Tag Archives: economics

An American Age of Endarkenment

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.

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It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.

That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.

It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.

It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?

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India’s cheap rocket carrying its exciting mission to Mars, and a bid to claim the baton of space exploration seemingly dropped by the US after decades of leadership.

It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

Are my hands clean?

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Are my hands clean?

That urgent question, sung some years ago in the plaintive voices of the band Sweet Honey In The Rock, haunts me this week. As this horrifyingly tender image from the tragedy also haunts anyone who has found themselves arrested this week, by the above photo.

Are my hands clean?

The question haunts me. As it should all of us, if we are paying any attention to the death toll that continues to rise from the most recent collapse of garment factories in Bangladesh, which has taken 800UPDATE (13 May 2013): now 1100—lives so far. And counting. Factories where underpaid workers labored long hours under blatantly unsafe conditions to produce garments most of us would wait to buy when they appear on the sale rack at the local big block store, or grab during the stampedes of Black Friday, happy at finding another cheap deal.

Are my hands clean?

Sure they seem clean. After all, it wasn’t you or me who built that factory and ran it so brutally, nor were we the ones who failed to inspect the facilities and ensure even minimum safety. That was the Bangladeshi businessmen, and their government’s lax enforcement. It wasn’t you or me who outsourced the jobs to that factory. That was the multinational corporation. It wasn’t you or me who manipulated the laws of both that country and ours, forcing governments everywhere to turn blind eyes to such tragedies repeatedly, so long as “world trade” kept flowing smoothly, and cheaply. That too was, is, the work of corporations greedily anxious to maximize profits and maintain a “healthy” bottom line to please Wall Street. And of politicians anxious to keep the corporations and Wall Street happy and sustain their political bottom lines. All you and I want is that occasional cheap deal on some decent clothes to wear. All most of us can afford are these cheap deals. What can we, mere individuals, do when they come at such a high human cost? It was someone else’s greed in service of your and my need.

Are my hands clean?

Why is it that the high human cost of our globalized consumer culture never part of the price on that sale tag? After all, this is not the first such tragedy in a third world factory producing cheap goods for the global first world market. Nor will it be the last. How is it that the corporations, at least some of which have honestly humble origins, and must contain some ordinary human beings not unlike you or me, feel free to ignore these enormous costs from their balance sheets when reporting their earnings to share holders? How have we allowed these corporations to claim a citizen’s right to participate in (and hijack with money) our very democracies, yet not force them to also accept the minimal responsibility towards other citizens and human beings that is routinely expected from you and me? Why don’t we make them face the question?

Are my hands clean?

Replace the factory collapse in Bangladesh with the BP oil spill of three years ago, and you face the same question in the funhouse mirror, telescoped larger. Only, instead of 800 human beings (and counting), the victims number in the unfathomable populations of uncountable species of other living beings affected by the oil spill. For, when we allow corporations to ignore even basic human rights in their pursuit of profits by satisfying our desire for consumer goods, what chance is there of any honest accounting of the environmental costs of their business, and our deals? Replace both of these examples with the greenhouse gas emissions from our global corporate industrial consumer civilization, and we face an even more unimaginably horrendous cost, to human beings and to the rest of life on this planet. Profits before people before nature begets misery for all in the long run. But that quarterly accounting tape must stay in the black. Thus does short term greed trump consideration of long-term needs.

Are my hands clean?

Some economists are beginning to call for a truer accounting of corporate balance sheets, reflecting the true costs and benefits of their supply and production chains, not merely in dollar terms, but in human and environmental terms. Some environmentalists are challenging public institutions to divest from greedy companies that hide the enormous ecological costs. The benefit you and I derive from the sale price of a product must surely be balanced by the real total cost of its production. A recent analysis by Trucost, an environmental consultancy engaged in this endeavor on behalf of TEEB, concluded that none of the world’s top industries would make any profit if they were forced to account and pay for all of the costs that are currently external to their balance sheets. Externalities. Not lives cut short or homes and habitats and futures destroyed. Mere externalities. That’s the dispassionate dehumanized term economists and business accountants may use for these costs, if they even acknowledge them. Of course there are positive externalities too, but TEEB’s work and the Trucost report shows these to generally outweigh the negative ones, overwhelmingly. These externalities must be paid for, surely, if we are to enjoy our consumer goods without the guilt of the human and environmental costs they currently hide behind their enticing price tags.

Are my hands clean?

