Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lousy Air Travel The Least of Our Worries

Kevin Drum riffs on an Atrios comment that "flying really sucks." Kevin says:

If I can put on my Andy Rooney hat for a moment, doesn't it seem as if this describes most of American business these days? It's not just the airlines. As near as I can tell, consumer-facing businesses these days virtually never think about how they can make things genuinely more convenient for people. Rather, they seem almost obsessively concerned with calculating the maximum amount of pain people will put up with before they finally get pissed off enough to take their business elsewhere.

I think Kevin's on to something significant.

I heard a restaurant evaluator a few years ago talking about restaurants, and he always favored local institutions, whatever it was, from a great Northern Italian to a clam shack at the beach. He described food at big chain restaurants as "just good enough so that you won't swear never to return and mean it." He pointed out that there's no one for whom Olive Garden is the best restaurant, just the most convenient, easiest to park at, and not so bad that one would never return.

A lot of large businesses are run this way: gouge every penny possible from the consumer to the point where you are one cent shy of losing the customer. And, after all, it's a smart way to maximize near term profits.

Smaller businesses that don't have to face the demands of the stock market have freedom to charge what they like, and provide whatever level of service/quality they like.

The problem is that the larger businesses essentially rig the game by using their size -- and ready (ish) access to capital to preclude smaller businesses. That's why nearly every town in the US has the same stores, restaurants, etc.

Another undesirable consequence of Wall St.'s demands is that it starves society of research and development. Air travel benefits in part from the R&D that is done by the government. But a lot of companies don't have any R&D strategy, so they riff on the products they already have, they move those products into new markets, and they buy-out the competition. Plus, there's always moving work to lower-cost markets and otherwise depriving workers and suppliers of any available pennies in order to make the firm look like it's growing.

This all points to a serious crisis in the world's economy. We have faced and rebounded somewhat from last year's financial crisis. But we have yet to face and rebound from the underlying economic crisis that continues to worsen. I believe that the current downturn shares this feature with the Great Depression.

We exited the Great Depression by providing work to every man and woman we could get our hands on. We came out of the war with enough technological innovation to support a couple of decades worth of improving products and services.

I don't see any such deus ex machina on the horizon, and so don't see any basis to suppose that the long-term decline in our standard of living is going to be reversed any time soon.

It's certainly true that some of the decline of the West is the happy by-product of a sort of global equalization which is having the positive effect of lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. But we are also dealing with the consequences of a poorly managed society for the last 40 years or so. (Hardly surprising when one considers that we've had a faction in our society for that period that seems to seek and celebrate poor or non-existent social management).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Future

The Dems will win on health insurance reform, and over the next 25 years will argue with the Republicans over various important improvements (which the Repubs will denounce as "expansion of government power" and "employing more and more bureaucrats" or some such).

In the medium- to-long term, say 25 or so years out, the Democrats will in fact have come to take their rule for granted. They will propose foolish ideas and will be taken down over the ensuing 15-25 years, when the latest iteration of the conservative movement again captures political power.

Rinse. Repeat.

I'm inexplicably upbeat and positive about tonight's BHO speech. I saw a few minutes of his Cincinnati speech, and had the experience of thinking I was re-connecting with an old, dear friend after a summer apart. Weird, yeah.


Any hoo, I'm sure I'll find more than adequate grounds for pessimism and gloom shortly. Do not be alarmed!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A sustainable answer to the cruel logic of exponential math

Simply a Deep Thought(tm):

Humans had, for most of our development, millions, thousands, hundreds and even tens of years to adjust to the new problems of our growing species. How best to protect the tribe from animals? How best to store grains? How best to protect our group from other groups who would attack us? How to attack other groups and get their stuff? All of these questions have been addressed with the luxury of some considerable time -- and in a time when significant loss of life was not all that rare.

In the last 200 years, though, our growth has risen to insanely high levels. (Strangely, most population growth experts expect it to top out at some point fairly soon, though why that should be so I have no idea.) We have had to invent, nearly on the fly, systems to handle our basic human needs. We have often done so while incurring large loss of life, and I'm not even counting warfare and genocide - simple death from starvation has been an ongoing catastrophe of enormous proportions.

