Saturday, April 29, 2006

the treadmill of production

LI finds the shenanigans over oil recently extremely funny and sad. To question the oil-chemical complex in any way is to invite massive retaliation – remember, conservatism in this country has nothing to do with conservative ideas. It has everything to do with well financed expression of the industry’s interests. The G.O.P., and much of the Democratic party, simply exist to forward their interests. The parties are allowed to take up hobbies, in the spirit of Junior League – the Dems going out for reproductive choice and home decorating, for instance, and the G.O.P. taking up preserving the brain dead and biking. So, even when, for instance, a pundit like Michael Kinsley comes out for a windfall tax, he hedges himself about – for instance, by saying that taxes should never, ever be used as punishment. Heavens no. In the world of pundit economics, taxes can only be used as rewards – everybody must get prizes, you see. Why punish an industry for gorging on limited resources, spending progressively less on R and D (actually, this is one of the big effects of the Bush tax giveaways – why spend on R & D when it is now more profitable to distribute your profits via dividends? And especially when the tax regime for the upper management is so favorable that those ethically challenged parasites move heaven and earth to take as much of a bite as they can from the enterprises they run, now) because who ever heard of a Republic limiting the power of the most powerful? It has occurred to Tacitus, Montesquieu, John Locke, Tom Paine and the like – but that’s a bunch of losers, as we well know.

So – since this is Chernobyl week, and since we’ve been thinking of the question of value posed during the recent Spivak to-do – we thought this would be a good post to talk about Allan Schnaiberg.

Schaiberg is an economist at Northwestern. In the early eighties, he published an influential book in the field of environmental economics. Not a field people have heard of, right? But it is an influential field. The big controversy in the field is about ecological modernization. Briefly: a German sociologist, Peter Huber, proposed that the offloading of costs onto the environment during the twentieth century was caused by the State. If we just took the state out of the equation, private enterprise would develop ways of being greener. The thought was – greener is more efficient.

Schaiberg’s thesis was different. He coined the phrase, the treadmill of production, to talk about the network effects of industrialization – whereever the ultimate control over industry lay. In a recent essay, The treadmill of production and the environmental state, he revisits his thesis. We are going to try to comment on the treadmill of production part, which articulates a thesis about the economy for which we have tons of sympathy. But the environmental state part is equally interesting.

“From a conceptual perspective, we might characterize an "environmental state" as encompassing the following feature: whenever it engaged in economic decision-making, considerations of ecological impacts would have equal weight with any considerations of private sector profits and state sector taxes. Put this way, most industrialized nation-states fall far short of this standard. Indeed, it is increasingly true that any environmental policy-making is subject to more intensive economic scrutiny, while economic policies are subject to less and less environmental assessment (Daynes 1999; Soden and Steel

Schaiberg’s paper includes a case study of the recycling industry in Chicago. It is a study about the structural changes that came about in that industry as it was turned into a regular private sector industry, with the goal of making a profit. LI found this interesting as a case just because we remember the old recycling movement in the seventies and eighties. My brothers worked, at that time, heading up maintenance for some apartment complexes. They were both enthusiastic about recycling. They sponsored a cleanup of litter, for instance, along a highway leading into Stone Mountain Georgia. They got their complexes in touch with recycling services. For a couple of years, they devised a mass pick up of Christmas trees – the trees were, I think, going to be used by fish hatcheries or something. My brothers are enthusiasts, and they turned out the family, including my mother, my father, and me – in the Christmas tree deal – to do the various recycling projects.

However, as recycling became simply profit based, the air went out of volunteering. And as they became profit based, instead of applying the private sector efficiency in taking care of the whole spectrum of waste, the spectrum was cherry picked.

Schaiberg writes:

First, treadmill organizations [those in the treadmill of increasing consumer demand and cutting production cost by leveraging part of that cost onto the commons, or other people’s property] generally resist environmental regulation with all the substantial means at their disposal. For example, prior to the advent of recycling regulations and programs, container firms fought all forms of
"bottle bills", spending perhaps US$50 million opposing such bills, and succeeding in about 2/3 of the states. Yet even these bottle bills were only indirectly constraining firms. Legislation did not directly mandate a refillable container, but only the imposition of a deposit on all containers. Even in this limited regulation, the refunding mechanisms for the deposit put some cost burdens on non-refillable container manufacturers and/or users. Thus, in recent years in New York state, bottlers have refused to repurchase stockpiled
refunded containers. They have let these accumulate at brokers and large retailers, seeking thereby to mobilize opposition to the bottle bill system. For the remaining 2/3 of states, container manufacturers and bottlers have simply encouraged recycling, and have kept feedstock prices low, and avoided paying labor costs for refilling containers.

Second, where direct resistance against any environmental legislation becomes
infeasible, under pressures from environmental NGOs, firms first dilute the legislation to minimize its impacts on their operations. Then they wait for opportunities to further lighten their regulatory load, whenever the political climate shifts and/or NGOs are elsewhere engaged. In the recycling arena, this has been commonplace. Affected industries have continuously shifted their campaigns to avoid mandatory direct controls on their production and distribution activities. All U.S. government regulations have avoided mandating firms with a "life cycle" responsibility for their own generation of post-consumer wastes, as has
occurred in some European states. Instead, governments had introduced fairly weak mandates for firms, requiring higher "recycled content" of their production. Firms have responded by including post-production waste recycling (a standard economic practice for decades) as part of post-consumption recycling.”

