Friday, October 10, 2014

Common Sense on Climate Change

Yes, I know. I've been away from this blog for over two years now. Readership has understandably dwindled, to roughly 11 hits a month. The blog has been so neglected that I'll be lucky if anyone at all starts reading here anymore. But there's an issue that's come up recently which I simply can't ignore. It's just too important. And sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only one in the world without an agenda on this matter, so maybe it's my responsibility to speak out in favor of that ever more precious and rare commodity: simple common sense.

The issue I'm referring to is something I've dealt with only sporadically on this blog, but nevertheless of the greatest interest and importance: global warming, aka climate change. In two earlier posts (see here and here), I discussed the dangers, both economic and social, of over-reacting to what appeared to be a very legitimate, but also little understood, threat. Despite my serious misgivings about some of the more extreme measures being contemplated to stave off the effects of climate change, it was never my intention to "debunk" the science itself, as many of these effects seemed all too evident. I was never a climate change "denier" so much as a skeptic regarding some of the more drastic "remedies" being proposed, which seemed far more dangerous than anything we could expect from the disease itself.

However! Just the other day, I came across a report from NASA that stopped me cold. For anyone who's been following the g.w. debate, the title says it all: NASA Study Finds Earth’s Ocean Abyss Has Not Warmed. Why is this finding important? Because of something called "the hiatus," i.e., the period from roughly 1998 to present, in which the steady rise of global temperatures, so strongly evident during so much of the 20th century, appears to have leveled off. The overall picture is neatly summarized in the follow graph, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Here's another, more close-up view, from the 1970's on:

And here's an even closer look, from the website climate depot, illustrating how global warming, overall, appears to have stalled completely ever since a dramatic peak in 1998:

What makes the hiatus especially puzzling is its apparent indifference to the rise in CO2 emissions, which has continued unabated:

While climate scientists have come up with a variety of explanations for the hiatus, including their own versions of denial, the most convincing explanation by far has focused on the oceans.

From Why did Earth’s surface temperature stop rising in the past decade?
The most likely explanation for the lack of significant warming at the Earth’s surface in the past decade or so is that natural climate cycles—a series of La Niña events and a negative phase of the lesser-known Pacific Decadal Oscillation—caused shifts in ocean circulation patterns that moved some excess heat into the deep ocean. . . 
. . . scientists estimate the ocean absorbs more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. When analyzing temperature patterns at different depths of the ocean, scientists observed that deep ocean temperatures—measured more than a half-mile down from the surface—began to rise significantly around 2000, while shallower waters warmed more slowly.  
While this sort of explanation first struck me as a bit of a fudge, I saw no reason to reject it, especially since the science appeared sound. But now, with  actual measurements replacing estimates, everything has changed. According to the NASA report,
The cold waters of Earth’s deep ocean have not warmed measurably since 2005, according to a new NASA study, leaving unsolved the mystery of why global warming appears to have slowed in recent years. [my emphasis]
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, analyzed satellite and direct ocean temperature data from 2005 to 2013 and found the ocean abyss below 1.24 miles (1,995 meters) has not warmed measurably. . . . 
In the 21st century, greenhouse gases have continued to accumulate in the atmosphere, just as they did in the 20th century, but global average surface air temperatures have stopped rising in tandem with the gases[my emphasis] The temperature of the top half of the world's oceans -- above the 1.24-mile mark -- is still climbing, but not fast enough to account for the stalled air temperatures. 
Many processes on land, air and sea have been invoked to explain what is happening to the "missing" heat. One of the most prominent ideas is that the bottom half of the ocean is taking up the slack, but supporting evidence is slim. This latest study is the first to test the idea using satellite observations, as well as direct temperature measurements of the upper ocean. Scientists have been taking the temperature of the top half of the ocean directly since 2005, using a network of 3,000 floating temperature probes called the Argo array. 
"The deep parts of the ocean are harder to measure," said JPL's William Llovel, lead author of the study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change. "The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is -- not much."
NB: From the above, it's clear that the NASA scientists, unlike the many skeptics,  accept the hiatus as real, characterizing this rather dramatic anomaly as a "mystery."

So does this mean NASA, and other influential government organizations, will change their minds about climate change? Not likely. 
Study coauthor Josh Willis of JPL said these findings do not throw suspicion on climate change itself. "The sea level is still rising," Willis noted. "We're just trying to understand the nitty-gritty details."
Hmmm. I thought the issue was determining the cause of global warming, not its effects.  If g.w. is in fact causing sea levels to rise, that tells us nothing about what is causing g.w. itself.

