Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sustainable world for everyone: Trying to define what's needed and working backwards - Water & Food

Water need is 50 liters per person per day, maybe 100.  20 for sanitation, maybe 40 (  5 for drinking, 5 to 70 for bathing, 10 to 50 for cooking.  Assume all goes through waste-water treatment.  Ecological waste-water treatment ( can recycle 95%, so there's 5 liters per person per day of "fresh" water needed, rest can be recycled.  100,000 liters per day (1-2,000 people) costs $40,000 plus $16,000 per year in energy costs (assume that's 100,000 kwh per year) (  Not clear how much acreage is involved.

Survival diet (work up from there):  1 cup of red lentils per day:  760 calories (, and guess 500 kwh to cook (see rice below).
2 cups brown rice  1370 calories and maybe 1,000 kwh to cook (water included above) -  Again, not clear how much acreage is involved yet.

So far, for food and water, we're at 1500*365.25 = 547,875 + 1000 kwh per person plus an unknown amount of acreage and 5 liters/day of "fresh" water.  We'll work on acreage, capital plant, and the other basics:  clothing, shelter, and the most speculative:  fabrication.  Then I'll arbitrarily try to scale to Plato's 5040 population size, and try to build in ranges for climate, etc.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How many actually need to work to keep us alive, and how have we managed to construct a society that enables the rest of us to appropriate the results of their efforts?

I thought about this reading about the work of a University of Arizona researcher Anna Dornhaus five years ago.  She did detailed analysis of European rock ants and determined from 300 hours of videotape that "the specialists aren't necessarily good at their jobs" "and the other ants don't seem to recognize their lack of ability."  Further, fast ants took 1-5 minutes to perform a task while slow ants took more than an hour and sometimes 2 to do the same task - and that 50% of the ants do no work at all.  Possibly, she said, "the lazing ants are resting, or are waiting in reserve in case something goes wrong."  Or, she said, "It's possible they aren't doing anything at all."

Sounds like us.  Two-thirds of us who are of working age (two-fifths of all 316 million of us) participate in the workforce, but how many of those 133 million people are actually doing the work that keeps us alive?  435,000 are farming, fishing, and working in forestry - we have twice as many lawyers, paralegals, etc.  For every agricultural worker, 27 are preparing and serving food.  If you include them, all the health care practitioners and support workers, all the construction, extraction, installation, maintenance, and repair people, all the production, transportation, and material moving people - all the people who do the stuff that actually helps us live - that's 52 million people keeping the other 4/5ths or 264 million of us alive.

I'm not saying the managers, accountants, programmers, engineers, scientists, social workers, lawyers, teachers, journalists, first responders, hair stylists, janitors, groundskeepers, sales clerks and administrative assistants aren't important - of course they are and some of them even help make the work of the 52 million happen more efficiently and/or effectively.  But much of what they do, strictly speaking, isn't necessary.  Neither for that matter is all the work done by the 52 million - some of them make facelifts and cotton candy for a living.

We have a political economy in which, like Anna Dornhaus' ant colonies, a few do the work on which the rest of us depend - and they don't even make the most money.  Hedge fund managers and professional athletes and movie stars do.  1% of us have 35% of the wealth (and the US as a whole, with 5% of the world's population, has 27% of its wealth). Why?

More interestingly to me, how could it work differently?  And why is any exploration of a different distribution outcome so outrageous to explore?  Isn't our current distribution of work and reward pretty arbitrary?  Many in the financial sector make a lot of money, but the efficiency of the sector as a whole has stagnated - some of the ants specializing in finance take 2 hours to get the job done but they get a lot more food and the other ants don't seem to recognize what's going on.  Why?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

WE need to get past Us vs. Them

There was an opinion piece in today's NYT that I didn't read about how Germans don't like Google. The author claimed "The German voter-consumer will always trust the state more than he will any private company, no matter how ardently it insists on being a good guy." My first reaction was amazement that, just 70 years after the fall of the Nazi state, this could be true. But that's not fair, most Germans weren't alive back then, and the last 70 years have given us thalidomide, Bhopal, the Pinto - any number of horrific "corporate" offenses.

