Interesting Reads February 17-23, 2019

I will start again this week with an article on climate change. This one is a book review but it seems to spell out a way of thinking about how we can unite across our current divides to face this global threat.

With so much noise (useless) about the Green New Deal, Bruno Latour does us a service by stepping back and asking what is really going on with climate change denial and how we might re-think our relationship to the planet.

He grasps the challenge of those who retreat into the “local” or “global” to state their case by challenging all of us to be “terrestrial.

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Evening Ride

The bottom line here is that we need to understand two things: one, that we ARE intimately connected to our watersheds, our local natural resources, and the things in our nearby that make for life. Two, we need to understand also that we are part of globe-encompassing systems that either enable life or stand against it

Sigh… another book to add to my shelf…

And now onto some themes.

 

Economics

Here is an unexpected article from an unexpected place (an investment magazine), that, much like the previous one, asks us to move away from our meaningless categories and focus on the real question. In this case it is phrased as the distinction between a market economy and a market society. Here is a short piece:

So forget capitalism versus socialism. The more revealing debate for business, the issues executives and investors have to struggle with, is why and how, in the language of renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, we have “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” In other words, has the logic of profit and loss, winners and losers, insinuated itself so deeply into all aspects of society that we have eroded the sense of shared experiences and common bonds that once held together people of different means and backgrounds? Have we become a culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing? When the unforgiving logic of Wall Street occupies Main Street, when everything has a price, do we create divisions we can’t afford?

A market society… Something I have thought about in the way that very wealthy people have found ways to simply “opt out” of concern for others–and how all of us scramble to do the same. There is much to reflect on here: from the defacto Ayn Randian dream of retreat into an alternate society (Atlas Shrugging), to the Joan Didion “dream we won’t admit” (Howard Hughesian absolute autonomy).

And there are more links here to the the Latour explanation of climate change denial’s roots than might first appear. Are we living in a world in which each of us seeks our personal escape capsule from the destruction below. Reminds me of a recent science fiction book I read (Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton) in which the uber wealthy built escape stations to leave destroyed star systems.

 

As promised, I am keeping my eye open for interesting articles on the issue of deficits and debt–especially from economists claiming that neither are big problems for an economy like the US’s. After all, now that the Republicans have officially abandoned their opposition to deficits (Democrats apparently never had that aversion), who IS left to claim that there is a problem here?

It turns out that there is a growing “school” of economic thought called (in lower case letters) “modern monetary theory” that rejects the alarmist “deficit scolds” who were so prominent until very recently. This article in the Times is a useful reminder of what has happened with deficits and debt–and economic growth–since the Bush I years. I will be curious if this really gets traction and what it will mean for debate of things like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All that we have been hearing about.

I am going to put this one under economics too… though it could easily be public health. Indeed, the actual study of the effects of Berkeley’s soda tax 3 years on is in the American Journal of Public Health (subscriber!). But there is an argument, that at least in part, people are drinking less sugary stuff because of cost. From the author

“When you implement a soda tax, there is a bunch of media around it, so people start to think, ‘Maybe soda isn’t too good.’”

The second thing that happens is that the public stops buying soda.

Go here for a summary of the research and reach out to me if you want the original study. The bottom line is that Berkeleyites have gone from drinking 1.5 services per day to 0.5. Our oh-so-progressive city could not even see fit to put this on the ballot to allow voters to decide 3+ years ago (one of many ways in which my vision for our city did not move forward), and now the state has put a moratorium on such taxes. Maybe this study will start shaking things up again.

 

Make America ___________ Again

Okay, this is a lame category but two offerings here remind us of who we are (and are not).

The first is who we are in relation to our cars. Not having had one for going on 16 years, I am, perhaps, uniquely positioned to see how much a religion automobile ownership actually is. I will let this article in the American Conservative speak for itself. This is who we are…

So it is that for some Americans, any discussion of the ills wrought by the car or by the automobile-dependent mode of development that defines most of the American landscape is merely a verbose substitute for “communism.” A smart, young conservative friend of mine once listened patiently while I explained New Urbanism to her: that it was a design philosophy focused on building walkable, dense, mixed-use communities in place of suburban sprawl. “That sounds communist,” she replied. She is not alone in her general estimation. Never mind that it is also the default manner of building human habitats before circa 1950.

We forget, or perhaps more accurately never learn, that almost the entire set of characteristics that constitute suburbia—from the population densities to the lawn sizes and setbacks of houses to the features of those houses to the commercial strips that replaced Main Streets and their accompanying oversized parking lots—was a project, more or less, of Keynesian economic policy and social engineering. An old professor of mine, quite correctly, called the Interstate Highway System the largest subsidy ever given to the automobile industry…

This is not to say that, in the absence of certain government policies between roughly 1930 and 1960, suburbia would not exist. But the history of suburbia, as it actually unfolded, is bound up with such policies. Suburbia was, at least in part, something resembling a crony capitalist public works project. The notion that it embodies the pinnacle of freedom and free enterprise is not much in evidence.

And if that is who we are… Bacevich is here to tell who we are not. Again, from the American Conservative we have a reminder that the US is no longer the “indispensable nation.” Will we find a way to talk about this? I kind of doubt it.

So the coming campaign will no doubt be entertaining. In some respects, it may also be enlightening. But in all likelihood, it will leave untouched the basic premises of U.S. policy—the bloated military budget, the vast empire of bases, the penchant for interventionism, all backed by the absurd claims of American exceptionalism voiced by the likes of Madeleine Albright and her kindred spirits.

 

The Politics of Fear… (or border dilemmas)

I don’t know what else to call this section. Both the Brexit and the “panic” over the border were born of cynical politicians using fear to get their way.

God only knows what will come of the Brexit. Most agree that it will not be good. Most over here have no idea what it is about or the key sticking point–known as the “Irish Backstop.” If you want a fairly quick read that lays out the recent history of Ireland and why the Brexit has floundered on the rocky shoals of the Irish border (between Northern Ireland, part of the UK and the Repulic of Ireland, a member of the EU who is not exiting), read this. It cleared up the whole mess for me and is timely through the end of March.

And then we have our very own border emergency here in the US. If I were to bet I would say that the Supreme Court majority, issuing a narrow decisions as they did in the case the “Travel Ban” will hand the President a “victory” in the border wall thing. I used the words cynical before. This is now a dictionary definition of that term.

This article lays out why such a ruling will take us backward (WHAT EXACTLY did happen to the Republican rage over Presidential overreach? Oh right, see what happened to their rage over deficits/debt).

 

Hors Categorie!

I don’t know where to place this science fiction-like article. Researchers working on AI that produces text based on basic prompts are fearful about releasing their entir project for fear of what it might do.

Read this one to remind yourself that you need to actually THINK when you read. A cautionary tale.

 

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