When are we going to start demanding that the price tags on our clothes and other goods reveal the full cost of the product, from the environmental costs of the extraction of its raw materials to the human costs of its manufacture? And this is not just about cheap goods which carry hidden externalities, but also expensive consumer products we like to be seen with, high-tech toys and fashionable raiments, shiny baubles and decorative kitsch alike. After all, many of us are willing to pay a premium price for trendy goods that cut us at the bleeding edge, or come with the stamp of creativity from a brand-name designer. Or rare items scoured out of remote parts of the earth, perhaps by slave hands we would never know about. If the creativity of the human designer can be fairly compensated, why not also pay for the dignity of the human labour in mass producing that creative design, or extracting that precious rare element? Why not, moreover, also pay for nature’s evolutionary ingenuity in producing the ecological services that enable the human labour to transform the creative idea into a mass-market product? Why not demand, as consumers, and as shareholders, that the corporations start being honest about their business, and force them to take seriously the full responsibilities of true citizenhood?

Are my hands clean?

Ah but who will be able to afford the truly-costed goods then, if the price tag covers the entire production chain? Only the richer among us? Like the ones now shopping for fair-trade organic groceries at Whole Foods AKA Whole Paycheck? Or may be more of us too, if we start getting real life wages to be able to afford these goods? And even scale down our wants, to focus more on our needs. The economics of the global market are complicated, they tell me, and it is not a simple matter of consumers demanding better practices from companies, and even boycotting a few goods. It is all too complex, this business of global trade, our world too tied up in corporations and banks that are “too big to fail”. So we should stop worrying about ever changing the big picture, shed a tear or two over that haunting embrace, buy another rock album with a conscientious song, maybe donate some money to some BINGO (Big/Business-friendly International Non-Government Organization) offering to help ease the burden on those Bangladeshi workers. Maybe they will even bow down a bit to our pressure, the greedy politicians and businessmen, and tighten some loopholes to reduce the frequency and magnitude of these tragedies. Push them down them below the safety valves of our placid reservoirs of outrage. Keep them where they’re easy to sweep underneath the carpets of our collective conscience. Meanwhile, they tell us, just move along and keep buying those goods because otherwise the whole world economy will stall, and collapse!

Are my hands clean?

Over the past century, labour activists, especially in the developed world, fought for their rights collectively, and managed to improve their own lives, in the here and then, making corporations pay more of the costs of human labour. And their societies and countries too flourished, leading in no small part to forming the First World, as we now know it, the successful global North. Little did they anticipate, though, how corporations would displace those costs to other places, other workers, other times. Across the border. Over the horizon. Beyond the oceans. Out of sight, out of mind. And later, even bring them back home in the dark of the economic night, after the collective actions of past generations were forgotten, disguised under austerity, the new mantra of the first and third world orders.

Are my hands clean?

And what of the ecological costs? Those externalities, even more external to the corporate ledgers? Well, we only woke up to those costs more recently, and haven’t really been able to force businesses to pay for those consistently yet – except piecemeal, in the aftermath of disaster. Capitalism and the free market won the cold war after all, didn’t they? The market will solve all these problems, won’t it? So why won’t it, hasn’t it, yet? What’s it waiting for?

Writing 22 years ago last week, soon after the free market West won the cold war against the East, Ecuadorean writer Eduardo Galeano asked us in the global South if we really wanted To Be Like Them, up in the shiny global North. Can we be like them, given that

“Our poor planet is already in a coma, severely poisoned by industrial civilization, and squeezed nearly dry by consumer society”?

Do we want to be like them, he asked? Leading lives of drudgery, “marked by the confusion of means and ends, we don’t work to live: we live to work. Some people work increasingly longer hours because they need more than they consume, while others do the same in order to continue consuming more than they need.

And those externalities? Galeano ended his essay by observing that:

“In the West we see justice sacrificed in the name of freedom, at the altar of goddess Productivity. In the East we saw freedom sacrificed in the name of justice, also at the altar of goddess Productivity.

“In the South, its not yet too late to wonder if this goddess deserves our lives.”It is over two decades now since he wrote that essay. The free market won, and that goddess continues to claim lives. We made that choice he warned us against, to be like them. Even as the bankers and businessmen and politicians have dragged many of them into lives increasingly like ours. We chose to sacrifice lives, human and non-human, by the millions, at that same altar, and continue to persist on that same path whose folly we never paused to ponder.

Are my hands clean?