But also lots of government offenses, from the egregious and systemic evil of North Korea, Saddam Hussein's (and, I gather, al Maliki's) Iraq; to the small-minded/short-sighted or idiotic evil/dysfunction of extraordinary rendition, Tuskegee experiments; to the actions of individuals and groups of government officials that are either bad or stupid (countless corruption cases - I live in Cuyahoga County, Ohio so Jimmy Dimora looms large - and the media constantly brings us examples like the South Carolina state trooper who shot an unarmed African-American man for doing what he asked him to do).

There are a lot of people who know alot more, pay alot more attention, and are more thoughtful than I am about all of this, but anything I read has a political or other ideological axe to grind. There's always an argument lurking in the background that "corporations" are bad or "government" is bad and that makes it impossible for me to trust the overall line of reasoning that's too involved for me to dissect and make my mind up about. Oh for another four years to devote solely to study and thinking but sadly I had that opportunity 30 years ago and my not get it again for another 20....

In the meantime, I have to reject any "Us vs. Them" formulation - there's good purposes for government and governments that can fulfill them well.  There are good purposes for corporations and corporations that fulfill them well.  What I think all of us need to do is stop expecting institutional forms to embody our ideals.  Rather, let's understand how they work and how therefore to channel them productively.  For example, Ray Anderson (a CEO) noted in The Corporation that corporations are "externalizing machines" like sharks are killing machines.  That's not good or bad, that's what they do and it can be good AND bad.  IKEA taught us all to build our own furniture - "externalizing" the labor costs.  In the process, they made stylish furniture more affordable for the masses of us with more time than money.  But, as we all know, it's extremely rare for a corporation to seek to take responsibility for something they aren't currently responsible for and which will cost them money to take on, especially if they have competitors who aren't taking it on either.  Corporations won't simply give up the trillions of dollars of hydrocarbon assets on their books because they cause global warming.

But neither will governments.  Governments might be "internalizing" machines - they tend to take on more jobs and grow and, because they aren't generally regulated or competed against, can get fat and sloppy and even corrupt and evil.  I don't expect the US government to give up the revenue it gets from hydrocarbon drilling leases any more than I expect the companies doing the drilling to give up the leases.  Nor do I think the sloppiness that resulted in poor US oversight of BP drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico was all BP's fault.

And the problems are myriad at every level.  For every story I hear about price gouging or shoddy or abusive commercial practices or profiteering from government contracts, I hear about the incompetent police officer who injures an innocent person or the incompetent teacher who's been allowed to stifle student learning in the same classroom for years on end.  I don't blame police officers or teachers - they're almost all American heroes as far as I'm concerned.  I also don't blame local governments and schools - most are doing their best to serve their communities.  But I'm sure there's bad government, bad management, bad actors, and bad outcomes - just like there are unethical companies, managers, employees, etc.

Wouldn't we get farther if we spent our time identifying and propogating success, and identifying and addressing the problems, instead of demonizing whole categories of human activity, which really only raises the emotional temperature and (attempts to) score political points.  I'm done with "Us vs. Them" - tell me about "We."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

War on the Middle Class?

The rhetoric over the state budget battles waging in many states right now is out of hand on both sides. Demonizing public employee unions won't solve the fiscal problems, but neither do these attacks constitute a "war on the middle class." We're about 1/2 or maybe 1/3 through the process of global economic integration and development, and until we've gotten far enough that the developing world is a major market for its own labor and talent (20 to 50 years?), it will be difficult to sustain wage growth at home. The following scene from the moving Outsourced which I streamed on Netflix recently, makes the point better than anything I've seen:

Customer: “You got to be kidding me... I'm buying a freaking American eagle from a company that is supposed to be in America and I get it in India?”
Call Center Worker: “I understand that you're upset, sir.”
Customer: “No, you don't. Last month I lost my job at the plant where I worked for 22 years because the whole operation was moved to Mexico. My brother had to leave town because he had no job.
Call Center Worker: “I know how you feel, sir.”
Customer: “No, you don't. You have a job.
Call Center Worker: “Sir, please don't hang up. I have a solution for you. We understand that all Americans are upset about outsourcing so we have located American made versions of all our products. If you have a pen, I will give you the website of an American company that makes an eagle statue very similar to ours - same size, same material, only theirs are made 100% in America.
Customer: “Well, thanks, I appreciate it. But is the price the same?”
Call Center Worker: “No, sir, theirs is $212 more.”
Customer: “Alright.”
Call Center Worker: “Thank you sir, may I have your credit card number?”

