Friday, September 30, 2011

Texas is at War!

Texas has out a new "war report." Apparently Texas is preparing for 1836 again. Hopefully the Cherokee won't get stuck in the middle of it this time.

Borderland Beat, 29 September 2011

TDA Commissioner Todd Staples said the report offers a military perspective on incorporating the three levels of warfare — strategic, operational and tactical — to secure the border along the Rio Grande.“It also provides sobering evidence of cartel criminals gaining ground on Texas soil,” Staples.

From the report:

The Texas Rangers have been the lead coordinating force behind the Texas border security effort. This remarkably small group has assumed leadership in Texas for stopping the encroachment of the cartels into the state. The tactical manifestation of this effort is the Ranger Reconnaissance Teams (RRTs).
The Rangers are the mission lead for a cooperative program that brings together a coordinated ground, air and marine assault capability. Each participating federal, state and local agency voluntarily adds its unique capabilities to the tactical battle. The THP acts as an outer perimeter for the Rangers by funneling traffic toward Ranger border positions. The tactical contact teams deploy along the Rio Grande in small, concealed positions and are able to quickly respond to intelligence from APS platforms, DPS and National Guard surveillance helicopters, as well as calls to UCs from local police or citizens. DPS Dive Teams conduct SONAR scans of the Rio Grande and assist in recovery of vehicles and contraband in splashdown areas. “Spiking” teams from the Border Patrol add their manpower and sophisticated surveillance equipment to assist in containing and apprehending traffickers. Texas military forces install ASP cameras on trafficking routes, provide aerial support for surveillance and support communications to all team participants.
It is a long report, maybe I will be able to look at it more in the future, when I have more time.
Obviously the situation south of the Mexican-American border is serious. But I am not sure which I am finding more alarming, the militaristic tone of the report, or the idea that they are going to copy the fatally flawed strategies used by our military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And for the record, yes I do believe our military brass are stupid enough to lose the home field advantage by blowing up innocents with predator drones and busting in peoples doors. If the Mexican cartels avoid cutting off civilians heads, they might actually be more popular.
Remember, our military in the middle of the Iraq counter insurgency (not Operation Cobra, the opening military campaign) blew up a Iraqi railroad station using Airforce fighter bombers. That’s right, we bombed a railroad station with airplanes as part of the “recovery” phase. We were also using artillery support as well, but I don’t have any colorful (a.k.a. stupid) enough specific examples to site.
As William S. Lind noted in 2007:
Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing.
Note that Lind goes on to speak disparagingly of the “surge.”  He would have been unaware at the time that some of the Sunni, for their own reasons, would switch sides.  With of course our brave military bureaucrats giving credit to their military strategy, rather than the shifting fortunes of tribal-alliance warfare.  The tone deafness to the nature of this type of fighting is one of the primary reasons (along with life and liberty) reasons we don’t want to militarize our police.

Cities Borrowing Green to be Green

There is a way around just about anything.
We have already taked about the $ ½ billion bust of a “connected” solar panel maker.  Well when there is money sloshing around, people with needs seem to find a way to make use of that money.
Class Green Capital Partners of New York advises municipalities on how to use green program incentives to mortgage public building to finance ongoing budget shortfalls.  The gr
Financing Strategy Skirts Laws on Using Bonds for Deficits
Michael Corkery, Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2011
Here is the twist: A portion of the bond proceeds go to improve energy efficiency in the buildings, which are meant to generate savings for the city.
That "green" element also helps some cities deal with state rules that restrict selling public buildings or borrowing money expressly to fill deficits...
"We combine sustainability with municipal finance,'' says Class Green's cofounder and chief executive John Hirschfeld. The end result, he adds, is that "one plus one equals three."...
"We combine sustainability with municipal finance,'' says Class Green's cofounder and chief executive John Hirschfeld. The end result, he adds, is that "one plus one equals three."
But critics contend that the "green" element disguises the primary purpose of the deals: deficit financing.
There is a type of construction contracting referred to as performance contracting.  In this type of contracting, the government entity (let’s say it’s a school) takes out a loan against a building to pay for energy improvements.  After the work is done, the school pays the contractor out of the “energy savings” that they experience from the work on the building.  Since most of these projects are designed to have a five to seven year payback (break even point), the school then gets to keep the energy savings going forward.  In effect the school gets the improvements for free.
There are all sorts of difficulties with these projects.  There is a tendency to overpay for the low hanging fruit.  The school system could reduce its energy costs by 30%, but it is the first 10% that is relatively inexpensive to produce:  let’s say a couple of days of work by the Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC) contractors control technician reconfiguring the buildings control programming.   Let’s just say there is a lot of room for play.
But the cost of these projects is supposed to net zero.  One dollar of savings equals one dollar of payment to the contractor at no cost to the school.
But what they appear to be doing is tacking this system onto a larger bond to make the apparent interest rate of the project lower.  It gets your head spinning.  Taking tricky finance method and then using it to fund operating costs.
Performance contracting may have its issues, but the goal is fairly straightforward. The goal is certainly worth pursuing.  Borrowing to fund operational is also very straightforward.  The goal of that process is much more questionable.  Hiding the one process within the other is gimmickry of the highest order.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Food Pricing Pressures

