Monday, March 8, 2010

Lemmings

I've been thinking about kids lately.

I love my children, but I do not confuse them with "free resources" like air. Instead they are something like food and drink; critical for life but with a debt you incur for needing them.

But for the purposes of this post I am thinking of children in general, rather than mine in particular.

Or, rather, this is about humans as the global apex predator.

Didn't used to be this way, of course. My understanding is that our proto-hominid and hominid ancestors were about where the large apes are in the food chain, a multi-level consumer but also prey for large carnivores. But it has really been a long time since we were in danger of predation. The only animal that can prey on humans is human; ecologically, we are our only real population control. For all that we often act like sheep, we're the wolves, or, rather, we're the predator that the wolves WISH they could be. I'll bet if you gave a wolf voice for a day and turned it loose on the works of Man it'd go for our killing technology in a big way. Would a wolf with a cluster bomb unit do the kind of damage to caribou that we do to each other?


The mind reels.

Of course, the sorts of population controls that have probably always killed more humans than other animals still cull us; cold and heat and drought (and the associated starvation and diseases) and the various epidemics from influenzas to plagues. We're never safe from something. But the combination of industrial agriculture, scientific medicine, political stability and general education has done much to broaden the sunny, clear portions of human lives, pushing back the frightening things that made our existences so frighteningly brief and tenuous.We live longer, breed more successfully, and die less agonizingly - generally - than we ever have.

I'm not sure at this point what CAN limit human ability to reproduce. We are pretty fecund creatures, able to pop out about one offspring every year to eighteen months (dear GOD! but still...) from about fourteen years of age to somewhere in our forties or even fifties. Most of us don't, naturally, but the trend since the first human tribes has been a slow increase in population until about the late Middle Ages.

Improvement in things like sanitation, the understanding of the germ theory of disease, inventions as commonplace and simple as chemical fertilizers and vaccinations...all these have made the Earth circa 2010 an extraordinarily safe and healthy place for humans. We've responded by doing what we've always done; finding another human (usually of the opposite sex, but, whatever...) and a flat piece of ground (which we can do without if needs must) and putting Tab A into Slot B and the next thing you know the place is swarming with brats...

Which brings me to my point, which is, that I cannot think of an organism or a species of organisms that thrives without some sort of population control.

Producers need consumers or they will exhaust the non-organic resources - air, water, soil nutrients - and the population will crash. Nastily. All natural populations that don't recieve a thorough culling tend to be designed to boom and crash. So deer, freed from natural predation and turned loose on suburban gardens full of browse, multiply until they become nuisances and, regularly, suffer from apalling die-offs during hard winters. In popular fable lemmings are said to run to the sea, voluntarily doing the work that cold and starvation do on the deer. Predators suffer the same effect; too many and the prey is depleted. The predators seek food elsewhere, or die.

So far we seem to be overwhelming any sort of natural controls on our population. Since the dent the Black Death made in numbers back in the 15th Century it's been all uphill for us hairless monkeys. The only systematic control on human numbers appears to be, well, us.

I'm not really talking about predation of the war-and-disease type. I'm thinking about kids.

Kids are work. Often good work, occasionally fun work, typically productive work, but many times grinding, frustrating, repetitive work. Work enough that the stats pretty definately show that we're often happier as couples without them. Work enough that when medicine, nutrition and industrialization free people from the need to pop out a half-dozen or so (either to ensure that half will survive or to work the family goat ranch) familes tend to decline in size precipitously. Two kids aren't twice the work of one - they're more like three or four times. Six? Eight? I can't imagine.You'll notice that nearly all the population growth in the past 100 years has been in the "developing world". It's these folks who still need the big families to survive...or are still living in a culture that pushes you to have kids, whether you still "need" them or not.But these kids, their parents, their cultures don't want to be herding goats forever. They want what I have: the sturdy house, the car and the truck, the bank account, the computer and the clean clothes and the fatty foods.

Clean water. I take it for granted here in the rainy Northwest, but clean water - or any water at all - is a huge issue for much of the planet. What would it take to ensure access to sufficient clean water for every person on the planet? How much would it cost, both physically and politically? How likely is it that instead of cooperating to secure it people would, instead, fight over it, expending even more resources in the process?

