Friday, December 04, 2009

Working (and the Dreaming Up Daily Quote)

Fewer jobs lost and lower unemployment than anyone had expected in the monthly report for November issued today had the New York Times story beginning: "The nation’s employers not only have stopped eliminating large numbers of jobs, but appear to be on the verge of rebuilding the American work force, devastated by the recession."

President Obama was more measured, telling an audience in Allentown, PA that there are going to be ups and downs before the economy settles. Most economists agree, but according to the Times "Many forecasters suggest that the turning point — from jobs being cut to jobs being added — will come by March, assuming the economy continues to grow, as it finally started to do in the third quarter. If they are right, the beginning of a work force recovery would come more quickly than after the last two recessions, in the early 1990s and 2001, despite the much greater severity of this downturn."

The uptick suggests that the much maligned Recovery Act is helping, which is what the Congressional Budget Office affirmed in a mostly ignored report earlier in the week. Another usefully obscure report named a different benefit related to the act--yet another quiet limitation on the influence of lobbyists ("Pursuant to the President's memoranda, restrictions have been placed on certain kinds of oral and written interactions between federally registered lobbyists and executive branch officials responsible for Recovery Act fund disbursement. ")

Early next week, President Obama will announce further plans to encourage employment. Statements this week have been quoted to emphasize the private sector's responsibility in creating jobs, which can be interpreted in different ways. There's certainly frustration that the bailed-out banking sector is not loaning enough for investment, while continuing pressure on home foreclosures. But all the right wing rhetoric and anticipated problems with the deficit aside, the private sector isn't primarily interested in employing people but in making profit. If that means overworking and exploiting fewer people that's great, especially if they're too frightened by the spectre of unemployment to complain. Thanks in part to the electronic workforce--the Internet and cell phone alliance--I seriously doubt this country will ever again see just 5% unemployment, the usual measure these days of "full" employment.

That's one reason FDR was right, in words from his second Inaugural that Jed Lewison at Kos quoted this week, and which are worth quoting again here:

" Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. "

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"This weather does not belong to us. It belongs to someone else."
--Inuit hunter. Photo by Stanley Green. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

For all the concerns about new committments, both real and reflexive, a very different emphasis to U.S. foreign policy emerged in President Obama's address at West Point Tuesday night. See post below.

Deepest of Fears or Highest of Hopes

Update 12/03: The New York Times reports "interviews on Wednesday suggested that, while opinions on the war remained wildly diverse, Mr. Obama managed to persuade a significant number of people on both sides of the political aisle..."

The first reactions to President Obama's address on Afghanistan seemed even more than usual to reflect the mood and prior political position of the reactor. But certainly the tenor of many responses expressed a war weariness, and a wariness of more commitments.

The President announced a greater troop commitment, a set of goals, a basic strategy, and a date when the troops start coming home. I don't know if the specific steps the President outlined will meet the goals he stated. I do know that this effort, though it may sound somewhat the same as in the past, is quite different.

Though the military goal is fairly narrow--to finish off the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan--there are other efforts to help create a context where such safe havens won't exist and grow. Apart from training Afghan troops and police, the additional U.S. and NATO troops are being sent partly to protect a vastly expanded civilian presence, and so that our own "peacekeepers"--ironically enough, our military--can engage local leaders and people in rebuilding their society, and especially their agriculture.

It is different because of the credibility of the man who says it's different. When President Obama looked into the camera and told Afghanistan and the Muslim world that the U.S. will not be an occupier, it was another occasion that his race and his background and his demeanor spoke volumes. President Obama's dip in popularity in U.S. polls is due almost entirely to white people. But for much of the rest of the world, his race has a different message.

"We will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone. I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World - one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity."

I react from my own point of view. I don't see Obama as another Bush or Nixon or LBJ. His speech I believe will be historic, even if his attempt fails to change American foreign policy and to rededicate it to goals and ideals lost in the past.

He acknowledged his own opposition to the Iraq war. "I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions."

He announced a date for the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as he has begun the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "So as a result, America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict."

He said that this engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential to our national security, but he also acknowledged the great importance of our economy. "Over the past several years, we have lost that balance, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy." We've frittered away a trillion dollars in Iraq and in haphazard efforts in Afghanistan. We can't keep doing that, and so this effort has limits. "That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

He affirmed that the U.S. must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. "That is why we must promote our values by living them at home - which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority."

"In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people - from the workers and businesses who will rebuild our economy; from the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home; from the diplomats and Peace Corps volunteers who spread hope abroad; and from the men and women in uniform who are part of an unbroken line of sacrifice that has made government of the people, by the people, and for the people a reality on this Earth."

He noted the danger of being so reflexively and irrationally divided. "This vast and diverse citizenry will not always agree on every issue - nor should we. But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse."

No one should be surprised that President Obama decided to finish the fight in Afghanistan--he said he would during the campaign. The number of troops he is committing is great, but he committed even more without much comment several months ago. What is most significant here is the plan. It may work more or less well. If it does, it will change how America uses its power in the world, and it will be a great change from Bush, Reagan and Nixon. It may not work, but it may well be worth the trying.

This is the President who stood up to the military and demanded a strategy with a beginning and an end--he denies open-ended commitments that military leaders adore, or that questionable leaders abroad look for, all the better to soak the U.S. for all it's worth. Of course this is just the first step--there will likely be difficult tests ahead.

No one should be surprised that President Obama is redefining American foreign policy even as he brings it in line with American ideals, and his own perspective:

"We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes."

No President in my lifetime has faced so many challenges of such huge consequence, nor has any acted with such comprehensive vision, while dealing with such a potentially catastrophic and volatile inheritance. I have as much confidence in him as I ever did, though I can't say I am as confident that what he is attempting will succeed. But I wish him well. For what is the alternative?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

" For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep."
--William Stafford

The Copenhagen Context: Gaia or Medea?