The treadmill aim of weakening the impetus for even voluntary environmental action seems odd, at first, until you take into account what the companies take into account – such behavior leads to an enlarged sense of the interaction between the economy and the environment. It is not just to make more money that the great energy monsters convened by Cheney in 2001 agreed to put the keebosh on conservation – it is because conservation countervails an insane consumerist ethos. If people are allowed, for a second, to fall in love with the planet to the extent of wanting to spare that tree or ice floe, the virus will spread. Questions about the justice of exhausting our resources will emerge. Fundamental questions about ownership and its limits. In fact, people will begin to think that politics doesn’t begin or end with what dumb party you vote for or the latest outrage that we must rush to have opinions on – should we sing the National Anthem in Spanish? Is the book by the guy who runs the Daily Kos doing better than the book written by the guy who runs instapundit? but we will think about why, if Americans (for instance) are so happy, they are so indebted, so unable to stop buying the stupidest things, so unwilling to look at, say, the environmental horrors being perpetrated, for the last five years, by coal mining companies in West Virginia.

When you have no control over your mind or attention span, you are fucking owned. And that is the resource they are extracting with every hot air soundbyte and fake crisis.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Elephant King - Go

LI’s future murderer, Seth Grossman, is showing his film, Elephant King, in the Tribeca Film Fest. There’s a showing at Sat 4/29, 3:00pm Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11, one Tue 5/02, 10:00pm AMC Loews 34th Street 14, and one Sun 5/07, 10:00am
AMC Loews Lincoln Sq 5. Seth’s totally offensive sense of humor , narcissism, and ability to entangle himself with weirdos should certainly make him a fave for anybody who reads this site! He’s up for various awards, which range from 5-8 months at Rikers to aftercare with a sex therapist for at least 2 years under the supervision of his parole officer (chemical treatment and plethysmograph to be administered on court order).

Here’s an interview with him, and of course, his site is listed on our blogroll.

So a big shout out to NYC – check it out.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Let’s break the department of war.

“…having a great time here in Iraq."
Why, it was the Iraq and roll show with our two fave liars, Condi Rice and Don “I fucked up Tora Bora and I’m fuckin’ proud of it” Rumsfeld, yesterday, and the zombies can beam. It turns out that Iraq is “a tremendous pillar of stability through the Middle East." Who knew? And volcanoes are very good ways to fertilize the soil. That’s why you should always try to farm active ones.

The two can’t stand each other – this happens in a court society in which each player depends upon a differing mix of servility and arrogance to maintain position. Since Rumsfeld’s place in the Bush pantheon seems to be fixed – he’s part of the mission, and the mission is to make America pretty much toxic and unliveable for the next fifty year – Rice has to deal with him like the senile parent that you can’t move out of the house. Rice’s tremendous success in getting the Dawa party to nominate a man with precisely the same positions as Jafari to be P.M. can only be described as a tremendous success leading to tremendous stability in the best of all possible Mesopotamias.

As for the causes of that instability – LI has a long post coming up about the civil war in Iraq. The civil war that was programmed into Iraq. The civil war that is the constitution of Iraq. The American advisors of which are notorious for wanting to split up Iraq way back from the beginning of the invasion. So a bunch of theoreticians and calculators, as Burke called them, descend on this country and not only facilitate its looting, but actively seek to destroy its unity, while taking down the army in order to make it a perpetual dependent of American power. In its long series of foreign policy crimes, Iraq has become a sort of center, an emblem of all of D.C.’s vice and viciousness. Seizing the volunteer army at the grass roots level by whatever means and destroying the power of the executive branch to ever again wield a mercenary force are the proper political responses in this country to this crew of freaks. Let’s break the department of war. Suggestions?

Last night, exhausted by another day of translating, LI went down to the corner store and bought a Lone Star (hey, we are on our downers at the moment). And we started talking with the clerk, first about the Simpsons and then about literature. The clerk is, I believe, Lebanese, and he has not watched a lot of Simpsons, so we told him that it is in the line of classic American literature, Twain and Melville and Hawthorne -- but he said, but I don't read. So he wanted to know what was in Twain and Melville, and we gave some extremely condensed plot summary. But one thing we said he could relate to -- the description of Ahab as exemplifying one overwhelming American trait: "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me," Our inadequate paraphrase of chapter 36. The clerk was most amused to see this customer hopping up and down with his Lone star, misquoting Moby Dick. But who knows, maybe he'll read it some day?

And if that trait makes us reach out and smite the nations -- we can turn it around as well, to strike at D.C. Shall we not strike the government if it insults us?