When I consider the state of our American experiment, I am concerned that we do not have a sustainable model. We still follow an extractive model, and routinely waste enormous resources, lost in our obsession with free markets and social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism is not who we are as creatures. We are hard-wired to be more community-minded, and are obviously striving to get more and more community minded all the time. But we have a hard time imagining a better future, and remain fixed on the structures that have "worked" in the past.

Our society, like so many others around the world, has a jobs/work crisis. Humans need to feel productive to remain happy, and far too many are not producing at anything like their potential. The value of specialization, the value of economies of scale, the power of technological acheivements - these are all forces that free humans from various kinds of work. But we have operated under the impression that the goal is a society where no one has to work, which has sadly led us to a society where not enough people have useful work to do.

In considering the best ways to create work/jobs, we must start to value more highly the need of humans to have meaningful work. Even if it means we "pay" more. We might pay teachers more, even though we might not "have" to. We might "pay" to have more manufacturing work done nearby, even though we could "pay" less for it to be done elsewhere.

I've been trying to formulate a model that would be universal enough to be adopted by almost any society. My thought begins with something like, "for every 2,200 humans, we need one dentist, for every 100,000 humans we need 1,400 farm workers, for every 28,500 humans we need 100 carpenters," and so on. The idea is to have communities that are optimally sized and ensure a wide variety of vocations. A single social unit of say, 300 million, is simply too large to manage. My current thought is to establish something rather like colleges and universities, but these institutions would have missions that do not revolve around education (though some could and would), but would have some focus or speciality. I can imagine a transportation college, where engineers would design forms of transportation and workers could produce it; the rest of the community would work to support that. It's not something I've finished thinking through, so there are a lot of issues. But the core of the idea is to create communities of sizes that would more readily allow adaptation, change and growth over time, so that we wouldn't have to work solely on systems that worked for communities of a half a billion souls or more.

If we don't grab hold of our own destiny, the cruel logic of math will leave us with a single system for all 20 billion of us, in which errors are far more costly, innovation is therefore harder, and far too many will fail to lead the kind of productive and satisfying lives that they could if we only built smarter structures and systems.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Max Blumenthal Is Big

Max Blumenthal is on Democracy Now! promoting his new book, Republican Gamorrah.

This is a major voice already. His willingness to show the hard-right on camera as they really is by itself a major contribution both to our current discourse as well as to later historical analysis.

This new book takes the already highly-insightful thinking of Richard Hofstadter's in his Paranoid Style and American Politics one step further. He takes the paranoid mind-set that describes so well the Right's perspective, and links that mind-set to what I've always believed was at the heart of their movement: a (sometimes all too accurate) perception by its members that they have failed by the standards they subscribe to.

Blumenthal quotes the amateur philosopher (OK, that's just fun to type) Eric Hoffer to Explain Everything:

“Faith in a holy cause,” Hoffer wrote, “is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

This thought becomes Blumenthal's thesis (likely more of a theme, but hey, it's not a literary society), and is used over and over to illuminate the workings of the current Right at their very most fundamental level. He also introduces readers to some of the charlatans and lunatics who have personally created and led this movement - the actual Right Wing Conspiracy.

Max and I disagree about Obama's read of this history -- he thinks the President doesn't take it on board adequately, I disagree. My own view is that the President is taking a long-ish view, and knows that a success on health care will be the crack in the dam that brings about the destruction of the Lunatic Fringe as a significant force in American society for many years to come.

That destruction will take some time, and the health care win will be but the first big breakthrough. But once Americans come to understand that the government can be a very good solution to many problems, the current RIght will finally have their "emperor has no clothes" moment. We will then be able to enjoy another 40-50 years without their interference.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Guns of August: How the Republican Right Fired on Health Care

I think the President understands something that Professor Reich and many others do not: victory goes to the side that understands the power of the counter-attack.

The right has had months to mount their opposition, and have come up with things that we can all accept (like "no death panels"), or things that make no sense ("we don't need health care reform).

When Obama returns to the offensive, he will be able attack a fixed target. I predict he will prevail, and all those who wondered why he "let the narrative get away from him" will have to concede that in the end, we got meaningful health care reform.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost