politics

Conservative Hypocrisy: This Time, It’s the Wall Street Journal… on Unemployment

Allow me to show you a microcosm of conservative dishonesty at play.

First: While the Wall Street Journal is perfectly satisfied to criticize Obama for being ideologically inflexible and for job market participation rates, they decide not to mention that Obama actually cut public sector jobs, as Krugman has pointed out. Bush, meanwhile, by 2006 had actually increased the number of public sector jobs. The “big government” line has always been a lie: Republicans love big government.

Second, and more importantly: The Wall Street Journal upbraids Obama for 350,000 people leaving the workforce (as if those people all must have been grousing about Obama specifically and every factor that caused that must have been his fault instead of Republican lawmakers’ or Bush’s). But then they derisively dismiss “roads and bridges” as a real strategy for job creation, even though infrastructure improvements could create 2.2 million jobs.

There are real criticisms of any President’s economic policies. It’s impossible to satisfy all stakeholders. But ideological conservatives are never willing to be honest. They continue to propose trickle-down solutions even as decades of evidence show that they just do not work to resolve poverty, instead of considering how it might be possible to cut taxes or deregulate while still satisfying every other stakeholder besides business. At least they sometimes pretend to care about jobs and employment… when it’s politically convenient.

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economy

Unemployment and Overwork

To those of you who think that full employment would be such a tough nut to crack:

We have failing infrastructure, shortages of nurses, ludicrously overworked social workers and public defenders, inadequate medical specialists working in rural areas, overworked teachers, overworked software developers and QA professionals…

And we have people without jobs.

When America needed to mobilize resources to get an atomic bomb and to get through World War II, it did.

The hours are out there. The work is out there. It’s there for immigrants and it’s there for Americans. It’s our choice to not give everyone the pride of work. The access to work should be a human right.

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economy, hope, media

Al Jazeera and Honest Media

Amidst depressing news in France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there’s been a bright light (at least for me): Al Jazeera.

I’ve always like Al Jazeera America’s reporting. Back before the invasion of Iraq, no major American news outlets were talking about the fact that the US supported Saddam with any regularity. The only people who were? The Daily Show. Our honest reporting in this country was on a comedy show.

Al Jazeera, alongside LINK, has been a leading vanguard of that change. Stemming from great reporting in the Middle East, they have been having really great reporting here as well.

Real Money with Ali Velshi would normally be the kind of show I avoid like the plague. I hate business news. It’s self-congratulating capitalists operating from a myopic worldview where the poor, people of color and non-Americans barely exist.

But Velshi is a great journalist and a great interviewer. And even though it is certainly an economy watch program, it spends plenty of time talking about labor.

Today, he interviewed Tom Perez, the Secretary of the Department of Labor. It was like a dose of oxygen in a room full of carbon monoxide. Their discussion was incredibly reasonable and, if we were honest, would be viewed as centrist.

They discussed the recent employment figures which show some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’re seeing both growth and some improvement for laborers. (There’s also good news on the worker confidence front). The bad news is that wages are barely budging (though they are higher than inflation) and many people are leaving the labor market because they have lost hope for employment. That’s on top of the depressingly high unemployment rates for non-whites and millennials.

The reasons this discussion was such a breath of fresh air in a toxic environment were manifold.

First: Al Jazeera is a daily reminder that there are people in the Middle East who are eager to report honestly, to embrace freedom, and to criticize imperialism. Velshi in particular is a Muslim, born in Kenya, raised in Toronto, who is erudite and moderate.

Second: Even in the White House, there are people who are willing to have honest discussions. The Obama administration has its problems (from a left perspective), but Perez was talking about long-term unemployment, the problem we’ve been having with a stagnating workforce for decades, etc. His analysis of why he believes that low wages are a choice and not a destiny was impressive, and while I’m perhaps more pessimistic than he is about the nightmarish prospects for a permanent working under-class developing in this country, his discussion was well-reasoned. And both Velshi and Perez were willing to broach the topic of race and class inequality, normally taboo in the United States.

The only way we’re going to get out of this mess is if we can have an honest conversation. That begins with our media no longer lying to us, no longer presenting things in a nice neat bow where our responsibility is never implicated.

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economics, politics

Pride and Inequality: The Real Discussion

Pride and Equality: The Real Discussion

America’s inequality and social immobility problem has gotten so out of hand that even the mainstream seems to finally be talking about it.

It’s trivial to drop statistics on the subject. A recent Pew Research article published in December of last year by Drew DeSilver found that American inequality “has reached levels not seen since 1928”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, real median household income in 2012 was $51,017, but in 1999 it was $56,080. For those of you not gifted with an education that includes statistical analysis, what that means is that, for half of the population, thirteen years saw their household’s income decline even as the economy grew on average. The rich did indeed get richer throughout the new millennium, but it wasn’t just the poor getting poorer, it was fully half of Americans.

What’s really remarkable is that the historical income tables of the Census Bureau shows that the average income declined even after 2008, during the beginning of a nominal recovery. Meanwhile, in 2012, 22.46% of the total pre-tax income of the United States was held by just 1% of people, as compared to 18.12% in 2009. In 1978, it was 8.95%. So in a mere thirty-six years, less than two generations, we’ve seen the top 1% suddenly make more than twice as much.

Okay, there’s other ways you can phrase all this. It’s possible to say, for example, that in terms of the likelihood of people to substantially change their economic standing (either moving up or down), this is a period in American history with some of the least opportunity for upward mobility.

Or we can point out that, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent”. Now, the “Fair Market Rent” is a metric that is actually somewhat complicated, but what that does mean is that the options for a full-time minimum wage worker to afford an apartment that is not somehow adjusted for income or is cheap for some other reason (such as being in a bad location) are quite limited. People are finding themselves moving in with their parents or sharing rooms far more often as a result of this inability to afford housing. I personally had to share rooms for many of the years I went to college

But all too often, we collectively like to use statistics to hide our feelings and insecurities behind. Researchers, activists and bystanders alike can use the seeming objectivity of numbers to protect ourselves from having to admit the hard truths that ring in our souls.

The fact is, inequality isn’t a problem merely because of some number on a Gini index or some other measure of inequality being too high. Social immobility isn’t a problem because there’s some arbitrary numerical threshold of the society that should change their socioeconomic status every twenty years.

Our present state of massive, pernicious, inexcusable inequality is an assault on the pride of almost every person working in this country.

See, take that statistic above about how hard it is to find an apartment for someone with a minimum-wage job. What that means is that even someone who can manage to find a good deal on a space is likely to barely afford their shelter. They are going to be working a good portion of their waking hours in order to come home to a cheap space, unable to save meaningfully for their retirement or to try to go to school to better their lot.

I recently watched a film from the New Deal era called “We Work Again”. It was produced by a Works Progress Administration film team, promoting that administration’s work in finding opportunities for African-Americans to work. It opens thusly: “Only a few years ago, we were a discouraged people, because we were the first to lose our jobs when Old Man Depression came along and we were the last to get them back. We struggled vainly to regain our bearings while depression, fear and failure stalked the nation”.

In other words, the WPA wasn’t just giving people the chance to work an honest hour for an honest wage. It was giving Americans their pride back. The state of the unemployed person, in the wisdom of that era, was one that was hurtful and intolerable even if the unemployed person had no fear of having the heat turned off and no fear of being unable to find a place to sleep.

When I have been unemployed and out of college in the past, I felt that I had to exert a daily psychic toil to keep my confidence up. Most people tell me that I’m one of the most confident people they meet, and yet I still felt like I was ashamed to share the fact that I wasn’t doing something productive. Like Sisyphus with his rock, I was making great efforts just to seemingly return to the same place the next morning.

Just having a job at Subway or Target, places I worked, helped in this regard. But once one has a job in an entry level position, not being able to advance forward brings back those some niggling doubts. They become a yawning pit that we face when we look in the mirror every morning. “Am I only good enough for this?”, we ask.

And, let me be clear: As much as it may suck sometimes to work service jobs, I appreciated most of the jobs that I’ve had, even entry-level ones. I was happy to be making sandwiches. I was happy to be checking people out. I truly believe that good customer service is a duty. People in a customer service position, I say quite often, are able to turn someone’s day around if they do a good job… or a poor one. There’s pride in being trusted with closing someone’s franchise location for the night, being trusted with their livelihood. There’s pride in giving someone a meal and knowing that they will enjoy eating it. But how much better can one get at making a Subway or Togo’s or Quizno’s sandwich? How much better can someone become at being a checker at Target or a courtesy clerk at Safeway? What room is there for a person to advance and grow?

Even today, as I manage to pay my bills writing, I still have the feeling that I’m not advancing further, not using my capabilities, not sharing what I have to offer.

I have spent many nights worried about making ends meet, worried about how I’ll manage to put together the money for rent or tuition. But those nights, as unpleasant as they were, were as nothing compared to the feeling that I wasn’t working as hard as I could.

It’s not just those who are unemployed who don’t get the chance to be proud. Someone who is working at menial jobs in order to eke out a living for their whole lives never gets the chance to show off what their brain and hearts can do. They never have their spiritual, emotional, mental and physical capabilities tested and pushed toward a greater goal.

In every one of my friends and the people I meet and care about who has struggled to get by, I have seen the same look in the eyes like a dog avoiding her mistress’ gaze.

It’s not just the social programming we all endure that tells us to make more money, to buy more consumer products. People can ignore that programming: I’ve seen it. I’ve seen my parents live a lifestyle far below their means because they believed in not exhausting the planet’s resources. I have also seen families for whom every maxed-out credit card is a testament to the inability of the breadwinner in the family to provide for the people he cares about.

No, it’s the feeling that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, and not diligent enough. It is the resentment that comes from never being given a chance or an opportunity to show off one’s acumen.