The point is that all of this stuff fucking costs. It costs in the materials consumed to make it, to maintain it, to heat the house and fuel the car, light up the basement, and storybook the little Girl and soccer ball-and-cleat-and-uniform the big Boy. I am, we are, damn expensive to produce and maintain; one of me could feed and support a dozen or a score of men my age in a Lahore slum or in a village in Shensi. One of my family unit "costs" probably as much as an entire little settlement in the Sudan, or a nomadic encampment in Mongolia.

I would imagine that once the men in Lahore, Mongolia, Sudan and Shensi acquire their own wood-frame homes, cars, computers, washer-driers and little lawns they'll be ready to cut back to my own 2.25 kids (the cats are about a quarter-of-a-kid-pain-in-the-ass...).Okay, well, maybe some of them.

But where's the safe "stopping" point? What's the top-end human load that the Earth can sustain at my lifestyle? How long? What will that mean for the rest of the creatures on the planet? How do we know?

I'll posit this: we don't. And we won't. We'll find out the limit the hard way - by crossing it.

Because there's another factor at work here.

The simple answer would seem to be to slow down right now. Why not? Let's say that if we all get things down to about five kids per four adults that we will be able to slowly bring most of the world up to some approximation of a Western European/North American middle-class lifestyle. Okay, lower middle class lifestyle. Can we do that? Without strip-mining the planet, I mean? How about just providing every single person on the planet with scientific medical care, clean water, a sturdy home and a reliable supply of food? IS even THAT possible, if we stabilized the human population at today's numbers?

Because there's a real worm in that apple.

I can tell you that I'm a patriotic American, that I love my country, that I'd fight to defend it.

But what if my son had to defend it? Or my daughter? Or both?

I don't have "spares" - I know that's a callous way to describe it, but there it is. If my son dies in war my name dies with him. I have no further biological stake in my home, my state, my nation other than my own intellectual one. A nation whose reproduction drops to near replacement level is in the same position as I would be personally; there's no slack, my neighbor's death really does lessen me. A war, an epidemic, a famine...anthing that hits the public hard could result in a catastrophic drop in the ppulation.

And war here is the particularly menacing prospect. Kids, old people, disabled...these folks can't fight. Nobody yet has found a way to dispense with a man or woman with a rifle, and only the relatively young and relatively fit can fight as infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen.So taking this as a need for ensuring survival, the survival of the various groups and nations would seem to preclude there ever being a "stable" human population on the planet. We can't afford to stop reproducing if another group has excess young people to throw at us to take us down, no?

Thing is, I don't think this is a "solveable" problem; that is, I don't think there's a social or technological way to evade it or do more than defer it. I think that the human population will continue to grow, and that human needs and wants for the ever-more complex and costly goods and services that First Worlders like myself take for granted will grow with it. And that a combination of desire for offspring among some and a fear of being overrun by a competitor that is outbreeding them will prevent anyone from even making a real run at this. I think that we will see ever more people on Earth for the forseeable human future.Some technologic means, a "leap" such as the Green or Industrial Revolutions, might help defer the moment that we begin to overwhelm our natural resources. Or we as a species might figure out a way around this "reproduce-or-fail" trap. I just can't think of anything. I see a narrowing gap between that we have on Earth to sustain us and the number of people - and the way those people live - consuming it.

So I suspect that we're in for a shock when those lines converge. I don't know what that will mean in detail, but in general I suspect that means something bad; some long years of iron and blood, for my children, or their children, or their children's children.I hope I am not here to see it.

(Full version posted at GFT)

53 comments:

  1. "Lemmings run to the sea, voluntarily doing the work that cold and starvation do on the deer."

    FYI, that is a myth about the lemmings.

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  2. Nice thread.

    A few points:

    Perhaps first of all the populations of the industrialized countries are inflated due to the long-term effects of the industrial revolution - the need for large numbers of industrial workers to work in labor-intensive factories in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. That is the pre-industrial revolution populations of the countries concerned better reflect the carrying capacity of the relative territories . . . just a thought. That is we may be on the reverse slope of a long-term trend and with the end of cheap oil will be unable to sustain popluation growth. So small families and few children is probably the answer.

    Second, even with that we are probably facing as a species a massive die-off within the next 20 years as resources are simply overwhelmed by demand . . . which could mean a period of rather nasty wars over resources.

    Third, and not entirely unrelated, the best way to get developing countries to decrease their birthrates is the emancipation of women. Give girls a future other than being mothers and see what happens. It has worked in the West.

