May 2012 Archives

Another Wake-up Call

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A friend sent me this compelling video which reinforced my sense that pictures are indeed worth 1000's of words.

Caring for the world is part of what makes each and everyone of us human. To ignore that or, worse, to kill those who would devote their lives to this end is a profoundly sad reminder of how distant our humanity has become. Our mindless, consumerist way of living brings us ever closer to those that profit by terrorizing the Earth.

(A hat tip to Andy Hoffman who sent me the link to this video. Here's the Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGeXdv-uPaw)

The Opening of the Eyes Brain

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brain litup

A friend sent me a link to an interesting article about the business “mind.” (I usually put the word “mind” in scare quotes because I do not think it really exists, but it can be a helpful concept if one uses it carefully and metaphorically.) Writing in the Guardian, Syed Azmatullah thinks that business leaders need a new kind of mind if business is to become capable of solving the current complex problems we all are facing. Given the changing conditions of the world, he asks:

In a world of abundance where resources exceeded demand, the leadership mindset, combining logical analysis, optimism, competitive determination, verbal reasoning, inspiring oratory and charisma, has been highly successful. In a world in which demand exceeds supply, will our reliance on our competitive mindset turn things ugly?

Powerful nations are increasing their efforts to stake out claims on a variety of resources. As we witness the growing disparity of access to essential resources threatening our lifestyle, our innate tendency is to regress towards more basic survival instincts. This response has worked so well in our past survival-of-the-fittest battles that it is practically hard-wired into our brains. Yet an ego-centric approach is not the only possible way forward, nor is it desirable.

I think he is right on when he speaks about the need for a different style of leadership, but errs in pinning the problems of getting there to the structure of the brain. Cognitive scientists can now show that certain stimuli “light up” different places in the brain. Lighting up comes from the imaging techniques being used that show active portions as brighter than others. It is true that the brain has evolved along with our journey from our primate ancestors to the modern human being.

The individually oriented leadership mindset, which has dominated western culture for the past two hundred years stems from the front-left quadrant of our cerebral cortex. The proximity of the linear analytical reasoning capability and the language centre give this limited but rapid problem solving centre its voice and persuasive power.

But in the diametrically opposed quadrant is a more powerful multi-modal problem solving centre far more resonant with prevailing social needs. It specialises in envisioning possibilities for the future. Instead of conveying the findings of its analysis with words, these sophisticated solutions are ‘felt’ with metaphors and images.

Recent developments in cognitive science also show that the brain is a plastic mass of highly interconnected neurons that keeps reshaping the pathways that reflect the world outside and create responses to incoming signals. This means that we develop habits by following the norms of the many institutions within which we labor during the course of a day and over a lifetime. Habits can be said to be a fixed neuronal pattern that gets triggered by a certain sensory cue, including speech. Leadership habits, those Azmatullah points to, may reside in a certain part of the brain, but that does not mean they originated from there.

By focusing on the structure of the brain or mind, the author misses an important point. We use our brains mostly in ways we have become acculturated to. Nurture seems to outweigh nature. When faced with unfamiliar situations, where we have no ready-made response stored in the body, we may preferentially call upon certain parts of it. If these solutions are successful, they will become new norms. That is a primary reason that leadership can be categorized neatly. Although business is a dynamic sector with change happening all the time, the underlying cultural structure changes only slowly.

When the context of business changes, however, these old solutions will not work well. New ones must come forth. Azmatullah argues solutions that reflect the systemic nature of tomorrow’s problems will be very important.

But perhaps this looming set of crises will cause us to reflect more deeply on alternative ways of shaping our future. Transformational change across the global community in which we cultivate our sustainability mindset is possible and essential.

Solving global problems requires us to use our whole brains, analysing problems from both our logical-linear individualistic perspective and our multimodal collectivist perspective and synthesising the output from both.