Elinor Ostrom, champion of the sustainable commons, RIP

I just read the very sad news that Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 2009), and an inspiration to many of us struggling to understand and transform the dynamically intertwined human and natural systems, passed away earlier this morning, after a battle with cancer at age 78. She was a remarkable scholar whose life’s work demonstrated that the tragedy of the commons was not an inevitability, but something that people had very often found ways to avoid by building a diversity of institutions for governing the commons for the benefit of all instead of mere private profit for a few. Here she is, in a simple short video, explaining the basic concept of how truly sustainable development can avoid the tragedy of the commons:

I last met Lin Ostrom a little over a year ago, very briefly, in a hallway in Arizona State University’s Memorial Union, in one of the interstices of the Resilience 2011 conference (I shared my talk here). I remember well my nervous thrill at getting to shake the hand of a Nobel Prize winner (my previous meeting with her, which I’m not sure she remembered, had been well before she won the prize) for the first time in my life! She, of course, was very kind and disarming and took a few minutes to sit down and talk to me about our shared connections. My last postdoc mentor, Marty Anderies, is one of her close disciples/collaborators, and I am grateful to him for introducing me to her work, which I consider one of the truly transformational influences in my life. She was happy to hear how one of Marty’s postdocs was now doing in trying to apply some of her ideas to urban water and biodiversity issues. We also talked about one of my newer collaborators, Harini Nagendra, who worked closely with Lin in studying the governance of forest ecosystems in India and Nepal. She told me how she looked forward to speaking with Harini, now based in Bangalore, during their weekly Skype conferences! I wish I had had more opportunities to get to know this truly remarkable, inspirational woman, but am glad I was at least able to meet with her and speak to her on a couple of occasions. One must make the most of whatever chance happenstance grants one a brush with true greatness.

Her website at Indiana University has more details of her life (and death), with links to videos of other talks, photos, and texts. CHANS-Net, the International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems, offers this obituary.

If you want to know more about her work, start with her landmark book Governing the Commons, which should really be required reading for all ecologists, especially those who are enamored of the more cynical and popular “tragedy of the commons” meme. Anyone concerned about how to build a more sustainable world, who calls themselves an ecologist/conservation biologist/environmentalist/green activist/deep ecologist really must read her work. It took the Nobel committee long enough to recognize the value of her work at a time when the world’s economies are crumbling under the dictates of the very free-market Chicago-school economists they’ve rewarded far more often. We ecologists had better pay good attention to her work as well, and absorb and internalize her deep insights, as we go about trying to find ways to build a better, more sustainable, more biologically diverse, and more environmentally equitable world. She would have liked to see us try, harder.

Muhammad Yunus on how economists went wrong and misinterpreted human beings

I particularly like what he says at the end about the problem of unemployment, and the sheer waste of human potential when we allow people to be unemployed.

How do we get our global economy off the endless “growth” express and on to a human-scale path of plenitude?

An image I found and shared on Facebook this week, featuring a quote from the Dalai Lama, seems to have hit a nerve among my circle of friends there:
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I’m not surprised, given the kinds of circles I hang out in, that this thought had such resonance. Most of us concerned about what we are doing to our environment and our own wellbeing and future appreciate and find much to ponder in that observation. Of course, it is nice of the Lama to share his profound insight from on high (so to speak) in his role as spiritual leader and a monk observing the rest of humanity with his cultivated sense of detachment. Would that the rest of us could also detach ourselves from the daily grind and engage in more meaningful quests for our lives. Most of us, of course, don’t really have that luxury—or have a terrible time finding a way towards that serenity. So we pause, briefly, at this poster, and share it among our friends (stepping lightly over the irony of doing so on these hyper-social online networks which may seem the very antithesis of what the Lama is talking about), file it away for contemplation, and hope we get the chance to do something about it in some small way in our own lives. And for that, we must be grateful to the Dalai Lama, for pulling us up short in our headlong rush of a life, even if for a brief moment of contemplation.
A bigger question, though, is how do we—those of us not able to immediately extricate ourselves from the larger economy which pushes us into the endless pursuit of ever elusive wealth—begin to challenge and change the system? The dominant economic paradigm of our time is completely wedded to this pursuit of wealth, for individuals, corporations, and entire nations chasing endless growth. Even people who talk about sustainability within this paradigm talk about “sustainable growth“, an oxymoronic concept if there ever was one, given the natural resource constraints on this only planet we inhabit. More radical environmentalists and leftists have a deeper critique (e.g., read John Bellamy Foster’s “The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth“) of the growth economy paradigm—but reading them often leads to more despair at the scale of the revolution we seemingly need to overthrow that paradigm.
The growth paradigm so dominates our entire public discourse that even moderately centre-leaning right-wing capitalists like Obama get labelled as communists who want to socialize everything! How then can we push the system onto a completely different path, one that may actually be sustainable in a truer sense of the word?
The burgeoning movement to Occupy Wall Street seems to have lit a spark across the US, creating opportunities to challenge at least parts of the capitalist finance-driven system. Breaking through the media narrative about how we must only “grow” our way out of the current economic crises, is an accomplishment worthy of note. The real challenge for this excitingly amorphous movement though is to present not only a coherent set of demands but actually offer alternative models (e.g. at steadystate.org) for recovering the economy, alternatives which can redress the vast social inequities of the present as well as begin healing our ecosystems. We also need models that don’t call for radical / violent overthrow of the system with alternatives that are also imposed from the top-down (putting environmentalists and ecological economists in charge, for example)—but offer instead more distributed, diverse, grassroots alternatives that have a better chance of sustaining us in the long haul; models that build upon stuff many of us are already doing in our daily lives to break free of the dominant growth paradigm and take control of our lives in more meaningful ways. 
One such alternative is seen in this video from the Center for a New American Dream, visualizing economist Juliet Schor’s alternative model of a Plenitude Economy:

What I particularly like about this vision is that it draws its strengths from stuff we ordinary people are already doing in the US (and elsewhere) to find our own ways out of the ravages of the collapsed economy during this current great depression. Unlike the last great depression of the 1930s in the US, this time around we don’t have the political leadership or will to create and offer solutions from above, unfortunately. That does not mean, however, that people are simply standing still in despair (although there is plenty of that to go around), waiting for handouts from the government or from charities. We are, in small ways, taking charge of some of the means of production (urban farming and homesteading being great examples) and creating/reviving alternative means of sharing what we produce, away from the globalized economic mainstream. These smaller scale actions offer a good antidote against despair at the ever increasingly gloomy global picture. This is how we can really start rebuilding our world, one garden, one rooftop, one school, one swap-meet, one community at a time, each with its own local adaptation to find its own unique solution. Who needs a world revolution from above when we can have a multitude of these smaller revolutions growing from below?

Life on this planet has always thrived on diversity and local adaptation; it is time for us environmentalists to also truly embrace that truth, and participate in these many movements within our own neighborhoods, even as we seek to change the overarching paradigm globally. As that seemingly forgotten early prophet of ecological economics, E. F. Schumacher, observed a few decades ago: Small is Beautiful, after all! It is useful to remember that.

As a friend remarked upon reading the Dalai Lama’s words: not all of us sacrifice our health in order to make money; some of us do so in pursuit of environmental and human justice, to help create a better world. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to sacrifice our health for that either: instead, let us find the time and space to sink our hands into the soil, get dirt under our fingernails as we grow our own food and create habitats for other species amid our urban sprawl; to chat with our neighbors as we exchange vegetables from each other’s yards or balcony container gardens; to rebuild the social fabric that we worry is fraying under globalization; and take that time to also breathe in the air and simply enjoy living in the present.

I’m sure the Dalai Lama would approve of that (even if we choose to talk about it online)!

You should feel so safe against all threats, my American friends!

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Click on the image or here for a larger, more readable version of this infographic

And nice that the world has such a Big Brother! So the US alone spends almost 43% of the entire planet’s military budget! There had better be some serious extraterrestrial threat then, for the US to save the world… or who the frack are they fighting and why?

Here’s another graph, showing the more-than-doubling of US defense spending over the last decade:

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Surely the military industrial complex never had it so good before the twin-towers were brought down by entirely non-military means. I feel so safe now… don’t you, my American friends (and daughters)? And surely, this had nothing to do with the disappearing surplus and rising record deficits the US has seen over the same period. Couldn’t be. Also, never mind that your health-care, your retirement, your union, and your job may be on the chopping block (if they aren’t gone already) because the rich and the corporations in this country must get more tax cuts – at least you’re safe from all those military threats looming large against the US! Do share if you know what those threats are that necessitate such an enormous military budget – 6 times that of the next big-spending nation!

Can patriotic greedy bastards succeed where birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers have failed with climate change solutions?

Nice reframing of the climate change conundrum and possible solutions in this trailer. I’m intrigued and look forward to seeing the whole film – wonder if this way of packaging the inconvenient truth will go down better with conservative deniers of climate change than Al Gore’s slide show.

Also makes me wonder: whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Isn’t that essentially a conservative idea?