It’s the Stupid Economy

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In the late 1800s, income inequality had reached an all time high in most of the western world. What followed was fifty years of war and revolution. Did the first cause the second? It’s not certain but the evidence certainly points in that direction. The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few was so great that America’s first populist President championed legislation to break up the largest corporations, notably in the oil industry but also in the beef and railroad industries. Perhaps that’s one reason the USA avoided many of the internal disruptions faced by many other countries in the 20th Century. In any case, for many countries, violence became the great leveler.

Income inequality began to fall in western nations from World War I until the 1980s when it began to rise again, slowly in much of Europe, more rapidly in the English-speaking countries and the developing world. While the USA has returned to economic divisions similar to what existed in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, countries in Latin America and parts of Africa and southeast Asia have even greater income disparities.

While at the extremes, inequality is almost unimaginable. The hundred richest people in the world have more wealth than the poorest billion. An “eat the rich” ideology now runs rampant among certain segments of the population. Personally, I suspect they’re not that tasty.

But income inequality runs deeper than that. If you are in the top 20% of the population, you have seen your wealth and income increase steadily if modestly over the last 40 years. You may not feel like Rockefeller and you may be worried about your kids’ future, but for the most part you feel secure and happy. As it turns out, money does buy happiness up to a point and beyond that point it mostly seems to buy you detachment from the real world.

For the rest of the population, things are not so rosy. Incomes have stagnated or even fell in real terms and the perceived gap between you and those ahead of you in the economic race has become magnified. And, once, we get to the bottom 20%, poverty levels have risen as incomes fall.

None of this should be surprising. The market system is specifically designed to produce winners and losers and its primary goal is the accumulation of wealth. While apologists for capitalism claim that a rising tide lifts all boats, most of them don’t seem to understand that a lot of people don’t own boats and many who do, have leaky dinghies always on the verge of capsizing and sinking.

And what does all this income inequality mean for us? Bad news for the most part. A definitive study of 23 countries suggested that increased income inequality leads to higher incarceration rates. That may seem unsurprising but it may also lead to higher rates of family breakdown, worse medical outcomes, shorter life spans, higher child mortality rates, greater social disruption and breakdown of governance systems. I suspect, since it apparently leads to more consumption, it also leads to greater environmental degradation including climate change. Just anecdotally, a single large yacht of the type owned by the super rich produces more greenhouse gases than 400 average-sized African villages. And the drive to accumulate wealth and then keep it almost certainly takes you directly through oil fields and rain forests.

It also explains the growing dislocation of most voters in western democracies. Faced with abundant evidence that the economy is failing them in both real and relative terms, they begin to distrust the politicians who lead their state—even when such distrust is clearly misplaced. The rise of populism on the left and right as well as the constant churn of single term governments comes from that distrust. Eventually, when no party seems able to solve their problems RIGHT NOW, they turn their back on democracy altogether. Which suits authoritarians (who ultimately prove to be supportive of the rich) just fine. Are there alternatives? I think so but that will have to wait because…

That’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Raden Prasetya on Unsplash

Klaatu, where are you?

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In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien named Klaatu comes to earth and almost immediately is gunned down. Luckily for him, death is not an impediment, at least, not initially. He delivers a message to the world – stop fighting among yourselves and join a peaceful galactic civilization. It’s not a particularly original idea (except for the galactic part) but it falls on deaf ears. They shoot him again but rather than destroying the planet he saves it from destruction be all powerful robots by famously uttering: Klaatu barada nikto!

Say what? While no one really knows what those words meant (even the screenwriter) they did the trick and the earth was spared. The theme of bringing the world together to fight alien invaders has subsequently been a well-worn trope of science fiction movies, though generally in subsequent iterations, it actually worked.

Klatuu failed in his mission of world unity but that wasn’t the point. What the director and writer might have been getting at is that the world was doomed if it kept on its current road of nuclear proliferation. It would take more than the intervention of one man (or alien) to change that. It was a collective exercise requiring international collaboration. We signed a couple of treaties and the world didn’t burn (though a couple of guys seem determined to change that).

Sort of like what we are currently facing with climate change. Much like the arms race, the world has been in a competitive frenzy to have more, to make more, to control more. Economies have expanded—not a bad thing in itself—at the cost of the environment and, as well, as the end game plays out, at the price of greater social and economic inequality. It is not sustainable but, for most of us, present pleasure always out weighs inevitable pain. Anyone who has had more than one hangover can attest to that.

But nothing is inevitable. In 1980, most of the countries of Africa were in the hands of dictators who had clung to power—using violence, propaganda, patronage and corruption—for more than 20 years. Most had the support of one of the Great Powers at the time—the US and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.

Then Michel Gorbachev arrived on the scene with the idea of glasnost, which lead to the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, caused mostly by internal transformations rather than the exhortations of Ronald Reagan. The effect in Africa was dramatic. The iron grip of Marxist dictators was loosened and, in many countries, multi-party states began their shaky existence. Western powers, too, no longer saw the benefit of supporting “useful dictators” like Mobutu in Zaire. Without continuing CIA support many lost their positions (though not the billions they had stolen over the years). It was not the end of Africa’s problems but it set the stage so that, in some countries at least, real progress could be made, while in others, things became less bad.

So maybe we don’t need an alien invasion after all (though I’d love to hear Donald Trump say he was going to build a wall around the earth and make the Martians pay for it). What we need are a few brave leaders to transform the earth… No, that’s not it, we need the whole population to wake up and kick a few of our so-called leaders in the butt and then, get on with the job at hand.

Because we really can’t be saved by the actions of one person (look at Russia today) but only by the collective action of the many, even if we have to drag the rest kicking and screaming into the future. While we still have one.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

The Kindness of… Rich People

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Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?

No.

The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

End Days

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Apparently the world will end this weekend. Again. Every few months or years, fundamentalists predict that they have discovered the date and time of the end of the world or, as it is sometimes called, the rapture. It may be based on numerology as the current one is or on the Mayan calendar. It may be based on mysterious communications from gods or aliens. It is mostly based on wishful thinking. And, so far, it never turns out to be true.

There are lots of ways the world—or at least civilization—could end. Some of them loom on the horizon but, they are hardly preordained. If the world comes to an end, it will likely be caused by human foolishness or human agency. Or an asteroid. Hardly the stuff of heavenly prophecy. I mean, if God wanted to end the world, surely he could come up with something better than throwing rocks at it.

It’s easy enough—and lots of fun—to tease people who suggest that prophecy has predicted the end of times. It’s a little unfair to do so, a bit like kicking a puppy for barking. Sadly, more than a few people are taken in and some lives have been ruined when folks follow the advice of these religious naysayers.

In any case, predicting the end of things has a long and happy tradition well away from the sweaty-faced prophets and weird cults of the world.

Take capitalism. People have been predicting that capitalism will fail and disappear ever since the first person called himself a capitalist—whenever that was. Marx was certain that his scientific materialism showed the days of the capitalist system were numbered. Yet here we are in the second stage of post-modern, post-industrial capitalism, and the world keeps ticking along, mostly using some form of market based economy.

I think it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead; it’s not even the past. Pretty profound for a guy who didn’t know when a sentence should end.

But he was certainly right. Just as William Gibson was correct in saying that the future has already arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Because no system—once invented—ever really goes away. Don’t believe me? I know people who still play vinyl records, take film photographs, and listen to radio – all of which were predicted to disappear years ago. And did you know you can still send a telegram?

More significantly, slavery, abolished in most of the world more than a century ago, still persists, not just in the dark corners of collapsed states but right here in Canada, the United States and Britain. The slave economy—often operating as an adjunct or as a shadow parallel to the capitalist system—still thrives with an estimated 11 million people caught in its net. And though some people call capitalism ‘wage slavery,’ it is sheer pedantry to suggest the two economic systems are the same.

And what about colonialism? Relegated to the scrapheap of history? Well, there aren’t a lot of western states still elbows deep in the practice, but take a look at what China is doing in Nepal, on the Indian border or in Africa or what the newly expansionist Russian empire is doing in eastern Europe and it’s not so clear.

The belief that we are at the end of an era—or at the dawn of a new one—is deeply embedded in the human psyche and in human culture. Predictions of the apocalypse are scattered throughout history like marbles in a child’s playground. We all—even so-called rationalists—seem to embrace one death cult or another. Yet, the more I see of the world, the more I believe we are all simply muddling through, making deals with entropy to get from one day to the next. Systems are as illusory as the predictions of their end.

So don’t worry, be happy. The end days come for us all—but we don’t have to drag the world down with us.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

And really I should apologize—I’m in the middle of writing a novel of post-collapse recovery. As soon as I get to the hopeful part, I’m sure my blogs will get more cheery. Or not.

Nukes!

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In my novel, Defining Diana, I refer to a brief war that left the Korean peninsula a radioactive ruin. While science fiction writers are sometimes believed to be prescient (though their success is vastly overrated), this is one area where I hope my inadvertent prediction proves wrong.

I suspect it likely will.

Clearly North Korea intends to become (has already become) a nuclear power, capable of raining death down on all its perceived enemies, the real question is: what can be done about it?