And what about the artistic opportunities people have? Even with the democratization of the creation of content that we are seeing thanks to wonderful (if sometimes flawed) services like YouTube, Twitch and Kickstarter, it is still incredibly difficult for someone to get by while they are trying to build a following and expand their art. How many young people have great ideas and great projects that they could afford to start, if they weren’t seeing double-digit employment or working two jobs to scrape by?

We in a society should care that our neighbors are being given the chance to hold their heads high. If someone squanders those opportunities, then perhaps it is acceptable to hold them accountable for that, though even then forgiveness and recognition of our own weaknesses would seem to guide us to be gentle.

But structural inequality and the lack of social mobility in our society mean that people are running a Red Queen’s race ragged, moving as fast as they can and working as fast as they can to barely stay afloat. This isn’t just a state of perpetual stress: It’s a state where one is seeing one’s best efforts keep one in exactly the same place. It’s a daily psychic assault on who we are and what we believe we’re capable of.

In the New Deal, there were at least some in government and in society who understood that the chance to work, to move up the ladder, to learn and develop one’s capabilities, wasn’t just an economic necessity for productivity: It was a human need. Psychologists since Abraham Maslow have known that occupational development, the opportunity for people to solve problems and to win the respect of others through good work, is as much a human need as clean water and warm shelter.

Until we can start talking about inequality as a daily pain, not just a fact of economic deprivation but an unjust denial of one’s capabilities, we won’t make headway against it. Work and opportunities for real growth (and that includes growth in income) give us dignity. In a society as affluent as our own, it should not be so difficult to grow in our vocations, in our passions, and in our ability to provide for our loved ones.

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activism, ecology

Michael Levi’s “The Power Surge” and Why Everything We Think is Wrong

Ever since I began to ideologically identify myself as an anarchist thirteen years ago, I have always felt a distance from almost every political discussion. I find myself in almost every political debate having to go back to the very basic principles, because in fact our whole discussion of almost every political debate we have is basically wrong. From abortion to LGBTQ rights to military and security policy, we always have the wrong arguments. I intend to write an entire book about this topic at some point, but for now let me offer an example.

Michael Levi in The Power Surge examines very carefully many competing factors in energy policy, mostly as regards the United States but also considering the way that corporations dominating the energy sector (both in sustainable energy and in petrochemicals) certainly has implications for inequality and for power consolidation in the hands of economic elites. Ultimately, Levi tries to take a position that’s fundamentally centrist. He criticizes both “purists” of green energy and of traditional energy, as well as purists in many other domains.

Don’t get me wrong: This is actually a really fascinating book. He really goes into depth about both green and traditional technology. As a scholar for the Council on Foreign Relations, it’d be ludicrous to reject Levi’s position outright.

However, as I read the book, it becomes clear to me Levi assumes certain metrics that actually makes it so that many of his conclusions are too easy to defend. In fact, when considering energy, we must go beyond traditional measures of economic efficiency and prosperity, precisely because it is so hard to measure long-term and chaotic effects.

I know this is a complicated idea, so it bears repeating: Every statistic you usually hear about the economy is basically useless. GDP, GNP, corporate profits… they only ever capture the idea of “efficiency” in an extremely limited way. The United States could double GDP by building trillions of dollars’ worth of bombs or by building trillions of dollars’ worth of supercomputers. Sure, you do want to have some kind of measures that are basically “value-free”. But if the only way you measure the economy and the “growth” of that economy is by a metric that says that pollution is good while a family saving money for their child’s college is bad, you have a massive problem.

Market systems have a gigantic failing. If a cost is external to a buyer and a seller, then the buyer and the seller reap benefits that other people have to pay for. If there’s one principle of microeconomics everyone should know, it’s the idea of the externality.

With that in mind, we have to read Levi’s book very critically.

Consider, for example, Levi quoting without critical comment Chevron CEO John Watson’s opinion that “on a per-unit basis, stripped of subsidies, [green energies] are not cost-competitive with fossil fuels”. Watson’s argument may seem to make sense by a very strict market analysis, but it is actually the height of idiocy. It is exactly the “per-unit” and “cost-competitive” metrics that are the problems with really creating a balanced energy policy. It’s cheap at the pump to buy gasoline, for example, but why is that the case? It’s “efficient” for energy producers to extract petrochemicals, for gas stations and other stores to sell them to the consumer, and for the consumer to pump it into their cars. But the pollution that makes people have asthma, the cost of individualized transportation instead of mass transportation in terms of road maintenance and congestion, the destruction of habitats… those aren’t efficient. Those have immense and real costs.

It may not really be Watson’s fault on this front, of course. It’s difficult to measure something like the impact that a species going extinct may have. Any one individual species going extinct may not be a keystone species that impacts the whole ecosystem, but enough species go extinct and there can come a disastrous tipping point. And it’s actually impossible to really measure the impact to quality of life that can emerge from certain kinds of pollution. Can someone reasonably put a price tag on a child suffering from asthma, or the loss of natural beauty from pollution and roadways being created?

