Thursday, November 29, 2007

Economic Theory

What is the real basis of value? How does the first person in line get the money to spend on what the next one in line has to offer?

If the real basis of value is the finite resources of this planet, we will reach the ultimate limit long before the sun blows up. If prosperity depends on the rate at which we irrevocably consume the Earth, the size of the party determines how long it can last.

This basic fact is obscured by thousands of years of business, evolving on top of the relatively uncriticized practice of digging something up and dragging it to town to sell. Once humans determine that they need something, efficient acquisition of it becomes an understood, unquestioned function. If you want coal, you mine it. If you don't want people dying in tunnels, you blast the top off the mountain and shove the debris aside. Cut trees for wood, drag fish from the sea. Drill oil wells. Do what you have to do.

Early in the settlement of North America by European colonists, some pioneers founded fortunes just by blazing trees with an ax and then entering the land claim with the appropriate colonial governing body. It wasn't quite money for nothing, but it beat having a job. But in order to realize their investment, these early land pimps had to have paying customers.

Coming at it from another angle, fortunes are made by producing or controlling the distribution of the essentials of life: food and shelter. Food is a renewable resource produced through appropriately favorable circumstances and labor, another renewable resource. Shelter, on the other hand, uses materials which may be renewable, like wood, vegetable fibers or animal hides, or durable and reconfigurable, but not subject to rapid regeneration, like stone.

With the harnessing of fire, new amenities in shelter (and cuisine) became possible. At the same time, resources would now literally go up in smoke.

Quarry a building stone and it can be used in its various forms all the way down to sand. But the products of combusted coal aren't nearly so versatile. There's a reduction and considerable loss of matter humans would find usable, even as energy is released. Wood you burn is wood you don't have to build with. And we all know the story on oil. Not only are we running out, the use of it as we race toward that deadline is making our planet's atmosphere look like the lungs of a chain smoker.

Merely saving money at the surface levels of the economy does not mean that you are contributing to a generally beneficial trend. Above the sales floor of Walmart are tiers of executives and major shareholders who don't really have to worry about paying rock bottom price for jockey shorts, lead-laced toys and plastic trash cans. And they never will. Meanwhile, among the customers and associates are many who will face these issues with increasing concern.
I was considering researching and writing a comprehensive history of apathy, but then I figured, "why bother?"

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Word

Constitutional government sets the word above the person. Leaders are given powers and responsibilities by the documents that establish and guide our government. This is very different from government by people with unlimited powers to express their will capriciously.

All laws descend from the Constitution. All the smaller laws can't contradict the major constitutional principles, but they do have to address all the little details of running the country at every level. The Word determines who gets to do what. The people merely interpret and apply it.

Moral laws are pretty simple. You have a pretty good idea whether you should kill, steal, lie, cheat or sabotage other people's relationships. More difficult are the laws governing the mechanical aspects of life, especially building things. When the Earth seemed so big and impervious to human influence, people could build anything anywhere and take the consequences. Build in a swamp? Sure. Your building will be a moldy mess until it ultimately rots into the bog and disappears. Steep slope? Good luck with that. Wind-scoured mountain top? You're an idiot, but it's your money.

As we've grown vastly more numerous and our engineering has overcome the obstacles to construction in environmentally sensitive areas, we've had to develop better reasons to leave those areas alone. And because some poor idiots still hold investments in lands better left alone, we have to get through the transitional period in which we either let the people make their mess or buy them out.

The local wetland article for the zoning ordinance keeps growing larger and more complicated as we attempt to make it fit every possible circumstance. The goal is to have land owners able to do whatever we can allow them, even on non-conforming lots, without having to go through a punitive permitting process. At the same time we don't want to defang the ordinance for new subdivisions and construction.

Input is colored by concerns that are often not clearly voiced, if they're admitted at all. And it still has to go to the planning board for review and public hearings before it gets voted on in March.

The cumbersome process makes one wonder if we will have anything left to protect by the time we formulate all the perfect regulations. But after we are gone, The Word will remain. So it has to be as good as we can make it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Creative Environmental Protection

A friend of mine from up the road was lamenting the destructive activities of ATVers in his neighborhood. With or without permission, they have been ripping around wherever they can find or make a trail, including on his property. When he closed off the trail with some logs, they came into his yard and ripped doughnuts around it to assert their power.

Law enforcement, of course, can do nothing. Unless the marauders come back and invade the home, assault the occupants and identify themselves thoroughly, the police are stymied. I'd rather have it that way than allow the gendarmes to bust in on hearsay, so we work within the limitations of our system. But it's frustrating.

Motorized recreation attracts thugs because thugs don't like to exert themselves on something as mundane as walking, bicycling or cross-country skiing. Better to thunder in with a hot engine between their thighs, hop off fresh as a daisy and use that saved-up energy to whup ass.

Putting it that way, it sounds downright attractive. But damn it all, we're supposed to try to develop some character, aspire to more refinement.

My friend suggested using piano wire to express our criticism. Tempting as that may be, I shy away from impersonal, deadly traps. They could be used on me, and they're overtly hostile.

"Forget that," I said. "Just put out cases of free liquor beside the trail. The problem will solve itself in a very short time."

Think about it. They're off the roads. Their vehicles have no air bags, roll cages or safety devices. The trails are lined with trees, rocks, ravines and ditches. It would be messy for a while, but then it would be over, and the marauders could never say that you had made a hostile move against them. On the contrary, you'd given them treats.