    Nothing against mothers have you, had one and am married to one as well . . . ;-)>

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  3. Nice post Chief. The Economist had an interesting article about this topic a few months back. Some of the key points really highlighted your comment "we don't know and we won't" but the overall theme was, "don't worry about it, things will work themselves out thanks to the magic of economics".

    Wars, disease and more tragic population control methods aren't the only way to achieve balance. Simple economics can force a slow in the population. As poor farmers move into the city, they can no longer afford (or require) 8 kids. 2 is more cost effective (and just below the number of kids required per household to sustain a population). Government regulated methods, such as China's 1 child policy and India's culture that devalues girls for economic reasons (girls cost money to marry off), have created such a disparity in men to woman, that the population will also take a hit as there are not enough woman to mate with all the men.

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  4. Seydlitz, bg: I think the one big hitch in the whole "get industrialized/wealthy and have fewer kids" is that pretty soon yo start looking a a pretty critical issue with military-age males. If you don't have a "bulge" of young people to spare you end up looking at a real critical problem when you field armies. A less environmentally-friendly rival with a lot of lemmings to throw over the cliff overruns you and your ecological problems are over and not in a good way.

    The other problem is that I'm not sure we know how to figure out the "carrying capacity" of an Earth where even today's 6-7 billion or so approach a First or even Second World lifestyle. That's a lot of water treatment, irrigated agriculture, petroleum product use and refined metal. As do you, seydlitz, I suspect that the only way we'll start "understanding" this is when the scarcities show up and we start fighting over them. Water is already an issue in several places including Africa and the Middle East.

    LeeFranke: Are you going to mess up my bloviating with irritating facts? Well, damn. OK, fixed it.

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  5. Military age males. Hmm. Sounds sexist to me.
    The Canadian army seems to be doing well in Afghanistan with an integrated army.

    Also, in the age of nuclear weapons and capital intensive war machines, I would recommend settling differences with lawyers.

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  6. Lawyers vs. thermo nuclear weapons/war machines.

    Never thought I would prefer lawyers to anything.

    True seydlitz, water is an issue, as are all resources, but as the graph about agriculture demonstrates, technology has kept pace. But it is a worthwhile question, can technology continue to keep pace with the human race? It is hard to imagine it lasting forever, but so far technology does have a winning record. We can't deny that record. I read yesterday about how some think tanks have a scheme that will use low tech heat pumps to cool the oceans during hurricane season to prevent large hurricanes. My bet, when the industrialized world is truly, truly impacted by the 3rd world's over population issues, we will see a greater movement towards innovation targeting these resource issues.

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  7. A country needs mass conscript armies if you are going to fight other mass conscript armies, but if your goals are purely defensive and don't involve wars of attrition?

    Mass migrations of destitute people don't require mass conscript armies to stop. Now on the other hand, wars over natural resources . . . These would involve more coercion than destructive force I think since it would be in neither sides' interest to destroy the natural resources in question.

    The "green revolution" in agriculture has been tied very much to the use of petro-chemicals as fertilizers and pesticides, but we seem to be coming to the end of that cycle. Chemical farming has had a negative effect on the actual nutritional value of the food we grow, not to mention the long-term effect on the soil. This under the backdrop of the hazards associated with climate change in regards to agriculture.

    Then of course there is the role of market speculation in setting of commodity prices . . . as we witnessed with the price of rice last year.

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  8. I'm going to be the contrarian here and say that the Chief is needlessly worrying over something that has fairly little chance of happening.

    His logic is basically sound until you consider a bigger picture.
    1. Mobility - The US, and to a much smaller extent Europe, are still vital nations because they accept people from other places. I read somewhere that roughly 10% of the US population is either foreign-born or the children of immigrants. Furthermore, given how hard it is to move to another country and speak somebody else's language, I'd say we've got a good chance of having stolen the best and the brightest from the developing nations.

    Japan, and to a lesser extent, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are handling the same problem with much less grace and are likely to fall into the Chief's dilemma but I think that the West is safe from this particular problem at this particular time.

    2. The point of the type warfare the Chief is worrying about is to capture resources you can use for yourself. Have you seen what modern weapons do to the landscape? There's no point in capturing a field or a city if you're going to have to spend lots of additional effort getting it back into production.

    Furthermore, at least for the moment, weaponry tends to favor the defensive and the technologically advanced. As the Chief has noted, as the society advances technologically, it tends to have fewer kids and is able to more effectively use its resources, which removes the need to attack its neighbors.

