AODA Blog

The End of the American Century

Wed, 2016-11-30 10:39
I have a bone to pick with the Washington Post. A few days back, as some of my readers may be aware, it published a list of some two hundred blogs that it claimed were circulating Russian propaganda, and I was disappointed to find that The Archdruid Report didn’t make the cut.
Oh, granted, I don’t wait each week for secret orders from Boris Badenov, the mock-iconic Russian spy from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of my youth, but that shouldn’t disqualify me.  I’ve seen no evidence that any of the blogs on the list take orders from Moscow, either; certainly the Post offered none worth mentioning. Rather, what seems to have brought down the wrath of “Pravda on the Potomac,” as the Post is unfondly called by many DC locals, is that none of these blogs have been willing to buy into the failed neoconservative consensus that’s guided American foreign policy for the last sixteen years. Of that latter offense, in turn, The Archdruid Report is certainly guilty.
There are at least two significant factors behind the Post’s adoption of the tactics of the late Senator Joe McCarthy, dubious lists and all.  The first is that the failure of Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions has thrown into stark relief an existential crisis that has the American news media by the throat. The media sell their services to their sponsors on the assumption that they can then sell products and ideas manufactured by those sponsors to the American people. The Clinton campaign accordingly outspent Trump’s people by a factor of two to one, sinking impressive amounts of the cash she raised from millionaire donors into television advertising and other media buys.
Clinton got the coverage she paid for, too. Nearly every newspaper in the United States endorsed her; pundits from one end of the media to the other solemnly insisted that everyone ought to vote for her; equivocal polls were systematically spun in her favor by a galaxy of talking heads. Pretty much everyone who thought they mattered was on board the bandwagon. The only difficulty, really was that the people who actually mattered—in particular, voters in half a dozen crucial swing states—responded to all this by telling their soi-disant betters, “Thanks, but one turkey this November is enough.”
It turned out that Clinton was playing by a rulebook that was long past its sell-by date, while Trump had gauged the shift in popular opinion and directed his resources accordingly. While she sank her money into television ads on prime time, he concentrated on social media and barnstorming speaking tours through regions that rarely see a presidential candidate. He also figured out early on that the mainstream media was a limitless source of free publicity, and the best way to make use of it was to outrage the tender sensibilities of the media itself and get denounced by media talking heads.
That worked because a very large number of people here in the United States no longer trust the news media to tell them anything remotely resembling the truth. That’s why so many of them have turned to blogs for the services that newspapers and broadcast media used to provide: accurate reporting and thoughtful analysis of the events that affect their lives. Nor is this an unresasonable choice. The issue’s not just that the mainstream news media is biased; it’s not just that it never gets around to mentioning many issues that affect people’s lives in today’s America; it’s not even that it only airs a suffocatingly narrow range of viewpoints, running the gamut of opinion from A to A minus—though of course all these are true.  It’s also that so much of it is so smug, so shallow, and so dull.
The predicament the mainstream media now face is as simple as it is inescapable. After taking billions of dollars from their sponsors, they’ve failed to deliver the goods.  Every source of advertising revenue in the United States has got to be looking at the outcome of the election, thinking, “Fat lot of good all those TV buys did her,” and then pondering their own advertising budgets and wondering how much of that money might as well be poured down a rathole.
Presumably the mainstream news media could earn the trust of the public again by breaking out of the echo chamber that defines the narrow range of acceptable opinions about the equally narrow range of issues open to discussion, but this would offend their sponsors. Worse, it would offend the social strata that play so large a role in defining and enforcing that echo chamber; most mainstream news media employees who have a role in deciding what does and does not appear in print or on the air belong to these same social strata, and are thus powerfully influenced by peer pressure. Talking about supposed Russian plots to try to convince people not to get their news from blogs, though it’s unlikely to work, doesn’t risk trouble from either of those sources.
Why, though, blame it on the Russians? That’s where we move from the first to the second of the factors I want to discuss this week.
A bit of history may be useful here. During the 1990s, the attitude of the American political class toward the rest of the world rarely strayed far from the notions expressed by Francis Fukuyama in his famous and fatuous essay proclaiming the end of history.  The fall of the Soviet Union, according to this line of thought, proved that democracy and capitalism were the best political and economic systems humanity would ever come up with, and the rest of the world would therefore inevitably embrace them in due time. All that was left for the United States and its allies to do was to enforce certain standards of global order on the not-yet-democratic and not-yet-capitalist nations of the world, until they grew up and got with the program.
That same decade, though, saw the emergence of the neoconservative movement.  The neoconservaties were as convinced of the impending triumph of capitalism and democracy as their rivals, but they opposed the serene absurdities of Fukuyama’s thesis with a set of more muscular absurdities of their own. Intoxicated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies, they convinced themselves that identical scenes could be enacted in Baghdad, Tehran, Beijing, and the rest of the world, if only the United States would seize the moment and exploit its global dominance.
During Clinton’s presidency, the neoconservatives formed a pressure group on the fringes of official Washington, setting up lobbying groups such as the Project for a New American Century and bombarding the media with position papers.  The presidency of George W. Bush gave them their chance, and they ran with it. Where the first Iraq war ended with Saddam Hussein beaten but still in power—the appropriate reponse according to the older ideology—the second ended with the US occupying Iraq and a manufactured “democratic” regime installed under its aegis. In the afterglow of victory, neoconservatives talked eagerly about the conquest of Iran and the remaking of the Middle East along the same lines as post-Soviet eastern Europe. Unfortunately for these fond daydreams, what happened instead was a vortex of sectarian warfare and anti-American insurgency.
You might think, dear reader, that the cascading failures of US policy in Iraq might have caused second thoughts in the US political and military elites whose uncritical embrace of neoconservative rhetoric let that happen. You might be forgiven, for that matter, for thinking that the results of US intervention in Afghanistan, where the same assumptions had met with the same disappointment, might have given those second thoughts even more urgency. If so, you’d be quite mistaken. According to the conventional wisdom in today’s America, the only conceivable response to failure is doubling down. 
“If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again” thus seems to be the motto of the US political class these days, and rarely has that been so evident as in the conduct of US foreign policy.  The Obama administration embraced the same policies as its feckless predecessor, and the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon went their merry way, overthrowing governments right and left, and tossing gasoline onto the flames of ethnic and sectarian strife in various corners of the world, under the serene conviction that the blowback from these actions could never inconvenience the United States.
That would be bad enough. Far worse was the effect of neoconservative policies on certain other nations: Russia, China, and Iran. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia was a basket case, Iran was a pariah nation isolated from the rest of the world, and China had apparently made its peace with an era of American global dominance, and was concentrating on building up its economy instead of its military. It would have been child’s play for the United States to maintain that state of affairs indefinitely. Russia could have been helped to recover and then integrated economically into Europe; China could have been allowed the same sort of regional primacy the US allows as a matter of course to its former enemies Germany and Japan; and without US intervention in the Middle East to hand it a bumper crop of opening wedges, Iran could have been left to stew in its own juices until it imploded. 
That’s not what happened, though. Instead, two US adminstrations went out of their way to convince Russia and China they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by accepting their assigned places in a US-centric international order. Russia and China have few interests in common and many reasons for conflict; they’ve spent much of their modern history glaring at each other across a long and contentious mutual border; they had no reason to ally with each other, until the United States gave them one. Nor did either nation have any reason to reach out to the Muslim theocracy in Iran—quite the contrary—until they began looking for additional allies to strengthen their hand against the United States.
One of the basic goals of effective foreign policy is to divide your potential enemies against each other, so that they’re so busy worrying about one another that they don’t have the time or resources to bother you. It’s one thing, though, to violate that rule when the enemies you’re driving together lack the power to threaten your interests, and quite another when the resource base, population, and industrial capacity of the nations you’re driving together exceeds your own. The US government’s harebrained pursuit of neoconservative policies has succeeded, against the odds, in creating a sprawling Eurasian alliance with an economic and military potential significantly greater than that of the US.  There have probably been worse foreign policy blunders in the history of the world, but I can’t think of one off hand.
You won’t read about that in the mainstream news media in the United States. At most, you’ll get canned tirades about how Russian president Vladimir Putin is a “brutal tyrant” who is blowing up children in Aleppo or what have you. “Brutal tyrant,” by the way, is a code phrase of the sort you normally get in managed media.  In the US news, it simply means “a head of state who’s insufficiently submissive to the United States.” Putin certainly qualifies as the latter; first in the Caucasus, then in the Ukraine, and now in Syria, he’s deployed military force to advance his country’s interests against those of the United States and its allies. I quite understand that the US political class isn’t pleased by this, but it might be helpful for them to reflect on their own role in making it happen.
The Russian initiative isn’t limited to Syria, though. Those of my readers who only pay attention to US news media probably don’t know yet that Egypt has now joined Russia’s side. Egyptian and Russian troops are carrying out joint military drills, and reports in Middle Eastern news media have it that Egyptian troops will soon join the war in Syria on the side of the Syrian government. If so, that’s a game-changing move, and probably means game over for the murky dealings the United States and its allies have been pursuing in that end of the Middle East.
China and Russia have very different cultural styles when it comes to exerting power. Russian culture celebrates the bold stroke; Chinese culture finds subtle pressure more admirable. Thus the Chinese have been advancing their country’s interests against those of the United States and its allies in a less dramatic but equally effective way. While distracting Washington’s attention with a precisely measured game of “chicken” in the South China Sea, the Chinese have established a line of naval bases along the northern shores of the Indian Ocean from Myanmar to Djibouti, and contracted alliances in East Africa and South Asia. Those of my readers who’ve read Alfred Thayer Mahan and thus know their way around classic maritime strategy will recognize exactly what’s going on here.
Most recently, China has scored two dramatic shifts in the balance of power in the western Pacific. My American readers may have heard of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines; he’s the one who  got his fifteen minutes of fame in the mainstream media here when he called Barack Obama a son of a whore. The broader context, of course, got left out. Duterte, like the heads of state of many nominal US allies, resents US  interference in his country’s affairs, and at this point he has other options. His outburst was followed in short order by a trip to Beijing, where he and China’s President Xi signed multibillion-dollar aid agreements and talked openly about the end of a US-dominated world order.
A great many Americans seem to think of the Phillippines as a forgettable little country off somewhere unimportant in the Third World. That’s a massive if typical misjudgment. It’s a nation of 100 million people on a sprawling archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, commanding the entire southern end of the South China Sea and a vast swath of the western Pacific, including crucial maritime trade routes. As a US ally, it was a core component of the ring of encirclement holding Chinese maritime forces inside the island ring that walls China’s coastal waters from rest of the Pacific basin. As a Chinese ally, it holds open that southern gate to China’s rapidly expanding navy and air force.
Duterte wasn’t the only Asian head of state to head for Beijing in recent months. Malaysia’s prime minister was there a few weeks later, to sign up for another multibillion-dollar aid package, buy Chinese vessels for the Malaysian navy, and make acid comments about the way that, ahem, former colonial powers keep trying to interfere in Malaysian affairs. Malaysia’s a smaller nation than the Phillippines, but even more strategically placed.  Its territory runs alongside the northern shore of the Malacca Strait:  the most important sea lane in the world, the gateway connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, through which much of the world’s seaborne crude oil transport passes.
All these are opening moves. Those who are familiar with the rise and fall of global powers know what the next moves are; those who don’t might want to consider reading my book Declineand Fall, or my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming, which makes the same points in narrative form. Had Hillary Clinton won this month’s election, we might have moved into the endgame much sooner.  Her enthusiasm for overthrowing governments during her stint as Secretary of State, and her insistence that the US should impose a no-fly zone over Syria in the teeth of Russian fighters and state-of-the-art antiaircraft defenses, suggests that she could have filled the role of my fictional president Jameson Weed, and sent US military forces into a shooting war they were not realistically prepared to win.
We seem to have dodged that bullet. Even so, the United States remains drastically overextended, with military bases in more than a hundred countries around the world and a military budget nearly equal to all other countries’ put together. Meanwhile, back here at home, our country is falling apart. Leave the bicoastal bubble where the political class and their hangers-on spend their time, and the United States resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union in its last days: a bleak and dilapidated landscape of economic and social dysfunction, where the enforced cheerfulness of the mainstream media contrasts intolerably with the accelerating disintegration visible all around.
That could have been prevented. If the United States had responded to the end of the Cold War by redirecting the so-called “peace dividend” toward the rebuilding of our national infrastructure and our domestic economy, we wouldn’t be facing the hard choices before us right now—and in all probability, by the way, Donald Trump wouldn’t just have been elected president. Instead, the US political class let itself be caught up in neoconservative fantasies of global dominion, and threw away that opportunity. The one bright spot in that dismal picture is that we have another chance.
History shows that there are two ways that empires end. Their most common fate involves clinging like grim death to their imperial status until it drags them down. Spain’s great age of overseas empire ended that way, with Spain plunging into a long era of economic disarray and civil war. At least it maintained its national unity; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires both finished their imperial trajectories by being partitioned, as of course did the Soviet Union. There are worse examples; I’m thinking here of the Assyrian Empire of the ancient Middle East, which ceased to exist completely—its nationhood, ethnicity, and language dissolving into those of its neighbors—once it fell.
Then there’s the other option, the one chosen by the Chinese in the fifteenth century and Great Britain in the twentieth. Both nations had extensive overseas empires, and both walked away from them, carrying out a staged withdrawal from imperial overreach. Both nations not only survived the process but came through with their political and cultural institutions remarkably intact. This latter option, with all its benefits, is still available to the United States.
A staged withdrawal of the sort just described would of course be done step by step, giving our allies ample time to step up to the plate and carry the costs of their own defense. Those regions that have little relevance to US national interests, such as the Indian Ocean basin, would see the first round of withdrawals, while more important regions such as Europe and the northwest Pacific would be later on the list. The withdrawal wouldn’t go all the way back to our borders by any means; a strong presence in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific basins and a pivot to our own “near abroad” would be needed, but those would also be more than adequate to maintain our national security.
Meanwhile, the billions upon billions of dollars a year that would be saved could be put to work rebuilding our national infrastructure and economy, with enough left over for a Marshall Plan for Mexico—the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration to the United States, after all, is to help make sure that citizens of the countries near us have plenty of jobs at good wages where they already live. Finally, since the only glue holding the Russo-Chinese alliance together is their mutual opposition to US hegemony, winding up our term as global policeman will let Russia, China and Iran get back to contending with each other rather than with us.
Such projects, on the rare occasions they’re made, get shouted down by today’s US political class as “isolationism.” There’s a huge middle ground between isolationism and empire, though, and that middle ground is where most of the world’s nations stand as they face their neighbors. One way or another, the so-called “American century” is ending; it can end the hard way, the way so many other eras of global hegemony have ended—or it can end with the United States recognizing that it’s a nation among nations, not an overlord among vassals, and acting accordingly.
The mainstream news media here in the United States, if they actually provided the public service they claim, might reasonably be expected to discuss the pros and cons of such a proposal, and of the many other options that face this nation at the end of its era of global hegemony. I can’t say I expect that to happen, though. It’s got to be far more comfortable for them to blame the consequences of their own failure on the supposed Boris Badenovs of the blogosphere, and cling to the rags of their fading role as purveyors of a failed conventional wisdom, until the last of their audience wanders away for good.

The Free Trade Fallacy

Wed, 2016-11-23 11:17
As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s not uncommon for the essays I post here to go veering off on an assortment of tangents, and this week’s post is going to be an addition to that already well-stocked list. Late last week, as the aftermath of the recent election was still spewing all over the media,  I was mulling over one likely consequence of the way things turned out—the end of at least some of the free trade agreements that have played so large and dubious a role in recent economic history
One of the major currents underlying 2016’s political turmoil in Europe and the United States, in fact, has been a sharp disagreement about the value of free trade. The political establishment throughout the modern industrial world insists that free trade policies, backed up by an ever-increasing network of trade agreements, are both inevitable and inevitably good. The movements that have risen up against the status quo—the Brexit campaign in Britain, the populist surge that just made Donald Trump the next US president, and an assortment of similar movements elsewhere—reject both these claims, and argue that free trade is an unwise policy that has a cascade of negative consequences.
It’s important to be clear about what’s under discussion here, since conversations about free trade very often get wrapped up in warm but vague generalities about open borders and the like. Under a system of free trade, goods and capital can pass freely across national borders; there are no tariffs to pay, no quotas to satisfy, no capital restrictions to keep money in one country or out of another. The so-called global economy, in which the consumer goods sold in a nation might be manufactured anywhere on the planet, with funds flowing freely to build a factory here and funnel profits back there, depends on free trade, and the promoters of free trade theory like to insist that this is always a good thing: abolishing trade barriers of all kinds, and allowing the free movement of goods and capital across national boundaries, is supposed to create prosperity for everyone.
That’s the theory, at least. In practice?  Well, not so much. It’s not always remembered that there have been two great eras of free trade in modern history—the first from the 1860s to the beginning of the Great Depression, in which the United States never fully participated; the second from the 1980s to the present, with the United States at dead center—and neither one of them has ushered in a world of universal prosperity. Quite the contrary, both of them have yielded identical results: staggering profits for the rich, impoverishment and immiseration for the working classes, and cascading economic crises. The first such era ended in the Great Depression; the second, just at the moment, looks as though it could end the same way.
Economists—more precisely, the minority of economists who compare their theories to the evidence provided by the real world—like to insist that these unwelcome outcomes aren’t the fault of free trade. As I hope to show, they’re quite mistaken. An important factor has been left out of their analysis, and once that factor has been included, it becomes clear that free trade is bad policy that inevitably produces poverty and economic instability, not prosperity.
To see how this works, let’s imagine a continent with many independent nations, all of which trade with one another. Some of the nations are richer than others; some have valuable natural resources, while others don’t; standards of living and prevailing wages differ from country to country. Under normal conditions, trade barriers of various kinds limit the flow of goods and capital from one nation to another.  Each nation adjusts its trade policy to further its own economic interests.  One nation that’s trying to build up a domestic steel industry, say, may use tariffs, quotas, and the like to shelter that industry from foreign competition.  Another nation with an agricultural surplus may find it necessary to lower tariffs on other products to get neighboring countries to buy its grain.
Outside the two eras of free trade mentioned above, this has been the normal state of affairs, and it has had two reliable results. The first is that the movement of goods and capital between the nations tends toward a rough balance, because every nation uses its trade barriers to police hostile trade policy on the part of its neighbors. Imagine, for example, a nation that tries to monopolize steel production by “dumping”—that is, selling steel on the international market at rock-bottom prices to try to force all other nations’ steel mills into bankruptcy. The other nations respond by slapping tariffs, quotas, or outright bans on imported steel from the dumping country, bringing the project to a screeching halt. Thus trade barriers tend to produce a relative equilibrium between national economies.
Notice that this is an equilibrium, not an equality. When trade barriers exist, it’s usual for some nations to be rich and others to be poor, for a galaxy of reasons having nothing to do with international trade. At the same time, the difficulties this imposes on poor nations are balanced by a relative equilibrium, within nations, between wages and prices.
When the movement of goods and capital across national borders is restricted, the prices of consumer products in each nation will be linked via the law of supply and demand to the purchasing power of consumers in that nation, and thus to the wages paid by employers in that nation. Of course the usual cautions apply; wages and prices fluctuate for a galaxy of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with international trade. Even so, since the wages paid out by employers form the principal income stream that allows consumers to buy the employers’ products, and consumers can have recourse to the political sphere if employers’ attempts to drive down wages get out of hand, there’s a significant pressure toward balance.
Given trade barriers, as a result, people who live in countries that pay low wages generally pay low prices for goods and services, while people who live in countries with high wages face correspondingly high prices when they go shopping. The low prices make life considerably easier for working people in poor countries, just as the tendency of wages to match prices makes life easier for working people in rich countries. Does this always work? Of course not—again, wages and prices fluctuate for countless reasons, and national economies are inherently unstable things—but the factors just enumerated push the economy in the direction of a rough balance between the needs and wants of consumers, on the one hand, and their ability to pay, on the other.
Now let’s imagine that all of the nations we’ve imagined are convinced by a gaggle of neoliberal economists to enact a free trade zone, in which there are no barriers at all to the free movement of goods and capital. What happens?
When there are no trade barriers, the nation that can produce a given good or service at the lowest price will end up with the lion’s share of the market for that good or service. Since labor costs make up so large a portion of the cost of producing goods, those nations with low wages will outbid those with high wages, resulting in high unemployment and decreasing wages in the formerly high-wage countries. The result is a race to the bottom in which wages everywhere decline toward those of the worst-paid labor force in the free trade zone.
When this happens in a single country, as already noted, the labor force can often respond to the economic downdraft by turning to the political sphere. In a free trade zone, though, employers faced with a political challenge to falling wages in one country can simply move elsewhere. It’s the mismatch between economic union and political division that makes free trade unbalanced, and leads to problems we’ll discuss shortly.
Now of course free trade advocates like to insist that jobs lost by wealthier nations to poorer ones will inevitably be replaced by new jobs. History doesn’t support that claim—quite the contrary—and there are good reasons why the jobs that disappear will never be replaced. In a free trade system, it’s more economical for startups in any labor-intensive industry to go straight to one of the countries with low wages; only those industries that are capital-intensive and thus employ comparatively few people have any reason to get under way in the high-wage countries. The computer industry is a classic example—and you’ll notice, I trust, that just as soon as that industry started to become labor-intensive, it moved offshore. Still, there’s another factor at work.
Since wages are a very large fraction of the cost of producing goods, the overall decrease in wages brings about an increase in profits. Thus one result of free trade is a transfer of wealth from the laboring majority, whose income comes from wages, to the affluent minority, whose income comes directly or indirectly from profits. That’s the factor that’s been left out of the picture by the proponents of free trade—its effect on income distribution. Free trade makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, by increasing profits while driving wages down. This no doubt explains why free trade is so popular among the affluent these days, just as it was in the Victorian era. 
There’s a worm in the bud, though, because a skewed income distribution imposes costs of its own, and those costs mount up over time in painfully familiar ways. The difficulty with making the rich richer and the poor poorer, as Henry Ford pointed out a long time ago, is that the wages you pay your employees are also the income stream they use to buy your products. As wages decline, purchasing power declines, and begins to exert downward pressure on returns on investment in every industry that relies on consumer purchases for its income.
Doesn’t the increasing wealth of investors counterbalance the declining wealth of the wage-earning masses? No, because the rich spend a smaller proportion of their incomes on consumer goods than the poor, and divert the rest to investments. Divide a million dollars between a thousand working class family, and the money’s going to be spent to improve the families’ standard of living: better food, a bigger apartment, an extra toy or two around the Christmas tree, and so on. Give the same million to one rich family and it’s a safe bet that much of it’s going to be invested.
This, incidentally, is why the trickle-down economics beloved of Republican politicians of an earlier era simply doesn’t work, and why the Obama administration’s massive handouts of government money to banks in the wake of the 2008-9 financial panic did so little to improve the financial condition of most of the country. When it comes to consumption, the rich simply aren’t as efficient as the poor. If you want to kickstart an economy with consumer expenditures, as a result, you need to make sure that poor and working class people have plenty of money to spend.
There’s a broader principle here as well.  Consumer expenditures and capital for investment are to an economy what sunlight and water are to a plant: you can’t substitute one for the other. You need both. Since free trade policies funnel money away from expenditure toward investment by skewing the income distribution, it causes a shortage of the one and a surplus of the other. As the imbalance builds, it becomes harder for businesses to make a profit because consumers don’t have the cash to buy their products; meanwhile the amount of money available for investment increases steadily. The result is a steady erosion in return on investment, as more and more money chases fewer and fewer worthwhile investment vehicles.
The history of free-trade eras is thus marked by frantic attempts to prop up returns on investment by any means necessary. The offshoring fad that stripped the United States of its manufacturing economy in the 1970s had its exact equivalent in the offshoring of fabric mills from Britain to India in the late Victorian era; in both cases, the move capitalized on remaining disparities in wages and prices between rich and poor areas in a free trade zone. In both cases, offshoring worsened the problem it was meant to fix, by increasing the downward pressure on wages in the richer countries and further decreasing returns on investment across the entire spectrum of consumer industries—then as now, the largest single share of the economy.
A gambit that as far as I know wasn’t tried in the first era of free trade was the attempt to turn capital into ersatz income by convincing consumers to make purchases with borrowed money. That’s been the keystone of economic policy in the United States for most of two decades now.  The housing bubble was only the most exorbitant manifestation of a frantic attempt to get people to spend money they don’t have, and then find some way to pay it all back with interest. It hasn’t worked well, not least because all those interest payments put an additional downward pressure on consumer expenditures.
A variety of other, mostly self-defeating gimmicks have been put in play in both of the modern free trade eras to try to keep consumer expenditures high while wages decline. None of them work, because they don’t address the actual problem—the fact that under free trade, the downward pressure on wages means that consumers can’t afford to spend enough to keep the economy running at a level that will absorb the available investment capital—and so the final solution to the problem of declining returns on investment arrives on schedule: the diversion of capital from productive investment into speculation.
Any of my readers who don’t know how this story ends should get up right now, and go find a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s classic The Great Crash 1929. Speculative bubbles, while they last, produce abundant returns; when free trade has driven down wages, forced the consumer economy into stagnation or contraction, and decreased the returns on investment in productive industries to the point of “why bother,” a speculative bubble is very often the only profitable game in town. What’s more, since there are so few investments with decent returns in the late stages of a free trade scheme, there’s a vast amount of money ready to flow into any investment vehicle that can show a decent return, and that’s exactly the environment in which speculative bubbles breed most readily.
So the great free trade era that began tentatively with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and came into full flower with Gladstone’s abolition of tariffs in 1869, ended in the stock market debacle of 1929 and the Great Depression. The road there was littered with plenty of other crises, too. The economic history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a cratered moonscape of speculative busts and stock market crashes, culminating in the Big One in 1929. It resembles, in fact, nothing so much as the economic history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which have had their own sequence of busts and crashes: the stock market crash of 1987, the emerging markets crash of 1994, the tech-stock debacle of 2000, the housing bust of 2008, and the beat goes on.
Thus free trade causes the impoverishment and immiseration of the labor force, and a cascading series of economic busts driven by the mismatch between insufficent consumption and excess investment. Those problems aren’t accidental—they’re hardwired into any free trade system—and the only way to stop them in their tracks is to abandon free trade as bad policy, and replace it with sensible trade barriers that ensure that most of the products consumed in each nation are made there.
It’s probably necessary to stop here and point out a couple of things. First of all, the fact that free trade is bad policy doesn’t mean that every kind of trade barrier is good policy.  The habit of insisting that the only possible points along a spectrum are its two ends, common as it is, is an effective way to make really bad decisions; as in most things, there’s a middle ground that yields better results than either of the two extremes. Finding that middle ground isn’t necessarily easy, but the same thing’s true of most economic and political issues.
Second, free trade isn’t the only cause of economic dysfunction, nor is it the only thing that can cause skewed income distribution and the attendant problems that this brings with it. Plenty of factors can cause a national or global economy to run off the rails. What history shows with painful clarity is that free trade inevitably makes this happen. Getting rid of free trade and returning to a normal state of affairs, in which nations provide most of their own needs from within their own borders and trade with other nations to exchange surpluses or get products that aren’t available at home readily, or at all, gets rid of one reliable cause of serious economic dysfunction. That’s all, but arguably it’s enough to make a movement away from free trade a good idea.
Finally, the points I’ve just made suggest that there may be unexpected benefits, even today, to a nation that extracts itself from free trade agreements and puts a well-planned set of trade restrictions in place. There are plenty of factors putting downward pressure on prosperity just now, but the reasoning I’ve just sketched out suggests that the destitution and immiseration so common in the world right now may have been made considerably worse than they would otherwise be by the mania for free trade that’s been so pervasive in recent decades. A country that withdraws from free trade agreements and reorients its economy for the production of goods for domestic consumption might thus expect to see some improvement, not only in the prosperity of its working people, but in rates of return on investment.
That’s the theory I propose. Given the stated policies of the incoming US administration, it’s about to be put to the test—and the results should be apparent over the next few years.
****************On a different and less theoretical note, I’m delighted to report that the third issue of Into The Ruins, the quarterly magazine of deindustrial science fiction, is on its way to subscribers and available for sale to everyone else. The Fall 2016 issue includes stories by regular authors and newcomers alike, including a Matthew Griffiths tale set in the universe of my novel Star’s Reach, along with book reviews, essays, and a letter to the editors column that is turning into one of the liveliest forums in print. If you’re not subscribing yet, you’re missing a treat.
On a less cheery note, it’s been a while now since I proposed a contest, asking readers to write stories about futures that went outside the conventional binary of progress or decline. I think it was a worthwhile project, and some of the stories I received in response were absolutely first-rate—but, I’m sorry to say, there weren’t enough of them to make an anthology. I want to thank everyone who wrote a story in response to my challenge, and since a good many of the stories in question deserve publication, I’m forwarding them to Joel Caris, the editor of Into The Ruins, for his consideration.