And while we're on the topic of sea level rise, let's examine yet another graph:

According to this display, sea levels have been rising steadily since some time around 1885. Interesting. Because according to one of the graphs we've just seen,
global warming didn't really take off until somewhere around 1910. Looks to me like the cart's before the horse. If the warming trend has been causing ocean levels to rise, why did the latter begin before the former?

[Added 10-17-14: Here's a graphic comparison put together by "MARodger," one of the commenters on the RealClimate blog. It's a combination of data from two different sources: Jevrejeva et al. (2008) and BEST land temperatures:

As you can see, this one covers a much larger time-span, though of course the earlier data is not as reliable as the latter. According to Mr. Rodger, this comparison demonstrates my error, based on the less complete graphs, in assuming that sea level rise (in blue) preceded global warming (in red). What I see in Rodger's graph is very interesting, but also somewhat confusing. The first rise of any kind appears around 1750, in red (temperature). It peaks around 1770 and then dips pretty sharply downward until 1793. This is followed by a rise in blue (sea level), beginning a bit later. It's possible the sea level rise was a delayed reaction to the temperature rise, but that doesn't account for the following temperature dip, which is followed by another temperature dip from 1795 through 1810. No comparable dip can be seen in the sea level data. Moreover, since the Industrial Revolution didn't begin until around 1760 it would be difficult to attribute the initial temperature rise to CO2 emissions.

From 1810 onward, however, we see a pronounced rise in the temperature data that continues almost unabated until almost 2000. And this is, in fact, followed by a somewhat similar rise in sea level, beginning around 1870, which, if the former were causing the latter, would represent a delay of about 60 years. There is also a second rise in temperature, beginning around 1840 that should also be considered. If that caused the sea level rise it would shorten the delay to ca. 30 years.

So. From this broader perspective we do seem some evidence consistent with a possible influence of global warming on sea level, since in this case the former can be seen as having preceded the latter. What remains confusing is the relation of these trends to CO2 emission, since 1810 represents a very early phase indeed of the Industrial Revolution and 1840 is also still pretty early.

Here's a graph representing fossil fuel emissions, originating with the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center:

According to their data, we don't see much of a rise in such emissions until after 1850. Is that close enough to the ca 1840 g.w. rise to have been its cause? One would assume a delay of several years from cause to effect. On the other hand, none of this data is all that precise, so we can safely allow a certain amount of wiggle room. On the other other hand, the levels of CO2 emission at this very early stage of the Industrial Revolution were minuscule compared to what is now being produced, so it's hard to see how they could have any effect at all on g.w., much less sea level.

In any case, I must admit that the situation with respect to sea level rise is more interesting and complex than I had initially assumed. So thank you, Mr. Rodger.]

Statistical correlation is one of the most useful tools known to science. It can be very misleading however, and is all too frequently abused, even by experienced scientists. Properly understood, a correlation can point us to a relationship that could, potentially, be meaningful. However, as is well known, correlation in itself does not imply causation. The problem was neatly encapsulated by the individual who first promoted correlation as a scientific tool, Karl Pearson:
All causation as we have defined it is correlation, but the converse is not necessarily true, i.e. where we find correlation we cannot always predict causation. In a mixed African population of Kaffirs and Europeans, the former may be more subject to smallpox, yet it would be useless to assert darkness of skin (and not absence of vaccination) as a cause. [Pearson, The Grammar of Science, footnote to the second edition of 1900.]
When scientists began paying attention to the relationship between atmospheric warming and the production of greenhouse gases, there appeared to be a very strong correlation between the two, as illustrated in the following graph:

A great many scientists read a strong correlation into this graph, especially in the period following 1975, when the production of CO2 increased significantly. This correlation, coupled with the well known fact that the release of CO2 contributes to atmospheric warming, led many scientists to conclude that there must be a causal connection, i.e., that the increasing release of CO2 into the atmosphere was responsible for the rather alarming looking increase in atmospheric temperatures.

However, as just noted, the presence of a correlation between any two datasets does not, in itself, tell us one represents the cause of the other. To determine cause we need to look more deeply into the evidence, applying logic, critical thinking and above all, simple common sense.

Now. If we look critically at the various graphs what we see is a relationship between warming and greenhouse gas emission that does indeed seem to be correlated -- some of the time. But certainly not all of the time. In the graph just above, for example, I see a complete lack of correlation until roughly 1975. Greenhouse gases have been emitted into the atmosphere in ever-increasing numbers since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so why is it that the correlation begins only three quarters of the way into the 20th century?

The anomaly has been explained as the result of a major increase in the use of fossil fuels since 1975, and that may be the case. However, if global warming and CO2 emission were causally connected, the correlation should be evident throughout. Thus, if higher rates of CO2 emission led to higher temperatures, then lower rates should have led to lower temperatures. The anomaly is most evident between the years 1930 and 1945, when temperature spiked dramatically while CO2 production continued to increase at the same slow but steady rate as before.

The key issue: it's not only that correlation does not imply causation, but also, in the above-quoted  words of Karl Pearson: "All causation . . . is correlation." In other words, if one thing is truly the cause of another, correlation will be evident at all points, not just certain selected ones.

Which returns us to the hiatus. Here, once again, is the telltale graph:

And here again we see a rather dramatic example of non-correlation. It is indeed very hard to understand why warming would remain essentially flat over a period of almost 18 years while CO2 emissions continued to soar, given the almost universal conviction among climate scientists that the latter is the cause of the former. The "mystery" has now been compounded by the recent NASA findings, which all but rule out the hypothesis, taken for granted by so many, that the expected warming trend was somehow transported from the atmosphere to the depths of the sea.

The NASA paper is, of course, only one study out of many and could be flawed. Given the importance of the issue at hand, I would hope our government would make it a priority to conduct followup research as soon as possible, to make sure these results can be replicated. If they are, indeed, accurate, there will  no longer be any valid reason to doubt the reality of the "mysterious" hiatus. And thus no longer any logical reason to hold onto the almost universally accepted conviction that "the science" supports human induced global warming.

While it is undeniably true that our atmosphere, if not our oceans, is heating up -- as illustrated by the above graph things are definitely warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century -- it seems highly unlikely that greenhouse gas emissions could be the cause. If that were true, then the steady increase in fossil fuel emissions over the last 18 years or so would almost certainly have resulted in a concomitant increase in temperatures. Temperatures have varied considerably during the history of our planet, so what looks to have been a temporary period of rapid increase may not be so mysterious after all, but simply the work of Mother Nature.

It looks to me as though we can also rule out a causal relation between global warming and sea level rise as well, since the beginnings of the latter predate the earliest evidence of the former. Sea levels have been rising steadily since at least the late 19th century and probably well prior to that period, and will no doubt continue to rise well into the 21st. This is certainly a major concern, to which we will definitely need to adapt. But cutting down on the burning of fossil fuels will, in all likelihood, not make a difference. [Added 10-17-14: But see the segment I've interpolated above, which displays a more comprehensive graph, suggesting a broader and more complex view of this issue.]

Climate scientists may be especially knowledgeable when it comes to collecting data and creating hypothetical models, but they are no more capable than the rest of us when it comes to applying simple logic and common sense to the models they produce.

There are a great many very real challenges ahead of us in the remainder of this century and considerable resources will need to be expended in order to deal with them. I see no point, therefore, in diverting vast amounts of money and resource in a quixotic attempt to reverse global warming by seriously undermining one of the most precious resources we have: fossil fuels. Even if the burning of fossil fuels were in fact the cause of global warming, any effort to seriously cut down on their use would almost certainly lead to consequences in the near future far worse than anything we could expect from climate change even over the next hundred years. And by then fossil fuels will have run out in any case. In fact the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels is the real challenge we face. For more of my thoughts on such matters I refer you to the blog posts I linked to at the outset of this post.

Before concluding I must make it clear that I am not a conservative, nor a Republican, nor a libertarian, nor am I connected in any way with the oil industry or any other purveyor of fossil fuels. I have absolutely no skin at all in this game, either monetary or ideological. As anyone reading very far in this blog will soon realize, my sentiments are definitely on the left side of the political spectrum, so I don't see myself having anything in common with the usual set of "deniers" whose motives do in fact seem primarily ideological. I'm not at all comfortable in siding with these folks, who in my opinion, are doing serious damage to our democracy and even common decency, respect for others, etc. But in this case I have no choice but to side with them -- because as far as I can tell, despite their questionable motives, they are right, and my fellow liberals -- most of them -- are wrong. And not only wrong but, very possibly, disastrously so.

[Added at 3:30 PM, Oct. 11: Here's a link to a well written, comprehensive and balanced discussion of the hiatus, as published at the website of the journal Nature: Climate Change: The Case of the Missing Heat.

Judging from the many serious responses to this challenge by recognized climatologists, the hiatus is not simply a myth, as has sometimes been alleged, but a very real anomaly that must be accounted for if global warming is to be attributed to the release of greenhouse gases.

Given all the many, and very different, explanations for the hiatus "mystery," one wonders whether it's any longer necessary for a hypothesis to be falsifiable. One wonders also what evidence could possibly falsify this theory in the minds of its adherents, since finding "good reasons" for just about any anomaly seems to have become a favorite sport.]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Consume Mass Quantities!

Caught in the trap of life, man is moved by a field of attraction determined by a flash point where solid forms are destroyed, where the various objects that constitute the world are consumed as in a furnace of light.  -- Georges Bataille
I've been thinking about the good Reverend Earwhigger's emphasis on the consumer as key to solving the present crisis (see previous post) -- but I've come up with a solution very different from what he's proposed. (He shouldn't feel badly, however. He was my inspiration!)

It seems to me that what we need from the consumer is not a boycott (see previous post), but the exact opposite, i.e. exactly what the Gods of Capitalism created the consumer to achieve: consumption. Mass consumption. The consumption of mass quantities. In other words (the words of Bataille): Expenditure Without Reserve!

Did you watch 60 Minutes recently? I'm thinking of the segment hosted by the ever-lovely, ever wise Lesley Stahl, the one on truffles. Did you know that a single meal featuring truffles in a top French restaurant can cost $1,000 or more? So why not go for it? Grab that credit card, hop a flight to Paris, preferably First Class, make your dinner reservation, enjoy your meal, and be sure to spend the rest of your stay in a first class hotel.

Why, you say? Well, let's face it, the world economy is due for a total collapse, but the powers that be are doing everything in their power to delay the inevitable. Meanwhile, since the only arrow in their quivering quiver is spelled "austerity," it seems that their solution is to squeeze every last drop of blood from the 99% in order to protect the vast wealth of the 1%. If things continue along such lines for very much longer (and it looks like they will), then all us ordinary folk, workers, middle class, professionals, ne'er do wells, always do wells, under achievers, over achievers, college grads (with huge debt loads) and high school dropouts (with huge families) alike, will be forced into bankruptcy -- or worse (if you've racked up student debts they won't let you go bankrupt, you'll become their slave).

The longer they kick the can down the road to preserve the "economy" for the banks and the super-rich, the worse it's going to get for the rest of us. So what is needed, if we want to survive, is some strategy to force their hand, i.e., to bring the whole absurd mess down around their necks, Sampson style, as soon as humanly possible. Only then will the spell of the Plutogarchs be broken; only then will society be free to pick up the pieces, recognizing that what is important is not money, but resources, both natural and human, managed by true representatives of the people, not the super-wealthy and their minions, whose wealth will have evaporated into thin air once the money mirage concocted exclusively for their own benefit and at our expense has lifted.

So, who will be our Sampson? In some past posts, I've nominated the workers, and I still think a united international movement of organized workers, aided and abetted by sympathizers among the middle class, professionals, students, etc., could achieve a great deal. However, the Reverend H.C. Earwhigger ridiculed that idea as hopelessly outdated and perhaps he's right. For him, it is the consumer who is all powerful. And I have to admit that on reflection there is definitely some truth in that. But a consumer boycott won't work, because for one thing consumption is already down and for another, consumer boycotts are effective only when very precisely targeted, which means they can only have a very limited effect.

Nevertheless, there IS something we consumers can do to trash the "economy" and I'm not sure why I never thought of that before. What has brought our financial system to the brink of disaster has been reckless borrowing. And because we borrowed so much we are now very cautious about how much we spend and are reluctant to borrow much more. Nevertheless, because the powers that be are now in panic mode and not thinking straight, it is now actually almost as easy to borrow today as it ever was. Just check out those automobile commercials. No money down, easy terms, easy credit no problem. Same with mortgages, which are now selling for the lowest interest rates in history. Same with credit card debt, student debt, etc.

So, we now have it within our power to resume the same destructive process that blew the last bubble, only this time, if we really gird our loins and try, we can blow the damned thing up literally to kingdom come. It will, of course, take organization. Don't try this at home folks, until you're sure you won't be alone. It will require the mobilization of consumers on a vast scale, for sure, in every corner of the world where credit is easily available (in other words, just about everywhere).

Once we are organized, then hold onto your hats. We'll start buying everything in sight, en masse. Need a new car? Why settle for a Ford or Chevy when you can buy an Audi, BMW, or better yet, a Mercedes or Cadillac? Already own a house? Why not buy a summer place, preferably in the Hamptons? Think you can't get the loan? Well think again. The "market," especially the housing market, but also the automobile market, is as starved for attention as a teen age delinquent. Get out that credit card and if that isn't enough, head for your local bank. If they turn you down, try another, I can almost guarantee you'll find some bank eager to loan you just about whatever you want.