Perhaps a few leaders will reach into the right quadrant of their brains and avoid the linear thinking that seems to characterize most strategic moves today. This might get the process moving, but it will take more than a shift in the place in the mind, that is a mindset, from which our solutions come. It will take a cultural change to make it happen routinely. And this needs more than cross-brained leaders; it requires a careful examination of the culture to understand what we have been doing to bring about the threats we face. Can business leaders trained in today’s business schools and building on this foundation along their path to leadership find the necessary critical skills in any part of their brains or minds? I doubt it, the rules they live by are very deeply embedded in the culture. The premises in the article about demand outweighing supply if extended to include all the unintended consequences of business-as-usual are generally being ignored or denied. Those who are concerned are but a minuscule few. It’s not the brain that is important right now. It cannot change if the ears are deaf and the eyes are blind.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.

David Whyte

Memorial Day 2012

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signposts

I am finally settled in Maine for the Summer and only beginning to get the peacefulness into my body. So peaceful that I skipped a few days, failing to post blogs. Thanks to the faithful who kept coming, looking for the next one. I am writing on the Memorial Day Weekend, a time when we honor those who have sacrificed their lives in wars fought for Country. I am deeply respectful to them, but feel more inclined to honor the memory of everyone who has lost their Being, not their lives, to the inexorable and superpowerful economic order of the market and its companion, growth. This group includes just about everybody alive today and those in the past many generations.

There is a strange and unsettling similarity between the superpower status of the US in both military and economic terms. We are expected to police the world and also keep the economic machine running at full tilt. If we renege in the foreign policy realm, we become subject to terror attacks and aggressive actions by those whose interests run counter to ours. We intervene in places where democracy is attempting to burst out of a cage. If we fail to keep our growth machine going, we become the cause of slowdowns and social strife all over the world.

On this day of memory, both of these roles needs to be questioned. I fully believe that democracy is preferable to almost all forms of governing. Churchill said it well: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It promises more access to Being than most, but this promise is only partially and poorly kept. The voice of the people has rarely, if ever, been fully expressed. The vox populi has been limited in both a de jure and de facto sense. Slaves have been excluded since the Greeks invented the idea. Right now, many people in the US are being systematically kept from the polling booth as part of a crass political strategy.

What really matters to me is what qualities are present in the polity. Is it one that practices justice and equality, where power is restricted to getting the right things done? Or is it more like the one in my country today where power is more like a force of domination over humans and nature? I would like this Holiday occasion to raise this question beyond all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional parades held every year.

I also hold in memory the kind of economic system that was run for the people, the same ones as above. Adam Smith had in mind an economy that took care of people’s needs, where much was delivered through relationships between buyer and seller. He saw competition as driving the “market” to maximize wealth, but I believe he saw wealth as more than monetary. His earlier work on moral sentiments suggests that he held humans as quite different from the economic maximizer central to current economics He thought people were fundamentally empathetic, caring for others. Although much of what he wrote has become outmoded by the passage of time, I think he was right on in this sentiment. But that is only a memory.

Erich Fromm writes about the dichotomy betwen Being and Having, arguing strongly that Being is the place where human beings will find themselves and be able to flourish. We have gone over to the dark side, having, where we can see ourselves only in terms of what we own. Tim Jackson writes today in the NYTimes in a different style, but with the same message. I use Tim’s books in a couple of the courses I teach at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability.

What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or rising prices for resources like oil. Or the need to rein in growth for the damage it’s inflicting on the planet: climate change, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity. Maybe it’s any of the reasons growth can no longer be safely and easily assumed in any of today’s economies. The result is the same. Increasing productivity threatens full employment.

Today, he is criticizing the relentless striving for labor productivity in our economies. Increased productivity plus innovation are the engines of economic growth. But increased productivity inevitably creates unemployment that persists unless growth can absorb more and more workers. Even if it can, there is always a delay between the rise of unemployment and new jobs. The length of the current recession shows that this delay can be long and debilitating to those out of work.

Jackson mentions a couple of solutions. One is to shorten the work week so that it takes more people to do the same work. This means that income will be more equally shared, but those working full time will take a hit. Tough, but consistent with the social goal of equality. Then he switches gears and suggests that efficiency and its result in increased productivity may not be desirable for another reason.

But there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates. Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity. By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.

At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

I have been arguing this in other words. Just recently I wrote about the intrusion of the market into domains that should be served by relational activities, not mere transactions. Jackson picks on the”caring’ professions, but then add crafts, arts.

