Sunday, November 09, 2008

Governing the ungovernable

Some of my acquaintances have been saying for a long time that President George Bush has been leading the United States toward fascism. I have responded that they should be more concerned about anarchy than authoritarianism. For starters, the anti-authority gene runs deep in American culture. But I'm also in the same camp as peak oil Jeremiah James Howard Kunstler who believes that the "federal government will be lucky if they can answer the phones five years from now, let alone regulate anybody's life." Just recall how effective the federal government was in responding to Hurricane Katrina!

I have been dwelling on this in the celebratory aftermath of Barack Obama's election victory. (Full disclosure: I voted for him.) I think that those who supported Obama have reason to celebrate, especially for the way in which he was able to spread blue all over the electoral map of the country. Of course, there will be the difficulty of getting legislation through Congress even with increased Democratic majorities. But there is the much more serious problem of trying to govern the country in a time not only of financial collapse, but also of resource stringency.

It may not seem as if resource stringency is a problem. After all, oil prices are less than half what they were a few months ago. But the price decline has little to do with increasing supply. It is primarily due to swiftly falling demand, and that has been the result of slowing economic activity due to the financial crisis. So, even as the economy tries to lift off again, it will all too quickly face the headwinds of limited supply, not only of oil, but also of other critical resources including agricultural products and some base and rare earth metals.

In his first news conference, Obama tried to reassure the public about his focus on and understanding of economic issues by having an army of financial heavyweights stand with him on stage. Now, I don't easily discount expertise. We've had too little of it in government in the last eight years. So-called "common sense" isn't enough when it comes to understanding highly complex systems. But, the global economy may now be far too complex for anyone to understand. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of "The Black Swan," says he lies awake at night sometimes wondering how bad things could get. (Much of the current turmoil was foreshadowed in his book.)

That policymakers don't really understand the current economic system has been most clearly demonstrated in the many iterations of the plan for using the $700 billion in bailout funds appropriated by the U. S. Congress. Treasury officials went from proposing that it be used to buy toxic assets from banks, to proposing and then using it to inject capital into banks by buying preferred shares, to working on a plan to inject money into insurance companies and now even a plan to inject money into a wide array of nonfinancial companies. The truth is they don't really know where the levers of the economy are anymore, and neither does anyone else. Add to this that most economic policymakers recognize no environmental limits to economic growth, and you have a recipe for perpetually wrongheaded and perhaps disastrous economic thinking.

Environmental education giant David Orr is fond of saying that as our knowledge grows, so does our ignorance. He is merely speaking the truth about any complex system. His response is to suggest that we employ wide margins of safety to take into account those dangers which we cannot see or understand at present.

Of course, such advice was never taken seriously in the trading rooms of Wall Street which used the risk formulas of what Taleb calls pseudo-scientists, namely, the financial economists and physicists turned financial risk modelers. They assumed they could calculate risks precisely and created charts and graphs and equations to make people feel comfortable.

I am reminded of a talk I gave at Michigan State University, a captive hub for industrial agriculture and now biofuels research. I downplayed the likelihood that biofuels will be able to substitute in any substantial way for petroleum-derived fuels for reasons of scale, resource scarcity (i.e. scarcity of petroleum- and natural gas-based products now critical to modern agricultural productivity and scarcity of water) and soil degradation. One student came up after the talk and wanted to reassure me that my concern over removing crop waste (for cellulosic ethanol) was being addressed. He was working on research to determine exactly how much crop waste could be removed for biofuel feedstock without affecting soil fertility. Anyone who understands how complex soil is and how comparatively little we know about its interactions in the environment will be forgiven for wondering whether we can calculate such things to the fourth decimal place.

But it is possible to calculate or at least characterize some of the damage done to the ability of the next president to govern the United States. During this year's presidential campaign I was reminded of the perhaps apocryphal saying attributed to members of the Ba'athist party in Iraq, the party through which Saddam Hussein controlled the country: "If we don't govern Iraq, nobody will." Years of insurgency in the country illustrate the sentiment.

Here in the United States, the McCain campaign along with its surrogates did their best to suggest to the American public that Barack Obama was a Manchurian candidate, as if he had been held captive in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church and brainwashed to act on instructions to destroy the country upon becoming president. Or perhaps Obama better fit the description of a fifth columnist. His almost laughably tenuous connection with one William Ayers was somehow supposed to prove that Obama was loyal to a terrorist creed born out of the 1960s, a decade during which Obama reached the ripe old age of eight. Maybe it was Obama's middle name Hussein which was the giveaway, a fact almost endlessly repeated on the FOX News Channel. The McCain campaign and its surrogates could never make up their minds about which paranoid vision would work, so they tried all of them. It is the kind of appeal so aptly described by Richard Hofstadter in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

Of course, none of these approaches yielded victory, but they can only help to make the country more ungovernable. If you voted for McCain believing that Obama is a traitor--rather than merely an American politician with whom you strongly disagree--shouldn't you resist his treason and those who supported it with every fiber of your being? It is wildly irresponsible to make claims of disloyalty against a candidate. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an ardent student of campaign advertising, had this to say about such claims during a recent interview on Bill Moyers' Journal:
The notion that we would impugn the integrity of a person running for president on the other side, question their patriotism, is something that we all ought to step back from and say that is unacceptable. The evidence that one should have to mount to make that kind of case should be so clear and so overwhelming that it would persuade that person's mother. And for practical purposes, those are charges that are out of bounds.