Levi doesn’t touch on these issues sufficiently, which makes it easy to criticize those who advocate green energy and consider a “balanced” approach. The very reason why we are now seeing a “balanced” approach in the market economy is precisely because the way that we count productivity, whether it be corporate profits or the GDP, makes it so that sustainable energy is now starting to make some money. But the efficiency of petrochemicals, given that they are a non-renewable resource, may never have actually really been higher than any renewable energy. Every single petrochemical that is used will never be recreated.

In all of the analysis of biofuels, for example, Levi barely discusses the fact that biofuels are renewable (pages 22, and 120-138). Levi notes that the challenge for biofuels has been “expense” (page 120). But the expense is not really important when compared to the fact that oil will go away while corn can be grown year-in and year-out. Market systems by their very nature don’t ration: Future generations, or even present people a day from now, don’t have any say in a market system because they don’t have any dollars. And governments have proven loathe to actually properly ration and control non-renewable resources. Maybe non-renewable resources should be allowed to be extracted at an unlimited rate, or a very high rate. But the fact that Levi doesn’t even note that there is an issue of rights of future peoples to be debated is a big issue.

Hell, why does one person get to pump oil from the ground at all? Or, even more pointedly: Why do immortal persons with more rights than people – yes, corporations have more rights, even if just by dint of the fact that they’re people that don’t die – get to pump oil out of the ground at all? One could easily argue that everyone has a common right to the benefits of a non-renewable resource. The United States has had a huge energy supply, for example, which has brought it prosperity. But the fact that there is one United States now, instead of, say, a Lakota nation-state and an Iroquois nation-state, is because our ancestors took the land by violence. Why should corporations in the United States now have the right to that oil? Why should the government?

Yes, the right to “private property”, you might say, justifies all that. But you can see how you actually have to have the discussion about exactly how far the right to private property should ever extend to really make the discussion meaningful. Do you think that people like John Locke envisioned hundreds of years ago that the private ownership of resources could lead to that entire category of resources not existing for anyone else ever again, across all of time and space?

Similarly, in the entire book, Levi mentions Native Americans once. Yes, I’m doing this based off of Google Books which isn’t a perfect search engine, but the search terms “indigenous” and “aboriginal” don’t even appear. Nor does “First Nation”.

Anyone who knows about oil politics in any real capacity knows that you can’t talk about oil without talking about the indigenous peoples who often live on the land where oil is being extracted. Ecuadoran native peoples and their conflicts with Texaco are just one example.

Okay, so Levi can’t review every part of oil politics, even in a book that’s about two hundred pages worth of content. But it’s always illustrative what people talk about and what they leave out.

So Levi’s basic conclusion, that (as according to the summary) “Both unfolding revolutions in American energy [traditionalist efforts to get more gas from fracking and similar efforts on the one hand and green energy on the other] offer big opportunities for the country to strengthen its economy, bolster its security, and protect the environment… [and Americans should] seize those with a new strategy that blends the best of old and new energy while avoiding the real dangers that each poses” can’t be supported. The values of many people who want green energy just aren’t Levi’s values. I don’t have the same values as John Watson. I don’t care about what he cares about. We’re not likely to ever be in the same room.

Until we can consider that tens of thousands of children more having asthma as a result of smog can’t just be measured as an impact by the cost of doctor’s bills, we can’t talk about green energy in any way that makes sense.

Until we can find some way to measure the heartache that comes from someone seeing their favorite forest being destroyed to make way for a new bypass, words like “efficiency” are just propaganda.

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Uncategorized

SB 610: Commentary on “Business Confidence”

So the anti-SB 610 advertising is still going on, from representatives of the major fast food companies. I invite you to read this commentary from a McDonald’s franchisee who ended up being one of the spearheading forces for it.

What I find remarkable is the repeated usage of claims in this advertising that doing things like changing the franchise-franchiser format will lower food safety.

Insofar as that might even be true and is not simply a claim made with no evidence, what that is saying is, “If businesses are forced to be fair, they’ll cut corners”.

It’s a threat. It’s a veiled threat.

Every time you hear business lobbies talk about business confidence, or loss of jobs, or anything like that, what they’re saying is, “We will punish you for daring to regulate us”.

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ecology

“Sustainability”: Redefinitions and Slices of Pie

Sustainability is one of the new buzzwords, both of the Left and of the general society. It is indeed a really good sign that people are generally becoming much more concerned about sustainability. People are worried about sustainability in their agriculture and their government policies. Politicians are starting to talk the sustainability talk, even if they don’t often walk the walk. But the unfortunate fact is that the entire dialog that is occurring about sustainability is fundamentally flawed. Sustainability is impossible under our present economic arrangements: The vast majority of economic systems that humanity has adopted up until this point in history, and certainly both state management and ostensible free market capitalism, has been premised on constant growth. “Sustainability” as a concept and a goal, and it is indeed one of the most important goals for humans to reach, requires fundamentally rearranging our entire economic and political systems, not tinkering around the edges. We have to question the very logic of free market capitalism, of the nation-state system, of our living arrangements, and of every part of our life.