In short, avoiding the scourge of unemployment may have less to do with chasing after growth and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture. And in doing so, restoring the value of decent work to its rightful place at the heart of society.

I call all of them caring, using a different meaning for care. Care in my dictionary means addressing everything that matters to being human, not just one kind of care based on our needs due to some physical or mental incapacity. We should be care-givers all the time in every domain we move through in the course of a day or a life. The market needs to be carefully [interesting use of care] divided in two; one sector producing, in the most efficient manner, impersonal commodities that we use in our own care-given. The pots and pans we use to feed our families would fit here, although cooks that see themselves as craftspeople might want something more individually tailored to their idiosyncrasies.

The other sector would operate where relationships matter more than low cost and efficient delivery. WalMart is the epitome of the efficient giant delivering commodified goods and services. I went to our local weekly farmers market yesterday for the first time this summer. It was most pleasurable to greet my friends in the stalls and see that they had returned. The goods are hand-crafted with the utmost care. The eggs come from pastured hens and are so good that I sometimes think they must care about me. Even in my own lifetime, now stretching over 80 years, I have seen this kind of market where care is still present largely disappear. For me Memorial Day conflates this loss with that of all the dead heroes.

Tom Friedman: Where Have You Been Hiding?

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campo-de-fiori-market

Tom Friedman the noted author and NYTimes columnist often has a byline from some exotic place. He is one of the most peripatetic journalists around, so I was quite surprised that he was surprised by the dark side of capitalism exposed in Michael Sandel’s recent book. Friedman is the guy who noticed that the “Earth is Flat, but missed what has been happening in his back yard. He starts his column with,

PORING through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, “I had no idea.”

I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.” I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”

If he had been reading my blog, he would have already discovered the incredible reach of market capitalism.It’s not just the ubiquity of advertising, it’s the insidious intrusion of markets into places where they have no business being. I just posted a blog on the conversion of what were relational services to market transactions. “Wantologists” can be hired to coach people to buy, buy, buy without guilt or anxiety. This strange sounding new profession has arisen alongside of the “outsourcing,” as Arlie Hochschild writes, of activities that used to be performed among people who knew one another.

I have just returned from a week spent in Italy, first in Florence attending a conference, and then a few more days in Rome touring with my wife and one of my grandchildren. In just this short time, I was conscious of a difference in the way people relate to one another. In Rome we walked everywhere, seeing the antiquities, the influence of the papacy, and eating, eating, eating. The absence of the fast food chains is quite evident. The culture supports the individuality of small, often family-owned restaurants. Meals are an occasion. We felt a pride of place in many of the establishments. Of course it is much easier to feel proud of one’s place when it is situated in a block that is over 1000 years old. Rome is special; it is hard to walk more than just a few blocks without passing through a garden or plaza, filled with people.

This is the same Italy that is being castigated in the business press as inefficient and economically asleep. It didn’t feel that way; just the opposite. I felt a vibrancy missing from city life in the states. Maybe this is the way it should be. I think so. So does Sandel, although arguing from a different perspective. Friedman continues:

Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.

The first sentence in this last quote is very important. Public spaces and the dialogues that flow through them are the lifeblood of a society. Our kind of markets are impersonal and the goods and services that are passed along are highly commodified. Our markets are about as far from the traditional bazaars that teem with life and are a part of the public sphere. Sandel is a political philosopher and thinks about the whole of societies, particularly the conditions that are essential to democracy and justice. I have been more focused on the individual and how he or she fares in this unsustainable world. The marketization that destroys public life also destroys the humanity of the individual. The combination of “outsourcing” and the incessant and loud barrage of advertising and other forms of persuasion make it almost impossible to make authentic choices. The transformation of caring human beings to needy havers is almost complete. It seems almost foolish to talk about sustainability-as-flourishing in this context, but maybe those who are the so-called thought leaders will come out of hiding and begin to tell us the truth about the world we live in.

(The photo is of the Campo Dei Fiori market square in Rome)

Tuscany Trip

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stepping-away.gif
I am away for about 10 days to attend a workshop in Florence. I have had to shake the cobwebs off some of my past work in industrial ecology. I was invited based on some past work in that field. Not a bad way to get the summer started.

Shopper's Addiction Now Almost "Official"

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This intriguing news item appeared today in the NYTimes.