We'd have to go out and pick up dead bodies, smashed machines and empty liquor bottles from time to time, but I'd do that for the emotional satisfaction and healthful exercise.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Porcupine hiding behind the tool shed

I came around the corner of the house this afternoon, carrying tomato cages to the tool shed, to find a porcupine waddling across the yard. By the time I could get the camera, it had climbed into a pile of scrap lumber on the back of the shed. Cute little bugger. They look cuddly, but I know better. Hard to resist giving him a pat, though.

The Future of Human Civilization

The middle class is shrinking because it is becoming obsolete. That which serves no purpose atrophies.

The most efficient industrial society has a small ruling class and a large working class. The small ruling class controls manufacturing and distribution. The working class provides labor. It has only the buying power granted it by the ruling class. Under streamlined management, large corporations can operate their manufacturing facilities and big-box retail stores with a minimal middle management class. The economy can be manipulated to keep even these slightly elevated functionaries under sufficient financial stress to keep them in control.

The labor class doesn't need to be well educated, so the ruling class doesn't need to spend a great deal on public schools. Design engineers and other technical people will come from the ruling class, but part of their challenge is to design systems that can be operated by people who are trained, rather than educated.

Preserving the illusion of a free society, the labor class may believe it has mobility and free will, but freedom, as they say, is not free. You have to fight management's wars for them. And you are only as free as your budget allows.

It's essentially a slavery economy with free-range slaves. They don't run away because there's nowhere to run and they don't know they're captives.

Low-Guilt Lighting

We've been slowly replacing most of our light bulbs with "soft-serve" fluorescents. You know, the little swirly ones. In the process, we found some outdoor ones that have a glass capsule that looks like a regular outdoor flood. We put one in the the light beside the basement door, shining on the woodshed and driveway.

Especially on a cold night, you have to make an appointment to have light. In other words, turn the light on several minutes before you plan to go out. But when it reaches full power, it throws much more light than the incandescent bulb we had before. I doubt if it saves much energy for us when we're at home, because we'll leave it on all evening, to illuminate our trips out for firewood. It will definitely save money when we have to turn the light on early in the day and leave it on so we have light when we come home from work in the dark.

Our electric company offers a cheap deal through an online program, so we're waiting for a big box of bulbs for inside fixtures. Kind of a funny thing to get excited about, but it's like collecting anything. More! More!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rethinking the Modern War

Young adult humans need quests. In the past, leaders could satisfy their need for pawns and the young adult's need to pursue some glorious aim by putting the adventurous youth into armies.

Humans seem to have a desire to die colorfully in conflicts they imbue with deep significance. It beats rotting in some retirement home.

Humanity made a mistake by taking these wars too seriously and making the killing machinery too efficient. Getting blown to smithereens by an impersonal bomb or cannon shell lacks the fantasy-game satisfaction of flowing swordplay, or even just stalking each other with firearms through a forest or cityscape.

We need to go back to wars of personal combat, where the dance means more than the body count. We can have both war and peace if we acknowledge that war is really just another hobby. Medical technology has advanced very well, forced to treat the grossly traumatic injuries inflicted by massively destructive weapons. Imagine how much fun a war with more primitive weapons will be now. You can get hacked, stabbed and stuck with arrows and then have a state-of-the-art helicopter evacuate you to a modern medical facility. Some people would die, but more would live. And you'd know at the end of each work day that you rose or fell based on your own skills, not some random insult like a land mine or a giant bomb.

Risk of death, and loss of comrades is necessary to keep the quest real.

The organizers of wars could decide what the stakes would be, just as the organizers of charity sporting events decide what cause gets the income from the entry fees. In fact, we could even have benefit wars that really do donate the proceeds to a charity.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Go ahead, be true to yourself. No, really.

As I was scrubbing the kitchen sink this morning, rather obsessive-compulsively, lines to a 1960s pop song kept going through my head:
"You've got to
make your own kind of music
sing your own special song
make your own kind of music--
even if nobody else sings along..."
That's right, you freak. Be true to yourself (and keep it to yourself). If you wind up alone, it's okay. Why? Because that's where you belong. It only sounded like an encouraging anthem promoting diversity and creativity. It's really starkly Darwinist. Do your thing...and DIE, you social cripple! Or hit it big, in which case we'll all be HAPPY to sing along!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hillary's right about one thing

Many households are one missed debt payment or serious medical diagnosis away from financial collapse. But you can't lay the blame entirely at the Bush administration's feet.

The nation's prosperity under Bill Clinton sprang from multiple causes, few of which had to do with him. Most were not sustainable. The economy did rebound on a wave of optimism when we finally shook off the grasp of the Reagan era's ill-advised fiscal policies, but the boom that followed was not based on sustainable principles.

Factors like housing starts and a surging real estate industry can't last, because they don't put money in circulation widely enough, and they really just represent tumor growth in humanity's metastatic expansion in already overpopulated areas, and incursions into the few remaining uncrowded ones.

Politicians have a way of standing in front of the rising moon, pointing and saying "look what I did!" Priest magicians have been claiming credit for volcanic eruptions for a long time.

I don't have the answers, but I'd like to see us at least look for them in the right place.

In the meantime, I try to make all my few and carefully chosen debt payments on time and hope to avoid that medical diagnosis.

Advice to superior beings

If you think you are one, that's probably the first sign that you're not.