Image

Courtesy of Randall Munroe, used under a Creative Commons 2.5 License and fair use

Take the idea of “sustainable agriculture”. Businesses that try in good faith to be sustainable should be applauded: Many purchase carbon offsets in order to mitigate their impact. Further, many of these businesses also use organic and fair trade business practices. But the problem is that “sustainable agriculture” is at present at best a chimera and at worst an outright lie. Assume for a moment that an agriculture business, a farm or a ranch, has adopted practices that ensure that its total inputs are such that it could be sustained year-in, year-out. Assume even that it owns the shipping companies that will  take it to central distributors or wholesalers. The produce that the company generates will still be consumed in grocery stores stocked with unsustainable products, themselves generally unsustainable, purchased by people in suburban and urban centers that are decidedly unsustainable, taken to homes and businesses in unsustainable private vehicles, cooked in unsustainable fashions and accompanied with unsustainable agriculture. The fact is that, for an agriculture company in the present day to be truly “sustainable”, it would have to not only be sustainable in and of itself but actually consume so little resources that it compensated for all those other systemic sources of unsustainability between the farm and the plate. In short, sustainability is only meaningful as a systemic quality. Either the entire economic system is sustainable, or close to it, or no business can meaningfully be sustainable.

For “sustainability” to mean something, it has to be long-term sustainability. Obviously, in the extremely long-term, the basic operations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics mean that the human species will cease to exist. But in any timeframe that is relevant to plan around, such as for the next few thousand years (or even our grandchildrens’ grandchildren), sustainability means that the total sum of human consumption is at or below the level that naturally produced materials can be replenished. This means that replenishable resources, like food, have to be grown with few non-replenishable resources, can’t exhaust the soil or the water, and need to be sufficient to provide for the needs of the global population. Non-renewable resources need to somehow be recycled or used so sparingly that they can last indefinitely.

It is transparently clear that we are nowhere near this point as a species. What is nightmarish is that the living standards of a mere billion people, in essence America, developed Europe and Japan, may not be sustainable even in the medium term, even taking into account the effect of new technologies that will offer more efficient techniques. Even putting aside basic issues of ecological and economic justice, the fact is that those in the industrialized nations are going to need to evaluate their living styles. The Japanese have had to deal with all of the inherent social problems of having so many people in such a crowded area, and that has been a difficult social challenge in and of itself even with immense resources. But the fact is that the developing world is developing, and growing, and they will come to expect something like the living standards of the West. Countries like Brazil and China look at American living standards and ask, “Why can’t we have that for our population? What right do you have to that level of opulence?” Millions of Americans do not have enough food, and yet we still consume a large portion of the world’s resources, far above and beyond our percentage of the global population.

Regrettably, for decades, the problem has been cast in the vein of overpopulation. Overpopulation was and is a serious concern. Recently, it has become clear that the population will cap out at eight to nine billion people; there was a fear that the population would exceed ten billion, but this was based on an inaccurate population extrapolation. Luckily, a global baby boom tapered off, and much of the aging population will soon have passed on. The problem, of course, is that population is only part of the equation. What actually determines how much is being consumed is population multiplied by consumption. Each person consumes a certain amount, and if that amount grows, the population can shrink and one has gained little.

And here is the basic mathematical lie that has been told to the world. We take it for granted that a healthy economy should grow by more than 2% a year, that its GDP should go up. Assume for a moment that half of that wealth is in services, which don’t consume any additional physical resources (quite unlike actual real world services). This is a very generous assumption, but even if that’s the case, just plug some numbers into your calculator. After about seventy years, even assuming a 1% growth in the consumption of physical resources (like arable land, potable water, metals, minerals, petrochemicals, etc.), the amount that the planet would consume doubles.

In short: Sustainability means zero growth. In fact, it may mean negative growth. It almost certainly means that the richest people in the world will see their living standards and degree of wealth drop precipitously.

This is not a theoretical problem. Even very conservative oil analysts say that when we hit a point called peak oil (the point at which we produce the most oil), growth ends. This is because almost every single element of society is dependent on some form of petrochemical. People have to drive to stores, or ride in a bus to a store, on cars. The store has to be stocked by trucks or airplanes or motorbikes or trains that used oil. The store’s lights have to be powered by coal. Universities that research the new technologies that we hope will solve the situation have to be powered by coal. Nuclear power, solar power, geothermal power, water power, wind power, ethanol, biking, walking, and other tools help solve the problem, but these are often exaggerated, regrettably especially by the Left, in terms of their importance. Nuclear power is also unsustainable in the long term: It requires fissile material, which is in finite supply. It also requires dealing with nuclear waste, which is a non-trivial problem. And while it may be possible that other forms of alternative energy may provide a global solution, there are two problems. First: It is very difficult to enable private transportation and transportation infrastructure without petrochemicals. Second: The problem with most alternative energy sources is that they are not reliable day-in, day-out. If it is an overcast day, or a day with no wind, then an area may have no alternative source of power. Coal and nuclear power are used as the backbone of the system; they provide a guaranteed source of power. If there can be blackouts in Tehran, then we as a species are going to have to get very creative to provide basic electricity to the globe, let alone anything like the living standards Westerners are used to.

