Monday, June 30, 2008

Slap of the Invisible Hand

I was driving my little Yaris like a professional driver on a closed course through the empty parking garage of the mall, thinking about the economy. All this infrastructure that is becoming useless. What other possible use is a parking structure? If the mall goes entirely out of business, which judging by the lack of cars seems imminent, what is the fate of all of this concrete and steel? How could the mall designers have gotten it so wrong to think that this mall would need four levels of parking in addition to the ocean of parking lots around this enclosed retail continent? I was there, driving through the emptiness, taking the corners at speed, just to go to the Sears entrance that was nearest to the tools, and to avoid passing through the perfume section downstairs. This brief moment without other cars gave a possible glimpse of the future. Every day the radio has an update on how expensive gas is, how everyone thinks the price is so high, how people are struggling to cope by taking the bus or carpooling. America is suffering. I decided I must not be allowed to complain about the price of gas. And come to think of it no one else should either. Here's why.
First, we had to have seen this coming. I mean, a finite resource that is being used at an increasingly rapid rate, what madness caused us to base our entire economy on its cheap abundance? Plus, we did get a warning, though the 70's oil crisis did little more than give a few foresighted energy do-it-yourselfers a short and limited publishing window. All the good ideas, the possible solutions, got thrown out the window with Reagan's "morning in America" that coincidentally coincided with the glut of cheap oil. Now, 30 years later we are in the long crisis, with no easy end in sight. It is not those wily Arabs this time, nor is it really the Nigerian rebels, nor the evil speculators, and not even those upstart Chinese. No, this time, despite all the empty rants of politicians, the culprit seems to be Adam Smith's Invisible Hand.
Basically, the Hand is the theory that individuals, by acting in their own self interests, will inadvertently (i.e. guided by the Hand) act in a way that benefits the community as a whole. I recently saw a description of this phenomenon that stated that the hand will lift all members of the community through their own self-interested actions. I think this misses the point. In many cases what is best for the community as a whole is not really what the community wants. We don't always (often?) want what is best for us. This is the slap of the invisible hand and why it stings a bit to pay more for what we have been convinced is our due as Americans.
Here is why Liberals can't be pissed about the price of gas. The price of gas is higher due to higher prices of crude oil on the global commodity market. This is in large part due to much higher demand and not much higher output. This means that more people worldwide are living a more affluent lifestyle. Those of us who are liberal in our values believe in equality and in equal access to a chance at improving one's lot in life. We shudder to think of poor factory workers living on less than a livable wage, unable to afford good food, good shelter, good transportation. The higher gas prices tell us that our hopes are coming true. More people, especially in China and India are living wealthier lives, they are eating more meat, (leading to higher food prices) and driving more cars, heating their houses a little warmer. Congratulations, liberals, we are succeeding. It just turns out (we did already know this, but somehow forgot that it would be an issue) that there is not enough to go around. For others to come up, we have to go down.
Here is why Conservatives can't be pissed about the price of gas. For years, the U.S. policy on global population issues has included the "global gag rule" instituted by that conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, that limited funds to family planning organizations that even mentioned abortion as an option. A corollary to this socially conservative limitation is that the U.S. came to a policy of attempting to limit population growth through targeted economic growth. Increase consumption and we could reduce population growth, plus we could open up markets for our goods, back when the U.S. actually produced goods for sale overseas. Congratulations, conservatives, it worked. Now, we do see a general downward trend in population growth numbers, but consumption is increasing. As the U.S. has proven, you don't have to have a large population to consume a lot. (U.S. has consumed 25% of global energy with only 5% of global population.) Now with everyone wanting to live the American lifestyle, there is less to go around. Victory for our brilliant foreign policy and for free-market economics!
This may not all be bad. Perhaps all 6 billion of us on Earth, acting in our own self-interest, really is helping the community as a whole. Smith never specified that it would be a feel-good process. Perhaps a little less consumption on our part would be a good thing. Perhaps a little less abject poverty elsewhere would also help the world. Let's not be whiny brats about having a few more hands in the cookie jar. Sometimes if you take more than your share, you get a slap on the wrist. Let's not get confused, looking over our shoulder for the hand that dealt the blow. Remember it's Invisible.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

First Steps on The Piste

I thought of this blog name driving back from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference in February 2008. There was a lot of talk there that was train related. A lot of allusion to getting off the runaway train that is our food culture, our agricultural policy, our very economy. A lot of talk of getting off track. I thought of my favorite sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote a trilogy about the colonization of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) and he called the trains that ran around the colonized and terraformed red planet the "piste." The name derives from French and has an interesting etymology which continues to intrigue me as I think about it more. It is pronounced in English with a long E sound and a silent e at the end, so that is sounds like the cartoon character Ren getting pissed off at Stimpy with his hispanic chihuahuan accent. "I am so Peest off at you for being soo stoopid, Steempy." I thought this pronunciation, with the cartoon dog echoing in my head, also was appropriate to the feeling expressed in at the conference. I desire a separate track, a parallel path, and I am peest off about the track we are on. The word, on further investigation mainly refers to the track of a wild animal. While I could never claim to be much of a wild animal, I do at times wish to be wild, to be freely crashing through uncharted, untrammeled territory and part of my thoughts retreat to those paths that I have not yet taken and may never travel. Incidentally, piste is also used to describe ski trails, which I cannot come up with a good metaphor to incorporate yet(give me time) and can only say that I come from Colorado and am writing this in Vermont, both of which at least can lay claim to a few ski pistes, different though they may be. I have no idea where this path leads. I have no confidence that a blog can serve in any way as a parallel path. I only think that a synonym for the word "piste" is the word "spoor" and a homonym for that synonym is the word "spore," which may be all that a blog can be. These words are simply part of a spore, a small propagule by which information is spread. It may fall on fertile or infertile ground, but the power of the blog may be only in the volume of propugules spread, rather than in the impact of the individual seed. In any event, there are many paths in the wilderness and we usually don't know where they lead until we decide to follow them.