of its tax losses.

The rational behind supply-side economics puts the emphasis on the producer of economic goods. If producers have more motivation to produce, say supply-siders, then they will produce (and sell) more, boosting the economy. It is true that marketing has created some societal desires that might never have been present otherwise. However, there are limits to the ability of producers to determine how much they can sell. Overall, consumers determine what is sold and how much of it.

Neither the war on drugs nor supply-side rationalized tax cuts have realized their stated objectives. So why do we continue on with these failed policies?

The Producer-Centric Mindset

Why do these programs perpetuate despite the overwhelming evidence that they have by and large failed? The answers, of course, are complex, multi-faceted, and different for each. The war on drugs is heavily moralized, dating back to prohibition and the culture wars of the 1960’s. Drug users are believed to be morally corrupt, which helps justify jail time instead of rehab. It is also politically difficult for politicians to say it is our failing, our addictions that have created the problem, and much easier to blame foreigners, racial minorities, and the morally corrupt. Supply-side economics, on the other hand, has found an invaluable ally in small-government conservatives and their “starve the beast” mantra.

At the center of these two policies lies a common thread – the importance of the producer. Both policies place the producer at the center of the system. On the one hand, we believe that if we can prevent drugs from being produced, our problems will be solved. On the other, our salvation lies with the entrepreneur and business owner. If their life is easier, so the logic of our policies go, our lives will be better.

In our market system, the consumer is the driving force, the engine that drives the entire system. The producer plays a critical role, it has no role in the system without demand, where as demand may exist without a product (i.e. flying cars).

I fear that the same mistake that was made in the war on drugs is being made in the latest war, the war on terror. Much of our military policy has been about killing the terrorists and assassinating their leaders. If we destroy the producers of terror (whatever that may be – I’m not arguing that the war’s philosophical groundings make sense to begin with), then we end terror. Our policies do not recognize, however, that the terrorists fulfill a demand for an ability to fight, a demand for empowerment, a demand to fill power vacuums, a demand to fulfill Allah’s word as interpreted by some Muslims. There are a variety of demands that feed our declared enemies, and I think that a concerted effort to eliminate these demands instead of merely eliminating the producers of violence will lead to a more robust and sound solution.

So how do we get ourselves out of this producer-centric rut? Some answers depend on the issue. Part of the problem in the war on drugs is, I hope, generational. The association between drugs and “hippies” seems to largely reside with conservative boomers. Perhaps my perceptions are skewed, but I feel that a large majority of under-40 year olds don’t see drugs as distinctly within the right/wrong moral prism. Similarly, I hope the tax-and-spend-liberal vs. the small government conservative dichotomy is generational as well. God knows Bush has shown its inherent falsehood to many.

Finally, a bit of humility. The United States has a long and hallowed tradition of idealizing the producer. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Disney, Buffet, Gates – despite their flaws, the king producers are figures of awe. Even the nameless small-business owners and family farmers bask in the same rays of admiration. It is nicer to see ourselves in their shoes, to see our production as the thing of import. Yet these men would have been nothing without the demand of millions of individuals who consumed their products.

Monday, June 9, 2008

An Inequitable Democracy

I’ve been working on several essays this week, none of which are complete. So, instead of posting a half-assed essay, I have decided to review the non-democratic system we will use in five months to select our President, House of Representatives, and Senate. There are two specific issues I want to consider: the Electoral College, and the method used to create congressional districts.

I don’t like it when people complain that “my vote doesn’t count,” or that voting, “won’t make a difference.” In local elections, our votes are counted equally. At the ballot box, my vote matters as much as my neighbors and my boss’. Saying that a single vote doesn’t count implies to me that individual people do not matter. From a broad and sanitized point of view, that might be correct, but I find it extremely depressing.

The Electoral College – the system used to select the U.S. President – throws the equality I have outlined above is thrown out the window. In all states except for Maine and Nebraska (which I will exclude from the current discussion), the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state wins the entirety of that state’s electoral votes. Under this system, the state one lives in determines how much their vote counts. Here is a list (curtsey of Wikipedia), which documents this disparity.

The fact is that a vote for president in Wyoming (where votes count the most) counts four times as much as a vote in Texas (where they count the least). Voter equality in the U.S. Representatives is a bit better. Montana has the worst ratio of 957,861 people per representative, while Wyoming has the best, 522,830 per representative.

The U.S. Senate is, however, the most twisted of all. Created to reflect the Federalist side government, the U.S. Senate is supposed to represent each individual state’s interests. Every state is treated equally, with two senators coming from each. Citizens of Wyoming get one Senator for every 261,415 people. California, with over a tenth of the nation’s population and a gross state product of $1.8 trillion, has one Senator for every 18,276,608 people. When voting for the Senate, citizens of Wyoming have nearly seventy times the influence of those who reside in California.

Nebraska and Maine assign two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote (one for each senator), and one to the winner in each congressional district. Should all states adopt this system? Perhaps, but this has its own problems, due to the way congressional districts tend to be drawn.

In the U.S., gerrymandering is the rule. In most states, the political parties in power draw the boundaries of congressional districts with the aid of computer modeling to give their party the most possible districts.

You can get a good taste for how strange some districts are here.

Districts are drawn so that specific voting blocs – African-Americans, Hispanics, farmers, hippie communes, etc. – are placed together to create “safe” districts, where historical voting patters heavily favor specific parties. It doesn’t always work, but it usually does. Over the last few elections, over 85% of all districts were won by at least 10%, and over 70% by at least 20%. So while the House of Representatives comes closest to the idea that all votes should be equal, this equity is undone by the cynical (at best), or malignant (at worst) side of our politicians.

Despite these inequalities, we still consider ourselves democratic. By the measurement that matters, I believe that we are, deeply, a democratic nation. We are just not an equitable democracy. At most every level of society, the ideal is a rule of the majority, with minority rights embedded in the system of a fairly applied law. The ideal, of course, is rarely realized. Yet is an astonishing feat that, with the one exception of the Civil War, power has been passed on without violence (or much protest) to (mostly) non-related people since the late 18th century. By comparison to the history of governments around the world, this is truly remarkable.

Yet we should still strive for a more equitable union, and a great place to start would be with voter disparities that disadvantage most everyone except the residents of Wyoming, and there aren’t that many of them anyways.