Thursday, April 10, 2008

Think Globally: can YOU still the invisible machete?

For over a generation, the cool kids like myself have had a very good and general bumper sticker that, if heeded would do us more good than cattle cars full of preachers preaching:
Think Globally, Act Locally

But what would a global thought look like? Aren't the US Department of Defense, multinational corporations and the IMF among the very few bodies that are forced by the scale of their responsibilities and ambitions to think on a world scale? How about the UN? Maybe, but what is the point of thinking up solutions according to fatally underfunded mandates? Other examples exist but they are token forces in the real world. World Wildlife Fund or Green Peace come to mind. So the big budget operations that actually pay staff to gather data and hire suitably trained experts to think on an intercontinental scale are doing this scale of thinking but they do it for the small old reasons that politics has never outgrown: short term welfare of the leaders. In the case of democracies and consumer based commercial operations, the leaders do try to act according to the wishes [not necessarily the needs] of their voters or customers, as a matter of institutional self preservation. Species self preservation or environment preservation are virtually always third order considerations.
There probably are a lot of smart people, particularly in universities and especially in studies related to agriculture who do think long term and world scale...but they are not plugged into the power steering organizations I have named. They could devise programs or policies that might avert the headlong rush of the world's economy over the threshold of unrecoverable resource depletion. But these policies would be political suicide in a world where progress has been largely defined to the masses by the advertisers for hand bags, hamburgers, erectile dysfunction cures and cars. Among leaders who actually have useful political stature, only Al Gore has had the nerve and freedom to speak of such policies as pressing needs and requiring prompt and world wide adoption.

Walden Bello writes in the Asia Times that the barely visible iceberg of climate change has now bobbed within sight of the titanic of global capitalism. Not a quick read but much easier to follow than Brad DeLong and less US-Centric than Krugman, I urge you to read it if you want to be able to say a global thought has at least passed through your head. I like his essay and I am strongly with him in his conclusions...
The goal must be the adoption of a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in an improvement in people's welfare, a better quality of life for all, and greater democratic control of production.

Invented as "the invisible hand", capitalism was presumed to some how produce a general benefit from the collective effect of all the little players optimizing their own ROI. I say it is an invisible machete. I will restate the problem I see with that model: Economics was a kind of big lie. It has long claimed to be a positive sum game. I say it just takes a long time for the zero-sum nature of the complete picture to emerge. Or to use thermodynamic parlance, it pretended it was a closed system but actually balanced its conservation laws by the "free" input from nature. Capitalism can be democratic but then what is more democratic than the tragedy of the commons? Until Bush and Bernanke broke it, the main stated goal of the world banking system was to control [not "prevent"...that would seize up the machinery] inflation. Why was that? Because the ironclad certainty and inescapable bias of the invisible machete is inflation. A "well run" capitalist system has constant mild inflation, just look at the CPI for the last 50 years. It is the same in most developed nations. To navigate in such prevailing winds you build your ship with the rudder offset to one side and it works well enough till some idiots run you into the rocks. One of the "commons" we were supposed to most dread ruining was the value of our money.

But enough of abstractions and metaphors. Bello only supplies the first phrase of the bumper sticker. What about acting locally? The reluctance of "northern elites" Bello describes is one thing individual American voters can personally tackle. I mentioned that espousing low-growth politics is political suicide but that is just the conventional wisdom: politicians have been punished in the past for urging us to consume less so they expect that is always a bad position to take. It is up to us voters to change that.
Why does the honesty that comes so easy in a family situation not suit politics? Suppose the family breadwinner lost his or her job. A grown up, in this situation would promptly tell the family: "we are going to have to cut back on expenses". If a politician goes around telling us, "Take the bus, get rid of one of your cars, turn the thermostat down again..." would we vote for them? Remember Jimmy Carter? I built a house inspired by Carter's "the less you use, the stronger we'll be" leadership and nearly 30 years later, I still don't care what heating oil costs.

There is a bootstrapping problem at the moment because pollsters are not even asking the questions: would Americans seriously curtail consumption? Trust me on this: it is only going to be worse if the answer is thrust on you by decaying economics than if you write to and vote for leaders who can reformulate the country's economic goals properly. [Hey Al, you want the VP slot?]

My own global thought has been that capitalism never did a remotely honest job of putting the replacement costs of the natural resources its exploits on its books. Well, nature, that patient waiter has tired of bringing us cheap food and will not wait for us to ask for the check. The bill is here. My own local actions include writing this post as a suggestion for the rest of you.

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