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask!"

glorious dreams, miserable dreamer

Last night, I had a wonderful dream. In this dream, I am in the midst of a people who may be Bedouins. They are dressed in flowing white robes. These Bedouins, however, have something against LI. What did I do? Well, I can’t remember that part of the dream. However, I started running, and they were coming up close behind me. Suddenly – and this has never happened to me in a dream, ever – I leaped into the air and became an eagle. Even in the dream I was a little startled by this. Sagittarius to Eagle, is that cool? So I’m an eagle. If I were a Roman, I’d immediately know not to repeat this dream to Caligula. So now I am high above the mass of white robed people. And in fact, they no longer frighten me. Instead, I mount higher and higher until I am in the middle of a cloud. And in this cloud, I become electrified. It is as if I am both an eagle and lightning. I become a network of white, branching light. I light up…

Well, I awoke and had to pee, god damn it. And when I got to bed, I couldn’t get back to my eaglehood. But I am interpreting this to mean…

That I will soon get editing work. LI readers, sorry, but it is coming to the end of the month, and I am running out of work, so this is an advert for my little service. If you or your friends or your relatives know of anyone looking for that quick, master editor, or want translation from German or French, or want research – call me up or give me an email. I have a new site here. And I am going after the undergraduate paper market, so check out my new low, low, low prices. (Why is it I feel like the wig salesman in Goodfellas?)

I know those who stop by this lonely little outpost are an educated, even hypereducated bunch, so I bet you know somebody struggling to write a dissertation, a book, a menu. Send them to me, and my eagle will ascend!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

building a monument of amnesia to Chernobyl

It was inevitable that the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl would be greeted by American papers drawing the conclusion from an accident putting territory out of bounds for the next six millennia that—improvements had been made! American built reactors are safer than ever! more nuclear power is environmental! Look at those Finns!

So I wasn’t surprised that the NYT did not celebrate the anniversary by some story uncovering the scandalous record of the UN’s IAEA with regard to Chernobyl – its compliance with the Soviet coverup, its outlying figures about death, its attempt to use the massive social disaggregation following the Chernobyl accident (the increase in smoking, the increase in alcoholism, the increase in malnourishment – if you can’t drink milk that is radioactive and other milk is more expensive and you have considerably less spending money, you give up drinking milk – etc.) as an excuse to say that Chernobyl deaths are exaggerated, a result of radiophobia, in effect, using the massive side effects of Chernobyl to cover up the damage of Chernobyl – well, no, I wasn’t expecting anything as radical as that.

So, we have instead, William Sweet, a nuclear power advocate, writing the op ed about Chernobyl.

“And yet, though it went unnoticed at the time and has been inadequately appreciated since, Chernobyl also cast into relief the positive features of the reactors used in the United States and most other advanced industrial countries.

The reactor at Chernobyl belonged to a class that was especially vulnerable to runaway reactions. When operating at low power, if such reactors lost water, their reactivity could suddenly take off and very rapidly reach a threshold beyond which they could only explode. Making matters worse, surprisingly little more pressure than normal in the machine's water channels would lift its lid, snapping the vital control rods and fuel channels that entered the reactor's core.

On the night of April 25, 1986, poorly trained and supervised plant operators conducted an ill-conceived experiment, putting the machine into the very state in which reactivity was most likely to spike. Within a fraction of a second, the reactor went from being barely on to power levels many times higher than the maximum intended.”

Actually, no. The problem with the experiment -- and calling it an experiment without explaining that it was an experiment vis a vis the safety measures that would supposedly secure Chernobyl from problems in the case of shutdown, so that it was the kind of experiment you do in nuclear power plants - was structural. It was supposed to be done in conjunction with turning off the electrical power going to Kiev, but the people supervising electric power in Kiev objected, while the power was going down, that they still needed those lines. Thus, the experiment was extended –which meant extended over two extra shifts, and going on 24 hours longer than it was supposed to. If Mr. Sweet thinks that such a thing couldn’t happen in an American nuclear plant ever – and we are talking ever here, just as we are still talking ever about Chernobyl, where the concrete cladding over unit four will have to be replaced something like 6000 times over the next 12000 years, or there will be a release of radioactivity that will make Hiroshima look like recess – he is a bold man. Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen.

LI, reluctantly, can see situations in which nuclear does become an option, but we can see no situation in which it can possibly be a long term option.

“Still, critics and opponents of nuclear energy have wondered whether utility companies are competent enough to manage anything so complex as a reactor. The question is a reasonable one. In the 1980's, some anti-nuclear groups joined with free-marketeers to promote electricity deregulation. They reasoned that if utilities were no longer guaranteed cost-plus returns on investments -- the cushy sort of regulation that had prevailed for a century in the utility industry -- they would stop investing in expensive nuclear power plants that were difficult to run.

The utility industry has responded to deregulation by reorganizing itself. And as it happens, companies have emerged that specialize in managing nuclear power plants. Although their record is somewhat mixed (Exelon, for example, stands accused of having carelessly let tritium, a radioactive isotope, leak from three Illinois reactors), on the whole the performance of nuclear power plants has improved substantially.”

By performance, Sweet means the efficiency of power generation. Unfortunately, the deregulatory impulse, plus the pollution-ophilia of the monsters who govern us, is resulting in lessening safety standards to make nuclear power “cheaper.”