In what could prove to be one of their most far-reaching decisions, psychiatrists and other specialists who are rewriting the manual that serves as the nation’s arbiter of mental illness have agreed to revise the definition of addiction, which could result in millions more people being diagnosed as addicts and pose huge consequences for health insurers and taxpayers.

The revision to the manual, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or D.S.M., would expand the list of recognized symptoms for drug and alcohol addiction, while also reducing the number of symptoms required for a diagnosis, according to proposed changes posted on the Web site of the American Psychiatric Association, which produces the book.

In addition, the manual for the first time would include gambling as an addiction, and it might introduce a catchall category — “behavioral addiction — not otherwise specified” — that some public health experts warn would be too readily used by doctors, despite a dearth of research, to diagnose addictions to shopping, sex, using the Internet or playing video games.

shopping-addiction

I have been arguing for a long time that consumption patterns in the US show signs of addiction. So do uses of technology beyond playing games on iPhones and iPads. The mindless use of technological artifacts to solve "problems" may also be a form of addiction. The "problem," some incomplete concern, remains while the superficial symptoms may be temporarily mitigated or disappeared. Habitual, that is mindless or unreflected, actions, are fundamental to living. We could not get through a day without them. Cognitive research is finding that, in contradistinction to older models that trace action to some rational decision-making process in the body, most of what we do is habitual in nature, triggered by cues arriving through our senses.

Since, as the Times stories continues, the DSM takes on an authoritative role in deciding what ailments can qualify for medical insurance or be considered in adjudicatory proceedings, the line between addiction and habit needs to be very carefully delineated. Addiction can be defined as habitual use of something that may solve one problem temporarily, but also produces a negative or pathological unintended consequence. Addiction to drugs tears down the body eventually and leads to antisocial behavior.

Shopping, the transaction that precedes consumption, is an inherent part of the basic life processes in this modern economy where we do not create everything directly out of natural sources. We have been shopping in one form or another since we left the cave. So shopping is a basic habit for life. The important question for both therapists and people like me who are concerned about sustainability is when and why does shopping turn addictive. It's addictive when there is no completion involved; when it becomes the end, rather than the means to serve some domain of care. Bush's admonition after 9/11 to go shopping was an invitation to addiction, shopping without any mindful end in sight.

The harm created by addictive shopping is the failure to address what is missing from the shopper's life; what unfinished acts of caring linger. I use unfinished in the sense of non-routine gaps between what the actor is doing and the conditions that would constitute completion. We have many areas of care that require continuous attention, but since we cannot do more than a few things at a time, there will always be such incomplete domains. Addictive shopping ignores impacts on the Earth (absence of care for it), and uses resources better spent to address other domains. If you think that this talk about shopping addiction is bunk, go the web and search for it.

The use of social media is another activity that can easily slip from a useful habit to an addiction. It has the positive function of connecting the user to the world of events and people. But when its use turns people into things, when friends become an abstract concept defined merely by someone's name on the wall, its use takes on an addictive tone. The connections it produces are temporary and fritter away real relationships, as the meaning of friend hardens into a lifeless object.

Making these kinds of uses of technology and and mindless shopping qualify to be called addictions is a timely recognition of a deep cultural problem and one that is fundamental to the unsustainable state of today's world. Unconstrained and mindless shopping places a load on the world it cannot take any more. The transformation of people to means, a risk that any technology carries, breaks down human relationships central to the health of the whole person.

I wonder, however, how effective it will be for therapists to add shopping or Facebook addiction to their list of services treated. Addiction is not embodied solely in the addict. It always (perhaps with a few exceptions) occurs in some context surrounding the addict. The family or other contextual contents are a part of whatever is supporting the habit. It is possible to gather in all the parties in cases of alcoholism and other drug uses in attempting to change the systemic context. The 12-step method relies on placing the addict in a supportive community.

But where is that community for shoppers? The culture itself is shouting out messages to buy this or that. No therapist will be separate the addict from the ubiquitous barrage of messages to buy something. The same is true for addiction to devices and the "games" they offer. The harms caused by addictive use of drugs and other substance that harm the body are reflected in societal norms, giving care-givers a standard from which to operate.