Students, don't be shy. Step right up to that admissions office and sign yourself up for the biggest student loan you can get, preferably for the full four years, and at the most expensive Ivy League school that will take you. They'll be down on their knees with gratitude, because a great many of these hallowed institutions are now in deep deep trouble.

If millions of us go on a spree all at once, all at the same time, borrowing to the hilt and buying whatever we damn please, spending like crazy and without reserve, we can send that bubble soaring into the stratosphere. All it will take will be a tiny pea from the tiniest pea shooter you can imagine to bring it down. And all the King's horses and all the King's men will NOT be able to put that damned phoney baloney "economy" together again.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting Their Attention

My old friend, the Reverend Earwhigger, considers my proposal of an international worker's action to be some sort of romantic pipe dream. As an alternative he's proposed a consumer boycott, which in his view would be much more likely to succeed. He writes, in part, as follows:
An organized consumer boycott? Difficult, improbable, but not exactly pie-in-the-sky. More and more consumers are beginning to understand that they are being exploited. The significance of the fact that 1% control the 99% is beginning to sink in. Unlike global warming, the 1:99 ratio is a "fact" that is accepted by both political camps. People are angry. They might be convinced that withholding their purchasing power could be a way to express it.
Perhaps, just as the labor unions organized one industry after another, consumer boycotts could – at least at first – be targeted. For example, a boycott on buying music. Relatively painless, but effective. A boycott on clicking on internet ads. Again, painless – but imagine what it would do to the Nasdaq numbers. Or a boycott on brand-name cereals in favor of super-market brands. Pretty painless, if somehow the narcissistic brats to whom the stuff is marketed could be induced to come aboard, but effective. . .
Though I'm in agreement with my friend on many points, I have problems with his consumer boycott proposal, because I seriously doubt that many consumers would be willing to participate, at least for very long. What he is recommending would be, at best, a very gradual process through which the 1% would hopefully get progressively worn down over time, as their profits on certain items, such as music, gradually eroded. But their profits are already eroding. And their solution would be the same as before: squeeze the workers, downsize, cut benefits, hire temps or "independent contractors," etc. In their minds there is no other alternative.

On the other hand, as I see it, a call for a general work stoppage could go out very quickly, and if effectively organized could shut large sectors of the economy down for enough time as to make a clear statement that workers are not being fooled and are unwilling to cooperate in their own exploitation. My friend isn't buying it, however:
Sorry, Doc G. Reviving the labor movement? Just a nostalgic pipe dream. Neo-romantic economics. The plutogarchs need workers. Well, yes, but there's no danger of running out of workers. There are billions of potential workers, and they are constantly spawning. Besides, technology actually has diminished the need for labor. What they also need, and what there is a danger of them running out of, is consumers: workers who not only are able to, but are willing to, pass back to them the fruit of their labor.
Yes, this may sound romantic, but it has in fact been done in the past and has in fact worked, very effectively. Worker organization was at its height during the last depression, when there were a great many unemployed workers and when automation in the form of the assembly line was also enabling many companies to cut down on their work forces. It was not a pleasant process, because many employers would hire "scab" replacements, which was why the picket line was invented.

I'm not proposing anything so drastic as unionization, however, at least not at first. A work stoppage of a day or even a week wouldn't give employers a chance to hire -- and train -- replacements, but it would put them on notice that their workers are no longer willing to suffer passively in the face of all these wonderful "austerity" plans that are supposed to solve all problems. I agree that the participation of many US workers would be questionable, given the resentment that's been fomented by movements such as the Tea Party, to which many working class people subscribe.

But there is a whole new generation of younger, more educated workers in this country, the type of people we see every day slaving away in businesses such as Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods, Apple stores, etc., not to mention literally all of our Universities and Colleges, earning maybe if they are lucky, $10 an hour, or $2,000 per class, who might very well understand the situation and be willing to get involved in a movement of this sort. And I think a great many consumers, including students, would be more than willing to support them by boycotting such institutions during such an action. In such a context a consumer boycott would, I think, be effective, but only as a supplement to a worker-based action.

As far as Europe is concerned, I would think the degree of social and economic awareness of most workers on that continent is much higher than in the States, and there have already in fact been several work stoppages and other such actions in Europe -- only they've been limited to individual businesses and/or countries, with no attempt at international coordination.