There are many other non-renewable resources that deserve to be discussed, but one of the most crucial is potable water, which is only partially renewable. Clean, drinkable water has always been a problem for humanity, a scarce resource in high demand.

More importantly, think for just a second about how the non-renewable resources are extracted. How do you power the drills that get oil? How do you give water and food to the miners who bring up coal, metals and minerals? Where do the raw materials for the semiconductors come from? In short, getting one unsustainable resource often requires expending another. The mathematics of those calculations are not easy, and so far they’ve been done by the supposed “free market”. Self-interested parties who not only have no incentive or reason to plan for others or for the future, but actually have very strong disincentives to do so, do not good planners make.

There is a common conservative refrain at this point: “The free market will solve everything”. Then why hasn’t it? Why haven’t we been able, as a species, to keep ourselves from overconsuming? Supposedly, in a truly competitive free market, according to the Coase Theorem (though Ronald Coase, the creator of the theorem, in fact is well aware of the limits of the free market and of externality problems), externalities solve themselves because those who want to produce something that will pollute or use some public good like the airwaves can purchase what they need from others. For example: A company that wants to create a factory that wants to pollute could buy the river downstream and remunerate the fishermen that will be affected for their lost business. But this requires that property rights be very well-defined, that the item in question has immediate market value, that people act rationally and that transactions costs are minimal. It also requires that the factory doesn’t just decide to pollute and rely on their deep pockets to prevent regulators or the fishermen from suing them for unjustly taking away the jobs of people in the area. If a species gets killed that has no current market application, for example, the whole ecosystem could be thrown into disarray, but the harms would be spread out over time and over many people. If a polluter poisons our air or water, the amount of people who are affected can be far more than the value of the factory they run, but spread out so minimally that no single person or even small group of people own the affected areas. Pollution doesn’t respect borders and property lines: It can defy court rulings and spread across jurisdictions. Even if we had anything like free markets (and the big bad government is not the only reason why we don’t have free markets), the externality problem would continue; indeed, it would likely increase. This is not to mention that free markets, by their very nature, cannot embrace a zero-growth equilibrium, which essentially removes them from serious consideration for sustainability.

So, what’s the alternative? What can we do as a species?

First of all, we have to abandon growth. And this has numerous pernicious consequences. It means that every single thing that is produced has to be carefully measured. Every single research grant has to be carefully considered for its full social value, because it requires valuable labor and resources. We may not be able, as a species, to afford space travel or the Large Hadron Collider in the long term, no matter how great the benefits from these projects may be. Certainly, it is unlikely that it will be possible for every single country, or even the majority of countries, to have a space program. Every single luxury, research project, art project or expenditure that is not strictly about providing the means of living to people (food, water, shelter, medicine, etc.) will have to be carefully justified, because it might mean that someone eats a little less.

That might be easy enough. But there is a far greater consequence: Inequality can no longer be remotely justified. The primary way that the right has managed to encourage pro-market policies such as low taxes is trickle-down economics. If we let the rich consume more of the pie, then they’ll in turn create ways of generating wealth that will grow the pie and we’ll eat an absolutely larger slice, even if the size of the slice compared to the rich is smaller. If the pie is three times as big, it doesn’t matter if my slice is half as large as it used to be. This theory has always had a lot of problems: It’s not particularly true, it doesn’t make very much sense and it actually doesn’t answer the core question, whether it’s fair for the rich to get the bigger slice in the first place. Dani Rodrik’s research, for example, has found that inequality tends to slow growth, not increase it, for a variety of reasons: The rich don’t bake a bigger pie, they bake a smaller pie. But it makes absolutely no sense in a sustainable economy. The pie can’t get bigger: We can’t consume more flour and shortening than last year.

That means the only thing that is left to calculate, the only thing that matters, is the slice that everyone gets. Inequality becomes the only remaining issue.

In the present global economy, some have the wealth of entire nations, people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, oil-rich sheiks, captains of industry and drug lords. Others are starving. They have poor  access to health care and thus spread diseases, are not well educated and thus are not as productive as they could be, etc. If the promise of a bigger pie can’t satiate them, then they are quite likely to ask what the West has done to deserve such opulence in seeming perpetuity. “When is it our turn? When they do get to be as poor as we have been?” When people ask these kind of questions, and they are quite far in the context, all kinds of social conflict, especially war, is just around the corner. At this point, when Americans demand low prices at the pump, they are practically saying to the world, “We want to have our easy lifestyle forever, and we don’t care if you’re starving”. I don’t mean to mock or dismiss those who struggle to deal with their gas prices in order to go to minimum wage jobs; indeed, they are part of those people who should be asking some tough questions about how much money their bosses and their bosses’ bosses have. But Americans have to understand, as Peter Singer has pointed out, that every luxury we buy, from a plasma television to a car that has more bells and whistles than we really need, directly trades off with someone else in the planet (maybe even someone else in our own neighborhood) being able to eat. Singer argues, “Everyone has a duty not to spend money on luxuries or frills, and to use the savings due to abstinence to help those in dire need”. The only way to imagine that this isn’t the case is to dismiss the global poor as undeserving: They must have done something to be as poor as they are. This argument doesn’t stand up to a moment’s consideration. What did Paris Hilton do to have millions at her disposal from birth? Indeed, what has Bill Gates done?