    This seems to me to be a generally self-limiting problem. There will be occasions where attacking your neighbor is the best way to get what you want but they will be relatively scarce.

    3. Technology has massively advanced our ability to utilize our resources more efficiently and it is accelerating.

    I worry more about our increasing ability to wipe out ourselves accidentally than I do about the Malthusian alternative. About the most embarrassing epithet I can imagine on humanity's gravestone is: "Oops..."

    4. The methods we use to raise our children.
    There's two extremes, as the Chief has already noted, in the way people raise their children. I call them the "wolf" and "rabbit" styles.

    The rabbit species stays alive through sheer reproductive talent but does not put any effort into ensuring that individual members of the species will survive and most don't.

    Wolves spend a lot of time and effort raising their children to ensure that each one has the best chance of surviving and carrying on their genes.

    Yes the wolf is obviously better armed than the rabbit in nature. But I'd argue that a human wolf, raised by caring parents and given a decent education and the ability to think and act logically is tremendously better equipped to face any future than the human rabbit.

    Teach your children well, Chief, and they are going to be wolves and they will likely dine on the efforts of rabbits.

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  9. seydlitz89 said...
    "A country needs mass conscript armies if you are going to fight other mass conscript armies, but if your goals are purely defensive and don't involve wars of attrition?"

    Did retaking Kuwait from Iraq required a vast conscript army to fight Saddam's vast conscript army?

    I'd guess that the rich, developed nations will fight (a) capital-intensive battles (on their side), (b) use local proxies, and occasionally (c) try to fight manpower-intensive battles under an enemy's terms (i.e., Iraq).

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  10. I don't think our planet's population growth is sustainable. Sooner or later there will be a die-off, the only question is how and when.

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  11. topic suggestion:
    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-march-8-2010/harry-markopolos

    Btw, could at least one of the "bartenders" here offer a contact e-mail somewhere?

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  12. Sven: you're welcome to contact me at jlawes@comcast.net

    bg: I don't think that we will be able to pull through on technology alone. IT's a double-edged sword - technology has multiplied our crop yields many times but, as seydlitz points out, the side effect is a great deal of salinization, loss of soil productivity and in the worst cases soil loss through wind erosion. We're pretty much strip-mining the sea; almost all of our fish stocks are in trouble. I think we're reaching the end of the "cycle" for the technological support for the current Green Revolution, which itself is terrifically dependent on the current petroleum technology that I suspect we will see begin to falter within our lifetimes.

    Like I say, I'm not sure how this will play out, but there are a lot of "bad" ways, at least as many as good ones.

    Seydlitz: "Mass migrations of destitute people don't require mass conscript armies to stop." - I'd argue that this in itself may be one of the problems with trying to lower our reproduction to replacement levels. I know this sounds all Glenn Beck, but there's something to be said for a vital native population. Too many non-natives arriving too suddenly can have the effect of "overthrowing" the established order - ask the Romans and the Romanized western European tribes how welcome it was to have all those goddam Goths and Visigoths and Ostragoths showing up all of a sudden...

    Pluto: you make good points, although my personal view is that you may be too sanguine about the whole question of "mobility" - see above. And as for the wolf vs. rabbit process...I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in Oregon our schools are getting hammered. Private tuition is rocketing out of sight, public schools are being gutted, our HS dropout rate is well into the middle 30's. Our rabbits are becoming slower and more vulnerable rather than the opposite.

    Barry: Certainly under ideal conditions we still have tremendous advantages. But other empires - think the Roman in particular - had substantial technological and military advantages, too, and were worn down by younger, more vigorous societies pushing in from the outside.

    And Gulf War 2 was a freakish one-off. I'm not sure whether we will look back at it as a harbinger of the future, or the last gasp of the "colonial wars" of the 19th and 20th Century.

    Andy: While I tend to agree, I don't think the die-off is inevitable. I just think that preventing it would require a degree of foresight and proactivity that I have yet to see in humans, either individually or in groups.

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  13. Sven: Re: your topic suggestion; I have been watching the U.S. economy stumble along for a year now and I suspect that we're seeing something profoundly more troubling than a lack of oversight.

    Madoff was a barnacle on the leviathan, I think. I'd like to discuss the questions arising from the increasingly tangled relationship between finance and government, and the implications for the American middle and lower classes this entanglement presents.

    It's a big topic, tho, and I feel more than a little daunted. Anyone who feels more confident with the dismal science is welcome to prerogue me out of it...