It is completely different with the "new" addictions that may become recognized in the DSM. There is no associated societal norm that recognizes the harms. It is just the opposite. There is no safe haven for the addict to retreat to. I am reminded of what R. D. Laing called insanity: "Insanity: a perfectly rational adjustment to the insane world." Simply replace "insanity" with "shopping addiction" and you will immediately see the dilemma we have placed ourselves smack dab in the middle of. We can either ignore the insanity of the world and continue to stigmatize those who are most perceptive about it, or change the world and allow both it and its inhabitants to flourish.

Want-ology®

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signposts

Welcome to the surreal world of today.

IN the sprawling outskirts of San Jose, Calif., I find myself at the apartment door of Katherine Ziegler, a psychologist and wantologist. Could it be, I wonder, that there is such a thing as a wantologist, someone we can hire to figure out what we want? Have I arrived at some final telling moment in my research on outsourcing intimate parts of our lives, or at the absurdist edge of the market frontier?

This opening from an article in the NYTimes, by Arlie Hochschild of Second Shift fame, really shook me up. Hochschild suggests that the professional appelation was strange-sounding to her. It’s not just the name that gets to me. It’s the very idea that we should require therapy or coaching to calm our anxieties over what to buy next. This is not the same as therapy for addiction to consumption although it comes close. Hochschild’s thesis is that so much of what we “want to have” in our daily lives comes from the market that we develop pathological symptoms by the choices and the transactional nature of the process.

I couldn’t agree more strongly. More evidence that have fallen deeper into the “having” mode of lie that Fromm writes about. How bad does it have to get before everything that makes us human and differentiates us from other animals becomes just another innovation brought to us through the magic of the invisible hand? She continues:

In the 1940s, there were no life coaches; in 2010, there were 30,000. The last time I Googled “dating coach,” 1,200,000 entries popped up. “Wedding planner” had over 25 million entries. The newest entry, Rent-a-Friend, has 190,000 entries. . . And, in a world that undermines community, disparages government and marginalizes nonprofit organizations as ways of meeting growing needs of working families, these are likely to proliferate. As will the corresponding cultural belief in the superiority of what’s for sale. . . The bad news in this case is the capacity of the service market, with all its expertise, to sap self-confidence in our own capacities and those of friends and family. . . Consider some recent shifts in language. Care of family and friends is increasingly referred to as “lay care.” The act of meeting a romantic partner at a flesh-and-blood gathering rather than online is disparaged by some dating coaches as “dating in the wild.”

The story continues with a turn to the emotional and concerns about this “outsourcing” trend on emotional health.

As we outsource more of our private lives, we find it increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment. A busy executive, for example, focuses on efficiency; his assistant tells me, “My boss outsources patience to me.” The wealthy employer of a household manager detaches herself from the act of writing personal Christmas-present labels. A love coach encourages clients to think of dating as “work,” and to be mindful of their R.O.I. — return on investment, of emotional energy, time and money. The grieving family member hires a Tombstone Butler to beautify a loved one’s burial site. [This one sounds so cold and crass, and has to be about the most inauthentic action possible. Is care really present here?]

I think this is more serious than simply a psychological issue. It is an ontological issue--fancy words for saying we have lost our understanding of what makes us human. We are caring creatures, and caring means acting out of a sense of attachment or connection to whatever is at the other. The market is fundamentally impersonal and amoral. I am fond of quoting Robert Heilbroner, so apologies to those who have already seen this often in my blog: "A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content."

But others see this trend as a very positive move, like the Wall Street tycoon in my recent post, who argues that more inequality is good for us. One of the many comments that Hochschild’s column produced came from Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for their website. He writes, not surprisingly for a business editor,

It seems to me that we should want, if not desperately crave, the kind of affluence that makes food so cheap, and shelter so available, and medical care so affordable, that we have money left over to pay people to help us meet our "higher" needs. Rather than fear the anxiety economy, I welcome it with anxious and trembling arms. It's a badge of wealth and something of a miracle that today, uniquely within the sweep of history, we finally have the time and cause to debate whether we're spending too much money nursing our neuroses and investing directly in our happiness.