From yesterday’s Raleigh News and Observer (for which LI occasionally reviews):

“An oversight 15 years ago at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant ranked as the second-closest any U.S. reactor has come to a nuclear meltdown during the past two decades, Greenpeace reported Monday.

The environmental group, which opposes nuclear power, released a safety report to challenge industry claims of a sterling safety record.

The report comes as Progress Energy of Raleigh, Duke Power of Charlotte and other utilities are seeking to license the nation's first new reactors in three decades. The report reviews nearly 200 problems reported by many of the country's 64 nuclear sites.

Regulators and Progress Energy officials said the incident at the Shearon Harris plant in southern Wake County was serious, but they criticized the Greenpeace characterizations as alarmist.

"We dispute the part that these are 'near misses,' " said Progress Energy spokesman Rick Kimble. "'Near miss' makes it sound like it's minutes from a meltdown. ... This was a case that, if a series of incidents had happened -- all of them statistically remote -- then you could have had a partial failure."

During the 1991 malfunction, a backup cooling system at the Shearon Harris plant had not been functional for about a year before the problem was caught. The system would have discharged some water on the floor instead of pumping all the emergency coolant to the nuclear reactor core.”

the age of auto/erotic fatality

... This is one of those modern instances, beloved by magazine writers. When the first study came out in 1985 that showed that there was a growing ozone hole over the Antarctic, Nasa went over its data from 74 onwards from its Nimbus 7 satellite. The satellite had never showed an ozone hole. They discovered the reason for that. The Nimbus 7’s computer was a smart computer, and it was programmed to reject certain data as evidence of faulty instruments. Among the data rejected was that showing excessively low levels of ozone.

Which brings LI to George Monbiot’s interesting column in the Guardian comments are free blog. Monbiot writes that he has become a convert to the hydrogen power cell idea – which has appealed to LI’s Popular Science side since forever. He outlines the problems with the natural gas supply – especially the stranglehold it potentially gives to Russia – and the probable solution of the Blair government – nuclear power – and the increasing energy use per household in the U.K., and the certainty that CO2 buildup has to be stopped now.

And he writes:“I've looked into every source of sustainable heat I can find, and while there are plenty that could supply some of our houses - wood and straw, solar hot-water panels, district heating systems and heat pumps for example - all of them are constrained by one factor or another, such as a shortage of agricultural land, our feeble sun and the disruption involved in fitting them to existing homes. It seems that there is only one low-carbon source of heat that could (with a massive investment in new infrastructure) be supplied to most of the homes in the UK between now and 2030. It is hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, which is a kind of gas battery. If, as their promoters predict, fuel cells can very soon be made small enough, cheap enough and reliable enough to take the place of domestic boilers, they could provide the heat and electricity our homes require. The natural gas pipes to which most of our houses are attached would be replaced by hydrogen pipes. These are about 50% wider but otherwise the system is much the same.”

The response to Monbiot’s post is overwhelmingly negative: the oil peakers poo poo natural gas; the solar energy people are outraged by the feeble sun remark; and the enviro crowd blames consumerism.

Now, I have some empathy with all of those complaints (except peak oil, which has the smell of a cult), yet the odd thing is, Monbiot is obviously not saying, drop solar energy, or drop conservation. He is saying that an intermediate step in the lowering of CO2 levels is hydrogen power. That he thinks the cost of obtaining hydrogen from natural gas, which is much lower than that of obtaining hydrogen using electrolysis through water, means that the former is to be preferred doesn’t necessary strike me as true. I imagine the state will have to massively subsidize any turnover to a new energy source. And the cult like part of my soul thinks, goddamn it, those Australian and Japanese scientists who are combining solar energy and hydrogen power cells are so obviously the wave of the future…. I recognize this as the cultish part of my soul because I don’t know if I am talking out my ass or not – it seems so do-able when you look at the graphics in Scientific American. Is this reason talking, or the worship of reason? Very different things. Still, it was a heckling crowd without being a thoughtful one -- each attached to his or her own solution to saving the world.

The factor that is persuasive to Monbiot, as it is to me, is that the infrastructure is in place for hydrogen conversion, which is imperfect. In other words, it makes the most minor changes to the current lifestyle. Which is the question in the long run – how are we going to overturn the unsustainable patterns of consumerism?

If you look at that question too long, you become insane.

A social scientist, Peter Dauvergne, wrote an article in Global Environmental Politics last year that turned on the question of consumer behavior and irrationality. It wasn’t a great theoretical article – it was, instead, a cry of rage. Dauvergne’s exemplar of irrationality is the way the world has embraced the auto as its preferred way of going from a to b.

He begins with Bridget Driscoll. (Why is there no monument to Bridget Driscoll?)

“Bridget Driscoll was the ªrst to die, on a muggy August afternoon in 1896 in front of London’s Crystal Palace, from a fate that now kills over 3000 people every day. She was 44. Indeed, a long life for the time, but this in no way consoled her daughter, May Driscoll, who was at her mother’s side as Arthur Edsall ran her down in a demonstration “motor-car.” Within moments Dr. Charles Edwin Raddock rushed out of the Crystal Palace. But it was too late. Her brain was “protruding.””