Not much it seems. Officially there are seven members of the nuclear club – USA, Russia, China, England, France, India and Pakistan – with North Korea getting ready to join. Most strategic experts are certain that Israel also has the bomb, and South Africa used to have six—but got rid of them (some good news at least) though presumably they still have the technology. Five NATO countries have nukes on their soil and while former soviet republics gave up their bombs and signed on to monitoring, not every warhead is accounted for. And let’s not forget Iran. And South Korea may be rethinking their own no-nukes policy. So much for non-proliferation efforts of the last fifty years.

The good news is that while lots of people have the bomb and the means to deliver it to targets far and wide (almost as difficult a feat as building the bomb itself), no one actually has, since the Americans dropped two of them on Japan in 1945.

That’s really quite remarkable. Since India and Pakistan both developed the weapons, they’ve actually been to war a couple of times. If Israel has nukes (they tend to be cagey about it), they must have at least been tempted to use them once or twice during their interminable conflicts with the Arab world. Yet both showed restraint.

China and India are currently engaged in an increasingly tense border dispute yet no one seriously thinks Delhi and Beijing are going to go up in flames.

Historically we’ve often been closer to nuclear war than we are right now – during the Cuban missile crisis and at the height of the Star Wars threats of Reagan and the response of the USSR to those threats. But missiles never flew.

Why does North Korea worry us so much? Well, they are highly militarized and are led by a narcissistic leader who believes in making his nation great. That should worry everyone.

But this has actually been true in North Korea for some time. Their military is huge and well-armed, thanks to the ability of the world’s arms industry to largely avoid sanctions by the UN. China hasn’t helped, using N Korea as a useful tool to make themselves look reasonable while they practice economic and, to a lesser extent, military imperialism. Many think China will eventually clamp down on Kim Jong Un if he gets out of hand.

But it may not be so easy. In the sixties, the great powers kept a firm hand on the military and nationalistic ambitions of their client states. But with the proliferation of conventional weapons – which kill as many every year as the nukes did in Japan—client states are no longer so compliant.

Still, everyone knows, even madmen (and it is not clear that N Korea’s leaders are any madder or more power hungry than those leading a dozen other national governments), that there is no profit—however you define that—in a dead world. I guess as long as we never have a world leader who thinks they have a role in bringing about the prophesied end of the world we should be okay.

And that’s ten minutes.

A Conspiracy of Lizards

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A small percentage of Americans (totaling 12 million) apparently believe that a group of lizard people – cleverly disguised as human – are operating all the governments of the world. The exact intent of these lizards is unknown but it can’t be anything good. Usually when people use the word conspiracy, a switch goes off in my head and all I hear afterword is ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda.’ If you want to know why, read the book “Voodoo Histories.”

Of course, a real conspiracy is only effective if it can’t be detected and if it can’t be detected it could hardly work its way into the public consciousness. So any conspiracies that people talk about are actually fake news, covering for the real ones that we cannot fathom. Confused yet? Join the club – you know the one with Steve Bannon and his other paranoid ‘deep state’ fumblers.

Still, if there were a conspiracy of lizard people, what signs might we look for? I would think an accidental slip-up where they reveal a bit of scale or perhaps tweet something in their secret slithering tongue. Is that what covfefe really means? Perhaps. The White House press secretary seemed to imply it meant something – but only to the president and a few select others.

And of course, there you have it. In a world that increasingly hates facts and evidence, where everything can be explained as a plot or a plan by some secret cabal, anything is possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us hang on every word or tweet, like supplicants outside the Oracle at Delphi, struggling to interpret the secret meanings behind every mumbled exhortation.

The sad reality is that most of what President Trump and those in the White House say means very little – it certainly doesn’t mean what they or what any rational person might think it means – as, for example, when they say they are going to build a better America when they actually mean they intend to wreck everything good about America. That sort of thing.

But perhaps there is no real conspiracy at all. The simpler explanation is that POG (Poor Old Guy) got up in the night to pee (he is over 70, remember?) and was struck with a brainwave. He grabbed his phone and, voilà, covfefe. I sympathize. What writer has not woken from a deep sleep with a sudden flash of brilliance, reached for his notepad and pen and scribbled it down for posterity? The next morning he finds a meaningless scrawl or, worse yet, a series of unrelated words – goose climbs dark wonderment stardust – and wastes several days trying to recapture the moment.

In any case, it is a waste of time to spend too much effort trying to find deep meaning in most of Trump’s tweets or other utterances. There is nothing complex there – he is a grasping old man whose only meaningful statement in the last twenty years was: You’re fired. And while we are fluttering and fuming over the meaning of a Tweet (and isn’t Twitter the perfect name for the cacophony of the dawn chorus?), POG is pulling out of the climate accord and wrecking alliances that have served America well for decades. Covfefe, indeed.

And that’s ten minutes.

Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.