Now some will say that the Obama campaign ran many negative ads against McCain. And, I must agree that it was questionable that a McCain administration would just be a continuation of the Bush administration, a message that was the main thrust of the Obama ads. But I defy anyone to point to an ad put out by the Obama campaign--and not by some crazy on the Internet--which branded John McCain as disloyal to his country.

The paranoid style which we saw exhibited in the McCain campaign comes to the fore in times of extreme social stress such as we are witnessing now. (By the way, I don't actually think McCain believed his own attacks, but merely saw them as a useful tactic. And, we saw that in an exchange he had with a questioner at one of his rallies. But that doesn't excuse him in my view.) The paranoid style makes it exceedingly difficult to have serious discussions about issues since the motives of those discussing the issues are always suspect.

Even though a serious dialogue about our interlocking financial and resource crises has been somewhat undermined by the paranoid style exhibited in the presidential campaign, I still believe that the nation can have such a dialogue. But I believe it will end up being much more fruitful on the local level. If energy stringency means a turn away from expansion of the global economy and toward more regional and local economies, then it's hard to see how the federal government could play a dominant role in such a transition. The federal government by its very nature is designed to centralize activities rather than disperse them.

While there are certainly actions the federal government could undertake to aid in the move to a decentralized economy, it seems unlikely those actions would take the right form. For example, if the Congress were to move to expand support of wind and solar power, would it do so in a manner that would make communities more self-sufficient in energy? Or would it emphasize renewable electricity generation by large utilities rather than individual households? I am fairly certain that federal policy would favor the second approach over the first.

And, this brings me to my final point. The reason I call this piece "Governing the ungovernable" is that I believe the problems we now face will not be solved at the central government level. They might be mitigated or exacerbated, but not truly solved. In essence, the world as currently constructed has become ungovernable. So, along with new ways of living, we must find new ways of governing, and I believe those new ways will emphasize the local and the regional over the national or the international.

This tempers my enthusiasm for the new administration about to take power in Washington, one with whom I already have many disagreements especially in the area of energy policy. To the extent that Barack Obama and the team he assembles inspire and empower people to act in their own communities to address energy stringency, climate change, food self-sufficiency and the repercussions of the financial meltdown, the next administration will succeed. But the real successes will have to be imagined and implemented closer to home.


Frank Gifford said...

Thanks Kurt for you post. Change and hope can go a long way towards making ours "a more perfect union". However, also required is the ability to see our problems clearly. The financial crisis and the coming economic meltdown are merely symptoms of the real problems, as you have clearly delineated them: energy stringency, resource scarcity, environmental degradation. I will also add over population. In the context of these problems, the paradigm of growth economics no longer holds. Relocalization is clearly indicated for an increasingly energy and resource scarce world. Perhaps Obama really does know our situation. After all, he could not be our President without first getting elected. Nor can he implement politically infeasible situations. I am not sure how he navigates the terrain, but I hold out hope that he does know and can navigate. I believe it to be of prime importance that we all develop and hold a strong positive (but realistic) vision of of the future, and seek the strength, courage, wisdom and perseverance necessary to make this vision a reality. This is the kind of orientation we model in our project. Truly yours Frank from EntropyPawsed

Anonymous said...

Do you feel a tad bit like you got a different crisis than the one you expected?

I ask, because I certainly view it that way. The global economic crisis is big, really big (D.Adams), and still growing.

To see "peakers" casting it into their old fears is kind of sad, because basically, we haven't seen peak oil. It is still an uncertain and future fear.

Sure, the finite resource dictates a peak someday, but it was always a guess and an extrapolation when it would occur. Take your best guess, hit it and be proud ... or miss it and what?

Cast other events into a peak oil hit?

We might be verging on some definitions of madness.

Kurt Cobb said...

I think anonymous has a point. Every problem shouldn't be cast in peak oil terms. We have multiple causes for the problems financial and otherwise which we now face. The good news is that those parts of the problem that are social and political can be addressed by changing how we live. The bad news is that we still have resource limits that we face. Those limits don't show up at the last minute, but make themselves known as the rate of growth of extraction slows. Since the global economy as currently constructed requires ongoing growth in extraction of resources, as those resources become more difficult to extract, we face high prices and economic difficulties. So, I think what we are experiencing is a convergence of many limits, both social and physical. Yes, the absolute limits on the rate of extraction for many resources may still be quite a few years away. But limits on that rate for oil will be crucial in determining limits on rates for other resources. This is a mulidimensional problem, but one that is still rooted in energy stringency since energy is the master resource

Jan Steinman said...

"they should be more concerned about anarchy than authoritarianism."

Kurt, you sell anarchy short. Why should one be "concerned" about a "lack of rulers?" It can be argued that the best functioning governments throughout history have been ones without rulers.

Rather than insist that those who favour anarchy label it as "functional anarchy," why don't you avoid using the term, and instead refer to "lawlessness" or "insurrection" or something more descriptive and less ambiguous?

Anarchists typically do not favour lawlessness, chaos, nor insurrection. It's just the damn rulers that have to go!

In a low-energy future, I welcome the return of anarchy, in which small groups of people self-govern, without much help from the huge dinosaurs we refer to as "governments." Modern government cannot exist without cheap energy.

Bring on the anarchy! We're already doing it here, to the greatest extent that the rulers will let us.

Kurt Cobb said...

My apologies to Jan. I will try to be more precise in the future.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Minor typo: "The federal government by its very nature is designed to centralized activities rather than disperse them."

I think you meant to say "centralize" there?