I think he missed the point entirely, something that business commentators so often do. Hochschild, as am I, is lamenting the disappearance of “non-market” activities that historically were delivered by two or more persons in the context of a caring relationship, and their reappearance as impersonal transactions in the “market” where they eventually become commodified by the inexorable workings of competition and efficiency.

Finally, today, I wanted to see how long this term has been around and tried a web search. Of the roughly 5000 hits on the word, wantology, I found only a few that were not triggered by Hochschild’s article. The earliest I found was a pointer to Jean Slatter, who has been consulting and giving lectures on wantology since 2005 or so. She is the author of Hiring the Heavens. Hochschild cites her in her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, on which the Times article was based.

The other that caught my attention was an ad for courses and a handbook from “The Organization Zone.” They have already branded the name. Fast work. The organization and handbook, Want-ology Workbook: Really Get What You Really Want, are the work of Kevin B Kreitman. Here’s a few words from their website.

To get what you really want, you have to know what you really want. Feel really secure that your dream job won't trap you in a nightmare. And feel confident that you can avoid jumping "out of the frying pan into the fire" when you decide to go for it.

Want-ology® is the fundamental course that will focus you on what you truly want in a way that will enable you to make your dreams come true.

I guess I am way behind the times. My children have done all right in their lives with names plucked from a book of names, but mostly out of conversations with family and friends. My spouse and I were the nameologists, but we missed knowing that. But then we were also not worried from the moment we discovered them in utero about the nursery school we “should want” them to go. The professional potty trainer that Hochschild mentioned would never have had the patience we brought to the process and would have created an entirely different bond with the kids, but maybe that would have been a good thing. I doubt it, as I doubt that any of these outsourced human-centered activities can be provided by the market without costs that far outweigh the profits they provide to the economy.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

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dust bowl farm

Some things never or rarely change. My wife recently took a course about great American migrations, which finished by reading about the Dust Bowl in the 1930‘s. What I report below comes from the book they read, The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. Egan writes about those who stayed behind through terribly difficult times and the events that were going on to address the human and natural disasters. The extent of the damage is hard to visualize today. Egan writes. “One hundred million acres had lost most of its topsoil and nearly half had been ‘essentially destroyed’ and could not be farmed again, Bennett said.” Bennett is Hugh Bennett, the man who Roosevelt had assigned to deal with the tragedy.

The book reports the debates about the causes back in Washington. “A Harvard geologist” consulting to the Department of Interior argued that an “irrevocable shift in nature was underway,” and there would be at least 100 years of desolation. The experts at the Department of Agriculture thought the cycle was much shorter, and the drought was due to a much shorter periodicity. It had not rained for four years by then. Egan writes further, “The system was broken, just like the land. The debate was whether to start from scratch, with radical new methods of farming, or give up on the southern plains forever.”

Bennett argued against those who wanted to keep offering monetary incentives to stay on the land. He had been allotted a few millions for his brand-new agency, the Soil Erosion Service to provide “relief.” Instead, he wanted to change farming and soil conservation practices, and keep people on the land. Although looking to technology to mitigate the conditions, he looked beyond nature as the cause and, argued that this was “not just another natural disaster or an epic drought. It seemed like something caused by man, a by-product of hubris and ignorance on a grand scale.”

Bennett lobbied to get money and authority from Congress to establish a new permanent agency to heal the land. He wanted the money to stabilize the land for “generations to come.” Many scoffed at him. Egan writes, “‘If God can’t make rain in Kansas,’ one Congressman asked, ‘how can the New Deal hope to succeed.’” Bennett plowed ahead and avoided the charge that Roosevelt was playing God. “His [Bennett’s] idea was much simpler: change human behavior, not the weather.”

That’s enough history. The book is a graphic and often moving tale of hardship mixed with stubbornness. Now, with this brief extract, I want you to jump ahead about 80 years to the present, and to global climate change instead of drought in the Dust Bowl. For me, the parallels are striking, instructive, and disturbing. The incessant and unending debates among the heads of agencies and advocates of all stripes has an eerie resemblance to the story Egan retells. Technology reappears as the Band-Aid to counter the “natural” causes. Any contribution of human agency is strongly contested.