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  14. Chief,

    "I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in Oregon our schools are getting hammered."

    I think this is a fair statement here in Maryland as well. My wife is a teacher and a former active duty officer, and she never appreciated the self selecting, AVF soldiers so much as when she met their peers in high school.

    In the public schools, the teachers are completely powerless. There are few true incentives for kids (except good marks) and no punishments that can be used (note in many schools it isn't "cool" to participate in class and learn, so there is a counter productive system of punishments and rewards issued out by the students' peers as well). The kids, who have grown up in an environment where every one is special and everyone deserves respect feel entitled to a special status and respect that they haven't earned. When my wife scolds a kid for acting out, the kids responds, "you don't have the right to talk to me like that, how dare you not treat me with respect!" I could rant for hours, but the bottom line is that most public schools are expected to be day care for kids who expect to be treated like adults, but act like spoiled brats.

    I see few wolves, and few rabbits, mostly just sheep. Sheep who have no concept of a world after school where no one will give a shit about their feelings of self worth and expectations of unconditional, automatic mutual respect. I like to think I am just overreacting, and that when some of you guys were my age you said the same thing about my generation, but I just have a hard time staying positive when I see the state of our public schools.

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  15. Chief,

    The problem is we, along with much of the world, is dependent on long-range transportation for food. Any kind of general societal collapse where the transport network stops working and you're looking at mass starvation.

    bg,

    Glad you brought up education. The problem, IMO, isn't money - it's too much administration in the education system and lack of parental involvement and responsibility. For example on the latter, my daughter attends a local public K-4 elementary school. I've been to every PTO meeting for the past year and the attendance is minimal. There is the PTO officers, the principle and some teachers along with myself and two other parents that regularly attend. That's 7 parents out of a student body of almost 350. We can't get parents to volunteer for almost anything and it looks like we'll have to cancel several fundraisers this year because we can't get 15 people to come in and volunteer for two hours on a Saturday.

    The school has a box-tops for education program and the class that collects the most gets an ice-cream party as a reward. My daughter's class one with 87 box tops, of which I submitted 80. I barely tried - that I was the decisive factor is pretty pathetic.

    And this school is above average for most of the quality metrics.

    Not to derail the thread, but the idea of personal and civic responsibility seems to have gone the way of the dodo in this country.

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  16. I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in Oregon our schools are getting hammered

    Our local schools aren't in too bad a condition, they are failing more slowly than the rest of the system but that is beside the point.

    When I urged that you get your kids a good education, I was more referring to a firm understanding of how the world really works. My older son is getting that experience right now while trying to earn his Eagle badge. The lessons in paperwork and local government office politics alone have been priceless.

    Another important educational goal is making sure your kids have an understanding of basic financial matters such as how to make a simple budget, balance a checkbook, and how to safely use credit.

    Do your best to instill a love of learning and make sure that your kids know how to learn effectively. I can't count the number of times a boss has asked me to start programming in a previously unknown computer language with no training and expected reliable results immediately.

    Teach your children to examine ALL the possibilities, including the unlikely ones and make decisions based on plans and needs instead of momentary desires. We are starting to look at colleges for our oldest son and were startled to discover that it is cheaper for us to send him to Harvard than it is to send him to the local state University because Harvard hands out grants while our local college hands out student loan applications. The odds of him getting accepted are remote but the cost is negligible and the benefits would be huge.

    I'm sure there are other lessons for your kids but these will at least get them started down the right path.

    bg - There is relatively little difference between sheep and rabbits when it comes to survival skills. I suspect that you are indicating that the sheep are there to get sheared. That's old news. The sheep have been sheared to the point of desperation (which is what the Tea Party is all about) and the pasture has been ruined by overgrazing.

    The old post-WWII system is breaking up and I don't yet know what will replace it. No matter what comes, wolves will do better than slow weak-minded rabbits.

    Chief, I'd be willing to write the article on finance and the government except I'm not much more knowledgeable than anybody else (I make up for this by having more opinions) and my opinions are so depressing that I doubt you'd enjoy reading them.

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  17. Bah, we are only getting started on populating the world. We are just now killing off the top predators of the worlds oceans. We can kill off several more layers of the food chain till we get down to the plankton.

    Just imagine how many people we can feed on algae.