Hot dry weather is what is being blamed for the poor corn harvest.  But as the world’s population keeps moving toward that magical 10 billion mark- where it is supposed to level off – every little glitch in world production is getting to be bigger news.
Tom Polansek, Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2011
Global food prices remained near record highs last month, with concern growing that a disappointing U.S. corn harvest may trigger further increases, particularly in the developing world.
"Because the buffers are low in corn and we aren't seeing any recovery in inventory, this will keep the grains market on edge this year," said Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary of the FAO's Intergovernmental Group on Grains.
The report makes the very good point that within the United States, where people buy over half meals from restaurants, and a large portion of their grocery bill is for pre-packaged foods, the impact of grain costs is more muted than in countries that are living on the margin.  In the United States marketing, labor costs and transportation costs are also very much an issue.
The report highlights the difference in food-cost inflation around the world and in the U.S. The U.N.'s world food-price index for July was up 34% over a year ago, while the U.S. consumer-price index for food in the same month was only 4% above the prior year.
So unfurtunatly it is in the countries where people already pay the highest portion of their income toward food consumption, that prices will go up the most.
But even within the wealthy countries, the price of food quickly becomes an issue.  Even wealthy countries like the United States and Canada have people who have very little money.  If you have lost your job, and then your house, and your family is now living in your relatives basement, you too are likely feeling the pinch to put food on the table.
So while you would assume that most policies going forward would be very farmer friendly to increase the production of grains, that may not always be the case.  Just as we discussed (somewhere I think) the competing demands for water, there are competing demands within food production as well.
Mark Peters and Paul Vieira, Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2011
Thousands of Canada's farmers could soon be selling wheat and barley on their own. Here, a farmer harvests wheat Wednesday near Taber, Alberta.
The Canadian Wheat Board is poised to lose its monopoly grip on the country's wheat sales. Canada's Conservative Party captured a parliamentary majority this past spring, and newly elected government officials took that as a mandate to end the wheat board's reign.
The ripple effects from eliminating—or even weakening—the board's power would be widespread. Wheat prices, which already have experienced extreme highs and lows over the past three years, could become more volatile, some analysts say.
Not that the farmers are going to vote on the matter, but the vote is not binding on the Canadian Government.  And the Government has said that it will push ahead with eliminating the board regardless of the outcome.
What the wheat board does is control all the sales of wheat as a block.  It thus can negotiate with a power of considerable strength.  It gives a guaranteed payment to the farmers at the front end of the season, and then averages out all its sales over the year and pays out to the farmers by volume produced.  It is in essence a super coop.  Farmers have done them for years.  As always, there are always going to be a few farmers who feel they can do better on their own.  But in general a government guaranteed monopoly (to anyone) is a very strong position.
Abolishing it likely would bring down grain prices.  But would it yield more output.  With 10 billion people to feed it is output you need, and it is not as if there is no competition for grain in the world market.  The system simply insures that Canadian farmers will be better and more regularly paid then other countries with more ad hoc systems.  Likely there is more to the situation than the short article can address.  How, or if,  the Canadians prevent short term over production would also be the issue.
But the point is, that the issue discussed is price not over all supply.  This is particularly relevant because recent Canadian output has been down.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pirate Franchise Opportunities

Ah, the life of a pirate!

Of course Dimitry in his sailboat might not be thrilled with a bunch of pirates roaming his pristine post apocalyptic waters. But for the rest of us...the life!

So what exactly does one need to become a pirate. The following quote is from an excellent and much larger article and I would encourage you to hit the link and read the rest (hat tip The Big Picture).