When The Shouting Stops

Wed, 2016-11-16 13:08
I've been trying for some time now to understand the reaction of Hillary Clinton’s supporters to her defeat in last week’s election. At first, I simply dismissed it as another round of the amateur theatrics both parties indulge in whenever they lose the White House. Back in 2008, as most of my readers will doubtless recall, Barack Obama’s victory was followed by months of shrieking from Republicans, who insisted—just as a good many Democrats are insisting today—that the election of the other guy meant that democracy had failed, the United States and the world were doomed, and the supporters of the losing party would be rounded up and sent to concentration camps any day now.
That sort of histrionic nonsense has been going on for decades. In 2000, Democrats chewed the scenery in the grand style when George W. Bush was elected president. In 1992, it was the GOP’s turn—I still have somewhere a pamphlet that was circulated by Republicans after the election containing helpful phrases in Russian, so that American citizens would have at least a little preparation when Bill Clinton ran the country into the ground and handed the remains over to the Soviet Union. American politics and popular culture being what it is, this kind of collective hissy fit is probably unavoidable.
Fans of irony have much to savor. You’ve got people who were talking eagerly about how to game the electoral college two weeks ago, who now are denouncing the electoral college root and branch; you’ve got people who insisted that Trump, once he lost, should concede and shut up, who are demonstrating a distinct unwillingness to follow their own advice. You’ve got people in the bluest of blue left coast cities marching in protest as though that’s going to change a single blessed thing—as I’ve pointed out in previous posts here, protest marches that aren’t backed up with effective grassroots political organization are simply a somewhat noisy form of aerobic exercise.
Still, there’s more going on here than that. I know some fairly thoughtful people whose reaction to the election’s outcome wasn’t histrionic at all—it consisted of various degrees of shock, disorientation, and fear. They felt, if the ones I read are typical, that the people who voted for Trump were deliberately rejecting and threatening them personally. That’s something we ought to talk about.
To some extent, to be sure, this was a reflection of the political culture of personal demonization I discussed in last week’s post. Many of Clinton’s supporters convinced themselves, with the help of a great deal of propaganda from the Democratic Party and its bedfellows in the mainstream media, that Donald Trump is a monster of depravity thirsting for their destruction, and anyone who supports him must hate everything good. Now they’re cringing before the bogeyman they imagined, certain that it’s going to act out the role they assigned it and gobble them up.
Another factor at work here is the very strong tendency of people on the leftward end of American politics to believe in what I’ve elsewhere called the religion of progress—the faith that history has an inherent tilt toward improvement, and more to the point, toward the particular kinds of improvement they prefer. Hillary Clinton, in an impromptu response to a heckler at one of her campaign appearances, phrased the central tenet of that religion concisely: “We’re not going to go back. We’re going to go forward.” Like Clinton herself, a great many of her followers saw their cause as another step forward in the direction of progress, and to find themselves “going back” is profoundly disorienting—even though those labels “forward” and “back” are entirely arbitrary when they aren’t the most crassly manipulative sort of propaganda.
That said, there’s another factor driving the reaction of Clinton’s supporters, and the best way I can find to approach it is to consider one of the more thoughtful responses from that side of the political landscape, an incisive essay posted to Livejournal last week by someone who goes by the nom de Web “Ferrett Steinmetz.” The essay’s titled The Cold, Cold Math We’ll Need to Survive the Next Twenty Years, and it comes so close to understanding what happened last Tuesday that the remaining gap offers an unsparing glimpse straight to the heart of the failure of the Left to make its case to the rest of the American people.
At the heart of the essay are two indisputable points. The first is that the core constituencies of the Democratic Party are not large enough by themselves to decide who gets to be president. That’s just as true of the Republican party, by the way, and with few exceptions it’s true in every democratic society.  Each party large enough to matter has a set of core constituencies who can be counted on to vote for it under most circumstances, and then has to figure out how to appeal to enough people outside its own base to win elections. That’s something that both parties in the US tend to forget from time to time, and when they do so, they lose.
The second indisputable point is that if Democrats want to win an election in today’s America, they have to find ways to reach out to people who don’t share the values and interests of the Left. It’s the way that Ferrett Steinmetz frames that second point, though, that shows why the Democratic Party failed to accomplish that necessary task this time. “We have to reach out to people who hate us,” Steinmetz says, and admits that he has no idea at all how to do that.
Let’s take those two assertions one at a time. First, do the people who voted for Donald Trump in this election actually hate Ferrett Steinmetz and his readers—or for that matter, women, people of color, sexual minorities, and so on? Second, how can Steinmetz and his readers reach out to these supposedly hateful people and get them to vote for Democratic candidates?
I have no idea whether Ferrett Steinmetz knows anybody who voted for Donald Trump.  I suspect he doesn’t—or at least, given the number of people I’ve heard from who’ve privately admitted that they voted for Trump but would never let their friends know this, I suspect he doesn’t know anyone who he knows voted for Trump. Here I have a certain advantage. Living in a down-at-the-heels mill town in the north central Appalachians, I know quite a few people who supported Trump; I’ve also heard from a very large number of Trump supporters by way of this blog, and through a variety of other sources.
Are there people among the pro-Trump crowd who are in fact racists, sexists, homophobes, and so on? Of course. I know a couple of thoroughly bigoted racists who cast their votes for him, for example, including at least one bona fide member of the Ku Klux Klan. The point I think the Left tends to miss is that not everyone in flyover country is like that. A few years back, in fact, a bunch of Klansmen came to the town where I live to hold a recruitment rally, and the churches in town—white as well as black—held a counter-rally, stood on the other side of the street, and drowned the Klansmen out, singing hymns at the top of their lungs until the guys in the white robes got back in their cars and drove away.  Surprising? Not at all; in a great deal of middle America, that’s par for the course these days.
To understand why a town that ran off the Klan was a forest of Trump signs in the recent election, it’s necessary to get past the stereotypes and ask a simple question: why did people vote for Trump? I don’t claim to have done a scientific survey, but these are the things I heard Trump voters talking about in the months and weeks leading up to the election:
1. The Risk of War. This was the most common point at issue, especially among women—nearly all the women I know who voted for Trump, in fact, cited it as either the decisive reason for their vote or one of the top two or three. They listened to Hillary Clinton talk about imposing a no-fly zone over Syria in the face of a heavily armed and determined Russian military presence, and looked at the reckless enthusiasm for overthrowing governments she’d displayed during her time as Secretary of State. They compared this to Donald Trump’s advocacy of a less confrontational relationship with Russia, and they decided that Trump was less likely to get the United States into a shooting war.
War isn’t an abstraction here in flyover country. Joining the military is very nearly the only option young people here have if they want a decent income, job training, and the prospect of a college education, and so most families have at least one relative or close friend on active duty.  People here respect the military, but the last two decades of wars of choice in the Middle East have done a remarkably good job of curing middle America of any fondness for military adventurism it might have had.  While affluent feminists swooned over the prospect of a woman taking on another traditionally masculine role, and didn’t seem to care in the least that the role in question was “warmonger,” a great many people in flyover country weighed the other issues against the prospect of having a family member come home in a body bag. Since the Clinton campaign did precisely nothing to reassure them on this point, they voted for Trump.
2. The Obamacare Disaster. This was nearly as influential as Clinton’s reckless militarism. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump make too much money to qualify for a significant federal subsidy, and too little to be able to cover the endlessly rising cost of insurance under the absurdly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” They recalled, rather too clearly for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, how Obama assured them that the price of health insurance would go down, that they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, and so on through all the other broken promises that surrounded Obamacare before it took effect.
It was bad enough that so few of those promises were kept. The real deal-breaker, though, was the last round of double- or triple-digit annual increase in premiums announced this November, on top of increases nearly as drastic a year previously. Even among those who could still afford the new premiums, the writing was on the wall: sooner or later, unless something changed, a lot of people were going to have to choose between losing their health care and being driven into destitution—and then there were the pundits who insisted that everything would be fine, if only the penalties for not getting insurance were raised to equal the cost of insurance! Faced with that, it’s not surprising that a great many people went out and voted for the one candidate who said he’d get rid of Obamacare.
3. Bringing Back Jobs. This is the most difficult one for a lot of people on the Left to grasp, but that’s a measure of the gap between the bicoastal enclaves where the Left’s policies are formed and the hard realities of flyover country. Globalization and open borders sound great when you don’t have to grapple with the economic consequences of shipping tens of millions of manufacturing jobs overseas, on the one hand, and federal policies that flood the labor market with illegal immigrants to drive down wages, on the other. Those two policies, backed by both parties and surrounded by a smokescreen of empty rhetoric about new jobs that somehow never managed to show up, brought about the economic collapse of rural and small town America, driving a vast number of Americans into destitution and misery.
Clinton’s campaign did a really inspired job of rehashing every detail of the empty rhetoric just mentioned, and so gave people out here in flyover country no reason to expect anything but more of the same downward pressure on their incomes, their access to jobs, and the survival of their communities. Trump, by contrast, promised to scrap or renegotiate the trade agreements that played so large a role in encouraging offshoring of jobs, and also promised to put an end to the tacit Federal encouragement of mass illegal immigration that’s driven down wages. That was enough to get a good many voters whose economic survival was on the line to cast their votes for Trump.
4. Punishing the Democratic Party. This one is a bit of an outlier, because the people I know who cast votes for Trump for this reason mostly represented a different demographic from the norm out here: young, politically liberal, and incensed by the way that the Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination process to favor Clinton and shut out Bernie Sanders. They believed that if the campaign for the Democratic nomination had been conducted fairly, Sanders would have been the nominee, and they also believe that Sanders would have stomped Trump in the general election.  For what it’s worth, I think they’re right on both counts.
These voters pointed out to me, often with some heat, that the policies Hillary Clinton supported in her time as senator and secretary of state were all but indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—you know, the policies Democrats denounced so forcefully a little more than eight years ago.  They argued that voting for Clinton in the general election when she’d been rammed down the throats of the Democratic rank and file by the party’s oligarchy would have signaled the final collapse of the party’s progressive wing into irrelevance. They were willing to accept four years of a Republican in the White House to make it brutally clear to the party hierarchy that the shenanigans that handed the nomination to Clinton were more than they were willing to tolerate.
Those were the reasons I heard people mention when they talked in my hearing about why they were voting for Donald Trump. They didn’t talk about the issues that the media considered important—the email server business, the on-again-off-again FBI investigation, and so on. Again, this isn’t a scientific survey, but I found it interesting that not one Trump voter I knew mentioned those.
What’s more, hatred toward women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the like weren’t among the reasons that people cited for voting for Trump, either. Do a fair number of the people I’m discussing hold attitudes that the Left considers racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you? No doubt—but the mere fact that such attitudes exist does not prove that those attitudes, rather than the issues just listed, guided their votes.
When I’ve pointed this out to people on the leftward side of the political spectrum, the usual response has been to insist that, well, yes, maybe Trump did address the issues that matter to people in flyover country, but even so, it was utterly wrong of them to vote for a racist, sexist homophobe! We’ll set aside for the moment the question of how far these labels actually apply to Trump, and how much they’re the product of demonizing rhetoric on the part of his political enemies on both sides of the partisan divide. Even accepting the truth of these accusations, what the line of argument just cited claims is that people in the flyover states should have ignored the issues that affect their own lives, and should have voted instead for the issues that liberals think are important.
In some idyllic Utopian world, maybe.  In the real world, that’s not going to happen. People are not going to embrace the current agenda of the American Left if doing so means that they can expect their medical insurance to double in price every couple of years, their wages to continue lurching downward, their communities to sink further in a death spiral of economic collapse, and their kids to come home in body bags from yet another pointless war in the Middle East.
Thus there’s a straightforward answer to both of Ferrett Steinmetz’ baffled questions. Do the people who voted for Trump hate Steinmetz, his readers, or the various groups—women, people of color, sexual minorities—whose concerns are central to the politics of today’s American Left? In many cases, not at all, and in most others, not to any degree that matters politically. They simply don’t care that much about the concerns that the Left considers central—especially when those are weighed against the issues that directly affect their own lives.
As for what Ferrett Steinmetz’s side of the political landscape can offer the people who voted for Trump, that’s at least as simple to answer: listen to those voters, and they’ll tell you. To judge by what I’ve heard them say, they want a less monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy and an end to the endless spiral of wars of choice in the Middle East; they want health insurance that provides reasonable benefits at a price they can afford; they want an end to trade agreements that ship American jobs overseas, and changes to immigration policy that stop the systematic importation of illegal immigrants by big corporate interests to drive down wages and benefits; and they want a means of choosing candidates that actually reflects the will of the people.
The fascinating thing is, of course, that these are things the Democratic Party used to offer. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that the Democratic Party made exactly these issues—opposition to reckless military adventurism, government programs that improved the standard of living of working class Americans, and a politics of transparency and integrity—central not only to its platform but to the legislation its congresspeople fought to get passed and its presidents signed into law. Back when that was the case, by the way, the Democratic Party was the majority party in this country, not only in Congress but also in terms of state governorships and legislatures. As the party backed away from offering those things, it lost its majority position. While correlation doesn’t prove causation, I think that in this case a definite case can be made.
More generally, if the Left wants to get the people who voted for Trump to vote for them instead, they’re going to have to address the issues that convinced those voters to cast their ballots the way they did. Oh, and by the way, listening to what the voters in question have to say, rather than loudly insisting that they can only be motivated by hatred, would also help quite a bit. That may be a lot to ask, but once the shouting stops, I hope it’s a possibility.

Reflections on a Democracy in Crisis

Wed, 2016-11-09 16:24
Well, it’s finally over, and I think it’s fair to say I called it. As I predicted back in January of this year, working class Americans—fed up with being treated by the Democratic Party as the one American minority that it’s okay to hate—delivered a stinging rebuke to the politics of business as usual. To the shock and chagrin of the entire US political establishment, and to the tautly focused embarrassment of the pundits, pollsters, and pet intellectuals of the mainstream media, Donald Trump will be the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. 
Like millions of other Americans, I took part in the pleasant civic ritual of the election. My local polling place is in an elementary school on the edge of the poor part of town—the rundown multiracial neighborhood I’ve mentioned here before, where Trump signs blossomed early and often—and I went to vote, as I usually do, in early afternoon, when the lunch rush was over and the torrent of people voting on the way home from work hadn’t yet gotten under way. Thus there was no line; I came in just as two elderly voters on the way out were comparing notes on local restaurants that give discounts to patrons who’ve got the “I Voted” sticker the polls here hand out when you’ve done your civic duty, and left maybe five minutes later as a bottle-blonde housewife was coming in to cast her vote.
Maryland had electronic voting for a while, but did the smart thing and went back to paper ballots this year, so I’m pretty sure my votes got counted the way I cast them. Afterwards I walked home—it was cloudy but warm, as nice a November day as you could ask for—and got back to work on my current writing project. It all made an interesting counterpoint to the nonstop shrieking that’s been emanating for months now from the media and, let’s be fair, from politicians, pundits, and a great many ordinary people all over the world as well.
I don’t see a lot of point just now in talking about what’s going to happen once the dust and the tumult settles, the privileged finish throwing their predictable tantrums, and the Trump administration settles into power in Washington DC.  There will be plenty of time for that later. What I’d like to do here and now is talk about a couple of things that were highlighted by this election, and cast a useful light on the current state of US politics and the challenges that have to be faced as a troubled, beleaguered, and bitterly divided nation staggers on toward its next round of crises.
One of those things showed up with rare clarity in the way that many readers responded to my posts on the election. All along, from my first post on the improbable rise of Donald Trump right up to last week’s pre-election wrapup, I tried to keep the discussion focused on issues: what policies each candidate could be expected to support once the next administration took office.
To my mind, at least, that’s the thing that matters most about an election. Four or eight years from now, after all, the personality of the outgoing president is going to matter less than an average fart in a Category 5 hurricane. The consequences of policy decisions made by the presidency over the next four years, on the other hand, will have implications that extend for years into the future. Should the United States pursue a policy of confrontation with Russia in the Middle East, or should it work out a modus vivendi with the Russians to pursue the common goal of suppressing jihadi terrorism? Should federal policy continue to encourage the offshoring of jobs and the importation of workers to drive down wages, or should it be changed to discourage these things? These are important issues that will affect millions of lives in the United States and elsewhere, and there are other issues of similar importance on which the two candidates had significantly different positions.
Quite a few of the people who responded to those posts, though, displayed no interest in such mundane if important matters. They only wanted to talk about their opinions about the personalities of the candidates: to insist that Clinton was a corrupt stooge, say or that Trump was a hatemongering fascist. (It says something about American politics these days that rather more often than not, the people who did this were too busy slandering the character of the candidate they hated to say much about the one they planned to vote for.) Outside the relatively sheltered waters of The Archdruid Report, in turn, that tendency went into overdrive; for much of the campaign, the only way you could tell the difference between the newspapers of record and the National Enquirer was by noting which candidates they supported, and allegedly serious websites were by and large even worse.
This wasn’t the fault of the candidates, as it happens. Whatever else might be said for or against Hillary Clinton, she tried to avoid a campaign based on content-free sound bites like the one Barack Obama waged against her so cynically and successfully in 2008; the pages of her campaign website displayed a laundry list of things she said she wanted to do if she won the election. While many voters will have had their disagreements with her proposals, she actually tried to talk about the issues, and that’s refreshingly responsible. Trump, for that matter, devoted speech after speech to a range of highly specific policy proposals.
Yet nearly all the talk about both candidates, in and out of the media, focused not on their policy proposals but on their personalities—or rather on nastily distorted parodies of their personalities that defined them, more or less explicitly, as evil incarnate. The Church of Satan, I’m told, has stated categorically that the Devil was not running in this year’s US presidential election, but you’d have a hard time telling that from the rhetoric on both sides. The media certainly worked overtime to foster the fixation on personalities, but I suspect this is one of those cases where the media was simply reflecting something that was already present in the collective consciousness of our society.
All through the campaign I noticed, rather to my surprise, that it wasn’t just those who have nothing in their heads that a television or a website didn’t put there, who ignored the issues and fixated on personalities. I long ago lost track of the number of usually thoughtful people I know who, over the course of the last year, ended up buying into every negative claim about whichever candidate they hated, without even going through the motions of checking the facts. I also lost track months ago of the number of usually thoughtful people I know whose automatic response to an attempt to talk about the issues at stake in this election was to give me a blank look and go right back to ranting about the evilly evil evilness of whichever candidate they hated.
It seems to me that something has been forgotten here.  We didn’t have an election to choose a plaster saint, a new character on My Little Pony, or Miss (or Mister) Goody Two-Shoes 2016. We had an election to choose the official who will head the executive branch of our federal government for the next four years. I’ve read essays by people who know Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump personally, and claim that both of them are actually very pleasant people. You know what? I literally couldn’t care less. I would be just as likely to vote for a surly misanthrope who loathes children, kicks puppies, and has deviant sexual cravings involving household appliances and mayonnaise, if that person supports the policies I want on the issues that matter to me. It really is that simple.
I’d like to suggest, furthermore, that the fixation on personalities—or, again, malicious parodies of personalities—has played a huge role in making politics in the United States so savage, so divisive, and so intractably deadlocked on so many of the things that matter just now. The issues I mentioned a few paragraphs back—US foreign policy toward a resurgent Russia, on the one hand, and US economic policy regarding the offshoring of jobs and the importation of foreign workers—are not only important, they’re issues about which reasonable disagreement is possible. What’s more, they’re issues on which negotiation, compromise, and the working out of a mutually satisfactory modus vivendi between competing interests are also possible, at least in theory.
In practice? Not while each side is insisting at the top of its lungs that the other side is led by a monster of depravity and supported only by people who hate everything good in the world. I’d like to suggest that it’s exactly this replacement of reasoned politics with a pretty close equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate from Orwell’s 1984 that’s among the most important forces keeping this country from solving any of its problems or doing anything to brace itself for the looming crises ahead.
Thus I’d like to encourage all the citizens of my country to turn off the television and the internet for a few moments, take a few deep breaths, and think about the tone of the recent election, and to what extent they might have participated in the bipartisan culture of hatred that filled so much of it. It might be worth pointing out that you’re not likely to convince other people to vote the way you think they ought to vote if you’re simultaneously berating them for being evilly evil with a double helping of evil sauce on the side, or sneering at them for being too ignorant to recognize that voting for your candidate really is in their best interests, or any of the other counterproductive habits that have taken the place of reasonable political discourse in today’s America.
The second point I noticed in the course of the election campaign connects to the one just discussed. That’s the hard fact that the United States at this point in its history may still be a single republic, but it’s not a single nation—and it could be argued on reasonably solid grounds that it never has been. Facile distinctions between “red” and “blue” states barely touch the complexity, much less the depth, of the divisions that separate the great urban centers from the rest of the country, and the different regions from one another.
I think it was Pauline Kael who, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, commented that she didn’t understand how Nixon could have won—after all, nobody she knew voted for him! The same sentiment is currently being expressed in tones ranging from bewilderment and baffled rage from all corners of the affluent left and their hangers-on among the mainstream media’s well-paid punditry. The 20% or so of Americans who have benefited from the jobless recovery of the last eight years, and the broader neoliberal economic agenda of the last four decades, very rarely leave the echo-chamber environments where they spend their days to find out what the rest of the country is thinking. If they’d done so a bit more often in the last year, they would have watched Trump signs sprouting all over the stark landscapes of poverty that have spread so widely in the America they never see.
But of course the divisions run deeper than this, and considerably more ramified. Compare the political, economic, and social policies that have the approval of people in Massachusetts, say, and those that have the approval of people in Oklahoma, and you’ll find next to no overlap. This isn’t because the people of one state or the other are (insert your insult of choice here); it’s because they belong to different cultures, with incommensurable values, attitudes, and interests. Attempts, well-meaning or otherwise, to impose the mores of either state on the other are guaranteed to result only in hostility and incomprehension—and such attempts have been all too common of late.
Ours is a very diverse country. That may sound like a truism, but it has implications that aren’t usually taken into account. A country with a great deal of cultural uniformity, with a broad consensus of shared values and attitudes, can afford to legislate that consensus on a national basis. A country that doesn’t have that kind of uniformity, that lacks any consensus concerning values and attitudes, very quickly gets into serious trouble if it tries that sort of legislation. If the divergence is serious enough, the only way that reliably allows different nations to function under a single government is a federal system—that is, a system that assigns the national government only those powers and duties that have to be handled on a nationwide basis, while leaving most other questions for local governments and individuals to settle for themselves.
My more historically literate readers will be aware that the United States used to have a federal system—that is, after all, why we still speak of “the federal government.” Under the Constitution as originally written and interpreted, the people of each state had the right to run their own affairs pretty much as they saw fit, within certain very broad limits.  The federal government was assigned certain narrowly defined powers, and all other powers were, in the language of the Tenth Amendment, reserved to the states and the people.
Over the first century and a half of our national history, certain other powers were assigned to the federal government by constitutional amendment, sometimes with good results—the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws to all citizens, for example, and the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments’ extension of voting rights to black people and women respectively—and sometimes not—the Eighteenth Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol comes to mind here. The basic federal structure remained intact. Not until the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War did the metastatic growth of the federal government begin in earnest, and so in due time did the various attempts to impose this or that set of moral values on the entire country by force of law.
Those attempts have not worked, and they’re not going to work. I’m not sure how many people have noticed, though, that the election of Donald Trump was not merely a rebuke to the liberal left; it was also a defeat for the religious right. It’s worth recalling that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party had its own favorites in the race for the GOP nomination, and Trump was emphatically not one of them. It has not been a propitious autumn for the movements of left and right whose stock in trade is trying to force their own notion of virtue down the throats of the American people—and maybe, just maybe, that points to the way ahead.
It’s time to consider, I suggest, a renewal of the traditions of American federalism: a systematic devolution of power from the overinflated federal government to the states, and from the states to the people. It’s time for people in Massachusetts to accept that they’re never going to be able to force people in Oklahoma to conform to their notions of moral goodness, and for the people of Oklahoma to accept the same thing about the people of Massachusetts; furthermore, it’s time for government at all levels to give up trying to impose cultural uniformity on the lively diversity of our republic’s many nations, and settle for their proper role of ensuring equal protection under the laws, and those other benefits that governments, by their nature, are best suited to provide for their citizens.
We need a new social compact under which all Americans agree to back away from the politics of personal vilification that dominated all sides in the election just over, let go of the supposed right to force everyone in the country to submit to any one set of social and moral views, and approach the issues that divide us with an eye toward compromise, negotiation, and mutual respect. Most of the problems that face this country could be solved, or at least significantly ameliorated, if our efforts were guided by such a compact—and if that can be done, I suspect that a great many more of us will have the opportunity to experience one of the greatest benefits a political system can bestow: actual, honest-to-goodness liberty. We’ll talk more about that in future posts.