The New Deal program Bennett was able to establish involved buying back the land from the homesteaders to whom it had been given over a couple of generations. Many were extraordinarily stubborn, to the extent of forming a “Last Man Club,” vowing to stay and fight the plans to resettle the inhabitants of the southern plains. I can imagine the same issue will arise when people are forced to flee from low-lying lands being inundated by rising sea level. I just saw a remarkable documentary, The Island President, about the recently deposed President of the Maldives that’s already losing its country to the Indian Ocean.

Although the drought had parched the plains for 4-5 years, it tool a singular event to give it its name. On April 14, 1935, a huge storm, described as a “black blizzard” took away even more of the little topsoil that was left by then. The next day, reporters started referring to that day as “Black Sunday” and to the region as “The Dust Bowl.” The name still lives as a metaphor for the ravages of nature abetted by the helping hands of humans. Ironically, the storm deposited dust as far east as Washington, DC just as Bennett was pleading for his case before the Congress. During his testimony, clouds of dust coming from the southwest darkened the skies outside the Capitol. The noticeable impact was startling. Egan writes, “Within a day, Bennett had his money and a permanent agency to restore and sustain the health of the soil.” What kind of Black Sunday will it take to wake us up?

Let Us Praise Famous Superrich Men

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Bugatti

The New York Times ran a highly provocative story, reporting on a book by Edward Conard (rhymes with canard) about to hit the streets. Conard was a partner in Bain Capital before he retired. He’s right up there in the wealth stratosphere along with his old chum, Mitt Romney. The Times article identifies him as “a member of the 0.1 percent. His wealth is most likely in the hundreds of millions; he lives in an Upper East Side town house just off Fifth Avenue; and he is one of the largest donors to his old boss and friend, Mitt Romney.”

Conard makes no apologies about being superrich. He argues conversely that it is the superrich to whom we owe the efficacy of our economy. Maybe, but we also owe them a major hand in bringing down the system a few years ago. Conrad admits to a mistake or two in the system. Because of this stigma, many of the wealthy are hiding in gated communities and exerting their wills on the rest of us through the anonymous channels being used to corrupt fund the democratic political process. Conard is different, the Times reports.

Unlike his former colleagues, Conard wants to have an open conversation about wealth. He has spent the last four years writing a book that he hopes will forever change the way we view the superrich’s role in our society. “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong,” to be published in hardcover next month by Portfolio, aggressively argues that the enormous and growing income inequality in the United States is not a sign that the system is rigged. On the contrary, Conard writes, it is a sign that our economy is working. And if we had a little more of it, then everyone, particularly the 99 percent, would be better off. This could be the most hated book of the year.

Conard contends that nobody really understands the economy. All those Nobelists that study the impacts that both consumption and investment spending are wrong. The Times article continues.

Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don’t know how the economy really works — that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone. “Most citizens are consumers, not investors,” he told me during one of our long, occasionally contentious conversations. “They don’t recognize the benefits to consumers that come from investment.”

I won’t repeat the economic arguments for or against his “counterintuitive” model; you will have to read the whole story. (For me, as I have written, most of economics is not intuitive or counterintuitive, it is a misguided quasi-science that has caused at least as much mischief as good.) I will take a shot at his statement that inequality is good for us, however. I have reported in the past on the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, in their book, The Spirit Level. The two authors present a series of graphs each displaying a measure of some social bad against a standard measure of income inequality for a variety of relatively affluent industrialized countries. The US is the worst performer in every case, often lying well beyond the position of others on the graphs. We have both the highest inequality and the worst record. The measures of social bads include teenage pregnancies, life expectancy, a general combined health index, crime, social mobility and so on. I show one case below. All look pretty much the same.

His conclusions are the same as all results gotten by looking at the world through a soda straw. Maybe the numbers alone show the relationships he claims. It is strange in this case that with thousands of economists churning the same data, he comes up with such different results. The data that Wilkinson and Pickett present are “counterintuitive, I am sure in his view. They show that inequality does just the opposite. It all depends on what measures you are using. I will take indices of human well-being over money every day.

ps. The Times also wrote, “Romney has also said that rising inequality is not a problem and that the attention paid to the issue is ‘about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.’” He didn’t read The Spirit Level either.

pps. The Bugatti Veyron in the photo goes for a mere $1,700,000.