Well, there was an inquest, at which it was determined that Edsall might have been attaining speeds in excess of 14 miles per hour. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. And the coroner presiding over this first traffic fatality said that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.”

As Dauvenel points out, it did happen again. In fact, by the time it stops happening, more people will have been killed in car wrecks than died in the Holocaust or the Gulag.

“Imagine, one day, that a Boeing 747 crashes in the United States, killing 135 people. Imagine the same day another Boeing 747 goes down somewhere in the European Union, killing another 135. Now imagine Boeing 747s begin crashing, like clockwork, every hour all day long—a few over the Pacific and Atlantic, a few into mountainsides, the rest into everyday neighborhoods—that day killing 3240 and injuring as many as 137,000 people. Finally, imagine this continues every day all year long. The technology would seem suicidal. No rational frequent ºflyer would ever fly again, . Yet these are the global figures for traffic for 2002.”

I have a feeling that the ability to comfortably coexist with those figures tells us a lot about how people are going to react as global warming begins to reconfigure thermal patterns all over the globe. (In Texas, this spring, due to a combination of hot weather and drought, about 4,000 miles of fence burned. Enough fence burned that, for the first time since the 1880s, a significant portion of the Panhandle is now free range. And that kind of drought is becoming common in Texas). The left dreams of revolution, the right dreams of war, and all of these dreams have in common the idea that a mass of people will change its habits. That they will wake up and look at the thing in the garage, for instance, as their 30 percent chance for an injury over the course of twenty five, thirty years.

The odd thing is, the consumer society has enacted the habit of rapid changes of habits – from tv to cable tv, from phones inside the house to phones in every fucking nook, etc., etc. -- without ever disturbing the essential, stone cold social complacency – the bedrock smugness. LI isn’t even sure that there is anything wrong with the bedrock smugness – if we weren’t speeding towards truly terrible things, while the only lively discussion about change happens on newspaper blogs.

Oh, I shouldn’t say that. Bush came up with a solution to the gas price problem today all on his lonesome: suspend environmental regulations. If there is a peculiar genius of predictability, it shines over that pointy little head.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

the win-win war

Three stories about Iraqi business, today, give LI that hopeful feeling when the wind of freedom – the wind they call Moriah – sweeps through Iraq, just like our President, God bless him, has been saying.

First, all LI readers will be thrilled to know that, once again, defense industry firms (and please, let’s not call the Death, Inc.) are beating forecaster estimates for another banner quarter! We are raising our screwdrivers in a patriotic salute:

According to Reuters: “Lockheed and Northrop shares hit their all-time highs on Tuesday as fears of budget cuts have receded, and the Pentagon's latest strategic review, released in February, gave the green light to all kinds of expensive weapons.”

Further: “The results follow a sharp profit increase for tank and submarine maker General Dynamics Corp. last week, as arms spending shows no sign of slowing down and the U.S. sets aside more money for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The other two top-tier defense contractors, Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co. , are expected to report higher quarterly profit later this week.”

No wonder the White House is angry that the good news about the economy has not been getting out there! Those fears of budget cuts are among the fears that the Bush administration has been fighting all along. I think we can all be proud that we walk the planet, potentially, as Lockheed shareholders – first in peace, first to get a piece of a dying planet, first to put the bullet in Gaia’s head.

The second news story can be filed under the “ungrateful Iraqi” department. As we all know, the big puzzle in this war is why the Iraqis are so darned ungrateful, after we have smothered them with all the good things.

James Glanz’s story about one reconstruction project is heartwarming:

“When Robert Sanders was sent by the U.S. Army to inspect the construction work an American company was doing on the banks of the Tigris River north of Baghdad, he expected to see workers drilling holes beneath the riverbed to restore a crucial set of large oil pipelines that had been bombed during the invasion of Iraq.
What he found instead that day in July 2004 looked like some gargantuan heart-bypass surgery gone nightmarishly bad. A crew had bulldozed a 300-foot, or 90-meter, trench around a giant drill bit in a desperate attempt to yank it loose from the riverbed. A supervisor later told him that the crews knew that drilling the holes was not possible, but that they had been instructed by the company in charge of the project to continue anyway.

A few weeks later, after the project had burned up all of the $75.7 million allocated to it, the work came to a complete halt.”

Imagine, after a paltry 75 million was spent, the money pipe ran out. Surely Americans, who have done almost as good a job of running Iraq as the Mongols did long ago, could cough up the ready? After all, we had seized Iraq’s own money – although that story is a tale to enthrall children of all ages, the greatest disappearing act of all time. But back to Glanz:

“Exactly what portion of Iraq's lost oil revenue can be attributed to one failed project, no matter how critical, is impossible to calculate. But the Fatah pipeline has a wider significance as a metaphor for the entire $45 billion rebuilding effort in Iraq. Although the failures of that effort are routinely attributed to insurgent attacks, an examination of this project shows that troubled decision-making and execution have played equally important roles.

The Fatah project went ahead despite warnings from experts who said that it could not succeed because the underground terrain was shattered and unstable. It continued chewing up astonishing amounts of cash when the predicted problems bogged the work down, with a contract that allowed crews to charge as much as $100,000 a day as they waited on standby. The company in charge engaged in what some American officials saw as a self-serving attempt to limit communications with the government until all the money was gone.”

Typical. Here’s good news from Iraq – Americans getting rich – and Glanz doesn’t see it. I’d urge LI readers to check out the article.

And more good news on: Iraqis getting rich! Reuters has a report about how to form your own death squad in Baghdad. It’s affordable!

“At Baghdad's Bab al-Sharjee market, a haven for criminals, anyone can walk into one of about 15 shops selling police and military supplies and buy a police commando uniform for 35,000 Dinars (about $24) or an ordinary police uniform for $15.
No questions asked, no identity checks. Badges of rank from Captain to Major-General -- enough to ensure no one asks questions on the mean streets of the capital -- go for $2.

"One person came yesterday and took 12 full commando uniforms. Another took 15 army uniforms and ski masks with holes for the eyes," said Tariq, who runs one of the stores.”

Police cars are going for 12,000 dollars. You’ll also want your laser pointers and your handcuffs. You want, in other words, one stop shopping. Baghdad has it all. This is free enterprise to melt an AEI flak’s heart.

Once you get the uniforms, the ski masks, the handcuffs, and of course the handy guns – guns are on definite markdown – it is time for the final touches that make all the difference:

“For an extra few hundred dollars, sirens and police markings can be added at the central Sinak market. Then it's a short trip to Mureydi market in the sprawling Sadr City Shi'ite slum for fake IDs.

Car salesman Abu Mohammed will sell a customer anything they want, including a range of bullet-proof cars costing up to $340,000.”

Iraq – the longer we stay in, the safer and richer the people become. No wonder they all love us!

Monday, April 24, 2006


For some reason, LI's comments section isn't showing all comments. Here's a comment from Mr. Rojas, the Naked Gaze blogger, re the last two posts:

This also ties back in nicely with Derrida's "Specters of Marx" theme, in the sense that it was precisely the development of artificial light during the nineteenth century which revolutionized the possibilities for the creation of ghostly apparitions (through projections, etc.), thereby informing, perhaps, Marx's fascination with spectrality."

LI's far flung correspondent, Mr. T., sent us a nice anecdote about his own reading/lighting experiment:

"I speculated at one point that it might be best to read things like The Brothers Karamazov and The Kreutzer Sonata and The Idiot by candlelight. What was this? This was a hope for purity, for a pure moment, a hope to encounter the author, that so much dead flesh, that foreign language, that religion....all of that that was not in the room in which I read. Could I approximate an over-coming of every distance by light? Could I set a condition, a space, where time might be trammeled? Ah, tried I did, and I am glad that I was so dissappointed, that I have forgoten what I read on those nights, but that I have remembered the effort."

Also, LCC has a nice post up about the Grid -- something we would like to get into at another time. One way of reading Gravity's Rainbow is to read it as the secret history of the Grid -- and we all, I hope, remember the Byron the Bulb section in Gravity's Rainbow, which clues the reader into the Phoebus, the international light bulb cartel, the engineering of techno forms of the grid experimenting with pathways later traveled by corporate power, penetrations of privacy that eventually reconfigure the whole notion of privacy, of what is and isn't for sale.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

more light on a dark subject -- 2

Note: blogger was being uncooperative today, so I had to split this post into two posts. Sorry for the reading inconvenience.

Anyway, if you want to read this all the way through, you have to scroll down to the first post, more light on a dark subject -1.

Anyway, Nordhaus throughout his article is seeking, first, to quantify changes in lighting both in terms of the power of illumination and in terms of service, and then to extrapolate his results to a model for pricing technological change in general. He estimates that there was an improvement in lighting of a mere 0.04 percent per year from the Babylonian times to the nineteenth century – a period encompassing improvements in candle manufacture, but also significant decline in lighting technology and service after the fall of the Roman Empire – but that there was an increase by a factor of 900 between 1800 and 1992, with the increase coming out to 3.6 per year. And yet, he finds by traditional neo-classical pricing methods, the price of lighting has gone up. For instance, the price of lighting using electricity instead of kerosene from 1883 to 1993, can be weighted hedonically to show that, in terms of the price of fuels, kerosene has gone up 10 fold and electricity has gone down 3 fold. But “if the price index were incorrectly constructed, say using 1883 consumption weights and tracking gas/kerosene prices, it would show a substantial upward increase by a factor of ten.” Nordhaus points to the effect of this in figuring “true” prices, and hence, true standards of living. What is not read into the traditional construction of the price index is the “vast efficiency” of electric lighting.

Now what is interesting about this is how, subtly and silently, only positive externalities are counted, here. Since this is a week to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl, LI will take up other externalities in some later posts. The point here is that ‘forms of value’ pose a problem for all economists, not just Karl M.

