Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why isn't the tragedy of the commons a Conservative's cause?

I have never in my life taken one course or read one book on economics. There are copies of Thomas Freidman and Jarred Diamond books somewhere in the "to read" pile. Garrett Hardin's book, I have never seen. No copy of WSJ or IBD on the coffee table either. You will learn nothing from reading what I think about the world economy. I am prompted to talk about the economy because of what I don't hear when economic reportage flickers for a moment on the nightly news or blurry continual lowing of the bulls on the business news channels.

The lag between sustainability warnings sounded decades ago and the token concern for it just now entering political speeches may be fatal. Alarms sounded for distant problems go unheeded and the people have to have widespread economic discomfort which they can clearly connect to unsustainable practices before they will reward these well advised politicians with a bit of attention.

There is for now only one economy. The peak of oil production is also the peak of the parabolic trajectory of our own standard of living. You can't see that connection if you live in denial of peak oil. The regional economies merged into a global economy for a combination of reasons and enabling circumstances. The opportunity seems to depend only on the emergence of political toleration and accommodation between nations: hold your nose and abolish your tariffs. Then cheap labor can be exploited. The irony of Walmart's Bush-voting customers lining up to buy stuff their unemployed neighbors used to manufacture because the last effective communist economy is happy to exploit its workers in return for enough cash to finance the worlds largest "economic boom" is not in enough minds. Walmart has been doing well with this situation too. Isn't it a win-win? [are we really converting the Chinese to capitalism or are we really transferring our wealth to a power that will be happy to hold us in the position of a colony once they hold the reins of world energy as we once did] One of the critical circumstances is that fuel was cheap enough that goods from anywhere could be shipped where ever money would buy them. The other is that only some of the workers are paid well. The invisible hand has become like a giant bulldozer spreading the pile of money in the us all over the globe. When little of the money is left and far more money is needed to move the goods, whatever their cost of production, the economies in extracting resources, manufacturing goods and consumption will have to disengage somewhat. Their current interdependence rests on transportation so they simply are not sustainable. Technological fixes are weak hopes. The logical fix that will eventually be forced upon us is to consume less, and probably to let our population decline.

I warned that I am ignorant of economics so maybe somewhere the arithmetic has been carried out unbeknownst to me. But FAIK, none of the wealth engines that were ascribed to various economies, from the industrial revolution to the post WWII emergence of US economically straddling the world, were fully costed out. If the constant dollar replacement cost of the resources mankind burned through in each of the economic booms were added to the tab, I don't know that we would be far ahead or behind a break-even. We should be thinking of ourselves as carrying a huge debt, a marker for the resources we have withdrawn from our earth, perhaps unreturnably.

Either I don't get it...or most of our leaders don't get it: essentially 0% of America's political "conservatives" voice even the slightest clue that woods, water, air and the unfarmed creatures we eat also need to be conserved. The party of Cheney and Polombo foster not only the imbalance of payments with our trading partners and the wild borrowing that is an imbalance of trade with our own future selves, it is making the US poor via the imbalance of our commerce with the source of all wealth.
Russert interviewed Thomas Friedman last fall about the update to his flat earth book. TF's prediction: "green power" will be to 21st century China what the automomibile was to 20th century US. Gore gets it but if he is not electable, if the voters don't get it because they just can't see any good except the comforts they amass, what then?
Sustainable practices do not become "economic" in the conventional sense of economics until is is too late. The consumer is carefully kept unaware of the depletion their consumption gives rise to. The corporation is governed to consider its wealth at the end of this year the ultimate measure of good. How is this system working out for us?

The wealth of nations may indeed flow wherever the invisible hand of market forces can carry it and wealth is power. Whenever personal wealth is divorced from the national wealth, the state must sooner or later loose the power to spend, which is the only power because no law or foreign policy is enforced for free.
The fate of a nation is hidden in the character of its people: what they will endure, what they will do without. Markets are hoped to be a democracy of dollars. But a market with no money in it is a democracy with no vote. If all you have is money and nothing left to buy, you are profoundly poor.
Market economies are touted by conservatives as creators of wealth. They are only redistributers of wealth. Labor and nature create created the wealth and they are not inexhaustible...and it is they that need conserving.

UPDATE: It turns out a few economists ARE starting to think this way...and they conclude no politician ever will think this way and still stay in office. That is the conventional wisdom: green is political suicide. But not-green is environmental suicide. Why do modern, industrialized lives seem to operate with less sense of connection and responsibility to the future on the part of normal citizens than we romantically think to have been the case for more primitive and primarily agricultural societies? This researcher says we were always wasters of nature. This one says we were not. Except for the findings of our sciences, we consumers are onlybecoming more decoupled from our impacts on nature because the layers of technology and ever more compartmentalized divisions of labor that accompany the technology denature our expectations. We are all so isolated from the organic strata that actually feed us that we can't see why the supermarket shelves might some day be bare. We move about so readily and often as to have lost all sense of connection to the earth under our feet. Do too many of us live in places where it seems the entire world is man-made and so we settle into an illusion of being in complete control? Have we become so oblivious to our personal mortality that we can't think about the days that will dawn without us?
... psychophysical scales are notoriously debatable. An increasing number of researchers would agree that it is highly problematic to postulate a deterministic relationship between measurable environmental factors and occupants’ evaluation of environmental conditions...