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In unrelated and rather less serious news, I’m pleased to announce that the second volume of my Lovecraftian epic fantasy series The Weird of Hali is now available for preorder. Once again, H.P. Lovecraft gets stood on his head, and the tentacled horrors and sinister cultists get the protagonists’ roles; this time the setting is the crumbling seaside town of Kingsport, where Miskatonic University student Jenny Parrish is summoned to attend a certain very ancient festival...
The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, like the first book in the series, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, is being released first in two signed and numbered editions, one one merely gorgeous, the other leatherbound, traycased, and utterly over the top for connoisseurs of fine printing and binding. There will be a trade paperback edition in due time, but it’ll be a while. Those of my readers who find eldritch nightmares from the crepuscular beginnings of time itself better company than the current crop of American politicians may find it worth a read.

The Last Gasp of the American Dream

Wed, 2016-11-02 08:47
Just at the moment, many of my readers—and of course a great many others as well—are paying close attention to which of the two most detested people in American public life will put a hand on a Bible in January, and preside thereafter over the next four years of this nation’s accelerating decline and fall. That focus is understandable, and not just because both parties have trotted out the shopworn claim that this election, like every other one in living memory, is the most important in our lifetimes. For a change, there are actual issues involved.
  Barring any of the incidents that could throw the election into the House of Representatives, we’ll know by this time next week whether the bipartisan consensus that’s been welded firmly in place in American politics since the election of George W. Bush will stay intact for the next four years. That consensus, for those of my readers who haven’t been paying attention, supports massive giveaways to big corporations and the already affluent, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect for the nation’s infrastructure, the destruction of the American working class through federal subsidies for automation and offshoring and tacit acceptance of mass illegal immigration as a means of driving down wages, and a monomaniacally confrontational foreign policy obsessed with the domination of the Middle East by raw military force. Those are the policies that George W. Bush and Barack Obama pursued through four presidential terms, and they’re the policies that Hillary Clinton has supported throughout her political career.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has been arguing against several core elements of that consensus since the beginning of his run for office. Specifically, he’s calling for a reversal of federal policies that support offshoring of jobs, the enforcement of US immigration law, and a less rigidly confrontational stance toward Russia over the war in Syria. It’s been popular all through the current campaign for Clinton’s supporters to insist that nobody actually cares about these issues, and that Trump’s supporters must by definition be motivated by hateful values instead, but that rhetorical gimmick has been a standard thoughstopper on the left for many years now, and it simply won’t wash. The reason why Trump was able to sweep aside the other GOP candidates, and has a shot at winning next week’s election despite the unanimous opposition of this nation’s political class, is that he’s the first presidential candidate in a generation to admit that the issues just mentioned actually matter.
That was a ticket to the nomination, in turn, because outside the bicoastal echo chamber of the affluent, the US economy has been in freefall for years.  I suspect that a great many financially comfortable people in today’s America have no idea just how bad things have gotten here in the flyover states. The recovery of the last eight years has only benefited the upper 20% or so by income of the population; the rest have been left to get by on declining real wages, while simultaneously having to face skyrocketing rents driven by federal policies that prop up the real estate market, and stunning increases in medical costs driven by Obama’s embarrassingly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” It’s no accident that death rates from suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning are soaring just now among working class white people. These are my neighbors, the people I talk with in laundromats and lodge meetings, and they’re being driven to the wall.
Most of the time, affluent liberals who are quick to emote about the sufferings of poor children in conveniently distant corners of the Third World like to brush aside the issues I’ve just raised as irrelevancies. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people insist that the American working class hasn’t been destroyed, that its destruction doesn’t matter, or that it was the fault of the working classes themselves. (I’ve occasionally heard people attempt to claim all three of these things at once.) On those occasions when the mainstream left deigns to recognize the situation I’ve sketched out, it’s usually in the terms Hillary Clinton used in her infamous “basket of deplorables” speech, in which she admitted that there were people who hadn’t benefited from the recovery and “we need to do something for them.” That the people in question might deserve to have a voice in what’s done for them, or to them, is not part of the vocabulary of the affluent American left.
That’s why, if you pay a visit to the town where I live, you’ll find Trump signs all over the place—and you’ll find the highest concentration of them in the poor neighborhood just south of my home, a bleak rundown zone where there’s a church every few blocks and an abandoned house every few doors, and where the people tipping back beers on a porch of a summer evening rarely all have the same skin color. They know exactly what they need, and what tens of thousands of other economically devastated American communities need: enough full-time jobs at decent wages to give them the chance to lift their families out of poverty. They understand that need, and discuss it in detail among themselves, with a clarity you’ll rarely find in the media. (It’s a source of wry amusement to me that the best coverage of the situation on the ground here in the flyover states appeared, not in any of America’s newspapers of record, nor in any of its allegedly serious magazines, but in a raucous NSFW online humor magazine.)
What’s more, the working class people who point to a lack of jobs as the cause of middle America’s economic collapse are dead right.  The reason why those tens of thousands of American communities are economically devastated is that too few people have enough income to support the small businesses and local economies that used to thrive there. The money that used to keep main streets bustling across the United States, the wages that used to be handed out on Friday afternoons to millions of Americans who’d spent the previous week putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, have been siphoned off to inflate the profits of a handful of huge corporations to absurd levels and cater to the kleptocratic feeding frenzy that’s made multimillion-dollar bonuses a matter of course at the top of the corporate food chain. It really is as simple as that. The Trump voters in the neighborhood south of my home may not have a handle on all the details, but they know that their survival depends on getting some of that money flowing back into paychecks to be spent in their community.
It’s an open question whether they’re going to get that if Donald Trump wins the election, and a great many of his supporters know this perfectly well.  It’s as certain as anything can be, though, that they’re not going to get it from Hillary Clinton. The economic policy she’s touted in her speeches, to the extent that this isn’t just the sort of campaign rhetoric that will pass its pull date the moment the last vote is counted, focuses on improving opportunities for the middle class—the people, in other words, who have already reaped the lion’s share of those economic benefits that didn’t go straight into the pockets of the rich. To the working classes, she offers nothing but a repetition of the same empty slogans and disposable promises. What’s more, they know this, and another round of empty slogans and disposable promises isn’t going to change that.
Nor, it probably needs to be said, is it going to be changed by another round of media handwaving designed to make Donald Trump look bad in the eyes of affluent liberals. I’ve noted with some amusement the various news stories on the highbrow end of the media noting, in tones variously baffled and horrified, that when you show Trump supporters videos designed to make them less enthusiastic about their candidate, they double down. Any number of canned theories have been floated to explain why that happens, but none that I’ve heard have dealt with the obvious explanations.
To begin with, it’s not as though that habit is only found on Trump’s side of the fence. In recent weeks, as one Wikileaks email dump after another has forced an assortment of stories about Clinton’s arrogant and corrupt behavior into the news, her followers have doubled down just as enthusiastically as Trump’s; those of my readers who are familiar with the psychology of previous investment will likely notice that emotional investment is just as subject to this law as the financial kind. For that matter, supporters of both candidates are quite sensibly aware that this election is meant to choose a public official rather than a plaster saint, and recognize that a genuine scoundrel who will take the right stands on the issues that matter to them is a better choice than a squeaky-clean innocent who won’t, even if such an animal could actually be found in the grubby ecosystem of contemporary American politics.
That said, there’s another factor that probably plays an even larger role, which is that when working class Americans get told by slickly groomed talking heads in suits that something they believe is wrong, their default assumption is that the talking heads are lying.
Working class Americans, after all, have very good reason for making this their default assumption. Over and over again, that’s the way things have turned out. The talking heads insisted that handing over tax dollars to various corporate welfare queens would bring jobs back to American communities; the corporations in question pocketed the tax dollars and walked away. The talking heads insisted that if working class people went to college at their own expense and got retrained in new skills, that would bring jobs back to American communities; the academic industry profited mightily but the jobs never showed up, leaving tens of millions of people buried so deeply under student loan debt that most of them will never recover financially. The talking heads insisted that this or that or the other political candidate would bring jobs back to American communities by pursuing exactly the same policies that got rid of the jobs in the first place—essentially the same claim that the Clinton campaign is making now—and we know how that turned out.
For that matter, trust in talking heads generally is at an all-time low out here in flyover country. Consider the way that herbal medicine—“God’s medicine” is the usual phrase these days—has become the go-to option for a huge and growing number of devout rural Christians. There are plenty of reasons why that should be happening, but surely one of the most crucial is the cascading loss of faith in the slickly groomed talking heads that sell modern medicine to consumers. Herbs may not be as effective as modern pharmaceuticals in treating major illnesses, to be sure, but they generally don’t have the ghastly side effects that so many pharmaceuticals will give you.  Furthermore, and just as crucially, nobody ever bankrupted their family and ended up on the street because of the high price of herbs.
It used to be, not all that long ago, that the sort of people we’re discussing trusted implicitly in American society and its institutions. They were just as prone as any urban sophisticate to distrust this or that politician or businessperson or cultural figure, to be sure; back in the days when local caucuses and county conventions of the two main political parties still counted for something, you could be sure of hearing raucous debates about a galaxy of personalities and issues. Next to nobody, though, doubted that the basic structures of American society were not merely sound, but superior to all others.
You won’t find that certainty in flyover country these days. Where you hear such claims made at all, they’re phrased in the kind of angry and defensive terms that lets everyone know that the speaker is trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t entirely believe any more, or in the kind of elegaic tones that hearken back to an earlier time when things still seemed to work—when the phrase “the American Dream” still stood for a reality that many people had experienced and many more could expect to achieve for themselves and their children. Very few people out here think of the federal government as anything more than a vast mechanism operated by rich crooks for their own benefit, at the expense of everyone else. What’s more, the same cynical attitude is spreading to embrace the other institutions of American society, and—lethally—the ideals from which those institutions get whatever legitimacy they still hold in the eyes of the people.
Those of my readers who were around in the late 1980s and early 1990s have seen this movie before, though it came with Cyrillic subtitles that time around. By 1985 or so, it had become painfully obvious to most citizens of the Soviet Union that the grand promises of Marxism would not be kept and the glorious future for which their grandparents and great-grandparents had fought and labored was never going to arrive. Glowing articles in Pravda and Izvestia insisted that everything was just fine in the Worker’s Paradise; annual five-year plans presupposed that economic conditions would get steadily better while, for most people, economic conditions got steadily worse; vast May Day parades showed off the Soviet Union’s military might, Soyuz spacecraft circled the globe to show off its technological prowess, and tame intellectuals comfortably situated in the more affluent districts of Moscow and Leningrad, looking forward to their next vacation at their favorite Black Sea resort, chattered in print about the good life under socialism, while millions of ordinary Soviet citizens trudged through a bleak round of long lines, product shortages, and system-wide dysfunction. Then crisis hit, and the great-great-grandchildren of the people who surged to the barricades during the Russian Revolution shrugged, and let the Soviet Union unravel in a matter of days.
I suspect we’re much closer to a similar cascade of events here in the United States than most people realize. My fellow peak oil blogger Dmitry Orlov pointed out a decade or so back, in a series of much-reprinted blog posts and his book Reinventing Collapse, that the differences between the Soviet Union and the United States were far less important than their similarities, and that a Soviet-style collapse was a real possibility here—a possibility for which most Americans are far less well prepared than their Russian equivalents in the early 1990s. His arguments have become even more compelling as the years have passed, and the United States has become mired ever more deeply in a mire of institutional dysfunction and politico-economic kleptocracy all but indistinguishable from the one that eventually swallowed its erstwhile rival.
Point by point, the parallels stand out. We’ve got the news articles insisting, in tones by turns glowing and shrill, that things have never been better in the United States and anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong; we’ve got the economic pronouncements predicated on continuing growth at a time when the only things growing in the US economy are its total debt load and the number of people who are permanently unemployed; we’ve got the overblown displays of military might and technological prowess, reminiscent of nothing so much as the macho posturing of balding middle-aged former athletes who are trying to pretend that they haven’t lost it; we’ve got the tame intellectuals comfortably situated in the more affluent suburban districts around Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, looking forward to their next vacation in whatever the currently fashionable spot might happen to be, babbling on the internet about the good life under predatory cybercapitalism.
Meanwhile millions of Americans trudge through a bleak round of layoffs, wage cuts, part-time jobs at minimal pay, and system-wide dysfunction. The crisis hasn’t hit yet, but those members of the political class who think that the people who used to be rock-solid American patriots will turn out en masse to keep today’s apparatchiks secure in their comfortable lifestyles have, as the saying goes, another think coming.  Nor is it irrelevant that most of the enlisted personnel in the armed forces, who are the US government’s ultimate bulwark against popular unrest, come from the very classes that have lost faith most drastically in the American system. The one significant difference between the Soviet case and the American one at this stage of the game is that Soviet citizens had no choice but to accept the leaders the Communist Party of the USSR foisted off on them, from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko to Gorbachev, until the system collapsed of its own weight.
American citizens, on the other hand, do at least potentially have a choice. Elections in the United States have been riddled with fraud for most of two centuries, but since both parties are generally up to their eyeballs in voter fraud to a roughly equal degree, fraud mostly swings close elections.  It’s still possible for a sufficiently popular candidate to overwhelm the graveyard vote, the crooked voting machines, and the other crass realities of American elections by sheer force of numbers. That way, an outsider unburdened with the echo-chamber thinking of a dysfunctional elite might just be able to elbow his way into the White House. Will that happen this time? No one knows.
If George W. Bush was our Leonid Brezhnev, as I’d suggest, and Barack Obama is our Yuri Andropov, Hillary Clinton is running for the position of Konstantin Chernenko; her running mate Tim Kaine, in turn, is waiting in the wings as a suitably idealistic and clueless Mikhail Gorbachev, under whom the whole shebang can promptly go to bits. While I don’t seriously expect the trajectory of the United States to parallel that of the Soviet Union anything like as precisely as this satiric metaphor would suggest, the basic pattern of cascading dysfunction ending in political collapse is quite a common thing in history, and a galaxy of parallels suggests that the same thing could very easily happen here within the next decade or so. The serene conviction among the political class and their affluent hangers-on that nothing of the sort could possibly take place is just another factor making it more likely.
It’s by no means certain that a Trump presidency will stop that from happening, and jolt the United States far enough out of its current death spiral to make it possible to salvage something from the American experiment. Even among Trump’s most diehard supporters, it’s common to find people who cheerfully admit that Trump might not change things enough to matter; it’s just that when times are desperate enough—and out here in the flyover states, they are—a leap in the dark is preferable to the guaranteed continuation of the unendurable.
Thus the grassroots movement that propelled Trump to the Republican nomination in the teeth of the GOP establishment, and has brought him to within a couple of aces of the White House in the teeth of the entire US political class, might best be understood as the last gasp of the American dream. Whether he wins or loses next week, this country is moving into the darkness of an uncharted night—and it’s not out of place to wonder, much as Hamlet did, what dreams may come in that darkness.

The Future Hiding in Plain Sight

Wed, 2016-10-19 14:05
Carl Jung used to argue that meaningful coincidences—in his jargon, synchronicity—were as important as cause and effect in shaping the details of human life. Whether that’s true in the broadest sense, I’ll certainly vouch for the fact that they’re a constant presence in The Archdruid Report. Time and again, just as I sit down to write a post on some theme, somebody sends me a bit of data that casts unexpected light on that very theme.

Last week was a case in point. Regular readers will recall that the theme of last week’s post was the way that pop-culture depictions of deep time implicitly erase the future by presenting accounts of Earth’s long history that begin billions of years ago and end right now. I was brooding over that theme a little more than a week ago, chasing down details of the prehistoric past and the posthistoric future, when one of my readers forwarded me a copy of the latest Joint Operating Environment report by the Pentagon—JOE-35, to use the standard jargon—which attempts to predict the shape of the international environment in which US military operations will take place in 2035, and mostly succeeds in providing a world-class example of the same blindness to the future I discussed in my post.

The report can be downloaded in PDF form hereand is worth reading in full. It covers quite a bit of ground, and a thorough response to it would be more the size of a short book than a weekly blog post. The point I want to discuss this week is its identification of six primary “contexts for conflict” that will shape the military environment of the 2030s:
“1. Violent Ideological Competition. Irreconcilable ideas communicated and promoted by identity networks through violence.” That is, states and non-state actors alike will pursue their goals by spreading ideologies hostile to US interests and encouraging violent acts to promote those ideologies.
“2. Threatened U.S. Territory and Sovereignty. Encroachment, erosion, or disregard of U.S. sovereignty and the freedom of its citizens from coercion.” That is, states and non-state actors will attempt to carry out violent acts against US citizens and territory. 
“3. Antagonistic Geopolitical Balancing. Increasingly ambitious adversaries maximizing their own influence while actively limiting U.S. influence.” That is, rival powers will pursue their own interests in conflict with those of the United States.
“4. Disrupted Global Commons. Denial or compulsion in spaces and places available to all but owned by none.”  That is, the US will no longer be able to count on unimpeded access to the oceans, the air, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum in the pursuit of its interests.
“5. A Contest for Cyberspace. A struggle to define and credibly protect sovereignty in cyberspace.” That is, US cyberwarfare measures will increasingly face effective defenses and US cyberspace assets will increasingly face effective hostile incursions.
“6. Shattered and Reordered Regions. States unable to cope with internal political fractures, environmental stressors, or deliberate external interference.”  That is, states will continue to be overwhelmed by the increasingly harsh pressures on national survival in today’s world, and the failed states and stateless zones that will spawn insurgencies and non-state actors hostile to the US.
Apparently nobody at the Pentagon noticed one distinctly odd thing about this outline of the future context of American military operations: it’s not an outline of the future at all. It’s an outline of the present. Every one of these trends is a major factor shaping political and military action around the world right now. JOE-35 therefore assumes, first, that each of these trends will remain locked in place without significant change for the next twenty years, and second, that no new trends of comparable importance will emerge to reshape the strategic landscape between now and 2035. History suggests that both of these are very, very risky assumptions for a great power to make.
It so happens that I have a fair number of readers who serve in the US armed forces just now, and a somewhat larger number who serve in the armed forces of other countries more or less allied with the United States. (I may have readers serving with the armed forces of Russia or China as well, but they haven’t announced themselves—and I suspect, for what it’s worth, that they’re already well acquainted with the points I intend to make.) With those readers in mind, I’d like to suggest a revision to JOE-35, which will take into account the fact that history can’t be expected to stop in its tracks for the next twenty years, just because we want it to. Once that’s included in the analysis, at least five contexts of conflict not mentioned by JOE-35 stand out from the background:
1. A crisis of legitimacy in the United States. Half a century ago, most Americans assumed as a matter of course that the United States had the world’s best, fairest, and most democratic system of government; only a small minority questioned the basic legitimacy of the institutions of government or believed they would be better off under a different system. Since the late 1970s, however, federal policies that subsidized automation and the offshoring of industrial jobs, and tacitly permitted mass illegal immigration to force down wages, have plunged the once-proud American working class into impoverishment and immiseration. While the wealthiest 20% or so of Americans have prospered since then, the other 80% of the population has experienced ongoing declines in standards of living.
The political impact of these policies has been amplified by a culture of contempt toward working class Americans on the part of the affluent minority, and an insistence that any attempt to discuss economic and social impacts of automation, offshoring of jobs, and mass illegal immigration must be dismissed out of hand as mere Luddism, racism, and xenophobia. As a direct consequence, a great many working class Americans—in 1965, by and large, the sector of the public most loyal to American institutions—have lost faith in the US system of government. This shift in values has massive military as well as political implications, since working class Americans are much more likely than others to own guns, to have served in the military, and to see political violence as a potential option.
Thus a domestic insurgency in the United States is a real possibility at this point.  Since, as already noted, working class Americans are disproportionately likely to serve in the military, planning for a domestic insurgency in the United States will have to face the possibility that such an insurgency will include veterans familiar with current counterinsurgency doctrine. It will also have to cope with the risk that National Guard and regular armed forces personnel sent to suppress such an insurgency will go over to the insurgent side, transforming the insurgency into a civil war.
As some wag has pointed out, the US military is very good at fighting insurgencies but not so good at defeating them, and the fate of Eastern Bloc nations after the fall of the Soviet Union shows just how fast a government can unravel once its military personnel turn against it. Furthermore, since the crisis of legitimacy is driven by policies backed by a bipartisan consensus, military planners can only deal with the symptoms of a challenge whose causes are beyond their control.
2. The marginalization of the United States in the global arena. Twenty years ago the United States was the world’s sole superpower, having triumphed over the Soviet Union, established a rapprochement with China, and marginalized such hostile Islamic powers as Iran. Those advantages did not survive two decades of overbearing and unreliable US policy, which not only failed to cement the gains of previous decades but succeeded in driving Russia and China, despite their divergent interests and long history of conflict, into an alliance against the United States. Future scholars will likely consider this to be the worst foreign policy misstep in our nation’s history.
Iran’s alignment with the Sino-Russian alliance and, more recently, overtures from the Philippines and Egypt, track the continuation of this trend, as do the establishment of Chinese naval bases across the Indian Ocean from Myanmar to the Horn of Africa, and most recently, Russian moves to reestablish overseas bases in Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, and Cuba. Russia and China are able to approach foreign alliances on the basis of a rational calculus of mutual interest, rather than the dogmatic insistence on national exceptionalism that guides so much of US foreign policy today. This allows them to offer other nations, including putative US allies, better deals than the US is willing to concede.
As a direct result, barring a radical change in its foreign policy, the United States in 2035 will be marginalized by a new global order centered on Beijing and Moscow, denied access to markets and resources by trade agreements hostile to its interests, and will have to struggle to maintain influence even over its “near abroad.” It is unwise to assume, as some current strategists do, that China’s current economic problems will slow that process.  Some European leaders in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler among them, assumed that the comparable boom-bust cycle the United States experienced in the 1920s and 1930s meant that the US would be a negligible factor in the European balance of power in the 1940s.  I think we all know how that turned out.
Here again, barring a drastic change in US foreign policy, military planners will be forced to deal with the consequences of unwelcome shifts without being able to affect the causes of those shifts.  Careful planning can, however, redirect resources away from global commitments that will not survive the process of marginalization, and toward securing the “near abroad” of the United States and withdrawing assets to the continental US to keep them from being compromised by former allies.
3. The rise of “monkeywrenching” warfare. The United States has the most technologically complex military in the history of war. While this is normally considered an advantage, it brings with it no shortage of liabilities. The most important of these is the vulnerability of complex technological systems to “monkeywrenching”—that is, strategies and tactics targeting technological weak points in order to degrade the capacities of a technologically superior force.  The more complex a technology is, as a rule, the wider the range of monkeywrenching attacks that can interfere with it; the more integrated a technology is with other technologies, the more drastic the potential impacts of such attacks. The complexity and integration of US military technology make it a monkeywrencher’s dream target, and current plans for increased complexity and integration will only heighten the risks.
The risks created by the emergence of monkeywrenching warfare are heightened by an attitude that has deep roots in the culture of US military procurement:  the unquestioned assumption that innovation is always improvement. This assumption has played a central role in producing weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is so heavily burdened with assorted innovations that it has a much shorter effective range, a much smaller payload, and much higher maintenance costs than competing Russian and Chinese fighters. In effect, the designers of the F-35 were so busy making it innovative that they forgot to make it work. The same thing can be said about many other highly innovative but dubiously effective US military technologies.
Problems caused by excessive innovation can to some extent be anticipated and countered by US military planners. What makes monkeywrenching attacks by hostile states and non-state actors so serious a threat is that it may not be possible to predict them in advance. While US intelligence assets should certainly make every effort to identify monkeywrenching technologies and tactics before they are used, US forces must be aware that at any moment, critical technologies may be put out of operation or turned to the enemy’s advantage without warning. Rigorous training in responding to technological failure, and redundant systems that can operate independently of existing networks, may provide some protection against monkeywrenching, but the risk remains grave.
4. The genesis of warband culture in failed states.While JOE-35 rightly identifies the collapse of weak states into failed-state conditions as a significant military threat, a lack of attention to the lessons of history leads its authors to neglect the most serious risk posed by the collapse of states in a time of general economic retrenchment and cultural crisis. That risk is the emergence of warband culture—a set of cultural norms that dominate the terminal periods of most recorded civilizations and the dark ages that follow them, and play a central role in the historical transformation to dark age conditions.
Historians use the term “warband” to describe a force of young men whose only trade is violence, gathered around a charismatic leader and supporting itself by pillage. While warbands tend to come into being whenever public order collapses or has not yet been imposed, the rise of a self-sustaining warband culture requires a prolonged period of disorder in which governments either do not exist or cannot establish their legitimacy in the eyes of the governed, and warbands become accepted as the de facto governments of territories of various size. Once this happens, the warbands inevitably begin to move outward; the ethos and the economics of the warband alike require access to plunder, and this can best be obtained by invading regions not yet reduced to failed-state conditions, thus spreading the state of affairs that fosters warband culture in the first place.
Most civilizations have had to contend with warbands in their last years, and the record of attempts to quell them by military force is not good. At best, a given massing of warbands can be defeated and driven back into whatever stateless area provides them with their home base; a decade or two later, they can be counted on to return in force. Systematic attempts to depopulate their home base simply drive them into other areas, causing the collapse of public order there. Once warband culture establishes itself solidly on the fringes of a civilization, history suggests, the entire civilized area will eventually be reduced to failed-state conditions by warband incursions, leading to a dark age. Nothing guarantees that the modern industrial world is immune from this same process.
The spread of failed states around the periphery of the industrial world is thus an existential thread not only to the United States but to the entire project of modern civilization. What makes this a critical issue is that US foreign policy and military actions have repeatedly created failed states in which warband culture can flourish:  Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine are only the most visible examples. Elements of US policy toward Mexico—for example, the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scheme—show worrisome movement in the same direction. Unless these policies are reversed, the world of 2035 may face conditions like those that have ended civilization more than once in the past.
5. The end of the Holocene environmental optimum. All things considered, the period since the final melting of the great ice sheets some six millennia ago has been extremely propitious for the project of human civilization. Compared to previous epochs, the global climate has been relatively stable, and sea levels have changed only slowly. Furthermore, the globe six thousand years ago was stocked with an impressive array of natural resources, and the capacity of its natural systems to absorb sudden shocks had not been challenged on a global level for some sixty-five million years.
None of those conditions remains the case today. Ongoing dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is rapidly destabilizing the global climate, and triggering ice sheet melting in Greenland and Antarctica that promises to send sea levels up sharply in the decades and centuries ahead. Many other modes of pollution are disrupting natural systems in a galaxy of ways, triggering dramatic environmental changes. Meanwhile breakneck extraction is rapidly depleting the accessible stocks of hundreds of different nonrenewable resources, each of them essential to some aspect of contemporary industrial society, and the capacity of natural systems to cope with the cascading burdens placed upon them by human action has already reached the breaking point in many areas.
The end of the Holocene environmental optimum—the era of relative ecological stability in which human civilization has flourished—is likely to be a prolonged process. By 2035, however, current estimates suggest that the initial round of impacts will be well under way. Shifting climate belts causing agricultural failure, rising sea levels imposing drastic economic burdens on coastal communities and the nations to which they belong, rising real costs for resource extraction driving price spikes and demand destruction, and increasingly intractable conflicts pitting states, non-state actors, and refugee populations against one another for remaining supplies of fuel, raw materials, topsoil, food, and water.
US military planners will need to take increasingly hostile environmental conditions into account. They will also need to prepare for mass movements of refugees out of areas of flooding, famine, and other forms of environmental disruption, on a scale exceeding current refugee flows by orders of magnitude. Finally, since the economic impact of these shifts on the United States will affect the nation’s ability to provide necessary resources for its military, plans for coping with cascading environmental crises will have to take into account the likelihood that the resources needed to do so may be in short supply.
Those are the five contexts for conflict I foresee. What makes them even more challenging than they would otherwise be, of course, is that none of them occur in a vacuum, and each potentially feeds into the others. Thus, for example, it would be in the national interest of Russia and/or China to help fund and supply a domestic insurgency in the United States (contexts 1 and 2); emergent warbands may well be able to equip themselves with the necessary gear to engage in monkeywrenching attacks against US forces sent to contain them (contexts 4 and 3); disruptions driven by environmental change will likely help foster the process of warband formation (contexts 5 and 4), and so on.
That’s the future hiding in plain sight: the implications of US policies in the present and recent past, taken to their logical conclusions. The fact that current Pentagon assessments of the future remain so tightly fixed on the phenomena of the present, with no sense of where those phenomena lead, gives me little hope that any of these bitter outcomes will be avoided.

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There will be no regularly scheduled Archdruid Report next week. Blogger's latest security upgrade has made it impossible for me to access this blog while I'm out of town, and I'll be on the road (and my backup moderator unavailable) for a good part of what would be next week's comment cycle. I've begun the process of looking for a new platform for my blogs, and I'd encourage any of my readers who rely on Blogger or any other Google product to look for alternatives before you, too, get hit by an "upgrade" that makes it more trouble to use than it's worth.

An Afternoon in Early Autumn

Wed, 2016-10-12 14:43
I think it was the late science writer Stephen Jay Gould who coined the term “deep time” for the vast panorama opened up to human eyes by the last three hundred years or so of discoveries in geology and astronomy. It’s a useful label for an even more useful concept. In our lives, we deal with time in days, seasons, years, decades at most; decades, centuries and millennia provide the yardsticks by which the life cycles of human societies—that is to say, history, in the usual sense of that word—are traced.
Both these, the time frame of individual lives and the time frame of societies, are anthropocentric, as indeed they should be; lives and societies are human things and require a human measure. When that old bamboozler Protagoras insisted that “man is the measure of all things,” though, he uttered a subtle truth wrapped in a bald-faced lie.* The subtle truth is that since we are what we are—that is to say, social primates whow have learned a few interesting tricks—our capacity to understand the cosmos is strictly limited by the perceptions that human nervous systems are capable of processing and the notions that human minds are capable of thinking. The bald-faced lie is the claim that everything in the cosmos must fit inside the perceptions human beings can process and the notions they can think.
(*No, none of this has to do with gender politics. The Greek language, unlike modern English, had a common gender-nonspecific noun for “human being,” anthropos, which was distinct from andros, “man,” and gyne, “woman.” The word Protagoras used was anthropos.)
It took the birth of modern geology to tear through the veil of human time and reveal the stunningly inhuman scale of time that measures the great cycles of the planet on which we live. Last week’s post sketched out part of the process by which people in Europe and the European diaspora, once they got around to noticing that the Book of Genesis is about the Rock of Ages rather than the age of rocks, struggled to come to terms with the immensities that geological strata revealed. To my mind, that was the single most important discovery our civilization has made—a discovery with which we’re still trying to come to terms, with limited success so far, and one that I hope we can somehow manage to hand down to our descendants in the far future.
The thing that makes deep time difficult for many people to cope with is that it makes self-evident nonsense out of any claim that human beings have any uniquely important place in the history of the cosmos. That wouldn’t be a difficulty at all, except that the religious beliefs most commonly held in Europe and the European diaspora make exactly that claim.
That last point deserves some expansion here, not least because a minority among the current crop of “angry atheists” have made a great deal of rhetorical hay by insisting that all religions, across the board, point for point, are identical to whichever specific religion they themselves hate the most—usually, though not always, whatever Christian denomination they rebelled against in their adolescent years. That insistence is a fertile source of nonsense, and never so much as when it turns to the religious implications of time.
The conflict between science and religion over the age of the Earth is a purely Western phenomenon.  Had the great geological discoveries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taken place in Japan, say, or India, the local religious authorities wouldn’t have turned a hair. On the one hand, most Asian religious traditions juggle million-year intervals as effortlessly as any modern cosmologist; on the other, Asian religious traditions have by and large avoided the dubious conviction, enshrined in most (though not all) versions of Christianity, that the Earth and everything upon it exists solely as a stage on which the drama of humanity’s fall and redemption plays out over a human-scaled interval of time. The expansive Hindu cosmos with its vast ever-repeating cycles of time, the Shinto concept of Great Nature as a continuum within which every category of being has its rightful place, and other non-Western worldviews offer plenty of room for modern geology to find a home.
Ironically, though, the ongoing decline of mainstream Christianity as a cultural influence in the Western world hasn’t done much to lessen the difficulty most people in the industrial world feel when faced with the abysses of deep time. The reason here is simply that the ersatz religion that’s taken the place of Christianity in the Western imagination also tries to impose a rigid ideological scheme not only on the ebb and flow of human history, but on the great cycles of the nonhuman cosmos as well. Yes, that would be the religion of progress—the faith-based conviction that human history is, or at least ought to be, a straight line extending onward and upward from the caves to the stars.
You might think, dear reader, that a belief system whose followers like to wallow in self-praise for their rejection of the seven-day creation scheme of the Book of Genesis and their embrace of deep time in the past would have a bit of a hard time evading its implications for the future. Let me assure you that this seems to give most of them no trouble at all. From Ray Kurzweil’s pop-culture mythology of the Singularity—a straightforward rewrite of Christian faith in the Second Coming dolled up in science-fiction drag—straight through to the earnest space-travel advocates who insist that we’ve got to be ready to abandon the solar system when the sun turns into a red giant four billion years from now, a near-total aversion to thinking about the realities deep time ahead of us is astonishingly prevalent among those who think they’ve grasped the vastness of Earth’s history.
I’ve come to think that one of the things that feeds this curious quirk of collective thinking is a bit of trivia to be found in a great many books on geology and the like—the metaphor that turns the Earth’s entire history into a single year, starting on January 1 with the planet’s formation out of clouds of interstellar dust and ending at midnight on December 31, which is always right now.
That metaphor has been rehashed more often than the average sitcom plot. A quick check of the books in the study where I’m writing this essay finds three different versions, one written in the 1960s, one in the 1980s, and one a little more than a decade ago. The dates of various events dance around the calendar a bit as new discoveries rewrite this or that detail of the planet’s history, to be sure; when I was a dinosaur-crazed seven-year-old, the Earth was only three and a half billion years old and the dinosaurs died out seventy million years ago, while the latest research I know of revises those dates to 4.6 billion years and 65 million years respectively, moving the date of the end-Cretaceous extinction from December 24 to December 26—in either case, a wretched Christmas present for small boys. Such details aside, the basic metaphor remains all but unchanged.
There’s only one problem with it, but it’s a whopper. Ask yourself this: what has gotten left out of that otherwise helpful metaphor? The answer, of course, is the future.
Let’s imagine, by contrast, a metaphor that maps the entire history of life on earth, from the first living thing on this planet to the last, onto a single year. We don’t know exactly when life will go extinct on this planet, but then we don’t know exactly when it emerged, either; the most recent estimate I know of puts the origin of  terrestrial life somewhere a little more than 3.7 billion years ago, and the point at which the sun’s increasing heat will finally sterilize the planet somewhere a little more than 1.2 billion years from now. Adding in a bit of rounding error, we can set the lifespan of our planetary biosphere at a nice round five billion years. On that scale, a month of thirty days is 411 million years, a single day is 13.7 million years, an hour is around 571,000 years, a minute is around 9514 years, and a second is 158 years and change. Our genus, Homo,* evolved maybe two hours ago, and all of recorded human history so far has taken up a little less than 32 seconds.
(*Another gender-nonspecific word for “human being,” this one comes from Latin, and is equally distinct from vir, “man,” and femina, “woman.” English really does need to get its act together.)
That all corresponds closely to the standard metaphor. The difference comes in when you glance at the calendar and find out that the present moment in time falls not on December 31 or any other similarly momentous date, but on an ordinary, undistinguished day—by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, it would be September 26.
I like to imagine our time, along these lines, as an instant during an early autumn afternoon in the great year of Earth’s biosphere. Like many another late September day, it’s becoming uncomfortably hot, and billowing dark clouds stand on the horizon, heralds of an oncoming storm. We human mayflies, with a lifespan averaging maybe half a second, dart here and there, busy with our momentary occupations; a few of us now and then lift our gaze from our own affairs and try to imagine the cold bare fields of early spring, the sultry air of summer evenings, or the rigors of a late autumn none of us will ever see.
With that in mind, let’s put some other dates onto the calendar. While life began on January 1, multicellular life didn’t get started until sometime in the middle of August—for almost two-thirds of the history of life, Earth was a planet of bacteria and blue-green algae, and in terms of total biomass, it arguably still is.  The first primitive plants and invertebrate animals ventured onto the land around August 25; the terrible end-Permian extinction crisis, the worst the planet has yet experienced, hit on September 8; the dinosaurs perished in the small hours of September 22, and the last ice age ended just over a minute ago, having taken place over some twelve and a half minutes.
Now let’s turn and look in the other direction. The last ice age was part of a glacial era that began a little less than two hours ago and can be expected to continue through the morning of the 27th—on our time scale, they happen every two and a half weeks or so, and the intervals between them are warm periods when the Earth is a jungle planet and glaciers don’t exist. Our current idiotic habit of treating the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer will disrupt that cycle for only a very short time; our ability to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will end in less than a second as readily accessible fossil fuel reserves are exhausted, and it will take rather less than a minute thereafter for natural processes to scrub the excess CO2 from the atmosphere and return the planet’s climate to its normal instability.
Certain other consequences of our brief moment of absurd extravagance will last longer.  On our timescale, the process of radioactive decay will take around half an hour (that is to say, a quarter million years or so) to reduce high-level nuclear waste all the way to harmlessness. It will take an interval of something like the same order of magnitude before all the dead satellites in high orbits have succumbed to the complex processes that will send them to a fiery fate in Earth’s atmosphere, and quite possibly longer for the constant rain of small meteorites onto the lunar surface to pound the Apollo landers and other space junk there to unrecognizable fragments. Given a few hours of the biosphere’s great year, though, everything we are and everything we’ve done will be long gone.
Beyond that, the great timekeeper of Earth’s biosphere is the Sun. Stars increase in their output of heat over most of their life cycle, and the Sun is no exception. The single-celled chemosynthetic organisms that crept out of undersea hot springs in February or March of the great year encountered a frozen world, lit by a pale white Sun whose rays gave far less heat than today; the oldest currently known ice age, the Cryogenian glaciation of the late Precambrian period, was apparently cold enough to freeze the oceans solid and wrap most of the planet in ice. By contrast, toward the middle of November in the distant Neozoic Era, the Sun will be warmer and yellower than it is today, and glacial eras will likely involve little more than the appearance of snow on a few high mountains normally covered in jungle.
Thus the Earth will gradually warm through October and November.  Temperatures will cycle up and down with the normal cycles of planetary climate, but each warm period will tend to be a little warmer than the last, and each cold period a little less frigid. Come December, most of a billion years from now, as the heat climbs past one threshold after another, more and more of the Earth’s water will evaporate and, as dissociated oxygen and hydrogen atoms, boil off into space; the Earth will become a desert world, with life clinging to existence at the poles and in fissures deep underground, until finally the last salt-crusted seas run dry and the last living things die out.
And humanity? The average large vertebrate genus lasts something like ten million years—in our scale, something over seventeen hours. As already noted, our genus has only been around for about two hours so far, so it’s statistically likely that we still have a good long run ahead of us. I’ve discussed in these essays several times already the hard physical facts that argue that we aren’t going to go to the stars, or even settle other planets in this solar system, but that’s nothing we have to worry about. Even if we have an improbably long period of human existence ahead of us—say, the fifty million years that bats of the modern type have been around, some three and a half days in our scale, or ten thousand times the length of all recorded human history to date—the Earth will be burgeoning with living things, and perfectly capable of supporting not only intelligent life but rich, complex, unimaginably diverse civilizations, long after we’ve all settled down to our new careers as fossils.
This does not mean, of course, that the Earth will be capable of supporting the kind of civilization we have today. It’s arguably not capable of supporting that kind of civilization now.  Certainly the direct and indirect consequences of trying to maintain the civilization we’ve got, even for the short time we’ve made that attempt so far, are setting off chains of consequences that don’t seem likely to leave much of it standing for long. That doesn’t mean we’re headed back to the caves, or for that matter, back to the Middle Ages—these being the two bogeymen that believers in progress like to use when they’re trying to insist that we have no alternative but to keep on stumbling blindly ahead on our current trajectory, no matter what.
What it means, instead, is that we’re headed toward something that’s different—genuinely, thoroughly, drastically different. It won’t just be different from what we have now; it’ll also be different from the rigidly straight-line extrapolations and deus ex machina fauxpocalypses that people in industrial society like to use to keep from thinking about the future we’re making for ourselves. Off beyond the dreary Star Trekfantasy of metastasizing across the galaxy, and the equally hackneyed Mad Max fantasy of pseudomedieval savagery, lies the astonishing diversity of the future before us: a future potentially many orders of magnitude longer than all of recorded history to date, in which human beings will live their lives and understand the world in ways we can’t even imagine today.
It’s tolerably common, when points like the one I’ve tried to make here get raised at all, for people to insist that paying attention to the ultimate fate of the Earth and of our species is a recipe for suicidal depression or the like. With all due respect, that claim seems silly to me. Each one of us, as we get out of bed in the morning, realizes at some level that the day just beginning will bring us one step closer to old age and death, and yet most of us deal with that reality without too much angst.
In the same way, I’d like to suggest that it’s past time for the inmates of modern industrial civilization to grow up, sprout some gonads—either kind, take your pick—and deal with the simple, necessary, and healthy realization that our species is not going to be around forever. Just as maturity in the individual arrives when it sinks in that human life is finite, collective maturity may just wait for a similar realization concerning the life of the species. That kind of maturity would be a valuable asset just now, not least because it might help us grasp some of the extraordinary possibilities that will open up as industrial civilization finishes its one-way trip down the chute marked “decline and fall” and the deindustrial future ahead of us begins to take shape.