Curious about how Karl M. might have read his bluebooks and penned his tomes, I went to another essay that builds upon Nordhaus’ work by Roger Fouquet and Peter J.G. Pearson on the Price and Use of light in the U.K. from 1500 – 2000. This is a treasure trove of light minutiae. For instance, the candle makers old enemy, the sun, does figure as a taxable entity in the British economy. Under Queen Anne, a window tax was instituted which had a real effect on the way houses were constructed – talk about your substructure effecting your superstructure! of course, the tax was instituted to pay for various wars (bemoaned by Swift) – tax and war being the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of economic history. Taxes, of course, shape a lot of economic activity – for instance, since the tax on lighting by fish oil was low, whale oil was, at one point, grandfathered in as an oil deriving from a fish – hence, one of the jokes in Melville’s taxonomy of the creatures in Moby Dick.

“In 1750, around 370 million lumen-hours seem to have been generated from about 3,000 tons of sperm and whale oil; and while whale oil made up nine-tenths of this total, sperm oil was about twice as effective in providing illuminating. By 1774, the oils (30% from sperm oil) generated just over one billion lumen-hours. And although lighting from sperm and whale oils fell back to less than 300 million lumen-hours in 1781, once hostilities [between the Americans and the British] ceased whale and sperm oil imports resurged, reaching more than 1.8 billion lumen-hours by 1787.”

However, by the time Marx got to England in 1850, the lighting industry had been revolutionized by the introduction of another fuel based on organic compounds: gas.

“In 1812, the Gas Light and Coke Company received the first charter to supply parts of London and, after eighteen months of errors in equipment investment and design, the market for gas-lighting grew quickly as prices fell. In 1820, gas lighting cost around £3,000 per million lumen-hours. By 1840, it had fallen to £1,000 and then, by 1850, to below £500 per million lumen-hours...

The dramatic cost decline was to generate the first of three phases of growth in the demand. Gas lighting rose ten-fold - from around 25 billion lumen-hours in 1820 to 250 billion in 1850. The growing wealth and associated desire for comforts, the accelerating industrialisation and the increased urbanisation of Britain were also factors driving the demand. Initial demand was for public street lighting, commercial establishments (especially shops), and some wealthy households. By the 1840s, middle class families were starting to use gas in their homes.”

Fouquet and Pearson confirm Nordhaus’ story of exponential improvement of lighting service and efficiency during the nineteenth century. The candle itself became a more reliable, more powerful instrument. And kerosene successfully competed with the ever volatile supply of whale oil to become a private illuminator of choice. A happy thing for the whale – whose own standard of living is not going to be captured in the price index charts, right? And whose elevation to a value and fall to a zero value is a story economists of all stripes can agree on. Unfortunately.

Marx lived long enough—he died in 1883 - to see the next wave of light technology, the largescale use of electric lighting – which, as with gas, began first as a public investment. As so often in technology, it is not private enterprise per se but the state that is the driver. However, LI’s hasty research has not turned up the lighting situation in Marx’s own house in London – whether he had a kerosene lamp or gas to do his work and read his Balzac (or Paul de Kock – like Leopold Bloom, Marx had an affection for this writer). I imagine I could deduce this out of his daughter Laura’s photoalbum, which was made in 1868, and published in 1970. Actually, the famous photograph of Marx is an indication of the Marx family’s better circumstances. In 1863, K.M.’s mother died, and he inherited from her – and a year later he was a legatee of Wilhelm Wolff’s estate, an old companero from the 40s years. The family was able, on account of this, to move to a bigger, better house – which most probably meant gas heat and lighting. So, unlike Goethe, when Marx was dying in his armchair, he could, actually, have gotten more light by simply turning a knob.

Which probably pleased him...

more light on a dark subject - part 1

LI has has a good time reading some of the contributions to the Spivak fest being hosted on LS. In particular, if you have time, the Naked Gaze blog (another we have to totally put on our blogroll – we are totally behind on that project, sorry sorry sorry!) gives a nice history of the triangle, Spivak, Derrida, Marx (not exactly as cinematic as Jules et Jim, but what the hey). NG does one of those Derrida things, which Derrida got from listening to five year olds on swing sets – he repeats a set phrase over and over. In NG’s case, the phrase is: "Writing at speed". As the five year old discovers, this is a good way to induce vertigo – to disturb the rigid separation of sound and sense. And it works best with words that are odd words anyway, like your name, or the name of the sister you are trying to torment. Which is the point, although exemplifying that point treads a thin line between art and bugging the shit out of the reader.

That I bring in kids to talk about deconstruction, is not, by the way, a sneaky way of jabbing at J.D. Why do you think this site is named Limited Inc? When Marx’s friend Kugelman pointed out that the forms of value theory in the first edition of the first volumen of Das Kapital rather confused some people, namely some unnamed review, Marx sent him a famous letter (English and German in which he implied that, really, a child could understand it:

„... when we conceive by Value something in general, we must concede my conclusions. The unhappy man doesn’t see, that, if in my book there is no chapter on Value, the analysis of the real relationships that I give contained the proof and reference to the real relationships of value. The nonsense talked about the necessity of proving the value concept rests only on the most complete ignorance, as much about the subject matter that it deals with as the method of science. That any nation would kick the bucket if labor halted for, I won’t say a year, but merely a couple of weeks, any child knows. Just as they know that the different quantities of need corresponding to quantities of products require different, quantitatively determined amounts of collective social labor. That this necessity of the distribution of social labor in specific proportions is not suspended through the specific form of social production, but instead, only its manner of appearance changes, is self evident. Natural laws cannot, in general, be suspended.“ (I’ve retranslated bits of this)