Just think how utopian the Occupy Wall St. movement sounded prior to its first stunning successes. The key, of course, is organization. But if OWS could get organized, I don't see why a similarly "utopian" labor movement couldn't also get organized. Why not? The difference would be that instead of demonstrations having no immediate effect on the ruling class, we would have labor actions having a very real and immediate effect on their bottom line, something they cannot so easily ignore.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Expenditure Without Reserve

From Federico Garcia Lorca, Theory and Method of the Duende
Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’
          So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.
From Georges Bataille,  "The Cruel Practice of Art":
Only a few of us, amid the great fabrications of society, hang on to our really childish reactions, still wonder naively what we are doing on the earth and what sort of joke is being played on us. We want to decipher skies and paintings, go behind these starry backgrounds or these painted canvases and, like kids trying to find a gap in a fence, try to look through the cracks in the world. One of these cracks is the cruel custom of sacrifice..
Caught in the trap of life, man is moved by a field of attraction determined by a flash point where solid forms are destroyed, where the various objects that constitute the world are consumed as in a furnace of light. 
From Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
I will simply state, without further ado, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire... It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
From Putting Global Capitalism in Its Place: Economic Hybridity, Bataille, and Ritual Expenditure, by Mayfair Mei‐hui Yang: 
What [Bataille] proposed in his enigmatic and mesmerizing book The Accursed Share was that, in our modern capitalist productivism, we have lost sight of this fundamental law of physics and material existence: that the surplus energy and wealth left over after the basic conditions for subsistence, reproduction, and growth have been satisfied must be expended. If this energy is not destroyed, it will erupt of its own in an uncontrolled explosion such as war. Given the tremendous productive power of modern industrial society and the fact that its productivist ethos has cut off virtually all traditional avenues of ritual and festive expenditures, energy surpluses have been redirected to military expenditures for modern warfare on a scale unknown in traditional societies. Bataille thought that the incessant growth machine that is the post-World War II U.S. economy could be deflected from a catastrophic expenditure on violent warfare only by potlatching the entire national economy. In giving away its excess wealth to poorer nations, as in the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, the United States could engage in a nonmilitary rivalry for prestige and influence with the Soviet Union, that other center of industrial modernity’s radical reduction of nonproductive expenditure.14 Thus, Bataille wished to resuscitate an important dimension of the economy, nonproductive expenditure, that has all but disappeared in both capitalist and state socialist modernity.

For Spain

From The Nation:

The early June performance by the Sevillian flamenco anti-bank protest group FLO6x8 was a direct hit. Days after the announcement of a $23 billion public bailout of Spain’s third-biggest bank, Bankia, three cantaora singers strode into the city center office of the bank and began to bellow out the purest, full-lunged cante jondo, songs of grief, pain and protest of the Andalusian gypsies. Customers looked on, surprised, then impressed. Security guards fidgeted nervously. One singer, nicknamed Prima del Riesgo (Risk Premium, a term on every Spaniard’s lips, as the spread on Spanish bonds rises to unsustainable heights), pushed open the door to the bank manager’s office. “Goirigolzarri! Tell us!” she sang, gesturing with her hands as if money were flowing through her fingers. “Why did you retire? With all the money you’ve spent, we could feed the world.” This was a reference to the new Bankia CEO José Ignacio Goirigolzarri, brought out of early retirement at 55 (on a pension of 3 million euros per year) to manage the biggest government bailout of a bank in Spanish history.

 From  Federico Garcia Lorca, "Theory and Method of the Duende":
Pastora Pavon finished singing in the midst of total silence. There was only a little man, one of those dancing mannikins who leap suddenly out of brandy bottles, who observed sarcastically in a very low voice: "Viva Paris!" As if to say: We are not interested in aptitude or techniques or virtuosity here. We are interested in something else.

Then La niña de los peines got up like a woman possessed, her face blasted like a medieval weeper, tossed off a great glass of Cazalla at a single draught, like a potion of fire, and settled down to singing - without a voice, without breath, without nuance, throat aflame - but with duende! She had contrived to annihilate all that was nonessential in song and make way for an angry and incandescent Duende, friend of sand- laden winds, so that everyone listening tore at his clothing almost in the same rhythm with which the West Indian negroes in their rites rend away their clothes, huddled in heaps before the image of Saint Barbara.

The "Girl with the Combs" had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form - pure music spare enough to keep itself in the air. She had to deny her faculties and her security; that is to say, to turn out her Muse and keep vulnerable, so that her Duende might come and vouchsafe the hand-to-hand struggle. And then how she sang! Her voice feinted no longer; it jetted up like blood, ennobled by sorrow and sincerity, it opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni - tempestuous!

The arrival of the Duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms as they existed on the old plane. It gives a sense of refreshment unknown until then, together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the miraculous, which comes and instils an almost religious transport.

In all Arabian music, in the dances, songs, elegies of Arabia, the coming of the Duende is greeted by fervent outcries of Allah! Allah! God! God!, so close to the Olé" Olé! of our bull rings that who is to say they are not actually the same . . .