In a world where so many Americans are being replaced by people who will work for so much less (a list that now includes doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.), it's harder and harder to support the many benefits and working condition protections of public sector workers, no matter how important we think their work is (and make no mistake, I think the work of teachers, police, firefighters, and others like them is worth every penny we could possibly pay them).

I saw a letter to the editor suggesting this debate should not be about "workers rights" but about "human capital" and I think that's exactly right. Framed as a choice between demonizing unions and fighting this war on the middle class, I'm on the sidelines. Framed as a discussion about how to invest in and best use human capital to improve life for all Americans, I'm in.

Let's talk about entrepreneurialism, economic empowerment, worker ownership, public sector innovation, education, infrastructure, etc. - investment in the capabilities that will make American workers worth paying for - and will encourage American workers to support investment in their teachers and first responders. Because until the rest of the world has competitive wages for call center workers and are as likely to buy American-made products as vice-versa, we're not going to solve our problems by tearing down our finest public servants, or by trying to maintain antiquated and uneconomic protective barriers around working conditions that a dwindling number of Americans are able to enjoy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Let's enjoy this, but let's move on soon...

I'm white. I'm the son of a civil rights lawyer - we spent part of my childhood in Mississippi while he filed lawsuits to advance African-American political rights. My first vote for a presidential candidate, in the 1984 Maryland Democratic primary, was for Jesse Jackson - not because I thought he was the most qualified candidate, but because I knew he was breaking new ground and I wanted to help.

So I'm excited we've just elected the first African-American president. It is a profound delivery on the promise that is our great nation. I think we should celebrate some about this singular fact.

But let's move on soon. I did NOT vote for Barack Obama because he's African-American. I voted for him because he struck me as the most competent - and certainly the least volatile - of the choices we had. I like him as he comes across in the media: He is of my generation, he is pragmatic not ideological, and he blends passion and "cool" and sincerity and good-natured humor. Yesterday he moved smoothly from profoundly serious economic and foreign policy questions from the press to silly ones about the dog and handled them with equal grace and a tone suitable to each. And when he blew it with an inappropriate crack about Nancy Reagan, he was quick to call her and personally apologize. I do like the fact that he's African-American, but that's much more of an abstraction than the fact that I like HIM (also an abstraction, admittedly, since I only know what I see and read by and about him).

Barack Obama won a larger % of the popular votes than any candidate in the last 20 years. He has promised to continue to work to bridge gaps and find common ground, and I believe him. We don't want his presidency to be about race any more than we wanted John F. Kennedy's to be about religion. I'm sure we all want it about the United States of America, so let's move on...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Era of consumer excess finally over?

The New York Times this morning says "sales at the nation's largest retailers fell off a cliff in October." Of course, the economy is the immediate cause, but it's seemed for a while that the 40-year orgy of spending beyond our means for more and cheaper stuff, financed by home equity and more work hours, has to end and now maybe it really will.

I know modern consumption really got going in the 1920s with the expanded use of credit, and so it's already survived one global economic depression. And I know any permanent declines in the level of consumption will bring real hardship and wrenching change given how much of our economy it drives.

Consumption in the 30s needed a boost, but ours is still over the top, even in its current contracting state. It's not that we buy stuff - it's that we buy more than we need and worse, we throw away perfectly good stuff when we're tired of it and buy more. It's bad for our wallets, bad for our environment, and is only so important for our economy because we're addicted.

So let's kick the addiction, we can all help: I'll buy less, and try to buy clothes I need from the consignment store. I'll encourage my government to spend MORE - not wastefully, but on infrastructure and clean-up. Fixing bridges and razing dilapidated buildings does more for me and creates more worthwhile jobs than giving me tax rebates to buy more TVs and fashionable shoes I don't really need. And the people who get those jobs DO need to consume more, though I'd like my government to figure out how to encourage them to spend the extra money on health and education.

I realize this is simplistic and there are a lot of issues. I fundamentally believe it's time to consign the Consumer Era to the history books. I've no idea how to do it, but will start with Gandhi's admonition to "become the change we seek."