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan famously pointed out in 1998 that “the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and safe sewers for all is roughly $40 billion a year–or less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world”. If Americans making over $100,000 a year (and there are 2% of households that make more than $250,000 a year) donated a few thousand to a global fund, there would be billions available for this fund. If a mere four hundred thousand millionaires across the globe donated $100,000 annually to this fund (and there are far more than four hundred thousand people who make more a million or more a year, let alone have more than a million in net worth), it would be sufficient to make this number. It is true that there has been some inflation since 1998, but it still stands to reason that, if even a fraction of those who are in the upper middle-class and above donated a percentage of their income, the basic needs of the planet could be provided for. Even more embarrassingly, this fund would probably do more to enhance global security, disarm dictators and contribute to global stability than the money the Pentagon has simply lost, let alone the annual “defense” budget of the United States.

The management and social justice issues in turn requires global administration. Resource management issues are inherently global: There’s no point for one country to cut down their gas consumption if another country just consumes more. Pollution issues are especially global, especially the difficulty of global warming. That means we have to look at that horrible specter that terrifies conservatives and reactionaries across the globe: Global government. And it can’t just be the United Nations-style form of government with little enforcement power: There needs to be a government authority, hopefully radically democratic and fundamentally local in its orientation, that has the ability to convene research, enact and enforce regulations, . Moreover, it really can’t be formed by or composed of the existing nation-states, as they are in general beholden to their domestic elites and routinely have minimal credibility. It is true that a lot of the work could be accomplished by treaties in the short to medium term, but even treaties have the problem of free riders and non-compliance, and the United States’ treaty compliance record alone gives pause to the notion that there will be serious compliance in anything approaching the long term.

Now just think for a moment about the large portion of waste production that the globe engages in, and not just greedy Western corporations. Every drug lord making thousands off of selling marijuana, cocaine, opiates or amphetamines is inherently taking land, chemicals and manpower that could be used for something useful. Advertising agencies are waste production many times over: They encourage people to spend ostentatiously, which is exactly what our species doesn’t need; and all of their efforts consume resources that could go somewhere else. Billions are spent for tools of war that actually, in the long term, make the countries that spend that way less safe. Every year that Americans spend billions on “defense” is yet another year that they defer the consequences of their opulence, but it is also another year that hatred, envy and extremism breeds.

Notice that, thus far, we haven’t even talked about habitat loss, or species extinction, or pollution, or global warming, or ecological racism and classism, or pollution-related illnesses. These issues are important, but regrettably conservatives often use discussing these as a way of tarnishing their opponents as “hippies”, “tree huggers”, vegetarian elitists out of touch with Americans. The fact is that there is no practical, clear-eyed alternative to sustainability. Just the simple mathematics of consumption, getting people something like a fair amount of resources, require basic questions about our economic and political systems, and our current arrangement of global wealth. So-called conservatives who oppose sustainability conversations do so not out of anything like pragmatism or hard-nosed realism but rather out of a toxic combination of self-interest, support for prevailing social elites and wishful thinking.

In fact, conservative arguments on this front are singularly unconvincing. They are based not only in an assumption that only human beings matter, but even that only this generation of human beings matter, and in fact that only a tiny fraction of this generation of human beings matter. People who accept the status quo as just have to find some explanation that justifies the vast majority of the planet barely getting enough to eat. What have they done to deserve this? If people want to provide for their children and their grandchildren, they will have to question the status quo now. Even if you as a reader have no concern for anyone outside of your immediate family and don’t care much about the globe, and don’t think that the risk that those people who are poorer than you may victimize you is very serious, just the need to make sure that your children and their children can live in a world with even a modest amount of starvation, conflict, instability, war, pollution and climate change means you must begin to act now.

Many leftists may continue to say, “But what about the population, man?” And it is true that it may be the case that eight to nine billion people may not be a sustainable long-term population. But we can’t even get to the point where we can ask that question before we eliminate the most obvious sources of waste and economic injustice. Moreover, the solution to overpopulation has always been industrialization, prosperity and providing opportunities for women outside of the home. Most Western countries, barring immigration, do not increase their population annually and in fact see population shrinkage. And even relatively poor countries and regions, like China and the Indian state of Kerala, have dropped below zero population growth. Many people in the West choose to remain single, not have children, have only one child or adopt. It just seems to be the case that families, when they don’t have to account for their children dying from childhood diseases, don’t need an army of children to work the farm and have careers, jobs and hobbies, tend to not want to be baby factories.