In every country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes down. But not in Spain! In Spain the curtain goes up. Many people live out their lives between walls until the day they die and are brought out into the sun.

From George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia:
The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. . . .
Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. . . .

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Oh Don't Ask Why -- more questions

Isn't the main problem unemployment? How would international work stoppages and strikes create more jobs?

The exploitation of workers and unemployment go hand in hand. While the powers that be are continually lamenting the unemployment situation, it is actually in their interest to keep unemployment high. Which is why "austerity" is a euphemism for both low wages and massive layoffs. The more unemployment, the more competition among workers, thus the less influence the workers themselves will have over their jobs and their pay. Employed workers thus have an incentive to strike not only for living wages and decent conditions, but also to send a message that additional firings and layoffs are not acceptable. Moreover, since many among the employed are now being forced to work ever harder, at longer hours (in the interests of "productivity"), improved working conditions at fewer hours (thus lowering "productivity") will incentivize corporations to hire more workers.

More generally, the notion that jobs are what is needed, rather than a decent, rewarding way of life for all, is in itself a perversion, more smoke and mirrors intended to confuse working people regarding their own needs and desires. No one needs a "job." What is needed is a meaningful and rewarding lifestyle. Most people are willing to work, and even work hard, in order to achieve such a lifestyle, but work (aka a "job") has never been an end in itself for anyone. The responsibility of government, i.e., society as a whole, is to work to ensure a meaningful and rewarding life for all those willing to make the effort to cooperate in the realization of such a goal. The key, therefore, is not work per se, but cooperation. If there are not enough "jobs," then there are certainly more than enough ways for people to contribute meaningfully to the society in which they live. Not everything need be measured in terms of work hours and money.

If we are to improve the lot of all people, by fighting for living wages and better working conditions, resisting the push for austerity, growth, productivity, and placing less emphasis on "jobs" per se in favor of a meaningful lifestyle, where is the money going to come from to pay for all this?

We are living in an era of vast wealth, probably more than at any time in history. A recent issue of Forbes magazine lists all billionaires now living, 10 per page, with 123 pages total -- 1,230 in all. Highest on the list is Carlos Slim, who alone possesses 69 billion, more than the entire Lithuanian GDP. According to the Wall St. Journal, the USA alone had 3,100,000 millionaires in 2010. There is more than enough money to cover the costs of an improved way of life for every man, woman and child in the world, but that money will not be made available for that purpose, unless those who control this vast wealth can be persuaded it is in their own interest to do so. In my opinion it is. But it will take some drastic measures to convince them, that's for sure.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Oh Don't Ask Why

No doubt the last few posts have raised a lot of questions. I'll try to answer some of them here:

Given the current fragility of the Euro zone, isn't there a risk that a European work stoppage could cause the Euro to collapse?

Yes. Of course. That would be the point -- to bring it down, to force it to collapse. Why not? It's going to collapse anyhow, of its own weight. But the longer that takes, the harder it's going to be for workers throughout the zone. And every indication is that the leaders, who are after all part of the 1%, are going to draw out the painful process indefinitely. A Europe-wide united labor action would force the issue, thus freeing workers from the grip of an increasingly intolerable "austerity." 

How can workers organize on a worldwide basis when the cost of labor varies so greatly from one part of the world to the other?

Yes, third world labor costs far less than first world labor, and as a result European and American workers are finding it more and more difficult to compete with Asiatic, Middle Eastern and African workers -- which makes both groups increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by globally based corporations. If we look more closely, however, we will see that the differences are not as great as they may seem. While American workers earn far more in US dollars than Asiatic workers, Asiatic workers can buy a whole lot more with each dollar (or its equivalent) than Americans.

Thus, Chinese workers, for example, have a far greater savings rate, a high level of home ownership, and far less mortgage debt. In fact they have very little debt at all. I'm not saying they have as much spending power as US workers, because most Chinese still earn less than we do, and have far fewer choices as consumers. Nevertheless, the income discrepancy is not as high as it might seem. What makes them so competitive with US or European workers is the largely the discrepancy in the value of the Chinese currency compared with the dollar, euro or pound.

So in principle the competition isn't really that great. It's largely the result of distortions introduced by a monetary system that favors "cheap" Asiatic labor and gives a huge advantage to large corporations capable of moving their operations anywhere in the world. The monetary system and the corporations work in tandem as part of a process through which all workers are exploited. So the goal of a united world workforce is to promote the collapse of that system, not cooperate in (futile) efforts to delay its (in any case inevitable) collapse. Once it collapses, a more logical and equible economic system, based on the production and distribution of resources, will be possible.

