Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things to be Thankful For

  • An old car with the good manners to break down within coasting distance of my own driveway, on the night before a day off.
  • A mother out of state for the winter who is willing to lend me hers.
  • A sister coming to Thanksgiving dinner to drive me from the broken down car to the running car.

Seriously, as far as inconveniences go, this one was coordinated like a ballet.

Then there’s all the other usual stuff we take for granted: a roof over our heads (that only leaks when it rains really hard), a job where I get to work with lots of kind and genuine people, food for  the table, a wife who is not only willing but happy to cook it, family to share it with, good health, and of course, also, eggnog.

And whiskey.

I work with a woman who’s mother used to punish her, when she complained too much, by sending her into the corner to count her blessings. I do tend to grumble a lot. (That’s why you’re all here, isn’t it?) But this seems like as good a day as any to take her mother’s advice and reflect on the stuff that’s going right.

So, I’ll be over here in the corner.

With my eggnog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading The Hunger Games feels like Reading Tomorrow’s Newspaper

I started reading the first book in the Hunger Games series. And I can see why it's so popular with today's teen set. The book reads like a dark-hearted SF thriller, but it paints a frightening picture of the world our children are set to inherit. 

Here is a society built on the ruins of the one we live in now.  It's seen the return of scarcity. It's seen the divide between first and third world conditions move within the borders of our own country. It's seen martial law in the wake of collapse, with capital punishment for theft imprisonment for hunting and gathering your own food. It’s seen a new world order with poor outlying districts feeding into the wealth of one centralized, prosperous capitol. Meanwhile, for entertainment, the "reality show" is carried to it's logical conclusion: children are forced to fight to the death on television for the public amusement, with a supporting staff of stylists, producers, "game designers," and sponsors to make it all profitable. 

Granted, the Japanese got to the conceit of kids fighting to the death on a reality show first, with Battle Royale. But their take on it was campy and cartoonish, their explanation for why it was happening was felt like an attempt to make light of problems in their public schools. But Hunger Games is deadly earnest, building on chilling economic and environmental trends. We've sown conflict around the globe; it seems inevitable that it's going to swing back and hit us at home, sooner or later. 

This is the world our children see coming: constant war, rising food prices, ceaseless advertising, the cheapening of human life in pursuit of grander virtual and vicarious thrills, the abandonment of basic rights and dignity for the poor, while the rich extract human blood in the form of tribute paid in human offspring. 

You think this sounds hyperbolic? Try starting your adult life under the burden of a student loan you can never hope to repay, from which not even bankruptcy is an escape. Kids today are slaves from the minute they graduate college. (It's a funny twist of fate that today, it's the smartest kids who don't go to school.) Already, teens face an adulthood without dignity. It's not that far-fetched to see their lives as cheap enough to throw away in televised games.

Our kids are facing the collapse of the public safety net as it's raided by the disinterested greed of their boomer grandparents, while they struggle in the moral wasteland provided by the "it's all good" parenting of their Generation X and Y parents. Reality shows show them that success lies at the end of a path of opportunism, brutality, and luck, while advertisements bombard them with tawdry and unattainable examples of what that success would be. 

The result is that life is worthless unless you're at the top. So, why not gamble it all for a shot at the prize? (Bankruptcy might not be an option any more, but kids might fight to the death if the reward were forgiveness of their student loans.)

Science fiction used to give us tales of exploration, invention, colonization and prosperity. I'm not sure what happened in the last 30 years, but SF has become something that feels chilling and malicious, more akin to horror. 

It also feels a hell of a lot more real.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On the Economy: Shrinking Pains

Natural systems do not grow forever. Populations either reach a certain point and then stabilize as they rub up against competitors and resource limits, or they drop off a cliff as they exhaust their resources. The real core of the economic crisis we are facing now is that the economy is an artificial system that has been built on a foundation of unlimited growth. At every stage it is simply assumed that growth is the ultimate goal. 

Sales had better be up, consumption had better be up, resource extraction and manufacturing and profits had better be up! 
Even as we're hoping our economy will generate more wealth and jobs, we're hoping for stabilization in world population figures. And there's actually good news here: we're seeing a slowdown in population growth. We may have passed the seven-billion-people mark, bet getting to eight will take longer than it took to get from six to seven. 

But consider: if the population doesn't grow faster this year than last year, how can we have sales that grow faster this year than last year? What happens when we reach the point where everyone simply has enough stuff, and stops buying more? And given that our currency actually represents debt (not gold, not grain, not any naturally occurring commodity), how can it continue to grow if people tire of borrowing to purchase things they do not need.

It becomes harder to make money. The incentive for crooks within the financial system to steal and cheat becomes irresistible, and soon the whole system itself is a farce. (See the Lehman Brothers collapse, the “too big to fail” bailouts, etc.)

So how can we build a financial system without a foundation of constant growth? 

Our current situation is unprecedented. The world population has never faced a slowdown in growth, never mind a decline. (The Black Plague may have decimated Europe, but it put just a tiny dent in the world population.) This turnaround is something to celebrate. It's a success of the world's increasing prosperity and education. Given that no population can grow at an accelerating pace forever (just ask any petri dish full of bacteria) we should thank our lucky stars that this is happening. 

But can we build an economic system that rewards stability instead of growth? Is it a matter of regulating the money supply? Could we turn back from debt based currency to a gold or silver standard? Or do we need to reconsider what incentives people respond to? Rather than measuring success as taking more profits than your neighbor, can we build a culture that fosters stable communities, humane working environments, and supportive relationships?

That's hippy-dippy, pie in the sky utopia talk, for sure. But the alternative sounds dreadful. If we can't adapt our economy to a population that isn't growing at a constantly accelerating pace, then both the economy and the population are bound to collapse with a viciousness that is as brutal as it is inevitable.

I don't hear anyone else asking these questions. The silence horrifies. 

Instead, I hear Bill Clinton talking about ways to restart growth. I see companies scrambling to drive down costs to save their profits in the face of declining sales, producing cheap products that suck in working environments that are inhumane. I sit in meetings where everyone breathes a sigh of relief if our percentages are just a little higher than last year's, and we say, "well, at least we haven't started to slow down yet," in the knowledge that the minute we do, we're dead. I hear European politicians saying things like, "Only growth can lift us out of the Eurozone crisis," but they never say where the growth is going to come from, who is going to buy their exports, or what fuel will power their factories to run faster than they're running now. And then I see reports of entire cities in China, skyscrapes and condominiums and shopping malls, vast and shining and new, without a single person who can afford to live in them. The government is building for the sake of their growth reports, while their citizens live in shacks, five families to one bathroom, not a one of them able to afford the empty prosperity looming above them. 

The wealth is there. The buildings are there. Why not just let the people...move in? 

An economic crisis seems like the most artificial folly on the face of the planet. Markets crash; the sun still rises, the tides flow in and out, birds still sing, all oblivious to the fact that debt figures hit some number and stocks are in the tank. An ounce of gold doesn't know it's worth ten times as much because people are desperate. 

This is a collapse of fiction. But it's been such a rewarding fiction, for so long, that we'll struggle to maintain it for as long as we can. We'll give absolutely everything we can to believe our lives can keep going on like this forever. We'll give everything we can, until we have nothing left.