The wires are burning with news relating to the Copenhagen Climate talks--how things are moving fast towards agreements, how things are hopelessly bogged down, how it's a great step forward, how it's a predestined failure.

There are also a flood of announcements of study results timed for maximum impact, leaving no doubt how truly serious the Climate Crisis is, and an ill-timed diversionary flap over mostly misread and willfully distorted stolen emails among some climate scientists.

Rather than trying to keep up with contradictory reports even before the conference begins, there are a few interesting articles out there that perhaps help to create contexts for what's about to happen--which of course may well also mean what's about to not happen.

There's an interesting review by Tim Flannery of three important recent books bearing on the Climate Crisis context, in the November 19 issue of the New York Review of Books. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning
by James Lovelock posits an extreme outcome for the Climate Crisis, both in terms of consequences (civilization essentially eradicated) and in terms of predictions. James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press) is both a brief biography of Lovelock, including recent interviews, and a history of global warming science.

Flannery passes on some of Lovelock's biography, including his scientific discoveries in several fields (he's the guy who figured out that the common cold is spread by touch, not through the air), which apparently are due to his skepticism of both outcome and method, and his powers of imagination. "Lovelock's exceptionally effective research method derives from a strong capacity for empathy," Flannery writes. He imagines himself being the phenomenon he is studying--even if it's bacteria in a drop of water.

Lovelock's greatest--and certain largest--insight was Gaia: the planet as a self-regulating system in which, over time, life alters conditions to maximize the continued existence of life. He first proposed it as an hypothesis, which was ridiculed by, among others, the Selfish Gene guy, Richard Dawkins. However, this criticism sparked Lovelock's imagination anew, and he created a model of a planet with just one form of life, and set about testing whether it would become Gaia-like through Darwinian determinism. It did. And other models like it have as well.

So for all the New Age appropriation, Gaia is now a theory, like the theory of natural selection, not just an hypothesis. The theory explains several situation in earth's past where the survival of life defies the logic of physical conditions. Scientists from four international climate research programs endorsed a version of Gaia in 2001.

The third book Flannery reviews is The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward (also Princeton.) Ward recites a record of huge catastrophes and massive extinctions which make the earth sound less like the goddess of life than a raging murderer of her own children, the mythic Medea. "This name thus seems appropriate for an interpretation of Earth life, which collectively has shown itself through many past episodes in deep time to the recent past, as well as in current behavior, to be inherently selfish and ultimately biocidal."

Flannery doesn't think much of his book, mostly because author Ward never confronts the evidence for the Gaia theory. Ward is a strict neo-Darwinist, a Selfish Gene ideologue, it seems, and that style reminds me of circular theological argument. But when it comes to humanity, he may be on to something.

Is it Gaia, guiding the scientists trying to save the planet with evidence and argument, with their latest warnings of rising temperatures, record levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, of impacts piling up faster since the Kyoto treaty, of a whole set of scary evidence? Of the Arctic sea ice all but vanished, and the East Antarctic ice, previously considered solid, is melting?

Or is it Medea, handily provided purloined e-mails to make specious headlines and further confuse a public that--at least in the U.S.--seems to want to believe that the Climate Crisis isn't happening? (Here's a taste of the email distortions, and an even more instructive and detailed account of just how several supposedly damning statements were taken out of context and willfully misunderstood, with a wealth of available evidence that the interpretation was distorted.)

Will it be Gaia, inspiring humanity to heroically save its own future, even if it means sacrifice and change, to steeply reduce greenhouse gases, quickly create a green energy economy, and respond compassionately to emergencies caused by the Climate Crisis?

Or will it be Medea, selfishly sowing the seeds of discord and doubt, fear and ignorance, in order to hold onto wealth and the order that created it, to keep on burning oil and coal, and when things get really bad, lashing out to destroy supposed enemies and temporarily grab their resources? Is this The Road to Medea as child cannibal?

As for Mr. Gaia, James Lovelock, when it comes to humanity, he's a Medea man. He doesn't believe civilization can or will avoid its collapse, based partly on what reviewer Flannery suggests is outmoded information on green energy such as wind and solar. (Lovelock doesn't think they can supply enough energy to discourage coal and oil use.)

His climate projections are themselves out of the mainstream, which does make you pay attention, because all of his discoveries were, too. He uses a particular climate model to predict, that when COs concentration gets past 400 parts per million, the planetary temperature will lurch upward suddenly by 9 degrees C, which is very hot indeed. Flannery points out that carbon concentration probably has already exceeded 400 ppm, so according to this model the lurch could begin at any time.

He adds that the model also predicts that just before the lurch happens, global temperatures cool a bit. In the six weeks since his review was published, the Climate Crisis Deniers have been crowing about evidence that warming has stalled on a global average for the past few years. The evidence is partial, but even so, it's enough to send a chill up your spine when you read Lovelock's theory, proposed months ago.

Other scientists don't buy this model, but Flannery notes that a summit of climate scientists in Copenhagen this March concluded that"the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised." Scientists also propose several "tipping point" or "time bomb" scenarios that could lead to relatively sudden and drastic Climate Crisis effects.

Anyway, Lovelock has proposed in the past that the end of industrial civilization and a steep reduction in human population could be Gaia's way of getting rid of her biggest problem, and allowing life to go on, although absent most current species of any size. I tend to believe that Gaia not only operates by Darwinian mechanisms, but by other principles we see in various forms of life, including ourselves. We all have some Gaia in us, as well as some Lovelock: skeptical, empathetic, imaginative, cooperative, compassionate, life-loving.

But we also have a lot of Medea. Which is stronger is really the fatal question, and it may be answered for this civilization relatively soon.