Conservatives will claim, “Technology will solve all of our resource problems!” They might want to ask some actual scientists about this. There is no technology that is even considered possible under the laws of physics, let alone feasible in the next few centuries, that will reverse the laws of thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy tends to flow from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. Time’s arrow flies only forward: Heat and energy is lost. If an economy keeps growing, as is considered normal for every economy across the globe, then it doesn’t matter how many fields of shale oil we find, or how many new ways we find to synthesize minerals, or how many new materials we create. Technology is part of the solution, but it is only a delaying tactic. I honestly do hope that there are billions of barrels of thus-far unfound petrochemicals: It may give humanity just enough petrochemical reserves to survive long enough to achieve sustainability. But if we just mine and drill these new reserves and use it as an excuse to increase the salary that oil executives make, then we will have gained nothing and lost much.

Moreover, the technology argument is not only just offered as faith with little evidence to support it, but it is also facially flawed. If we do find billions of barrels of untapped oil reserves, for example, that is merely more carbon that we throw into the atmosphere and more dangerous pollution that will cause more health problems. There are many costs to our overconsumption: Overfilled landfills, children with asthma and congenital defects, declining property values, disgusting smog, melting ice caps, rising ocean waters, decreased agricultural production, dead zones in the ocean, habitat loss, slash-and-burn agriculture, obesity, diabetes, heart disease… The list goes on and on. The cult of consumption is a cancer, and it must be excised.

Further, technology and scientific development are not deployed in and do not occur in a vacuum. Research is currently going to find new ways of killing people rather than new ways of saving them. It is going to fund cures for illnesses that affect the relatively opulent rather than curing the easily treatable diseases of the global poor in more efficient ways. It is going to new toys and luxury items rather than to the basic needs of real living people. Scientists, researchers, engineers and others take the grants they can get and do the research that they can afford to do. If we, as a society, want them to engage in more socially responsible research, then it is our responsibility to change the social conditions under which they do their work. But this again returns us to the basic question, “How do we change our economy, our political system, our private and public lives, so that we can have a future for our species?”

It is hard to overstate how much our global economy is premised on the concept of perpetual growth. One of the primary indicators of economic health that economists insist upon is the degree of GDP or GNP growth per annum. Recessions can kill a politician’s chance for success in office, even if they cannot plausibly have been solely responsible. But the world needs a recession: It needs to consume less, not more! In a capitalist economy, things are priced based off of their present market value, not off of the value they will have in ten years or thirty years. But the amount of oil and steel out there remains roughly the same each year. Rationing these rare materials requires a complete break with market logic.

What are the kind of changes that must be made for society to become remotely sustainable?

Gas prices have to go up, and up, and up. This isn’t a popular suggestion, but it can be implemented through a carbon tax that is implemented over time with credits for poor families and individuals, or it could be implemented as an increase in vehicle registration and other automobile associated fees, or a tax only upon carbon producers (that would of course end up being passed onto consumers, which does remain the point). Right now, the price of gasoline is anywhere from three to ten times below what it needs to be. As Al Lewis of Think OOB has pointed out, “Even if one does not accept the hypothesis of global warming as a basis for believing that gasoline is underpriced, one cannot dispute the fact that half of our defense budget is used directly or indirectly to protect oil supply lines, and should therefore, using simple accounting and economic principles of matching costs and benefits, be financed by a burden on oil usage rather than on our incomes”. The full social costs of gasoline include not only global warming and pollution-related expenditures but also various subsidies past and present, for the energy industry, the cost of roads and the attendant costs to communities built around highway systems (in terms of lost real estate value and noise), and so forth.

Suburbia has to be largely abandoned. The idea that there could be a large section of countries, especially America, with large plots of land per person, removed from the major centers of industry and employment, subsidized by an expensive and ecologically destructive highway system, with green lawns, has always been a silly fantasy unfortunately indulged by government programs and a society that just couldn’t deal with its own domestic racial conflicts. Luckily, this is an area where technology can make the social changes less drastic and less immediate. Modern communications technology makes it possible for some people to work entirely from the home, whether they be writers like myself, translators like my mother or software developers and managers like my father. Nonetheless, we will have to start redesigning our communities and consolidating in urban areas to a greater extent.

Crops and food production have to be changed. Corn, a major staple of Western diets, will need to be scaled back sharply as it consumes so much nitrogen in the soil. It is likely that meat production will have to decline sharply.

The net amount of driving, flying and transportation that is currently done has to go down. That means a far greater focus on local goods, which means many Americans and Westerners will need to start to move away from a world where they can easily get out-of-season fruits and vegetables every day of every year. And much of the global economy is based on the

Most importantly, politicians, businesses, economists, policy makers and planners, and people in general will need to adapt to a zero-growth world.

Sustainability is a goal for human survivability. Sustainability is providing for the needs of future generations. But sustainability as a concept has to be expanded far beyond its present disingenuous assumptions.

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