Well, it is a wise child that knows his forms of value. One wonders if Kugelmann’s eyes got a little wide at this evocation of the toddler economist. Mill says something quite similar in his own Principles of Political Economy:

“The conditions and laws of Production would be the same as they are, if the arrangements of society did not depend on Exchange, or did not admit of it. Even in the present system of industrial life, in which employments are minutely subdivided, and all concerned in production depend for their remuneration on the price of a particular commodity, exchange is not the fundamental law of the distribution of the produce, no more than roads and carriages are the essential laws of motion, but merely a part of the machinery for effecting it. To confound these ideas, seems to me, not only a logical, but a practical blunder. It is a case of the error too common in political economy, of not distinguishing between necessities arising from the nature of things, and those created by social arrangements.”

Further down in the letter, Marx says something that is rather erased in the standard translation: „The vulgar economist hasn’t the least idea that the real, daily exchange relationship and the value magnitudes cannot be directly identical. The wit [Witz] [not essence, or Wesen, as you will find in the English version] of bougeois society consists exactly in there being apriori no conscious social regulation of production.“

A remark which justly brings out the fact that problems of value haunt all economics schools. What value is is connected to how economists see their discipline: one in which there is an underlying, always arousable anxiety about its scientific status.

A famous exercise in the transvaluation of all values in orthodox, neo-classical economics is contained in a very sleek paper published in the nineties by William Nordhaus. Nordhaus’ paper is neat -- if one takes a deconstructive view -- partly because of what he does in it, and partly because his subject matter is shot through with scientific anxiety. The subject matter is the price of light. Specifically, the price of light since the invention of fire in the paleolithic age down to the halogen lamp.

Light, of course, is the supreme object of the supreme science, physics. The book I am translating by Silja Graupe demonstrates, with infinite care, following in the footsteps of Mirowski, how very much the economists of the 19th century, especially the founders of the marginal revolution, used physics as their base analogy for the creation of the central equilibrium model. And Graupe shows just how wrong the analogy is. Shelley, long ago, saw through the scientific armature of „political oeconomics,“ the maniac search for equivalents and variables, to the poetry at its core:

We have more moral, political and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice: we have more scientific and œconomical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry, in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government and political œconomy, or at least what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we "let I dare not wait upon I would, "like the poor cat in the adage".”

Economics has few real jokes (Witz), but one of them is all about light: Bastiat’s little satire on the petition of the candle makers. It is an essay that still causes the port to shake in the glasses round the table at the University of Chicago. In fact, in 1868, Marx was writing about Bastiat. Nordhaus quotes the satire in his essay. It begins: “We are subjected to the intolerable competition of a foreign rival, who enjoys such superior facilities for the production of light that he can inundate our national market at reduced price. This rival is no other than the sun.”

Although it might seem a little odd to go from a reading of Das Kapital to the material concomitant of reading Das Kapital (myself, I have read it by 60 watt bulb, by florescent bulb, and even by halogen bulb, but not by gas or candle, by the light of which it was undoubtedly written), Nordhaus’ essay is in its own way a critique of the political economy that also seeks to ground economics in science. Light has the advantage of being a standard, a measure that is at the basis of other measures. So, Nordhaus ingeniously maintains, if we can look at the price of light down the millennia, we can get a sort of photographic negative that tells us about technological progress down through the years. And if we find that the prices, as they are computed in standard economics, do not give us this negative, then we have a good basis for recomputing those prices. Which (warning: Plot Giveaway) is just what Nordhaus finds. In fact, Nordhaus and his colleagues who advocated hedonic pricing to better reflect technological change won over a crucial player in the nineties economy, Alan Greenspan. LI won’t discuss, here, the way that Greenspan’s self interest in papering over inflation and the hedonic school’s insistence that qualitative change on a number of dimensions has to be reflected in the price index – that the prices have to be, oddly, hedonic prices – met in the mid nineties and allowed Greenspan to keep down interest rates when, according to traditional indicators, he should raise them (which James Galbraith rightly said was the best thing Greenspan did) – all of this is a well known story.

But … back to the charms of Nordhaus. One of the most charming things about the paper is the slightly mad Newtonian fervor in it. For instance: Nordhaus says that the earliest market for lighting fuel arose in Babylon, about 3000 B.C. At that time, the Babylonians were using sesame oil to light their lamps. Now, your average Babylonian laborer earned about one shekel a month. And Nordhaus figures that if that monthly earning was spent just on lighting, it would buy ten liters of sesame oil. BUT: big question: how much lighting power would it buy? Since, happily, physics has given us our standards of illumination, Nordhaus does a little experiment. He buys a terra cotta lamp – not Babylonian, but Roman, which doesn’t make too much difference, insofar as lamp technology had not progressed too far at this point – from Spirits, Inc, of Minneapolis Minnesota, which guarantees the provenance. He fills it with 100 percent pressed sesame oil and uses a wick from a modern candle. He found that one quarter cup burned for 17 hours with an average intensity of 0.17 foot candles.

I totally love this.



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