The Myth of the Anthropocene

Wed, 2016-10-05 20:00
To explore the messy future that modern industrial society is making for itself, it’s necessary now and again to stray into some of the odd corners of human thought. Over the decade and a bit that this blog has been engaged in that exploration, accordingly, my readers and I have gone roaming through quite an assortment of topics—politics, religion, magic, many different areas of history, at least as many sciences, and the list goes on. This week, it’s time to ramble through geology, for reasons that go back to some of the basic presuppositions of our culture, and reach forward from there to the far future.
Over the last few years, a certain number of scientists, climate activists, and talking heads in the media have been claiming that the Earth has passed out of its previous geological epoch, the Holocene, into a new epoch, the Anthropocene. Their argument is straightforward: human beings have become a major force shaping geology, and that unprecedented reality requires a new moniker. Last I heard, the scholarly body that authorizes formal changes to that end of scientific terminology hasn’t yet approved the new term for official use, but it’s seeing increasing use in less formal settings.
I’d like to suggest that the proposed change is a mistake, and that the label “Anthropocene” should go into whatever circular file holds phlogiston, the luminiferous ether, and other scientific terms that didn’t turn out to represent realities. That’s not because I doubt that human beings are having a major impact on geology just now, far from it.  My reasons are somewhat complex, and will require a glance back over part of the history of geology—specifically, the evolution of the labels we use to talk about portions of the past. It’s going to be a bit of a long journey, but bear with me; it matters.
Back in the seventeenth century, when the modern study of geology first got under way, the Book of Genesis was considered to be an accurate account of the Earth’s early history, and so geologists looked for evidence of the flood that plopped Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat. They found it, too, or that’s what people believed at the time. By and large, anywhere you go in western Europe, you’ll be standing on one of three things; the first is rock, the second is an assortment of gravels and compact tills, and the third is soil. With vanishingly few exceptions, where they overlap, the rock is on the bottom, the gravels and tills are in the middle, and the soil is on top. Noting that some of the gravels and tills look like huge versions of the sandbars and other features shaped by moving water, the early geologists decided the middle layed had been left by the Flood—that’s diluvium in Latin—and so the three layers were named Antediluvian (“before the flood”), Diluvian, and Postdiluvian (“after the flood”).
So far, so good—except then they started looking at the Antediluvian layer, and found an assortment of evidence that seemed to imply that really vast amounts of time had passed between different layers of rock. During the early eighteenth century, as this sank in, the Book of Genesis lost its status as a geology textbook, and geologists came up with a new set of four labels: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. (These are fancy ways of saying “First, Second, Third, and Fourth,” in case you were wondering.) The Quaternary layer consisted of the former Diluvian and Postdiluvian gravels, tills, and soil; the Tertiary consisted of rocks and fossils that were found under those; the Secondary was the rocks and fossils below that, and the Primary was at the bottom.
It was a good scheme for the time; on the surface of the Earth, if you happen to live in western Europe and walk around a lot, you’ll see very roughly equal amounts of all four layers. What’s more, they  always occur in the order just given.  Where they overlap, the Primary is always under the Secondary, and so on; you never find Secondary rocks under Primary ones, except when the rock layers have obviously been folded by later geological forces. So geologists assigned them to four different periods of time, named after the layers—the Primary Era, the Secondary Era, and so on.
It took quite a bit of further work for geologists to get a handle on how much time was involved in each of these eras, and as the results of that line of research started to become clear, there was a collective gulp loud enough to echo off the Moon. Outside of India and a few Native American civilizations, nobody anywhere had imagined that the history of the Earth might involve not thousands of years, but billions of them. As this sank in, the geologists also realized that their four eras were of absurdly different lengths. The Quaternary was only two million years long; the Tertiary, around sixty-three million years; the Secondary, around one hundred eighty-six million years; and the Primary, from there back to the Earth’s origin, or better than four billion years.
So a new scheme was worked out. The Quaternary era became the Quaternary period, and it’s still the Quaternary today, even though it’s not the fourth of anything any more. The Tertiary also became a period—it later got broken up into the Paleogene and Neogene periods—and the Tertiary (or Paleogene and Neogene) and Quaternary between them made up the Cenozoic (Greek for “recent life”) era. The former Secondary era became the Mesozoic (“middle life”) era, and was divided into three periods; starting with the most recent, these are the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic. The former Primary era became the Paleozoic (“old life”) era, and was divided into six periods; again, starting with the most recent, these were are the Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian. The Cambrian started around 542 million years ago, and everything before then—all three billion years and change—was tossed into the vast dark basement of the Precambrian.
It was a pretty good system, and one of the things that was pretty good about it is that the periods were of very roughly equal length. Thus the Paleozoic had twice as many periods as the Mesozoic, and it lasted around twice as long. The Mesozoic, in turn, had three times as many complete periods as the Cenozoic did (in pre-Paleogene and Neogene days)—the Quaternary has just gotten started, remember—and it’s around three times as long. I don’t know how many of my readers, as children, delighted in the fact that the whole Cenozoic era—the Age of Mammals, as it was often called—could be dropped into the Cretaceous period with room to spare on either end, but I did. I decorated one of my school notebooks with a crisp little drawing of a scoreboard that read DINOSAURS 3, MAMMALS 1. No, nobody else got the joke.
In recent decades, things have been reshuffled a bit more.  The Precambrian basement has been explored in quite some detail, and what used to be deliciously named the Cryptozoic eon has now sadly been broken up into Proterozoic and Archean eons, and divided into periods to boot. We can let that pass, though, because it’s the other end of the time scale that concerns us. Since Cenozoic rock makes up so much of the surface—being the most recently laid down, after all—geologists soon broke up the Tertiary and Quaternary periods into six shorter units, called epochs: from first to last, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. (These are Greek again, and mean “dawn recent, few recent, some recent, many recent, most recent,” and “entirely recent”—the reference is to how many living things in each epoch look like the ones running around today.) Later, the Eocene got chopped in two to yield the Paleocene (“old recent”) and Eocene. Yes, that “-cene” ending—also the first syllable in Cenozoic—is the second half of the label “Anthropocene,” the human-recent.
The thing to keep in mind is that an epoch is a big chunk of time. The six of them that are definitely over with at this point lasted an average of almost eleven million years a piece. (For purposes of comparison, eleven million years is around 2200 times the length of all recorded human history.) The exception is the Holocene, which is only 11,700 years old at present, or only about 0.001% of the average length of an epoch. It makes sense to call the Holocene an epoch, in other words, if it’s just beginning and still has millions of years to run.
If in fact the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene is under way, though, the Holocene isn’t an epoch at all in any meaningful sense. It’s the tag-end of the Pleistocene, or a transition between the Pleistocene and whichever epoch comes next, whether that be labeled Anthropocene or something else. You can find such transitions between every epoch and the next, every period and the next, and every era and the next. They’re usually quite distinctive, because these different geological divisions aren’t mere abstractions; the change from one to another is right there in the rock strata, usually well marked by sharp changes in a range of markers, including fossils. Some long-vanished species trickle out in the middle of an epoch, to be sure, but one of the things that often marks the end of an epoch, a period, or an era is that a whole mess of extinctions all happen in the transition from one unit of time to the next.
Let’s look at a few examples to sharpen that last point. The Pleistocene epoch was short as epochs go, only a little more than two and a half million years; it was a period of severe global cooling, which is why it’s better known as the ice age; and a number of its typical animals—mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and woolly rhinoceri in North America, giant ground sloths and glyptodons in South America, cave bears and mastodons in Europe, and so on—went extinct all at once during the short transition period at its end, when the climate warmed abruptly and a wave of invasive generalist predators (i.e., your ancestors and mine) spread through ecosystems that were already in extreme turmoil. That’s a typical end-of-epoch mess.
Periods are bigger than epochs, and the end of a period is accordingly a bigger deal. Let’s take the end of the Triassic as a good example. Back in the day, the whole Mesozoic era routinely got called “the Age of Reptiles,” but until the Triassic ended it was anybody’s guess whether the dinosaurs or the therapsid almost-mammals would end up at the top of the ecological heap. The end-Triassic extinction crisis put an end to the struggle by putting an end to most of the therapsids, along with a lot of other living things. The biggest of the early dinosaurs died off as well, but the smaller ones thrived, and their descendants went on to become the huge and remarkably successful critters of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. That’s a typical end-of-period mess.
Eras are bigger than periods, and they always end with whopping crises. The most recent example, of course, is the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago. Forty per cent of the animal families on the planet, including species that had been around for hundreds of millions of years, died pretty much all at once. (The current theory, well backed up by the data, is that a good-sized comet slammed into what’s now the Yucatan peninsula, and the bulk of the dieoff was over in just a few years.) Was that the worst extinction crisis ever? Not a chance; the end of the Paleozoic 251 million years ago was slower but far more ghastly, with around ninety-five per cent of all species on the casualty list. Some paleontologists, without undue exaggeration, describe the end-Paleozoic crisis as the time Earth nearly died.
So the landscape of time revealed to us by geology shows intervals of relative stability—epochs, periods, and eras—broken up by short transition periods. If you go for a walk in country where the rock formations have been exposed, you can literally see the divisions in front of you: here’s a layer of one kind of rock a foot or two thick, laid down as sediment over millions of years and then compressed into stone over millions more; here’s a thin boundary layer, or simply an abrupt line of change, and above it there’s a different kind of rock, consisting of sediment laid down under different climatic and environmental conditions.
If you’ve got a decent geological laboratory handy and apply the usual tests to a couple of rock samples, one from the middle of an epoch and the other from a boundary layer, the differences are hard to miss. The boundary layer made when the Mesozoic ended and the Cenozoic began is a good example. The Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer is spiked with iridium, from space dust brought to earth by the comet; it’s full of carbon from fires that were kindled by the impact over many millions of square miles; and the one trace of life you’ll find is a great many fungal spores—dust blown into the upper atmosphere choked out the sun and left most plants on Earth dead and rotting, with results that rolled right up the food chain to the tyrannosaurs and their kin. You won’t find such anomalies clustering in the rock sample from the middle of the epoch; what you’ll find in nearly every case is evidence of gradual change and ordinary geological processes at work.
Now ask yourself this, dear reader: which of these most resembles the trace that human industrial civilization is in the process of leaving for the rock formations of the far future?
It’s crucial to remember that the drastic geological impacts that have inspired some scientists to make use of the term “Anthropocene” are self-terminating in at least two senses. On the one hand, those impacts are possible because, and only because, our species is busily burning through stores of fossil carbon that took half a billion years for natural processes to stash in the rocks, and ripping through equally finite stores of other nonrenewable resources, some of which took even longer to find their way into the deposits we mine so greedily. On the other hand, by destabilizing the climate and sending cascading disturbances in motion through a good-sized collection of other natural cycles, those impacts are in the process of wrecking the infrastructure that industrial society needs to go its merry way.
Confronted with the tightening vise between accelerating resource depletion and accelerating biosphere disruption, the vast majority of people in the industrial world seem content to insist that they can have their planet and eat it too. The conventional wisdom holds that someone, somewhere, will think of something that will allow us to replace Earth’s rapidly emptying fuel tanks and resource stocks, on the one hand, and stabilize its increasingly violent climatic and ecological cycles, on the other.  That blind faith remains welded in place even as decade after decade slips past, one supposed solution after another fails, and the stark warnings of forty years ago have become the front page news stories of today. Nothing is changing, except that the news just keeps getting worse.
That’s the simple reality of the predicament in which we find ourselves today. Our way of life, here in the world’s industrial nations, guarantees that in the fairly near future, no one anywhere on the planet will be able to live the way we do. As resources run out, alternatives fail, and the destructive impacts of climate change pile up, our ability to influence geological processes will go away, and leave us once more on the receiving end of natural cycles we can do little to change.
A hundred million years from now, as a result, if another intelligent species happens to be around on Earth at that time and takes an interest in geology, its members won’t find a nice thick stratum of rock marked with the signs of human activity, corresponding to an Anthropocene epoch. They’ll find a thin boundary layer, laid down over a few hundred years, and laced with exotic markers: decay products of radioactive isotopes splashed into the atmosphere by twentieth-century nuclear bomb testing and nuclear reactor meltdowns; chemical markers showing a steep upward jolt in atmospheric carbon dioxide; and scattered freely through the layer, micron-thick streaks of odd carbon compounds that are all that’s left of our vast production of plastic trash. That’s our geological legacy: a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick, with the usual discontinuity between the species in the rock just below, many of whom vanish at the transition, and the species in the rock just above, who proliferate into empty ecological niches and evolve into new forms.
In place of the misleading label “Anthropocene,” then, I’d like to propose that we call the geological interval we’re now in the Pleistocene-Neocene transition. Neocene? That’s Greek for “new recent,” representing the “new normal” that will emerge when our idiotic maltreatment of the planet that keeps us all alive brings the “old normal” crashing down around our ears. We don’t call the first epoch after the comet impact 65 million years ago the “Cometocene,” so there’s no valid reason to use a label like “Anthropocene” for the epoch that will dawn when the current transition winds down. Industrial civilization’s giddy rise and impending fall are the trigger for the transition, and nothing more; the shape of the Neocene epoch will be determined not by us, but by the ordinary processes of planetary change and evolution.
Those processes have been responding to the end of the so-called Holocene—let’s rename it the Late Pleistocene, given how extremely short it turned out to be—in the usual manner.  Around the world, ice caps are melting, climate belts are shifting, acid-intolerant species in the ocean are being replaced by acid-tolerant ones, and generalist species of animals such as cats, coyotes, and feral pigs are spreading rapidly through increasingly chaotic ecosystems, occupying vacant ecological niches or elbowing less flexible competitors out of the way. By the time the transition winds down a few centuries from now, the species that have been able to adapt to new conditions and spread into new environments will be ready for evolutionary radiation; another half a million years or so, and the Neocene will be stocked with the first preliminary draft of its typical flora and fauna.
It’s entertaining, at least to me, to speculate about what critters will roam the desert sands of Kansas and Nebraska or stalk its prey in the forests of postglacial Greenland. To many of my readers, though, I suspect a more pressing question is whether a certain primate called Homo sapiens will be among the common fauna of the Neocene. I suspect so, though of course none of us can be sure—but giving up on the fantasy that’s embodied in the label “Anthropocene,” the delusion that what our civilization is doing just now is going to keep on long enough to fill a geological epoch, is a good step in the direction of our survival.

The Coming of the Postliberal Era

Wed, 2016-09-28 10:24
One of the big challenges faced by any student of current events is that of seeing past the turmoil of the present moment to catch the deep trends shaping events on a broader scale. It’s a little like standing on a beach, without benefit of tide tables, and trying to guess whether the tide’s coming in or going out. Waves surge, break, and flow back out to sea; the wind blows this way and that; it takes time, and close attention to subtle details, before you can be sure whether the sea is gradually climbing the beach or just as gradually retreating from it.
Over the last year or so, though, it’s become increasingly clear to me that one of the great tides of American politics has turned and is flowing out to sea. For almost precisely two hundred years, this country’s political discourse has been shaped—more powerfully, perhaps, than by any other single force—by the loose bundle of ideas, interests, and values we can call American liberalism. That’s the tide that’s turning. The most important trends shaping the political landscape of our time, to my mind, are the descent of the liberal movement into its final decadence, and the first stirrings of the postliberal politics that is already emerging in its wake.
To make sense of what American liberalism has been, what it has become, and what will happen in its aftermath, history is an essential resource. Ask a believer in a political ideology to define it, and you’ll get one set of canned talking points; ask an opponent of that ideology to do the same thing, and you’ll get another—and both of them will be shaped more by the demands of moment-by-moment politics than by any broader logic. Trace that ideology from its birth through its adolescence, maturity, and decline into senescence, and you get a much better view of what it actually means.
Let’s go back, then, to the wellsprings of the American liberal movement. Historians have argued for a good long time about the deeper roots of that movement, but its first visible upsurge can be traced to a few urban centers in the coastal Northeast in the years just after the War of 1812. Boston—nineteenth century America’s San Francisco—was the epicenter of the newborn movement, a bubbling cauldron of new social ideas to which aspiring intellectuals flocked from across the new Republic.  Any of my readers who think that the naive and effervescent idealism of the 1960s was anything new need to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance; it's set in the Massachusetts counterculture of the early nineteenth century, and most of the action takes place on a commune. That’s the context in which American liberalism was born.
From the very beginning, it was a movement of the educated elite. Though it spoke movingly about uplifting the downtrodden, the downtrodden themselves were permitted very little active part in it. It was also as closely intertwined with Protestant Christianity as the movement of the 1960s was with Asian religions; ministers from the Congregationalist and Unitarian churches played a central role in the movement throughout its early years, and the major organizations of the movement—the Anti-Slavery Societies, the Temperance League, and the Non-Resistant League, the first influential American pacifist group—were closely allied with churches, and staffed and supported by clergymen. Both the elitism and the Protestant Christian orientation, as we’ll see, had a powerful influence on the way American liberalism evolved over the two centuries that followed.
Three major social issues formed the framework around which the new movement coalesced. The first was the abolition of slavery; the second was the prohibition of alcohol; the third was the improvement of the legal status of women. (The movement traversed a long and convoluted road before this latter goal took its ultimate form of legal and social equality between the genders.) There were plenty of other issues that attracted their own share of attention from the movement—dietary reform, dress reform, pacifism, and the like—but all of them shared a common theme: the redefinition of politics as an expression of values.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that last phrase. Politics at that time, and at most other periods throughout human history, was understood as a straightforward matter of interests—in the bluntest of terms, who got what benefits and who paid what costs. Then and for most of a century thereafter, for example, one of the things that happened in the wake of every Presidential election is that the winner’s party got to hand out federal jobs en masse to its supporters. It was called the “spoils system,” as in “to the victor belongs the spoils;” people flocked to campaign for this or that presidential candidate as much in the hope of getting a comfortable federal job as for anyother reason. Nobody saw anything wrong with that system, because politics was about interests.
In the same way, there’s no evidence that anybody in the Constitutional Convention agonized about the ethical dimensions of the notorious provision that defined each slave as being 3/5ths of a person. I doubt the ethical side of the matter ever crossed any of their minds, because politics was not about ethics or any other expression of values—it was about interests—and the issue was simply one of finding a compromise that allowed each state to feel that its interests would be adequately represented in Congress. Values, in the thought of the time, belonged to church and to the private conscience of the individual; politics was about interests pure and simple.
(We probably need to stop here for a moment to deal with the standard response: “Yes, but they should have known better!” This is a classic example of chronocentrism. Just as ethnocentrism privileges the beliefs, values, and interests of a particular ethnic group, chronocentrism does the same thing to the beliefs, values, and interests of a particular time. Chronocentrism is enormously common today, on all sides of the political and cultural landscape; you can see it when scientists insist that people in the Middle Ages should have known better than to believe in astrology, for example, or when Christians insist that the old Pagans should have known better than to believe in polytheist religions. In every case, it’s simply one more attempt to evade the difficult task of understanding the past.)
Newborn American liberalism, though, rejected the division between politics and values. Their opposition to slavery, for example, had nothing to do with the divergent economic interests of the industrializing northern states and the plantation economy of the South, and everything to do with a devoutly held conviction that chattel slavery was morally wrong. Their opposition to alcohol, to the laws that denied civil rights to women, to war, and to everything else on the lengthy shopping list of the movement had to do with moral values, not with interests. That’s where you see the impact of the movement’s Protestant heritage: it took values out of the church and tried to apply them to the world as a whole.  At the time, that was exotic enough that the moral crusades just mentioned got about as much political traction at the time as the colorful fantasies of the 1960s did in their own day.
Both movements were saved from complete failure by the impact of war. The movement of the 1960s drew most of its influence on popular culture from its opposition to the Vietnam War, which is why it collapsed nearly without a trace when the war ended and the draft was repealed.  The earlier movement had to wait a while for its war, and in the meantime it very nearly destroyed itself by leaping on board the same kind of apocalyptic fantasy that kicked the New Age movement into its current death spiral four years ago. In the late 1830s, frustrated by the failure of the perfect society to show up as quickly as they desired, a great many adherents of the new liberal movement embraced the prophecy of William Miller, a New England farmer who believed that he had worked out from the Bible the correct date of the Second Coming of Christ. When October 22, 1844 passed without incident, the same way December 21, 2012 did, the resulting “Great Disappointment” was a body blow to the movement.
By then, though, one of the moral crusades being pushed by American liberals had attracted the potent support of raw economic interest. The division between northern and southern states over the question of slavery was not primarily seen at the time as a matter of ethics; it was a matter of competing interests, like every other political question, though of course northern politicians and media were quick to capitalize on the moral rhetoric of the Abolitionists. At issue was the shape of the nation’s economic future. Was it going to be an agrarian society producing mostly raw materials for export, and fully integrated into a global economy centered on Britain—the southern model? Or was it going to go its own way, raise trade barriers against the global economy, and develop its own industrial and agricultural economy for domestic consumption—the northern model?
Such questions had immediate practical implications, because government policies that favored one model guaranteed the ruin of the other. Slavery was the linchpin of the Southern model, because the big southern plantations required a vast supply of labor at next to no cost to turn a profit, and so it became a core issue targeted by northern politicians and propagandists alike. Read detailed accounts of the struggles in Congress between northern and southern politicians, though, and you’ll find that what was under debate had as much to do with trade policy and federal expenditures. Was there to be free trade, which benefited the South, or trade barriers, which benefited the North? Was the federal budget to pay for canals and roads, which benefited northern interests by getting raw materials to factories and manufactured products to markets, but were irrelevant to southern interests, which simply needed riverboats to ship cotton and tobacco to the nearest seaport?
Even the bitter struggles over which newly admitted states were to have slave-based economies, and which were not, had an overwhelming economic context in the politics of the time. The North wanted to see the western territories turned into a patchwork of family farms, producing agricultural products for the burgeoning cities of the eastern seaboard and the Great Lakes and buying manufactured goods from northern factories; the South wanted to see those same territories made available for plantations that would raise products for export to England and the world.
Yet the ethical dimension became central to northern propaganda, as already noted, and that helped spread the liberal conviction that values as well as interests had a place in the political dialogue. By 1860, that conviction had become widespread enough that it shaped thinking south of the Mason-Dixon line. As originally written, for example, the first line of the Confederate song “The Bonny Blue Flag” ran “fighting for the property we won by honest toil”—and no one anywhere had any illusions about the identity, or skin color, of the property in question. Before long, though, it was rewritten as “fighting for our liberty, with treasure, blood and toil.” The moment that change occurred, the South had already lost; it’s entirely possible to argue for slavery on grounds of economic interest, but once the focus of the conversation changes to values such as liberty, slavery becomes indefensible.
So the Civil War raged, the Confederacy rose and fell, the Northern economic model guided American economic policy for most of a century thereafter, and the liberal movement found its feet again. With slavery abolished, the other two primary goals took center stage, and the struggle to outlaw alcohol and get voting rights for women proceeded very nearly in lockstep.  The 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the US, and the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, were passed in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and even though Prohibition turned out to be a total flop, the same rhetoric was redirected toward drugs (most were legal in the US until the 1930s) and continues to shape public policy today.  Then came the Great Depression, and with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932—and above all with his landslide reelection victory in 1936, when the GOP carried only two states—the liberal movement became the dominant force in American political life.
Triumph after triumph followed.  The legalization of unions, the establishment of a tax-funded social safety net, the forced desegregation of the South: these and a galaxy of other reforms on the liberal shopping list duly followed. The remarkable thing is that all these achievements took place while the liberal movement was fighting opponents from both sides. To the right, of course, old-fashioned conservatives still dug in their heels and fought for the interests that mattered to them, but from the 1930s on, liberals also faced constant challenge from further left. American liberalism, as already mentioned, was a movement of the educated elite; it focused on helping the downtrodden rather than including them; and that approach increasingly ran into trouble as the downtrodden turned out to have ideas of their own that didn’t necessarily square with what liberals wanted to do for them.
Starting in the 1970s, in turn, American liberalism also ended up facing a third source of challenges—a new form of conservatism that borrowed the value-centered language of liberalism but used a different set of values to rally support to its cause: the values of conservative Protestant Christianity. In some ways, the rise of the so-called “new conservatism” with its talk about “family values” represented the final, ironic triumph of the long struggle to put values at the center of political discourse. By the 1980s, every political faction in American public life, no matter how crass and venial its behavior or its goals, took care to festoon itself with some suitable collection of abstract values. That’s still the case today; nobody talks about interests, even when interests are the obvious issue.
Thus you get the standard liberal response to criticism, which is to insist that the only reason anyone might possibly object to a liberal policy is because they have hateful values.
Let’s take current US immigration policy as an example. This limits the number of legal immigrants while tacitly allowing unlimited illegal immigration.  There are solid pragmatic reasons for questioning the appropriateness of that policy. The US today has the highest number of permanently unemployed people in its history, incomes and standards of living for the lower 80% of the population have been moving raggedly downward since the 1970s, and federal tax policies effectively subsidize the offshoring of jobs. That being the case, allowing in millions of illegal immigrants who have, for all practical purposes, no legal rights, and can be employed at sweatshop wages in substandard conditions, can only drive wages down further than they’ve already gone, furthering the impoverishment and immiseration of wage-earning Americans.
These are valid issues, dealing with (among other things) serious humanitarian concerns for the welfare of wage-earning Americans, and they have nothing to do with racial issues—they would be just as compelling if the immigrants were coming from Canada.  Yet you can’t say any of this in the hearing of a modern American liberal. If you try, you can count on being shouted down and accused of being a racist. Why? I’d like to suggest that it’s because the affluent classes from which the leadership of the liberal movement is drawn, and which set the tone for the movement as a whole, benefit directly from the collapse in wages that has partly been caused by mass illegal immigration, since that decrease in wages has yielded lower prices for the goods and services they buy and higher profits for the companies for which many of them work, and whose stocks many of them own.
That is to say, a movement that began its history with the insistence that values had a place in politics alongside interests has ended up using talk about values to silence discussion of the ways in which its members are pursuing their own interests. That’s not a strategy with a long shelf life, because it doesn’t take long for the other side to identify, and then exploit, the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Ironies of this sort are anything but unusual in political history. It’s astonishingly common for a movement that starts off trying to overturn the status quo in the name of some idealistic abstraction or other to check its ideals at the door once it becomes the status quo. If anything, American liberalism held onto its ideals longer than most and accomplished a great deal more than many, and I think that most of us—even those who, like me, are moderate Burkean conservatives—are grateful to the liberal movement of the past for ending such obvious abuses as chattel slavery and the denial of civil rights to women, and for championing the idea that values as well as interests deserve a voice in the public sphere. It deserves the modern equivalent of a raised hat and a moment of silence, if no more, as it finally sinks into the decadence that is the ultimate fate of every successful political movement.
The current US presidential election shows, perhaps better than anything else, just how far that decadence has gone. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is floundering in the face of Trump’s challenge because so few Americans still believe that the liberal shibboleths in her campaign rhetoric mean anything at all. Even among her supporters, enthusiasm is hard to find, and her campaign rallies have had embarrassingly sparse attendance. Increasingly frantic claims that only racists, fascists, and other deplorables support Trump convince no one but true believers, and make the concealment of interests behind shopworn values increasingly transparent.  Clinton may still win the election by one means or another, but the broader currents in American political life have clearly changed course.
It’s possible to be more precise. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism. In the same way, in Britain—where the liberal movement followed a somewhat different trajectory but has ended up in the same place—the success of the Brexit campaign and the wild enthusiasm with which Labour Party voters have backed the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn show that the same process is well under way there. Having turned into the captive ideology of an affluent elite, liberalism has lost the loyalty of the downtrodden that once, with admittedly mixed motives, it set out to help. That’s a loss it’s unlikely to survive.
Over the decades ahead, in other words, we can expect the emergence of a postliberal politics in the United States, England, and quite possibly some other countries as well. The shape of the political landscape in the short term is fairly easy to guess.  Watch the way the professional politicians in the Republican Party have flocked to Hillary Clinton’s banner, and you can see the genesis of a party of the affluent demanding the prolongation of free trade, American intervention in the Middle East, and the rest of the waning bipartisan consensus that supports its interests. Listen to the roars of enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—or better still, talk to the not inconsiderable number of Sanders supporters who will be voting for Trump this November—and you can sense the emergence of a populist party seeking the abandonment of that consensus in defense of its very different interests.
What names those parties will have is by no means certain yet, and a vast number of other details still have to be worked out. One way or another, though, it’s going to be a wild ride.