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  18. @ FDChief:
    http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2009/02/extent-of-economical-problem-because.html

    :-)

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  19. Barry-

    I wasn't arguing in favor of conscript armies in our future, but the opposite. I disagree with the view that lower populations in industrial countries are a problem, outside of the structural changes we will have to make since our social net is established on the assumption of passing on costs to the next generation, which is no longer viable.

    Agree with Chief as to the 1991 Gulf War as being not a real model for future comflict, since it is unlikely that a political leader will allow his army/country to get hammered the way Saddam did . . .

    I could say a lot about education, let me think about that one . . .

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  20. FDChief: Madoff was a barnacle on the leviathan, I think. I'd like to discuss the questions arising from the increasingly tangled relationship between finance and government, and the implications for the American middle and lower classes this entanglement presents.

    Are you talking about "finance" or private sector business interests? Much of the nightmare we currently face is a result of government failing to "GOVERN", particularly for the people. We seem to have a "market based government", or as my wise old uncle once put it, "We have the best government money can buy".

    I am reminded of a 1950's song from the Socialist Song Book:

    PRIVATE ENTERPRISE FOREVER

    (Tune: Battle Hymn of the Republic)

    We've built this mighty nation with
    our enterprising cash,
    We've all become accustomed to a
    periodic crash,
    So you mustn't be alarmed if things
    seem to go to smash,
    For Profits must prevail.

    CHORUS:
    Private enterprise forever,
    Private enterprise forever,
    Private enterprise forever,
    For Profits must prevail.

    Communistic, socialistic, anarchistic
    blah,
    Revolution, insurrection, strikes,
    et cetera,
    We'll all join together in a long
    and loud "Bushwa",
    For profits must prevail.

    CHORUS:

    We've organized the N.A.M., the
    Junior C. of C.,
    Our lobbyists are hard at work in
    Washington, D.C.,
    To preserve Congressional confidence
    in a free economy,
    For profits must prevail.

    CHORUS:

    Our workers strike and organize and
    call us dirty names,
    If their wives and kids are starving,
    we'll admit it's a shame.
    We wish that they would understand
    that we are not to blame,
    For Profits must prevail.

    CHORUS:

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  21. The communists are kind of right with their Marxist theory. Parts of it are actually basic parts of modern economic science and the only thing that kept Communists from gaining power in Germany as predicted was the reaction to them.
    Moderate social democrats improved the life of the workers directly and the German social conservatives did so even more.
    German conservatism includes the social theory of the Catholic church, which emphasizes solidarity a lot and helped to create the social state and social market economy in Germany.

    It really took these countermeasures to keep the Communists from becoming a majority. Their appeal was always based on very real deficiencies of the society; "social injustice".

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  22. bg: Having taught in high school I have to agree with you re: the basic problem is that the public schools are forbidden to treat kids like kids...but they ARE kids, and as such (as all you parents know) will game the system to the extent that they can.

    What I found was that the way schools are typically set up the kids who arrive in school ready to succeed (organized, reading at a fairly high level, able to task-organize and pay attention, good listeners) succeed. The kids who aren't, usually don't. I know we read about the "miracle teacher" who motivates and turns around the slackers and attitude cases, but, really? That's a one-in-a-thousand deal.

    My experience tracks well with Andy's, which is that you can pretty much tell where the kid is going to end up by the parents. Hard-nosed, involved parents usually produce kids who are ready to learn. Note I say hard-nosed - I had lots of kids with hard-ASSED parents who just learned to hate the parents AND the school...

    The bottom line is, really, in the U.S. you can pretty much track student success by parent income when you equalize all the other variables. Which goes back to Sven's comment about the Communists and "social justice" and Pluto's about the teabaggers. I think people have a very visceral understanding that large differences in wealth, especially inherited wealth, MAKE a difference in how likely their kids' long-term "success" is. Which is why so many people really HATE unfettered capitalism whenever it's been tried...

    Andy: Yep, the whole "grapes from Peru" question. It drives me wild as I watch our Willamette Valley being paved over; some of the richest farmland in the world being lost because - at the moment - it's cheaper to grow our lettuce in Mexico and grapes in Argentina. Nobody seems to want to ask "What happens when bunker fuel is $8,000/metric ton?"

    And to get the picture on "civic responsibility", let's look back at history - Americans typically neglect their public institutions. We hate to pay for them, don't want to put in the extra work for them...everyone from de Toqueville on down remarked how we have had this "let the other person do it" attitude...

    Al: No question. Again, the history of the U.S. is one of push-and-push-back between the haves and the have-lesses. The haves are winning this round. It'll be interesting to see of the have-lesses manage to push back as they did in the 1905-1975 period. My money is on no.

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  23. It'll be interesting to see of the have-lesses manage to push back as they did in the 1905-1975 period. My money is on no.

    You're going with the smart bet, Chief, but I've read enough history to suspect that the obvious bet isn't going to be the winner. I've got no clue as to why it isn't but I can feel the contrary winds gathering in hurricane force. Something very interesting is going to happen if they get organized...

    By the way, did you read that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both got dethroned as the richest men in the world by Carlos Slim? The Fortune article made interesting reading.

    ReplyDelete
  24. FDChief: Again, the history of the U.S. is one of push-and-push-back between the haves and the have-lesses. The haves are winning this round. It'll be interesting to see of the have-lesses manage to push back as they did in the 1905-1975 period. My money is on no.

    Well, the distribution of wealth today is back at the Level of the days of the Robber Barons. The difference is that the peons have had access to massive debt capability, which has painted the false perception that they aren't as bad off as they really are. Since the policy actions in this recession have been to restore credit availability to pre 2008 levels of sorts, the sub zero net worth portion of the population will continue to grow while suffering no intense short term pain. Thus the haves can continue to amass wealth, while the vast majority amasses debt or treads water.

    I suspect that it will take a socio-economic shock of Great Depression magnitude to change the values that perpetuate the status quo and energize the masses.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Pluto-

    The only movement in the winds that I can see is the Tea Party types, and their objectives are more ego-centric than socio-centric. It's not the movement of the down trodden by any means.

    I suspect the socially and economically disenfranchised are truly disenfranchised and almost consider their plight hopeless. Not so sure they hold the political clout to force much of an end to social injustice. We are not talking about the civil rights movement, which simply called for equal access to a lot of non-quantifiables, not the termination of wealth concentration. And yet, there is a significant portion of the population that rails against civil rights.

    I think the "He who dies with the most toys wins" philosophy is a major element of American socio-economic culture. Which means that in the final analysis, we are in competition with each other, not really pulling together.

    Our culture seems to elevate those who make the greatest net withdrawal from the account of humankind versus the greatest net deposit. Thus, those who are the least among us are unworthies. Financial net worth has become the proxy measurement of human net worth. One has no difficulty finding out who are the 10 richest people in the country, but nowhere do we record who works the hardest and longest hours. We simply conclude that the wealthy create opportunities for everyone else, or at least a good portion of that "everyone else". Of course, it has never been proven that massive wealth creates wide spread well being for the general population, or reduces the level of poverty and attendant suffering within the population.

    Enough of my social griping. It ain't gonna change in my lifetime, and the sun is shining and my Vespa calls for a mountain ride!

    ReplyDelete
  26. About the Tea Partiers/Baggers - remember, we've seen this before. Back in 1993-4, suddenly all of these militia groups ramped up. There had been a scattering of right-wing terrorists during the 1980's, but not hundreds or thousands of people openly arming themselves and organizing.

    These guys are Republicans reacting to their party's losses; in the large scale they'll be no more revolutionary than their astroturf organizers and Faux News leaders permit.

    ReplyDelete
  27. "Men occupy a very small place upon the Earth. If the two billion inhabitants who people its surface were all to stand upright and somewhat crowded together, as they do for some big public assembly, they could easily be put into one public square twenty miles long and twenty miles wide. All humanity could be piled up on a small Pacific islet. The grown-ups, to be sure, will not believe you when you tell them that. They imagine that they fill a great deal of space. They fancy themselves as important as the baobabs. You should advise them, then, to make their own calculations. They adore figures, and that will please them. But do not waste your time on this extra task. It is unnecessary. You have, I know, confidence in me. "

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  28. FDC,

    Until and unless we recognize that we're all in the soup together, the end will inevitably be tragic and degraded. Indignity is a good word.

    I feel the twilight upon us, but it has been there since our inception, not that long ago. So we may yet have many millenia to go.

    We are surely not as exalted as we fancy ourselves. There are moments in most lives of transcendence, but on the whole, I do not think we cohere in a way that will allow our continuance until our sun fades. So many unkind things are hard-wired into the human animal, making of so many lives a pure existence. Meanness and pettiness creeps in ... idle hands do the devil's work.

    If our continuance were based upon deservedness -- POOF! But our relentless consumption and innovation may keep us afloat for sometime ...

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