(more later)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ritual of Purification

I visited Mexico City in 1997, and was immediately robbed, at the very impressive new bus terminal, almost as soon as I arrived. (The first-class bus I traveled in was excellent, state of the art, with air conditioning -- unusual at the time even on US buses -- and even a movie, just like on a plane.) While visiting with a friend, I noticed that all the streets in his neighborhood had gates, manned by security guards. This wasn't simply a "gated community," but an ordinary middle class neighborhood. Every single street was gated, as were many such streets in many other neighborhoods throughout the city. I'd never seen anything like it before, but for my friend it was, of course, nothing special.

Overall, Mexico City impressed me. Much of it is very beautiful. I visited the University, the art museum and also a special museum devoted to the work of one of my favorite artists, David Siqueiros. And at my request, my friend and his father took me on an outing to Teotihuacan, one of the most spectacular ancient cities in the world.

Though I enjoyed my stay in Mexico City, I couldn't help but notice the many signs of truly dire poverty visible all around me. What struck me especially were the large number of what appeared to be homeless boys roaming around the streets. I became fascinated by a group of boys working as windshield washers, a mode of "employment" one step removed from outright begging. I'd seen this sort of thing before in New York City, but never on this scale. What impressed me especially was the diligence of these boys, and the relation between them and the drivers. Unlike New York, they never forced themselves on anyone, never began to wash a windshield without a signal from the driver.

This phenomenon deeply moved me. There was something very touching about the care these boys took to clean each windshield as carefully as possible, and something touching as well about the indulgence of the drivers and their patience with the boys. In New York, drivers are typically irritated when someone with a rag comes up to their car, but in Mexico the situation was very different, possibly because poverty was already so much of a fixture of everyday life that no one was any more bothered by it.

I was moved but also deeply disturbed. On the surface, there was something truly beautiful about it, almost like a ritual, but when I tried to project myself into the mind of one of these boys, continually repeating the same delicate task over and over again for hours on end, it was almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, there was something Zenlike about it, a form of meditation. On the other hand, it was imprisonment or even torture, a kind of self-flagellation.

Obsessed by images I couldn't get out of my head, I decided to write about it, or more accurately, write my way through it, by producing a kind of poetic incantation. As I began to write what struck me was that, on the one hand, I was creating something almost like an avant-garde prose poem, a kind of minimalist poetry I suppose, but on the other hand, I was reporting as accurately as I could exactly what I had observed. I began with the intention of making this go on for many pages, to convey as real a sense as possible of what these boys experienced day in day out, just to survive. But I didn't get very far. Just writing it was too difficult, so imagine what living it was like. Here's as much as I had the courage to do:
The boy waited patiently for a sign. When the sign came, he lifted the bottle and sprayed. A soapy liquid appeared on the glass. The boy lifted his squeegee and patiently skimmed the soapy liquid off the glass. Patiently he held out his hand for the coin. When the coin appeared he tucked it into his pocket and said “gracias” and waited patiently for another sign. The sign came, but this time from the other side of the street. Traffic was heavy so he had to move quickly. Upon reaching the auto, he lifted his bottle and sprayed the soapy liquid onto the glass. Patiently he lifted the squeegee and skimmed the soapy liquid from the surface of the glass. When he was done, he held out his hand for the coin. But it slipped from his hand and he had to dive down between two cars to retrieve it. The light changed. Traffic began to move. He found the coin and quickly thrust it into his pocket. Patiently he waited for the light to change. A woman signaled him from a red convertible. She smiled. He smiled back at her, then lifted the bottle patiently and sprayed a soapy liquid onto her windshield. Then, lifting his squeegee, he skimmed the liquid from the glass, smiled again and held out his hand. She smiled and handed him two coins. She was pleased. He said “gracias” and smiled again, tucking the coins into his pocket. Then he patiently waited for another sign. But the light had changed and the cars were moving. Quickly he slipped out of their way, looking down the line of traffic for another sign.
Imagine repeating this same thing over and over again, with all the many variations the boy would encounter during a long day's work. Imagine writing it, but more important, imagine living it. Day after day after day for an entire childhood.

I forgot all about the boys, and my truncated "poem," until recently when reading for the umpteenth time about the so-called Mexican drug wars, and it suddenly occurred to me: where are all these boys now and what are they doing? I wonder how many survived, and if so, how. When poverty of this depth and on this scale is accepted simply as a fact of life and nothing is done to alleviate it, then it seems to me this is going to have consequences for society as a whole. We see it now in Mexico and I see it coming in the USA.

David Alfaro Siqueiros -- Echo of the Scream
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