A Time for Retrovation

Wed, 2016-09-21 19:19
It's been a little more than a year now since I started the narrative that wrapped up last week. The two weeks that Peter Carr spent in the Lakeland Republic in late November of 2065 ended up covering a little more ground than I’d originally intended, and of course the vagaries of politics and culture in the twilight years of the American century got their share of attention on this blog. Now that the story’s told and the manuscript is getting its final revisions before heading off to the publisher, I want to talk a bit about exactly what I was trying to do by taking an imaginary person to an imaginary place where things work better than they do here and now.
Part of it, of course, was an attempt to sketch out in detail the practical implications of a point I’ve been exploring on this blog for a good while now. Most people in today’s industrial society believe, or think they believe, in progress: they believe, that is, that human history has a built-in bias that infallibly moves it from worse things to better things over time. These days, that belief in progress most often attaches itself to the increasing complexification of technology, and you get the touching faith in the imminence of a Star Trek future that allows so many people these days to keep slogging through the wretchedly unsatisfactory and steadily worsening conditions of the present.
Faith does not depend on evidence. If that statement needs any further proof, you can get it by watching the way people respond to technological failure. Most of us these days know perfectly well that every software “upgrade” these days has more bugs and fewer useful features than what it replaced, and every round of “new and improved” products hawked by the media and shoveled onto store shelves is more shoddily made, more loaded with unwanted side effects, and less satisfactory than the last round. Somehow, though, a good many of the people who witness this reality, day in and day out, still manage to insist that the future is, or at least ought to be, a paradise propped up by perfectly functioning machines. That the rising tide of technological failure might be something other than an accidental roadbump on the way to utopia—that it might be trying to tell us something that, by and large we don’t want to hear—has not yet entered our society’s darkest dream.
It so happens that in very many cases, older, simpler, sturdier technologies work better, producing more satisfactory outcomes and fewer negative side effects, than their modern high-tech equivalents. After most of two years taking apart the modern mythology of progress in a series of posts that became my book After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age, and most of another year doing the more pragmatic posts that are being turned into a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Retro Future, I decided that the best way to pursue the exploration further was to imagine a society very much like ours that had actually noticed the declining quality of technology, and adjusted public policies accordingly. That was the genesis of Retrotopia: the attempt to show, by means of the toolkit of narrative fiction, that deliberate technological regression as public policy didn’t amount to a return to the caves—quite the contrary, it meant a return to things that actually work.
The form that this exploration took, though, was shaped in important ways by an earlier venture of the same kind, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. I don’t know how many of my readers realize just how dramatic a change in utopian literature was marked by Callenbach’s solidly written tale. From the days of Thomas More’s novel Utopia, which gave the genre its name, utopian literature worked with the contrast between the world as it is and an ideal world as imagined by the author, without any connection between the two outside of the gimmick, however worked, that got a viewpoint character from one to the other. More’s Utopia was a critique of the England of Henry VIII, but there was never any suggestion on More’s part that England might be expected to turn into Utopia one of these days, and nearly all the utopian tales that followed his embraced the same approach.
With William Morris, things began to shift. Morris was a socialist, and thus believed devoutly that the world could in fact turn into something much better than it was; during the years that his commitment to socialism was at its height, he penned a utopian tale, News from Nowhere, which was set in a future England long after Victorian capitalism had gone gurgling down history’s sewer pipe. (Later on, in the pages of his tremendous fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End, he wove a subtle but pervasive critique of the socialist views he’d championed—socialism appears there in the stark and terrible symbolic form of the Dry Tree—but that’s a subject for a different post entirely.)
News From Nowhere was quite the controversial book in its day, not least because the socialist future Morris imagined was green, agrarian, and entirely free of the mechanized regimentation of humanity that played such a huge role in the Marxist imagination then as now.  Still, the historical thread that linked Morris’ utopia to the present was very thin.  The story was set far off in the future, and Morris skimmed lightly over the process that led from the dark Satanic mills of Victorian England to the green and pleasant land of his imagined socialist England.
That was where Callenbach took hold of the utopian narrative, and hammered it into a completely new shape. Ecotopia was set barely a quarter century in Callenbach’s own future. In his vision, the states of Washington, Oregon, and the northern two-thirds of California had broken away from the United States in 1980, and the usual visitor—journalist William Weston, from what’s left of the United States—came to pay the usual visit in 1999. Over the nineteen years between independence and Weston’s visit, the new nation of Ecotopia had entirely reshaped itself in the image of the Whole Earth Catalog, adopting the technologies, customs, and worldview that San Francisco-area eco-radicals of the 1970s dreamed of establishing, and here and there actually adopted in their own lives.
It really is a tour de force. One measure of its impact is that to this day, when you ask people on the leftward end of things to imagine an ideal future that isn’t just a lightly scrubbed version of the present, dollars will get you organic free range doughnuts that what you’ll hear is some version or other of the Ecotopian future: wind turbines and solar panels, organic farms everywhere, and everyone voluntarily embracing the social customs and attitudes of the San Francisco-area avant-garde circa 1975 in perfect lockstep. While I was writing Retrotopia, until some of my readers got the hang of the fact that I don’t crowdsource my fiction, I fielded any number of comments and emails insisting that I really ought to incorporate this or that or the other aspect of the Ecotopian future into my narrative. I didn’t take offense at that; it was pretty clear to me that for a lot of people nowadays, Ecotopia is literally the only alternative to the status quo that they can imagine.
We’ll get to the broader implications of that last point in a moment. Just now, I want to talk about why I didn’t write a mildly retro version of Ecotopia. I could have; it would have been easy and, frankly, quite entertaining to do that. I’ve imagined more than once writing a tale about somebody from our world who, via some bit of science-fictionish handwaving, is transported to an alternate America in which Ronald Reagan lost the 1980 election, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant underwent a full-scale Fukushima Daiichi meltdown with tens of thousands of casualties, and the United States had accordingly gone careening ahead toward the sustainable future we almost adopted. I may still write that story someday, but that wasn’t what I chose to do this time around.
Partly, of course, that was because Ernest Callenbach was there already forty years ago. Partly, though, it’s because not all the assumptions that undergirded Ecotopia have worn well in the decades since he wrote. It’s become painfully clear that renewable energy sources, valuable and necessary though they are, can’t simply be dropped into place as a replacement for fossil fuels; huge changes in energy use, embracing issues of energy concentration and accessibility as well as sheer quantity, will have to be made as fossil fuels run out and we have to make do with the enduring power sources of sun, wind, water, and muscle. It’s also become clear, painfully or amusingly as the case may be, that the notions that Sausalito intellectuals thought would save the world back in the 1970s—communal living, casual pansexuality, and the like—had downsides and drawbacks that nobody had gotten around to noticing yet, and weren’t necessarily as liberating and transformative as they seemed at the time.
Ecotopia also fell headlong into both of the standard pitfalls of the contemporary liberal imagination. The first of these is the belief that a perfect society can be attained if we can just abolish diversity of ideas and opinions, and get everyone to believe what the affluent liberal intelligentsia think they ought to believe. That’s why I put ongoing controversies between conservative and restorationist blocs into the story.  It’s also, on another level, why I put in repeated references to religious diversity—thus there are people running for public office in the Lakeland Republic who end an oath of office with “So help me Jesus my Lord and Savior,” just as there are military officers there who spend every Sunday at the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Toledo, and politicians who attend the Atheist Assembly.
The second pitfall, which follows from the first, is the belief that since you can’t get “those people” to have the ideas and opinions you think they ought to have, the proper response is to hole up in a self-referential echo chamber from which all unacceptable views are excluded. Ecotopiaassumes implicitly that the United States, and by inference the rest of the world’s nations as well, are utterly irredeemable; the nation of Ecotopia thus barricades itself inside its borders and goes its green and merry way, and the climax of the story comes when William Weston decides to stay in Ecotopia and become one of the good people. (He had a significant other back home in the USA, by the way; what she thought of his decision to dump her for a San Francisco hippie chick is nowhere mentioned.)
We’ll be discussing both those pitfalls at length in future posts, not least because they bid fair to exert a massive influence on contemporary politics, especially but not only in the United States. The point I’d like to make here, though, is just how deep the latter habit runs through the liberal end of our collective imagination. I’m thinking here of another powerful and morally problematic work of fiction to come out of the same era, Ursula K. LeGuin’s haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The core of the story is that there’s a splendid city, Omelas; its splendor depends on the infliction of suffering on one helpless person; now and again, people get upset by this, and leave the city. It’s stunningly well written but evades a crucial question: does walking away do anything to change the situation, or does it just let the ones who walk away from Omelas feel morally superior?
That was one of the reasons why the conclusion of Retrotopiadidn’t feature Peter Carr chucking his Atlantic Republic passport and moving in with Melanie Berger. Instead, he caught the train back home, having committed himself to the challenge of trying to move his own country in the direction that the Lakeland Republic has already taken, in the full knowledge that he might not succeed. I had the entire last scene in mind from the beginning of the project, partly as a deliberate challenge to that aspect of Ecotopia, partly because that sort of leap into uncertainty seems much more relevant to our present predicament. We don’t know, any more than Carr did, what lies behind the clouds that hide the future.
Of course the primary difference between Ecotopia and Retrotopia was that my narrative was meant to explore a very different approach from Callenbach’s. He was trying to propose a new, avant-garde, cutting-edge future—it’s often forgotten that the kind of thing Callenbach was talking about really was seen as the next great wave of progress in the 1970s, before the current fad for schizoid withdrawal into a cybernetic Neverland took that title away from it in the 1980s. I’m trying to explore the possibility that going back to what worked is a better idea than plunging forward along a trajectory that leads to no place any sane human being would want to go. He was talking about innovation, while I’m talking about retrovation: the strategy of using the past as a resource for problem-solving in the present.
Retrovation used to be utterly unthinkable in modern industrial societies. At the moment, it’s making the transition from utterly unthinkable to unspeakably heretical—thus another term for it I introduced in a post a while back, the heresy of technological choice—but a lot of people still can’t get their minds around it at all. When I’ve proposed steampunk technology as one model for the future, I’ve inevitably fielded a flurry of comments insisting that you can’t possibly have Victorian technology without child labor and oppressive gender politics—and of course while I was writing Retrotopia, quite a few readers assumed as a matter of course that the tier system in the Lakeland Republic governed every detail of daily life, so that you weren’t allowed to have anything belonging to a post-1830 technological suite if you lived in a tier one county.
Not so. The word I’ve coined for the strategy under discussion, retrovation, is obviously backformed from “retro” + “innovation,” but it’s also “re-trove-ation,” re-finding, rediscovery: an active process of searching through the many options the past provides, not a passive acceptance of some bygone time as a package deal. That’s the strategy the Lakeland Republic puts to use in my narrative, and those of my readers who know their way around the backwaters and odd corners of history may find it entertaining to figure out the sources from which I lifted this or that detail of Retrotopian daily life. The rhetoric of progress, by contrast, rejects that possibility, relies on a very dubious logic that lumps “the past” together as a single thing, and insists that wanting any of it amounts to wanting all of it, with the worst features inevitably highlighted.
I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that rejecting the latest new, shiny, and dysfunctional technology, in favor of an older technology that works, is tantamount to cheerleading for infant mortality, or slavery, or living in caves, or what have you. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be entertaining to turn that around—“if you won’t use a cell phone, you must be in favor of bringing back a balanced global climate!”—or simply taking it in directions a little more absurd than it’s gone already—“if you prefer rail travel to air travel, why, you might as well just restart the Punic Wars!”  In either case, the point that might be made is the silliness of the progress-worshippers’ insistence that the past, or the present, or for that matter the future, is an all-or-nothing deal.
That’s also why, to return to my narrative for a moment, I made a point of showing that the sexual mores of people in the Lakeland Republic didn’t correspond to how people behaved at some point in the past—or, more to the point, the mythical notion of how people behaved in the past that’s been circulated by certain pseudoconservatives in recent decades. Thus industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson is a lesbian with a lovely wife, Peter Carr happens to see two young men who’ve just gotten married on their way to their honeymoon, and when Peter and Melanie go out for dinner and an opera, the evening ends in her bedroom. I know that was uncomfortable for the social and religious conservatives among my readers, but it had to be there, for two reasons. 
On the one hand, as a moderate Burkean conservative, I see absolutely no justification for imposing legal restraints on what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, or for that matter in that dimension of the public sphere that pertains to marriage licenses—and, after all, this is my utopia and I’ll permit what I want to.  On the other hand, just as I put devoutly religious people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire liberals who believe that nobody should follow traditional religious teachings, I put married gay and lesbian people into the story to discomfit the sort of doctrinaire conservatives who believe that nobody should follow contemporary sexual mores. In both cases, the point I hoped to make is that the Lakeland Republic, with its policy of retrovation and its relative comfort with a diversity of ideas and lifestyles, hasn’t gone “backward,” or for that matter “forward,” but off in a direction all its own—a direction that can’t be defined in terms of the monomaniacally linear fixations of the worshippers of progress.
And of course that’s the crucial point, the most important thing that I hope my readers got out of the narrative. At the heart of most of the modern world’s insoluble problems is the faith-based claim that human history is a straight line with no branches or meanders, leading onward and upward from the caves to the stars, and that  every software upgrade, every new and improved product on the shelves, every lurch “forward”—however that conveniently floppy word happens to be defined from day to day by marketing flacks and politicians—therefore must lead toward that imaginary destination.
That blind and increasingly untenable faith, I’ve come to think, is the central reason why the only future different from the present that most people can imagine these days, if it’s not Ecotopia, is either a rehash of the past in every detail or some kind of nightmare dystopia. These days, as often as not, that even extends to science fiction, once our society’s most effervescent cauldron of novel futures. While writing an essay on the genre for a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, Mythic, it occurred to me—and not for the first time—how few recent works of science fiction seem to be able to portray a future society that isn’t either a straight-line extrapolation from the present, complete with all its most parochial features, a carbon-copy rehash of some specific society of the past, or a smoking wasteland.
Not all that many decades ago, SF authors routinely spun future societies as radically different from ours as ours is from, say, the ancient Maya, but such visions are rare now. I don’t think that’s accidental.  To borrow a metaphor from Retrotopia, when you’ve driven down a blind alley and are sitting there with your bumper pressed against a brick wall, the only way forward starts by backing up—but if you’ve been convinced by your society’s core ideological commitments that “backing up” can only mean returning whole hog to the imaginary, awful past from which the ersatz messiah of progress is supposed to save us, you’re stuck. There you sit, pushing uselessly on the pedal, hearing the engine labor and rattle, and watching the gas gauge move steadily toward that unwelcome letter E; it’s no surprise that after a while, the idea of a street leading somewhere else starts to seem distinctly unreal.
Other futures are possible. Retrotopia isn’t the only option, though I have to say it strikes me as a much more pleasant choice than what we’ve got now, and retrovation isn’t the only tool we need to get us out of that blind alley, though I suspect it’s more useful than a good many of the more popular items in our contemporary toolkit. Still, time will tell—and if my narrative irritates some of my readers enough to get them working on their own, radically different visions of a future that breaks free of the blind alley of linear progress, all the better.

Retrotopia: The Cloud that Hides the Future

Wed, 2016-09-14 17:59
This is the twenty-fifth and last installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator spends his last few hours in the Lakeland Republic, finds an answer to a question that has been bothering him, and boards the train back to Pittsburgh and the unknowns that wait there...
***********There wasn’t much more to be said after that, and so we all mouthed the usual things and I headed back to my hotel. The rain had settled in good and hard by then, so I didn’t dawdle. Back in the room, I got my coat and hat hung up to dry a little, and then turned the radio on to the jazz station, settled into the chair, and read the morning news. I had one more appointment at noon, and a train to catch at 2:26 that afternoon, and not a thing to do until then; I knew that I was going to be up to my eyeballs in meetings, briefings, and two weeks of unanswered textmails the minute I got back home; and just at the moment, the thought of taking some time at the Lakeland Republic’s less frantic pace and trying to make a little more sense of the world had a definite appeal.
I’d already read the headlines, so there weren’t too many surprises in store, though a United Nations panel had issued another warning about the zinc shortage, and meteorologists were predicting that the monsoons would fail in south Asia for the third year in a row. Two more satellites had been taken out by debris; a second jokulhlaup down in Antarctica had chucked another thousand square miles or so of ice sheet into the Indian Ocean; stock markets everywhere outside the Lakeland Republic had had another really bad day; the ceasefire negotiations in the California civil war had gotten off to a rocky start, and more details had gotten through about the opening rounds of the Texas-Confederate war—both sides’ offshore oil fields had taken even more of a hit than the original reports suggested.
That was only about half of the first section, though, and it was the other half, and the rest of the paper, that held my attention. That was the stuff that wasn’t about shortages and crises. It was about what people do when they’re not being held hostage by shortages and crises. There were birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries; a new streetcar line out to one of Toledo’s eastern neighborhoods was in the planning stages, with public meetings scheduled to sort out the route over the winter and tracklaying planned to start next May; a high school student was honored for volunteering more than a thousand hours reading the daily newspaper over one of the Toledo radio stations, for blind people and shut-ins; the big local shipyard had just bought another piece of property and would be hiring another three hundred people to meet the demand for shipping.
Then there were the help-wanted ads, pages and pages of them, looking for shipwrights, file clerks, millworkers, secretaries, mechanics, all the jobs that got automated or offshored out of existence back home and were keeping people busy and self-supporting here. There were two full pages of apprenticeship ads—if I’d wanted to become a carpenter, a pharmacist, a plumber, a doctor, an electrician, a millwright, a teacher, or a lawyer, just for starters, I would have had no trouble in the world figuring out where to apply.
All the while, though, the thoughts that had circled through my head on the trip back from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion hung in the air around me, and not even Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos on the radio could chase them away. People knew long before I was born that the things we were doing were going to end really, really badly, and yet everyone just kept on marching ahead, making the same dumb decisions over and over again, convinced that if they just did the same thing one more time it would undo the bad results they’d gotten every other time they’d done it. If you discover that you’re in a hole, the saying is, the first thing to do is stop digging—but that’s exactly what nobody was willing to do, because they’d convinced themselves that digging the hole deeper was the only way to get out of it.
That was the thing that twisted like a knife. The climate mess that was dumping icebergs off Antarctica and had already turned half of Manhattan into a rusting ruin that flooded deeper with every high tide, the Kessler syndrome that was busy putting an end to the space age, the cascading shortages that were taking a bigger bite out of the world’s economies every single year: none of those had happened by accident. They weren’t the result of fate, or destiny, or any of that claptrap. We’d progressed straight into each of them.
Of course progress also churned out plenty of good things back in the day—that’s why the jobs in the help-wanted ads weren’t limited to “peasant.” Somehow, though, most people outside the Lakeland Republic never got around to noticing when the costs of progress started to outweigh the benefits. Everybody kept talking about how progress was supposed to make people’s lives easier and better even when it started making people’s lives harder and worse, and when some part of that became too hard to ignore, everybody insisted that the only option was to go in for yet another round of progress.
And somehow, I thought, I’m going to have to explain all this to the people back home.
So I was in a pretty sour mood, all things considered, by the time the radio stopped playing jazz and the eleven o’clock news came on instead. I turned it off, got my coat and hat back on, grabbed my suitcase, and headed down to the lobby to check out.  After two weeks in the Lakeland Republic, I wasn’t too surprised when the clerk wrote something with a pen in a notebook full of sheets of paper, took my key, and wished me a good trip home in less time than it would have taken a hotel clerk elsewhere to get the computer to do whatever it is hotel computers do. Then I was out on the sidewalk under the canopy in front of the hotel door. The rain was still pelting down, but I flagged down a cab to go the train station.
Not quite half an hour later I got out in front of the station, paid my fare, got my suitcase, and headed in. The big vaulted space with benches on one side and ticket counters on the other was pretty well stocked with people going about their lives. I headed over to a window to one side of the ticket counters, stashed my suitcase with the clerk there—I’d asked Melanie about that and so knew what to do—and then headed for one of the restaurants on the side closest to the street. The place was starting to fill up with the lunch trade, but a glance back at the big clock on the wall above the platform doors showed me that I was still early. I went in anyway, asked the greeter for a table for two, got seated at a little table over by the windows looking at the street, shed my coat and hat, and ordered a chicory coffee to kill the time.
I’m not sure how much time passed, and how many cabs stopped to disgorge their passengers on the curb out front, before one of them finally let out the person I was waiting for. It was Melanie, of course, bundled up in a raincoat and broad-brimmed hat the way she’d been when we’d first met. She got most of the way to the station entrance before she spotted me there in the window; she waved, so did I, and then she hurried inside out of the rain and came around to the restaurant entrance. A few moments later she was settling into the chair across the table from me.
The waitress came over pretty much the moment Melanie sat down, so we got menus and talked about little things that don’t matter for a bit, until the waitress came back and took the menus and our order. I waited until she was gone, and then said, “I admit I’m really curious about Meeker’s reaction.”
“I bet,” she said, with a sly smile.
That was what I expected her to say, and she knew that I expected it, so I smiled too. Everybody in my line of work makes jokes about horizontal diplomacy; of course it’s discouraged, and of course it happens, and if you’re in politics and get into that kind of situation you know exactly where the lines are, and edge up to them now and then just to firm up the boundaries. When you get a relationship between two people in politics, you make extra sure that both know where the boundaries are so they don’t get in the way of the relationship, and one of the things that I liked about Melanie was that she was as professional about it all as I was.
“I’ll say this much,” she said after a moment. “You took him by surprise, which isn’t easy to do—but it was a pleasant surprise. If there’s any help you need from our side to help push things along, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Please thank him for me,” I said. “I don’t have much more of a clue about how to push this thing than I did this morning, though.”
She nodded. “May I offer a suggestion?”
“Of course.”
“Focus on cutting subsidies. It costs a lot to prop up the illusion of progress, and if you actually make every technology cover all its own costs, things sort themselves out really quickly.”
“Granted,” I said, “but you know as well as I do that the tech sector and some of the other resource hogs are going to scream the moment anybody tries to push them away from the feed trough.”
“True. The one advantage of this wretched war is that Ellen Montrose may have a little less trouble making that happen.”
I nodded, conceding. “The war and the economy,” I said. “Our stock market had another ghastly day yesterday, and I’m pretty sure the impact of losing the Gulf oil fields hasn’t really hit yet.”
The waitress came back with lunch, made a little conversation, and headed off to the next table. “One thing that might help,” I said then, “is if more people from our side of the border come here and see what you’ve done on this side. I know I was completely clueless about what was going on here, even after reading a pretty fair stack of briefing documents.  I’d like to see more people see for themselves, if that can be done without putting too much of a burden on you.”
“We can handle it,” said Melanie.
“I also meant you personally,” I said with a smile.
“I survived the Honorable Velma Streiber,” she said, with a smile of her own. “After that I think I can handle just about anything.”
I laughed, and so did she. We busied ourselves with our respective plates for a few minutes.
“I wonder,” she said then. “If you really want people from your side of the border to see what we’re doing on ours, President Montrose might want to make an official visit. We’d be happy to host something like that.”
I considered her. “That’s a real possibility.” Then: “Have you had any other heads of state visit?”
“A few.” She gestured with her fork, dismissing the idea. “Once diplomatic relations got reestablished after the Treaty of Richmond, we let it be known that we’d be happy to welcome any head of state that wanted to pay a visit, and reciprocate. The President of Chicago’s been here, of course—show me a country in North America he hasn’t visited—and we’ve exchanged state visits with Quebec and Missouri, but everyone else has backed away uneasily from the suggestion.” The fork jabbed down into her chef’s salad. “We’re still North America’s pariah nation, you know.”
“Even though your way of doing things works,” I said.
“No.” She glanced up at me. “Because our way of doing things works.”
We ate in silence for another few minutes. Of course her words made me think yet again of the same frustrating question I’d been brooding over earlier. It must have showed in my face, because she said,
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Just wondering why it is that everyone else keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, trying to fix their problems by doing more of what made the problem in the first place.”
“Progress?”
“Yes.”
“I have a suggestion.” When I gestured for her to go on: “I think it’s because all your talented people get put to work building new gadgets, instead of coming up with solutions for the problems that gadgets can’t fix. That means you have too many gadgets and a serious shortage of solutions.”
I stared at her for a moment. “And since your talented people aren’t working on gadgets—”
“We’ve found some solutions. Yes.” Then:  “There was nothing wrong with seeing how far progress could go and still get useful results. The problem was simply that people forgot to stop once they passed that point. We’ve got all the gadgets we need; you’ve got more than you need—and maybe it’s time to stop putting all our talents and our efforts into more gadgets and get to work on some of the other things that go into being human.”
I nodded after another, longer moment, but I knew already that I had my answer.
We talked about other things after that, mostly personal; I promised to write—the Atlantic Republic still has a postal system, though it’s nothing like as good as the one the Lakeland Republic has—and so did she; I paid the bill, we kissed, and then she went back to the Capitol and I got my suitcase from the baggage room and headed for the doors to the platforms. 
“Ladies and gentlemen, Train Twenty-two to Pittsburgh via Sandusky, Canton, and Steubenville,” someone called out. “Now boarding at Platform Six. Train Twenty-two.”
I showed my ticket, and a couple of minutes later I was on Platform Six. A conductor took another look at my ticket and sent me three cars up, to a car that was going all the way to the end of the line. I climbed aboard, got my suitcase stowed, and settled into a window seat on the right hand side.
What was going to happen when I got back home, I knew, was a complete crapshoot. Among Ellen’s top advisers, I’d been the most outspoken critic of her planned reworking of government policies, and so it was pretty much a given that once I threw my support to the plan, it would go ahead. Just how far the legislature would be willing to cut government subsidies for technology and stop penalizing employers for hiring workers was another question, and just how much of the broader Lakeland Republic program would be adopted was an even bigger one. The more clear it became that what they were doing worked, and what we were doing didn’t, the easier it would be to push that ahead, but there would be plenty of resistance among those who still thought that it made some kind of sense to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.
Maybe I could make it work, and maybe I couldn’t. Maybe my term as ambassador to the Lakeland Republic would be successful, and maybe I’d flop. Maybe the other North American nations could get Texas and the Confederacy to agree to a ceasefire before they ran both nations into the ground, and maybe we’d all end up with failed states on our southern borders and a world-class refugee problem.  For that matter, though I had high hopes for the relationship Melanie and I had gotten going, there was no way to know in advance if that would work out in the long run or turn out to be a flash in the pan. The future hides in a cloud, and you just don’t know what’s going to pop out of it.
The conductor came through, calling out his “All aboard!” as a last handful of passengers got on. Doors clattered shut. No, I thought, there’s no way to tell in advance what’s behind the cloud that hides the future, but maybe—just maybe—I can make a difference.
The car jolted once, and then began to move.
******************In other fiction-related news, Founders House Publishing—the publishers of Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies—has just released the second volume of Ralph Meima’s Inter States series, Emergent Disorder. It’s a harrowing and uncomfortably plausible vision of the United States in terminal crisis, and readers of my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming may want to check it out. It can be ordered here.

Retrotopia: The Only Way Forward

Wed, 2016-09-07 14:56
This is the twenty-fourth (and next to last) installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. At a final meeting between our narrator and Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, certain unstated agendas are revealed and the future of one of the post-US North American republics takes an unexpected turn...
***********A taxi brought back to my hotel from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion—one of her flunkeys called it for me—and I spent most of the ride staring out the window and thinking about what she’d said about the prewar rich. I’d heard plenty of stories along the same lines, of course, everybody has, but for some reason my mind kept circling back to the way that they’d dug their own graves and then jumped into them. Why didn’t it occur to them that voting themselves one billion-dollar bonus after another, while driving their own employees and the rest of the country into poverty, was going to blow up in their faces sooner or later?
I was thinking that, staring out at the darkening sky, when a little pale streak brought me back to reality. The dozens of governments and corporations that kept launching satellites even after 2029, when the Kessler syndrome in low earth orbit should have given them a wake-up call, had gone waltzing just as cluelessly into a preventable disaster of their own. I thought of the mess we’d gotten into back home by going long on nuclear power plants in the 2040s, long after it should have been clear to everyone that nuclear power was—what was Fred Vanich’s phrase?—a subsidy dumpster, one more technological white elephant that never paid for itself and only looked profitable because most of the costs were shoved out of sight one way or another. I thought of the war going on a thousand miles south of me just then, and wondered sourly why a species that was so smart at coming up with clever technologies was so dumb about so much else.
The taxi stopped outside the hotel, and I went in, climbed the stairs to my room, and made a phone call. Yes, the call was to Melanie Berger; yes, we spent the evening together; no, I’m not going to go into any of the details. We didn’t talk about progress or technology or the future of the Lakeland Republic, in case you were wondering.
Another taxi brought me back to the Capitol Hotel about seven-thirty the next morning. I tried without noticeable success to coax my electric shaver into giving me a decent shave, then showered and got everything but the day’s clothing packed. I’d considered more than once putting on ordinary bioplastic businesswear for the trip back, knowing that people back home would look at me as though I had two spare heads if I got off the train in Pittsburgh dressed in my Lakeland clothes, but that resolution lasted just about long enough for me to reach into the closet and grab a business suit. The slick clammy texture of the thing made my skin crawl. So I dressed in hempcloth and wool instead, checked my appearance, put on my trench coat and porkpie hat, and headed out the door to my final appointment with the President of the Lakeland Republic.
The weather had turned cold and damp overnight, and stray raindrops spattered down as I walked the familiar six blocks to the Capitol. Another round of scaffolding had gone up on the unfinished dome, and stonemasons were already clambering around up there, laying another course of marble blocks beneath the shelter of brown tarps I guessed probably weren’t made of plastic. Down at street level, people were already picking up the latest papers at Kaufer’s News.  I bought the Blade, glanced at the headlines on the front page:  the fighting in the Gulf and in northeastern Texas seemed to be grinding toward a stalemate; the other North American republics had appealed to the Brazilians and Chinese to stay out of the fighting and try to talk their respective client states into accepting a ceasefire; one of the big Indian telecom multinationals had gone bankrupt—the first corporate casualty of the satellite crisis, though I knew it wouldn’t be the last by a long shot—and stock markets everywhere but Toledo were doing another sickening downward lurch in response.
I stuffed the paper into one of the big outside pockets of my trench coat, crossed the street, and went up  the long walk to the main entrance of the Capitol. It was five to nine, still too early for kids on field trips or photo ops in the Rotunda, so the only people I saw were members of the legislative staff hurrying this way and that, getting ready for what would probably be another hectic day, and a couple of white-haired politicians, one light-skinned, one dark-skinned, talking intently as they ambled toward the Senate end of the building. Me, I headed straight across the rotunda to the door in back and went in.
It still startled me that you could just walk into the offices of the President of the Lakeland Republic. No doubt the uniformed guards in the Rotunda weren’t the only guards in the place, but they were the only ones I saw. I went down the corridor into the front office, said hi to Gabriel Menendez, waited while he called back, shed my coat and hat in the cloakroom, and then through another corridor and the round room with the spiral staircase to Meeker’s office.
“Mr. Carr,” said the President, as we shook hands. “It’s good to see you again.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”
The same people who’d been present for my first meeting with Meeker were waiting: no surprises there, though I hadn’t expected them to be sitting in precisely the same chairs. I shook hands all around. “Mr. President, Mr. Macallan, Ms. Patel, Mr. Vanich—” With the faintest of smiles, just for her: “Ms. Berger.”
We got settled. “Before we get to business,” the President said, “I have a bit of good news to pass on:  to you, or course, but also through you to Ms. Montrose. Our State Department heard backchannel last night via an embassy I won’t name that the Confederate and Texan governments are both potentially willing to talk about a ceasefire. No word yet about when or where, much less what terms either side’s likely to demand, but at least they haven’t rejected negotiations out of hand.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said.
“We certainly have hopes,” Meeker went on. “That’s all we have so far, though.” A gesture dismissed the issue.  “I hope you’ve found your stay here—shall we say, instructive.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I replied. “I don’t mean any criticism at all when I say that in some ways, it’s been two very long weeks.”
Meeker nodded. “Melanie mentioned that you’ve found yourself reconsidering some of your ideas about technology and the like.”
I considered him. “Again, that’s one way of putting it—and that brings me to one last item I’d like to mention before I leave for home.”
“Of course,” said Meeker, smiling. Fred Vanich and Melanie glanced at each other, and I wondered if they’d made another bet.
“I suspect you’re aware,” I said then, “that I had more reasons for coming here than the ones we discussed earlier.”
Meeker turned to look at Stuart Macallan, who said, “Mr. Carr, I hope you won’t mind if I state the obvious. None of us could think of any reason why Ellen Montrose would have sent one of her key advisers here right after the election, when almost any competent staffer could have handled the preliminary work on the the three agreements we worked out. We’ve had plenty of other unofficial envoys come here since the borders opened, of course, and most of them had some agenda other than the one they told us about. We assumed you had one too.”
“With that in mind,” said Meeker, “I’d be most interested in hearing what your other reasons for comong here might be, to the extent that you can talk about them.”
“Fair enough,” I said, meeting his gaze. “You know that Ellen won the election promising across-the-board changes in our national economic policy. She means it, too—we’ve already got the first round of legislation drafted, and everybody’s going to hit the ground running the day after inauguration. I’m sure you know the basic thrust of it.”
“What’s been made public, yes,” said Meeker. “She hasn’t mentioned defaulting on the foreign debt Barfield and his predecessors ran up, but that’s almost certainly going to have to be part of it. Even before this business down south got going, there was no way she could keep her election promises without renegotiating the debt, and that means at least a technical default.”
I gave him a bland look and said, “I can’t comment on that.” He chuckled, and I went on. “The new administration’s going to have its hands full getting the economy a little less dysfunctional, and now there’s what the satellite crisis is doing to stock markets and the telecom industry, not to mention the Confederate-Texas war, to add to the fun and games. Beyond that, though, there’s another set of plans relating to economic regulations, the tax code, and a range of other policies. Those haven’t been made public yet, but when they are, you’re going to find some of them just a little familiar.”
“Indeed?” Meeker said, his eyebrows rising. “Please go on.”
“The short form is that she wants to redirect government support for business away from the high-tech sectors of the economy and into manufacturing and agriculture, and change the tax code and other public policy incentives so that they reward employment rather than automation.”
Jaya Patel waited a moment to make sure Meeker wasn’t about to speak, then said, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how sensible that sounds from our standpoint.”
“No. When she suggested it to me, though, I told her to her face that she was stark staring nuts.”
That got slightly glazed looks from the others. “I’d be interested in knowing how she took that,” the President said.
“She expects that sort of thing,” I told him. “You’ve heard about her reputation for blunt talk, right? She hires staff who will talk to her the way she talks to them.  Half the problem with Barfield’s administration is that he only hires people who tell him what he wants to hear.”
He nodded, gestured for me to go on.
“I told her that there was no way the Atlantic Republic could go back to a twentieth-century economy, that nobody would put up with it, and even if we could and they did, it just meant that we’d be eaten alive by less backward nations that kept up with the latest technology. She pointed out that the more we invested in the latest technology the further behind we got, and I dismissed that as the product of outside factors. We had a fine donnybrook—the kind where everybody else on the floor gathers outside the door to listen—and I finally insisted that it simply wouldn’t work. She just smiled and said that it was already working.”
“So she knew what we’ve done,” said Melanie.
I nodded. “I don’t happen to know where she got her information. I know Barfield sent someone from his inner circle over here right after the borders opened, but her report went into a locked file as soon as she got back and I don’t know if anyone but Barfield ever saw it. Ellen’s got connections in surprising places, though. But she told me that policies like the ones she had in mind were working on this side of the border. I simply wouldn’t believe it, and so we made a deal.  If she won the election, she’d come up with some plausible reason to send me over here for two weeks right afterwards and see for myself.  After that, if I could give her a good reason why her proposals wouldn’t work, she’d reconsider them.”
Meeker paused, watching me, and then asked, “And what will you tell her when you get back?”
The words came more easily than I’d expected. “Something that I couldn’t have imagined myself proposing a week ago. I’m going to advise her to go considerably further than she’d planned, and begin moving the Atlantic Republic in the same directions that you’ve gone here.”
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to talk about deep silence by saying it was quiet enough that you could hear a pin drop. That’s what came to mind just then; I’d have had to drop it onto Meeker’s desk—the floor was carpeted—but if I’d done it, nobody in the room could have missed hearing it. Everyone but Melanie was staring at me; she was smiling.
“Well,” Meeker said, recovering before any of the others. “If I may say so, Mr. Carr, that’s quite a compliment.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m not sure whether it’s a compliment to the Lakeland Republic, though, or a criticism of everyone else. It shouldn’t have been so hard to figure out that if you’ve gone down a blind alley, the only way you can go forward starts by backing up.”
Fred Vanich glanced at his boss, and then at me. “It’s a little more complex than that, Mr. Carr,” he said. “Progress, development, going forward. Those are powerful metaphors, and it’s not always easy to think clearly when they’re being waved around by those who have blind faith in them—especially if rich people stand to get much richer by convincing others that here and now, going forward means buying whatever technology they happen to be selling.”
I gestured, conceding the point. “Have you decided how you’ll propose going about the transition?” Jaya Patel asked.
“No,” I admitted. “I’ve only had a couple of days to think about it, and quite a few other things to do in that time. When we get the first couple of rounds of legislation passed, cope with the end of satellite services, and figure out how we’re going to deal with the blowback from the war down south—ask me then and I can probably tell you.”
“If there’s anything our government can do for yours in the process,” Meeker said, “I trust you’ll let us know.” With a sudden amused smile: “For reasons that are not entirely altruistic, of course.”
“I know Janice Mikkelson would love to sell us some streetcars,” I observed.
That got a general laugh. “Yes,” Meeker said then, “but there’s also the point you made when we first talked, about not wanting a war zone or a failed state on your country’s border. If I may be frank, if the Atlantic Republic had kept going the way the Dem-Reps were leading it, it’s an open question whether you could have avoided serious trouble for long. The changes Montrose has announced will help, but it’s going to take quite a bit more to achieve the kind of economic and political stability we’ve managed here. If we can help you make that happen, that’s an investment we’ll consider.” He smiled again. “‘You’ in this case meaning the Atlantic Republic and Ellen Montrose primarily. I don’t claim to know what role you personally will be playing in all this.”
“That’s another issue,” I said. “My position in the new administration was one of the things hinging on my deal with Ellen. Of course there’s the confirmation vote on our side and the usual formalities on yours, but part of our deal was that if I ended up agreeing with Ellen, I was committing to four years as our ambassador to the Lakeland Republic.” I drew in a breath. “So I expect to be back here early in the new year, if everything goes according to plan.”
Meeker considered that and nodded. “That’s welcome news, Mr. Carr.”  “Thank you, Mr. President.” We shook hands. Past the President’s shoulder I could see Melanie’s face. She was smiling as our eyes met.

Retrotopia: The View from Ottawa Hills

Wed, 2016-08-31 18:06
This is the twenty-third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. On his last full day in the Lakeland Republic, our narrator pays a visit to industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson and gets a different perspective on the Republic and the lessons of its history...
***********The next morning I was up early, and walked to Kaufer’s News while the sky was still that vague gray color that won’t tell you yet whether it’s clear or overcast. The Blade had done the smart thing and printed extra copies of the morning paper—the stack in the bin was almost as tall as I was—and I watched three other people buy copies as I walked up the street to the newsstand. The Lakeland Republic flag snapped in a brisk wind from the flagpole out in front of the Capitol, and lights already burned in the windows. The Republic’s government had a long day ahead of it, and so did I.
Back in the hotel, I settled down in a chair and spent a few minutes checking the news. Most of the front section was about the war down south, of course; both sides’ naval forces were still duking it out with long-range missiles, and the Confederate advance toward Dallas-Fort Worth had begun to slow as Texan forces reached the war zone and flung themselves into the struggle. The presidents of Missouri and New England and the prime ministers of East and West Canada and Quebec had joined Meeker in calling for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the dispute over the Gulf oil fields; back home, outgoing President Barfield and president-elect Montrose would be holding a joint press conference later that day to announce something of the same sort. That last story made my eyebrows go up. The Dem-Reps had been sore losers in a big way since their landslide defeat a few weeks back; if Barfield had loosened up enough to appear on a stage with his replacement, things might have shifted, and not in a bad way.
There was more—another attempt at a ceasefire in the Californian civil war, another report by an international panel on the worsening phosphate shortage, another recap of the satellite situation that ran through a roster of collisions, and estimated that the world had less than three months left before all satellite services in the midrange orbits were out of commission for the next dozen centuries or so—but I folded the paper after a glance at each of those and tossed it on the desk. I had a little over a day left to spend in the Lakeland Republic before catching the train back home, and part of that would be spent with Janice Mikkelson. In the meantime, I had decisions to make that would affect the lives of a lot of people I’d never meet.
You learn to get used to that if you’re in politics, but if you get too used to it you land in trouble really fast. Half the reason the Dem-Reps had been clobbered in our elections a few weeks back is that they’d gotten into the habit of thinking that the only people who mattered politically were the people who had the money and connections to show up at fundraisers and get their interests represented by lobbyists—and much more than half the reason why Montrose’s New Alliance swept the legislative races and put her into the presidency with the strongest mandate in a generation was that she’d had the sense to look past the lobbyists and fundraising dinners, and reach out to everyone whose interests had been ignored for the last thirty years. I’d played a certain part in that strategy, and the choices ahead of me might also play a certain part in determining whether Montrose’s victory would turn out to be a long-term gamechanger or a flash in the pan.
So I sat there in my room for what seemed like a very long time, listening to the faint clop-clop of horsedrawn taxis and the clatter-and-hum of electric streetcars on the street outside, sometimes paging through my notes, and sometimes staring at nothing in particular while following a train of thought right out to its end. Finally I happened to glance at the clock, and saw that I had just about enough time to grab something to eat for lunch before I caught a taxi for Ottawa Hills, where Mikkelson lived.
So I made sure I was presentable, headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant, and got soup, sandwich, and a cup of chicory coffee. Sam Capoferro was playing his usual lunch gig on the piano, and he gave me a nod and a grin when I came in and another one when I went out. Half an hour after leaving my room I was tucked into the cab of a two-wheel taxi, heading northwest from the Capitol district through  one mostly residential neighborhood after another. I’d gotten used to Lakeland habits by then, and so it didn’t surprise me that the houses looked sturdy and old-fashioned, with flower beds out front that would be blazing with colors come spring; that trees were everywhere; that there were little retail districts at intervals, close enough that people could walk to do most of their everyday shopping; that the schools didn’t look like prisons, the libraries didn’t look like prisons—in fact, I passed something I’m pretty sure was the county jail and even that didn’t look like a prison.
The houses got bigger as we went up out of the Maumee River valley into the hills beyond. None of the trees looked more than thirty years old—I recalled from some half-forgotten history vid that there was a major battle west of Toledo during the Second Civil War—and all the houses looked better than a century older than that, even though I knew they were all recent construction. Finally the taxi turned off a winding road onto a circular driveway, and brought me up to the door of a genuine mansion.
The place was the sort of big half-timbered pile that makes you think of ivy-covered English aristocrats and nineteenth-century New York robber baron industrialists. I gave it a slightly glazed look, then paid the cabby and went to the door, and I kid you not, it opened right as I got there. The doorman asked my name and business in the sort of utterly polite tone that sounds ever so slightly snotty, which amused me, and then handed me over to some other category of flunkey in formal wear, who took me up one of the grandest grand staircases I’ve ever seen, down a corridor lined with the kind of old-fashioned oil paintings that actually looked like something, and into a big windowed room with a grand piano near one wall, an assortment of tastefully overpriced furniture, and Janice Mikkelson.
We shook hands, she asked about my preferred drink, and then sent the flunkey off to get a couple of martinis while we walked over to the windows. Down below was a formal garden, with a crew of gardeners doing whatever it is that gardeners do in late November; further off were the roofs of other houses not quite as fancy as the one I was in; further still was the Toledo city skyline, with the half-finished Capitol dome rising up over everything else, the bridges over the river beyond that, and green and brown landscape stretching off to the east.
“Quite a place,” I said.
She chuckled. “Thank you. I try to set an example.”
I gave her a startled look, but just then the flunkey came back in with the martinis. Mikkelson thanked him, which was another surprise, and then we took our drinks and waited while he vanished.
“I’d like to talk business first, if you don’t mind,” she said then. I’m not in the habit of arguing with the very rich, and so I agreed and we spent half an hour discussing the prospects of selling Mikkelson locomotives, rolling stock, and streetcar systems to the Atlantic Republic.
“I’ve got one requirement,” she said, emphasizing the number with a sharp gesture. “If other transport modes get a subsidy, rail and streetcars get an equal subsidy. If rail and streetcars don’t get subsidized, neither does anything else. Are you at all familiar with the way they handled funding for different transport modes back in the old Union?”
“Not to speak of,” I admitted.
“Roads, highways and airports got huge subsidies from federal, state, and local governments, and so did car and airplane manufacturers. Rail? Pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, and then the politicians yelled that rail was a waste of public funds and should get its subsidies cut even further. I won’t enter a market that’s run on those terms—it’s like gambling in a crooked casino. Equal subsidies for all modes, or no subsidies for any, I’m fine with that.”
“Do you do a lot of export on those terms?”
“A fair amount.  Missouri’s gone to a no-subsidies system, the same as we have, and they’re buying my locomotives and rolling stock as funds permit. Quebec treats urban transit as a public utility, which works for me—I’ve sold three streetcar systems there since the borders opened, and my people and theirs are negotiating two more. East Canada? The car manufacturers still have too much clout to allow parity for rail, so no dice. The Confederacy’s still sore about the way the ‘49 war went, so they buy from Brazil.” She shrugged. “Their loss. Our products are better.”
“I don’t happen to know about the subsidy regime back home,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve got some highway and airport subsidies and a lot of public funding for roads, but no domestic auto or aircraft industries and no subsidies for buying those from overseas. If Montrose’s people are willing to negotiate, we can work something out—and from what I hear, your urban transit is a disaster area, so her administration could get even more popular than it is by getting streetcar systems up and running in half a dozen of your big cities.”
All in all, it wasn’t exactly hard for me to figure out why she was the richest person in the Lakeland Republic; we talked over the possibilities, I agreed to discuss the matter with Ellen Montrose when I got back home, and the conversation strayed elsewhere.
When we got to the third martini each, I asked, “You said you try to set an example. I’m still trying to parse that.”
That got me an assessing look: “I was the first of our homegrown millionaires here in the Lakeland Republic—there’s a good dozen of us now, and there’ll be more in due time, but I was first through that particular gate.”  She gestured around at the mansion. “Quite a place, as you said.  During the Second Civil War, my brother and I—we were the only two of our family who survived the bombing of Toledo in 2025—we lived in the basement of a wrecked house in a suburb thirty miles south of here. We ate a lot of rat, and were glad to get it, and so I decided then and there that if I survived, I was going to live in the biggest house in the state of Ohio, and all I’d have to do is snap my fingers and somebody would bring me a roast turkey, just like that.” She laughed reminiscently. “I got so sick of roast turkey.”
I laughed along with her, but I knew that she meant it.  ‘Did your brother survive the war?”
“Fortunately, yes—he’s younger than I am, and wasn’t old enough to be drafted by either side until the war was over. He’s a professor of political science at Milwaukee these days—he came out of the whole business wanting to know why it is that nations do dumb things. Me, I just wanted to get rich.” She sipped her martini. “And fortunately I learned an important lesson on how to do that and survive. Do you mind hearing an ugly story?”
“Not at all,” I said, wondering what she had in mind.
“This was right after the war, when I was working any job I could get, trying to put aside enough cash to start my first business. I got hired as day labor to do salvage on what was left of a gated community, west of here a ways. It was one of the really high-end places, where the very rich planned to hole up when things came crashing down; it had its own private security force, airstrip, power plant, farms, the whole nine yards.
“Now here’s the thing. There were sixty big houses for the families that lived there, and every single one of them was full of what’s left when you leave dead people lying around for four years. As far as we could tell, right after the old federal government lost control of the Midwest, the security guards turned off the alarm systems one night and went from house to house. They shot everyone but the domestic staff, took all the gold and goodies they could carry, and headed off somewhere else. That wasn’t the only place that happened, either.”
“I heard some really ugly stories from the Hamptons back in the day,” I said.
“I bet you did. The thing that really made an impression on me at the time, though, is that they didn’t shoot the domestic staff. All the skeletons were up in the family quarters. That told me that it wasn’t just about the money. There was a grudge involved—and if you know how the rich used to treat everyone else in the old Union, you know why.” She sipped more booze. “Rich people only exist because the rest of society tolerates us, you know. Have you ever considered why they do that?”
I shook my head, and she went on. “Part of it’s because we give them a place to anchor their unused dreams. Poeple here daydream about the rich the way that people in Britain follow the doings of their royal family. They’ll put up with the most astonishing things from the people they idolize, the people they allow to get rich and stay rich, so long as the rich keep their side of the deal. I could get by with a quarter of the staff I have here; I could get by without the four-star dinners with a big tip for everyone right down to the dishwashers, the big donations to every charitable cause in sight, the private railroad car with its own fulltime chef, for God’s sake—but that’s my side of the bargain.”
“It gives everyone else something to dream about,” I guessed.
“Yes, and it also pays one hell of a lot of wages and salaries.”
I took that in.
“They tolerate me because I live out their dreams for them,” Mikkelson said. “They can afford to tolerate me because I don’t let myself become too expensive a luxury, and they want to tolerate me because their sister’s best friend got a hundred-buck tip the last time I had dinner at the restaurant where she waits tables, and their cousin’s husband works in the garden down there for a good wage and a big bonus come Christmas, and a guy they know from high school just got promoted off the shop floor at the Mikkelson factory and is getting a degree in engineering on my nickel.”
“As I recall,” I said, “You get some pretty fair tax benefits from that last one.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “And I lobbied like you wouldn’t believe to get that into the tax code. Partly because I don’t mind being paid to do the right thing, and partly because I knew it would keep my work force happy.  Half the reason Mikkelson products are better quality than anybody else’s is that all my people know that if the company wins, they win. There’s a stock ownership plan, bonuses based on the  annual profit, plenty of opportunity to move from the shop floor to better-paying jobs.  All of it gets me a break on taxes, but it also means that I and all my limited partners do better in the long run, and so do my employees and the union.”
I gave her a puzzled look. “I didn’t know you still had unions here.”
“Couldn’t get by without them. Of course we have binding arbitration on contracts—if my people and the union can’t reach an agreement, the Department of Labor sends in an arbitration team and they decide what the new contract will be—but the union does a lot of the day-to-day management of the work force. When I need to sort something out with my factory employees, I can pick up a phone and call the local president here in Toledo, say, and settle it in ten minutes or less. They know their jobs depend on the company making a profit, and the union funds have a big stake in Mikkelson stock and seats on the board, so it’s in our interest to work together.”
She turned toward the windows, looked out over the Toledo skyline. “That was what nobody seemed to be able to figure out in the old Union,” she said. “You can cooperate and compromise, share the gains, and keep things going for the long term, or you can try to grab everything for yourself and shove the poor and the weak to the wall, and watch it all come crashing down. In world politics, the United States tried to grab everything; in domestic politics, the executive branch tried to grab everything; in the economy, the rich tried to grab everything—and down it came.” She glanced back at me over her shoulder. “I wonder if anyone thinks about that in Philadelphia.”
It was a hell of a good question, and I didn’t have an answer for it.

Learning From Failure: A Modest Introduction

Wed, 2016-08-24 17:50
The other day, one of the readers over at the other blog asked a question as sensible as it is timely: why do so many sane people start foaming at the mouth when the subject of this year’s US presidential election comes up? It’s a fair question.  Even by the embarrassing standards of political discourse that apply to the United States these days, the blend of sheer paralogic, parroted sound bites, and white-hot rage that can be heard from the supporters of both major party candidates is out of the ordinary. I spent some time mulling over the question, and I think I know the answer: cognitive dissonance.

That can be explained by a simple thought experiment.  Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you were to go into a Starbuck’s in a hip neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to a man, woman, gender-nonspecific individual, and child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House next January.
They’d tell you that it would be a political insider openly in bed with banks and big business who spent years in public service pandering to the rich, who is also a neoconservative who pursued regime-change operations against Third World countries and was committed to military confrontation with the Russians. The candidate would have a track record supporting the kind of trade agreements that allow corporations to overturn environmental laws, and would also be dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a stunningly blatant scale. The candidate would insist that everything was just fine with America, and anyone who disagreed was just being negative. Oh, and it would help if the candidate had engaged in race-baiting behavior, and had insisted that a woman’s claim that she was raped wasn’t to be taken seriously if it was directed at a member of the candidate’s own family.
That is to say, the rank and file Democrats’ idea of the worst possible President is Hillary Clinton.
Now let’s imagine that you were to hop on a Greyhound, get off in Bowling Green, Kentucky, head for the nearest Southern Baptist church social, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Republicans down to the very last lady, gentleman, and well-scrubbed child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House come January.
They’d tell you that of course it would be a Yankee from New York City, which still edges out Los Angeles in the minds of many of the godly as the ultimate cesspit of evil in North America. The candidate would be a profiteer who made a pile of money exploiting vice, a wheeler-dealer who repeatedly declared bankruptcy to get out from under inconvenient debts. The candidate would be vulgar—you have no idea of the force of this word until you’ve heard it uttered in tones of total disdain by an elderly woman who’s a downwardly mobile descendant of Southern planters—and a hypocrite in religious matters, mouthing only such Christian catchphrases as might help win the election. Such a candidate would of course be on a second or third or fourth marriage, have fathered a child out of wedlock, and would fail to show any trace of pious horror toward gays, lesbians, transexuals, and the like. Finally, such a candidate would claim that America is no longer the greatest nation on Earth and has to make sweeping changes to become great again.
That is to say, the rank and file Republicans’ idea of the worst possible President is Donald Trump.
I suppose its probably too late in the game for both of the parties to do the right thing and swap candidates, so that the Republicans can go back to running a corrupt establishment neoconservative and the Democrats can field a libertine populist demagogue. Lacking such a sensible move, it’s not at all surprising that so many people have basically gone gaga, as Democratic and Republican voters try to convince themselves that they really do want to vote for someone who’s literally everything they least want in the Oval Office. That degree of cognitive dissonance does not make for calm discussions, rational decisions, or sane politics.
We can therefore expect any number of bizarre outbursts as the current race settles which of the two most detested persons in American public life gets the dubious benefit of putting a hand on the Bible next January, and becoming the notional leader of a bitterly divided nation in the throes of accelerating political, economic, and social decline. While that plays out, though, there are other dimensions of politics that deserve discussion, and some of them surfaced in a big way in response to my post last month talking about the failure of climate change activism to achieve any of its goals.
That post attracted quite a few hostile comments and no shortage of furious denunciations. A very large number of these focused on one detail in the post:  the comparison I drew between climate change activism and the campaign for the right to same-sex marriage here in the United States, in that both faced a well-funded opposition that pursued a scurrilous campaign of disinformation against them. The campaign for same-sex marriage, I pointed out, triumphed anyway, so the defeat of climate change activism couldn’t be blamed on the opposition alone; the reasons why climate change activism had failed, while the right to same-sex marriage was now the law of the land, had to be taken into account.
This, however, a remarkably large number of my readers were unwilling to do. They insisted that the goal of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights was a simple, straightforward change in laws that affected very few people, while the goal of climate change activism was a comprehensive overturn of every aspect of contemporary life. Some of them got rhetorical on the grand scale, painting the sheer overwhelming difficulty of doing anything about climate change in such daunting colors that I don’t think all the climate denialists on the planet, backed by a grant from Exxon, could have equalled it. It seems never to have occurred to them to ask whether there was a way to reframe their goal into something more like same-sex marriage—something, that is, that they might be able to accomplish.
More generally, the core of the hostile response was an absolute rejection of the idea that the climate change movement should learn anything from its failure. That’s a surrender more total than anything Exxon’s board of directors could have hoped for in their fondest dreams. Movements for social change that want to win always take each temporary defeat as a learning experience, draw lessons from the failure, and change their tactics, strategy, and framing of the issue based on those lessons, then fling themselves back into the struggle with a better chance at victory. They also look at other movements that succeed and ask themselves, “How can we do the same thing with our cause?” Movements for social change that respond to failure by reaching for excuses and trying to convince themselves and everyone else that the battle could never have been won in the first place, on the other hand, get a shallow grave and a water-color epitaph.
For what it’s worth, I think there’s something even more important to be learned from the insistence that the lessons of the movement for same-sex marriage rights can’t possibly be applied to climate change activism. The same-sex marriage movement was notable among recent initiatives on the leftward end of the political spectrum for two distinctive features. The first was that it went out of its way to violate the conventional wisdom that’s governed activism in the US since the early 1980s. The second is that it won. These two things are by no means unrelated.  In fact, I’d like to suggest that certain habits, which have been de rigueur for social change movements for the last thirty years, have been responsible for their near-total failure to accomplish their goals over that period.
Let’s take a look at those habits one at a time.
1. Piggybacking
This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements. Start a movement for any one purpose, and you can count on being swarmed by activists who insist they want to be your allies.  Some insist that they’re eager to help you so long as you’re willing to help them, some insist that you can best pursue your goal by helping them pursue theirs, some insist that theirs is so much more important than yours that if you’re a decent person you should drop your cause and join them, but it all amounts to a demand that you divert some of your money, time, labor, and other resources from your cause to theirs.
Behind the facade of solidarity, that is, the social-change scene is a Darwinian environment in which movements compete for access to people, money, and enthusiasm. Piggybacking is one of the standard competitive strategies, and it really goes into overdrive as soon as your movement comes up with a plan to do something concrete about the problem you’re trying to solve. At this point, your allies can be counted on to insist that your plan isn’t acceptable unless it also does something to benefit their cause. You can’t just fix A, in other words; you’ve also got to do something about B, C, D, and so on to Z—and long before you get there, your plan has stopped being workable, because no possible set of actions can solve all the world’s problems at once.
One of the things that set the campaign for same-sex marriage rights apart from other movements for social change, in turn, is that it refused to fall for piggybacking. It kept its focus on its actual goal—getting same-sex couples the right to marry—and refused to listen to the many voices that insisted that it was unrealistic to pursue this goal all by itself, and they should get in line, join the grand movement for social change, and wait their turn. If they’d listened, they’d still be waiting. Instead, they succeeded.
2. The Partisan Trap
The Democratic Party is the place where environmental causes go to die. To some extent, today’s US partisan politics is the ultimate example of piggybacking; movements on the leftward end of things have been talked into believing that they should put their energy into getting Democratic candidates elected, rather than pursuing their own agendas, and as a result Democratic candidates get elected but the movements for social change find that their own causes go nowhere.
This isn’t accidental. Both US parties have perfected the art of reducing once-independent movements for social change into captive constituencies, which keep on working to elect candidates for one or the other party, while getting essentially nothing in return. The Democratic party establisnment has no more interest in seeing climate change activism succeed than their Republican opposite numbers have in seeing the antiabortion movement succeed; in both cases, that would cause the movements to fade away, as movements do when they triumph, and important captive constituencies would be lost to the parties that own them. It’s much more profitable to the party apparatchiks to toss occasional crumbs to their captive constituencies, blame the other party for the failure of the captive constituencies to achieve any of their goals, and insist every four years that their captive constituencies have to vote the way they’re told, because the other party is so much worse.
The campaign for same-sex marriage rights managed to break out of that trap despite the strenuous efforts of both parties to keep it in its assigned place. It so happens that there are a significant number of gay and lesbian people who are Republicans—who vote for GOP candidates, donate to GOP campaigns, and take part in party activities—and they bombarded their Republican legislators with letters demanding that the GOP do what it claims it wants to do, and get government off people’s backs. This played a significant role in bringing about the collapse of GOP opposition to same-sex marriage, and thus to the success of the movement.
3. Purity Politics
The creation of a movement that included Republican as well as Democratic gays, lesbians, and sympathetic straight people also violated another commandment of contemporary left-wing activism, which is that movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that the Right looks for allies to attract while the Left looks for heretics to expel; this is one of the reasons that for the last forty years, the Right has been so much more successful than the Left.
To some extent, purity politics is simply the flipside of piggybacking. If your movement also has to support every other movement on the leftward end of things, the only people who will be attracted to your movement are those few who also agree with the agendas of every one of the other movements on the list. Still, there’s more going on here than that. I’ve written in a previous post here about the way that narratives about race in America have been transformed into a dysfunctional game in which bullying an assortment of real and imagined persecutors has taken the place of doing anything to better the lives of those affected by racial injustice. Purity politics rises out of the same dynamic, and it’s played a large role in taking any number of potentially successful movements and reducing them to five or six people in an empty room, each of them glaring suspiciously at all the others, constantly on the lookout for any sign of deviant thinking.
One of the reasons the movement for same-sex marriage rights triumphed, in turn, was precisely that it refused to get into purity politics. All that mattered, in large parts of the movement, was that you were in favor of giving same-sex couples the right to marry, and a great many people who weren’t in favor of the whole gamut of social-change movements were in fact perfectly willing to let gay and lesbian couples tie the knot. That capacity to bridge ideological divides and find common ground on a single issue isn’t a guarantee of victory, but refusing to do so is almost always a guarantee of defeat.
4. Pandering to the Privileged
No one ever built a mass movement by appealing to an affluent minority. That’s one of the major reasons why so few movements for social change these days show the least sign of becoming mass movements. Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans—you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.
I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog the extent to which class issues have become a taboo subject in contemporary politics, precisely during the decades in which the once-prosperous American working classes have been destroyed. In our collective conversation about politics, you can talk about race, you can talk about gender, you can even talk about the very rich, but if you talk about another very important divide—the divide between the people who earn salaries and have done very well for themselves, and the people who earn wages and have been driven into poverty and misery by easily identifiable policies supported across the board by the people who earn salaries—you can count on being shouted down. (One of the many advantages of having this conversation on the fringes where archdruids lurk is that the shouting is slightly muffled out here.)
A great many soi-disant radicals have thus ended up trotting meekly along after the privileged classes, begging for scraps from the tables of the affluent rather than risking so much as a raised eyebrow of disapproval from them. Real change will come to the United States when others learn, as Donald Trump already has, that the exclusion of the needs, interests, and viewpoints of wage-earning Americans from our national politics and public discourse has shattered their once-robust faith in the status quo and made them ripe for political mobilization. That change need not be for the better; if the mainstream parties continue to act as though only the affluent matter, the next person who finds a following among the wage class may have a taste for armbands and jackboots, or for that matter, for roadside bombs and guerrilla warfare; but change will come.
The movement for same-sex marriage rights had a great advantage here, in that the policy changes it wanted to put in place were just as advantageous for wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha as for salary-class same-sex couples in Seattle and Boston. (If you don’t think there are wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha, by the way, you need to get out more.)  That gave their movement a mass following that, even if court rulings hadn’t made the point moot, had already begun to win votes on a state-by-state basis and would have won a great many more.
And the movement against anthropogenic climate change? If you’ve been following along, dear reader, you’ll already have noticed that it fell victim to all four of the bad habits just enumerated—the four horsepersons, if you will, of the apocalyptic failure of radicalism in our time. It allowed itself to be distracted from its core purpose by a flurry of piggybacking interests; it got turned into a captive constituency of the Democratic Party; it suffers from a bad case of purity politics, in which (to raise a point I’ve made before) anyone who questions the capacity of renewable resources to replace fossil fuels, without conservation taking up much of the slack, is denounced as a denialist; and it has consistently pandered to the privileged, pursuing policies that benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the working poor.  Those bad habits helped foster the specific mistakes I enumerated in my earlier post-mortem on climate change activism, and led the movement to crushing defeat.
That wasn’t necessary, nor is any future climate change activism required to make the same mistakes all over again. In an upcoming post, I plan on sketching out how a future movement to stop treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer and start mitigating the ecological impact of our idiocy to date might proceed. The specific suggestions I’ll offer will be tentative, but the lessons taught by the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights will be incorporated in them—and so will the equally important lessons taught over and over again by the failure of other movements for social change in our time.

Retrotopia: Dinner, Drinks, and Hard Questions

Wed, 2016-08-17 17:02
This is the twenty-second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator has dinner with Melanie Berger, tells her about his change of mind, and has to confront the hard choices ahead of him. 
 
***********We’d settled on a Greek restaurant close by, a place I’d been for lunch already.  I passed that onto the driver as soon as we got into the cab, and slumped back against the leather seat as the driver climbed up onto the seat up front, snapped the reins, and got the horses moving. Neither Melanie nor I said anything. The lights of Toledo rolled by, and I wondered how many people behind the windows we passed were worrying about the war down south, the way I was.
It was maybe five minutes, if that, when the cab rolled to a stop, and the cabby swung down from his seat and popped open the door. I climbed down, paid him, reached out a hand for Melanie; she took it gratefully, got down onto the sidewalk. “Thank you,” she said, when the cabbie was driving off. “For a few minutes of silence, especially.”
“We don’t have to talk over dinner,” I said as we headed toward the door.
“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be screaming at me in a Texas accent for an hour straight.”
I gave her a questioning look, but by then we were inside and the greeter was headed our way.  Once we were comfortably settled in a booth over to one side, and the waitress had handed us menus and taken our drinks order to the bar, I said, “Seriously?”
“Seriously. The Texan ambassador wanted to see President Meeker right now, and no, she didn’t care that he was in a cabinet meeting and that she was going to be the first to see him afterwards. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever wished that diplomatic courtesies included the right to slap someone hard enough to send teeth flying.”
I choked, then pasted on a respectable expression while the waitress came back with our martinis and took our order. “I take it Texas doesn’t put professionals in its embassies.”
“Only the important ones, and we’re not one of those. Velma Streiber’s a Houston society matron who has good friends in the Bulford administration and wanted a fancy title.” She shook her head.
“I hope you didn’t have to deal with the Confederate ambassador too,” I said.
“I did, but that was easy. John Bayard MacElroy is your basic Confederate gentleman.  He might shoot you dead in cold blood and feed your corpse to his hound dogs, but he’ll be the very soul of politeness while he does it.”
I choked again. Then, still laughing, I shook my head and picked up my martini. She gave me a startled look. “That doesn’t look much like what you were drinking Friday night.”
“It isn’t,” I admitted. “I decided to try a Lakeland style martini Saturday, and liked it.”
That got me a long, considering look, and then a nod. “But that was my day—that and dealing with just about every other embassy in Toledo by phone or in person, scheduling meetings with Meeker, setting up briefings like the one you went to, attending a couple of briefings myself. Oh, and helping out two delegations—I won’t say which ones—that lost their satellite links with home and have no idea how to get by without hardware in orbit.”
That interested me. “How do your embassies phone home?”
“Shortwave radio, of course—the way everybody did before satellites took over. I had to explain that to both delegations.” With a sly smile: “When the Atlantic Embassy loses its satellite links, have them give me a call; I can recommend a good radio firm that won’t even put bugs in the hardware.”
I gave her a dubious look, and she laughed. “I hope the briefing you got was worthwhile, by the way.”
“Even more so than I’d expected.  Turns out you’re not the only people interested in freight transit through the Erie Canal.”
“Now surprise me.” She sipped her drink. “Missouri, East Canada, and who?”
“Chicago.”
“Oh, of course. That’s good to know; I’ll talk to Hank Barker with the Missouri delegation and see if we can coordinate shipping with them. We do a lot of trade with Missouri these days; the wool your suit is made of almost certainly came from their flocks, and possibly from their fabric mills.”
“Barker mentioned that,” I said. “Wool and leather.”
Two bowls of avgolemono soup came, and neither of us said anything until the waitress was gone. “I’m going to risk mentioning a potentially uncomfortable subject,” Melanie said. “The Missouri Republic is the one neighbor we’ve got that’s shown any interest in in learning from our experience. They haven’t gone nearly as far as we have—you still see bioplastic clothing there, and they’ve still got a metanet, though it’s pretty ramshackle these days—but the World Bank doesn’t like them much any more.” She shook her head, laughed. “I’ve been told that people from the World Bank threatened them with trade sanctions two years ago, after they refused a loan, and President Applegate told them, ‘Didn’t hurt Lakeland much, did it?’ That shut them up.”
I laughed, because I’d met Hannah Applegate at a reception in Philadelphia, and it took no effort at all to imagine her saying those words in her lazy Western drawl. Then the implications sank in. “They turned down a World Bank loan?”
“Of course. You know as well as I do that the only reason the World Bank makes those is to force countries to stay plugged into the global economy, so they can get the hard currency they need to make  payments on the loan. The Missouri government knows that, too, and they’re sick of it. Since we’re Missouri’s number one trading partner these days, we’ve both got the necessary arrangements to handle trade and investment in each other’s currencies, and a fair amount of private investment from our side heads over there these days, they decided it was time to take the risk.”
“Good timing on their part,” I said, thinking of the war.
“And on ours.” In response to my questioning look: “They produce things we need and buy things we produce. The last thing we want is to see them bled dry.”
“The way my country will be,” I said. She glanced at me, said nothing, and concentrated for a while on her bowl of soup.
The waitress showed up conveniently a moment later, served us our entrees, made a little friendly conversation—Melanie was a regular, I gathered—and then headed off to another table. “As I said,” Melanie said then, “it’s a potentially uncomfortable subject.”
“The fact that your country is set up to weather this latest mess in fairly good shape, and mine might just end up as a failed state.”
Her face tensed, and after a moment she nodded. “If that happens, and you can make it to our border, have the border guards contact Meeker’s office. Shouldn’t be too hard to expedite your entry. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but...” She let the sentence trickle off.
“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t either.” Then: “To the extent that you can tell me, how bad do your analysts expect it to get?”
She considered that. “I can tell you a few things. It’s nothing you won’t hear from your own intelligence people once you get back home—the NIS, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “What do you call your spook shop here in Lakeland?”
“We’ve got three of them: the Office of Political Intelligence in the State Department, the Office of Economic Intelligence in Trade, and the Office of Military Intelligence in Defense. Keeping it broken up like that helps prevent groupthink.”
I motioned with my fork, granting the point, and she went on. “What OPI says is that Texas and the Confederacy were both in deep trouble even before this whole thing blew up in their faces. They both depend heavily on oil revenue to balance their budgets, they’ve both had declining production for years now, and you know as well as I do how badly they’ve been clobbered by volatility in the oil markets. That’s ultimately what’s behind this war—neither of them can afford to compromise because they both need every drop of oil they can possibly get—but this is going to take a lot of wells out of production until the fighting’s over.”
“Or permanently,” I said. In response to her questioning look: “I was told off the record that so much of both sides’ offshore fields are stripper wells that a lot of the destroyed platforms won’t produce enough oil in the future to be worth the cost of rebuilding.”
She nodded. “That’s OEI’s bailiwick and I haven’t talked to them yet, so thanks for the heads up.Even without that, though, both countries are going to be hit hard even if the war ends in a few days—and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end in a few days.”
I nodded. “Military intelligence?”
“Got it.”
I didn’t ask for details; she’d told me as much as she was cleared to pass on, and there are lines you don’t cross in our business. Pretty clearly she’d attended a classified military briefing and gotten the latest information about the war, and I could think of at least a dozen signs that would warn the Lakeland government that neither Texas nor the Confederacy was going to back down any time soon. In a couple of days I’d be back in Philadelphia, and I could ask people I knew in Ellen Montrose’s transition team for a summary.
“And if it drags on?” I asked.
She gave me an unhappy look. “Best case scenario is both countries end up economic basket cases, with per capita GDPs lower than the midrange for sub-Saharan Africa, but they both manage to hold together and begin to recover in about a decade. Worst case scenario is that one or both go failed-state on us. Either way we’re looking at a big refugee problem, and a long-term economic headache if the Mississippi stays closed. We can deal with it, no question—it’s just going to take some work. It’s the people down south, in both countries, I feel sorry for”
We both concentrated on our meals for a minute or two.
“And the thing is,” she burst out then, “this whole business is so unnecessary. If both countries weren’t stuck on a treadmill trying to—” She stopped cold, catching herself.
“Trying to progress,” I finished the sentence.
Another unhappy look. “I really don’t think we should go there,” she said.
“I think we should,” I replied “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the things you said Friday evening, and you were right.”
She was so surprised she dropped her fork. After a moment: “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I believe I just heard you say that.”
“You were right,” I repeated. “I spent all Saturday trying to find holes in your logic, and I couldn’t find any.” I shrugged. “I have no idea where to go with that yet, but there it is.” Which was not quite true, but there were things I wasn’t going to say in a restaurant that close to Embassy Row.
She considered me for a long moment, pretty obviously shaken good and hard, and I said, “Come on, I can’t be the only person from outside who’s told you that.”
“It happens,” she said then. “Once in a blue moon, maybe. No, that’s not fair—working class people get it in a heartbeat, more often than not. They look at the way factory workers and store clerks live here, compared to how they live outside, they ask a few questions about why we do what we do, and they have no trouble at all figuring out the rest for themselves.”
I thought about the family of immigrants I’d seen on the train from Pittsburgh, and the conversation I’d had with the father of the family. “But people who are well off, well educated, part of the system.”
“The minority that still gets some benefit out of progress,” she said.
That stung, but I knew she was right. “Yes.”
“Once in a blue moon.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. Our plates got empty and our drinks got refilled; a couple of dishes of baklava came out for dessert, and when we started talking again it was about uncontroversial things, the Toledo Opera’s future plans, funny stories about trade negotiations, that sort of thing. I guessed that she was still trying to process what I’d said, which was reasonable; so was I.
Finally the meal ended. She was looking really tired by that point—no surprises there—so we settled pretty much right away that nobody was going to end up in anybody else’s bed that night.  I gave her a kiss, helped her into her coat, and got her onto a taxi headed for her place. My hotel wasn’t too many blocks away, so I waited until the taxi had turned the corner and set off on foot.
The sky was still clear and a rising wind swept down the streets, hissing in the bare branches of streetside trees. Overhead the stars glittered, and now and then something bright shot across some portion of the sky and burnt out, one more fragment of business as usual falling out of the place we’d stuck it and thought it would stay forever.
In less than forty-eight hours I’d be back in the Atlantic Republic:  on my way home to Philadelphia, where three decades of effective one-party rule by the Dem-Reps had just gone out the window in a landslide and taken the status quo with it.  The new administration would have to scramble to find its feet in a world gone topsy-turvy, where there were too many hard questions and nothing like enough straightforward answers. For that matter. I was going to be facing some hard questions of my own, and I was far from sure I had any straightforward answers, either.
Another chunk of dead satellite traced a streak of light across the sky, dissolved in a flurry of sparks. I kept on walking.
***************In other fiction-related news, two magazines with links to this blog have something to report. Into the Ruins, the recently started deindustrial SF quarterly edited by Joel Caris, has just released its second issue. I’m delighted to say that it’s a worthy successor to the first issue, with a lively mix of short stories and a letters to the editor column that’s really starting to pick up. Fans may also want to know that this issue includes the first installment of a regular column by yours truly, "Deindustrial Futures Past," reviewing older works of science fiction set in the aftermath of industrial civilization.
Mythic, the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly by the publisher of the After Oil anthologies, is also moving toward its first issue. I’m eager to see this take off, and am contributing a short story, “The Phantom of the Dust,” set in the same fictive world as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth. I’ve been told by publisher Shaun Kilgore that he’s gotten a good initial response to his call for fiction submissions but would like to see more, and he’s also very much interested in book reviews, essays, and other nonfiction pieces related to science fiction and fantasy. More details? You’ll find ‘em here. This is a paying gig, folks; let your writer friends know.