Robert Young Pelton, Bloomberg Businessweek, 12 May 2011

One reason for piracy's rise is that, while the risks—prison, death—are high, it's easy for startups to gain market share. All you need is a fishing boat and a relationship with one of the "big three" money men—or a relationship with someone who has a relationship. If you have successfully grabbed ships in the past and have a decent crew, according to a recent investigation by Somalia Report's Mwangura, one of the big three—known by their nicknames, Boyah, Garaad, and Afweyne—will back you for 50 percent of expenses. Then you need to canvas the eight small backers who are good for 25 percent. In all, Mwangura has learned, it takes around $300,000 for a solid run.
Expenses break down as follows: weapons and ammo ($2,000); skiffs and outboards ($14,000); grappling hooks and curved ladders ($1,200); GPS and radios ($4,000); food ($70,000); miscellaneous equipment ($30,000); bribes ($180,000). Once you take hostages, allot $15,000 to pay the land crew to watch over them and the hijacked ship.
Ambitious pirates use rusty skiffs to board and control a "mother ship"—a larger vessel that can deliver a good ransom but can also provide fuel, food, water, and shelter as a staging platform for more attacks farther out to sea. Eventually, when you are pressed too hard by the world's navies, or the mother ship runs out of supplies, you can always abandon ship and grab another.
Naturally, pirates have specialized to make themselves more valuable to gang leaders. A pirate intel crew identifies ships and tracks them via their automatic identification system, or AIS. Once a ship has been taken, pirates use the ship's phone to call a trusted negotiator. Meanwhile, they anchor the ships offshore. According to NATO, about a quarter of pirate attacks are successful, and most pirated ships yield a ransom.
What pirates must excel at is waiting. From the adrenaline rush of attack to the moment of payoff can stretch to a tedious 153 days. Five months is a long time to be responsible for 25 or 30 hostages.
Ransoms are set based on previous payouts. The $13.5 million paid for the Irene SL was an extreme high; the IMB says $2 million to $3 million is a more standard ask. The average payout has been creeping upward as negotiators get smarter and push for automatic insurance payments for cargo or ships. Western hostages on small pleasure craft—a different business altogether—are worth about $500,000 each, but these operations often result in violent retribution. Increasingly, the French, Americans, and Danes will either try to rescue their citizens or go after pirates once a ransom is paid. Overall, that $300,000 investment should yield a payoff of at least $600,000 to $1 million. The lucky can score anywhere from $1.5 million to $8 million. But this is a business: Shoot a crew member, destroy the cargo, damage the ship, and your ransom will be less and take much longer to collect.
Generally speaking, pirate takes are split among several groups. Thirty percent goes to the maritime crew (with a bonus of a Land Cruiser to the first pirate that lands on the ship). The ground crew that watches the ship and hostages for extended periods receives 10 percent. Another 10 percent gets splashed around with local elders, community, and politicians. Twenty percent goes to the little backers. And the big boss receives 30 percent.
One important note, piracy requires a certain level of stability and civilization to work well. It always has. In previous periods there needed to be functional markets for slaves, goods, and a surplus of food that could be bought at a price. Even the Vikings would sell their christian slaves to Islamic merchants. Today's market uses the cash ransom and rapid banking to make the payoff much quicker. There are cases of ships disappearing and then showing up latter under different names, particularly in Asian piracy, but that is a slow way to make your money.

So for those who anticipate SHTF scenario of complete chaos, piracy may not be an option.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disaster Response Despondency

The Northeast is learning what the southeast has some time ago.  Federal disaster response is not what it used to be.

From what I can best tell the change started with Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina back when Clinton was president.  North Carolina had a significant rainy day fund that it had accumulated and kicked it in to help the people affected by the disaster.  Floyd at the time was known for having hit the some traditional African American communities.  African American communities, a Democratic President, a State Legislature, and a Democratic Governor, the presumption that the Federal money was following seemed like a safe one.

That money took a long time coming.  Why was there a pull back?  Adjusting for inflation the 1989 Oakland area earthquake had been enormously expensive.  Politics had kept the money spigot open for an extended period of time.  it helps to have your earthquake televised during the World Series.  Ten years latter, with Hurricane Floyd covering such a large area, one suspects that there was a reluctance to pay a similar amount of money for an area that was not considered to be economically vital to the country.

Both FEMA, and the insurance companies were able to get away with the foot dragging to some degree.  When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and travelled well into the mountain regions of the East Coast, the poor response by FEMA and the insurance companies was not an accident.  There was an understanding that we no longer had the ability to pay for wide spread disaster relief.  From an insurance point of view, it is dubious that policies that would have to pay out on such a broad scale at one time where ever realistic to begin with.  A forced savings program would have been more realistic, but is not politically realistic.

Well we are back to the Northeast.  And they are learning some hard lessons.  Note that the first article is from a month ago and the budge issue is still unresolved.

Daniel Stone, The Daily Beast, 27 August 2011

It’s been a busy year for America’s disaster agency, and that may soon spell disaster for its budget.
It started with severe winter storms in the east and southwest in January. Tsunami waves from the Japanese earthquake struck the West Coast and Hawaii in March, followed by the tornado that flattened parts of southern Missouri in May. Several Midwest states saw flooding earlier this month. And an earthquake and hurricane rocked the East Coast this week.

So far in 2011 the Federal Management Agency (FEMA) has responded to  “major disasters” 65 times, among the highest in the agency’s history. The unprecedented demand has stretched the agency and its budget increasingly thin.

Robert Pear, New York Times, 26 September 2011 via Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa. -- Standing in the living room of their house, now full of mud, slime and debris, Helen and Peter Kelly cannot believe that Congress is bickering over disaster aid to people like them.

The roaring waters of the Susquehanna River burst into their home in Mehoopany more than two weeks ago. "Water -- you work with it every day, and then it destroys your whole life," Mrs. Kelly said.

Her husband, still looking shell-shocked, said: "We lost everything. Stove, washer, dryer, TV. Hot water heater, clothes, dishes, refrigerator. Everything, just gone."
The Kellys also lost confidence in government and politicians.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Our Leaders Lie to Us

In a review of John J. Mearcheimer’s Why Leaders Lie the following is noted:
The leaders most likely to lie are precisely those in Western democracies, those whose traditions of democracy perversely push them to mislead the very public that elected them. In fact, Mearsheimer says, leaders tend to lie to their own citizens more often than they lie to other [governments]. Review by Carlos Lozada, John J. Mearsheimer’s “Why Leaders Lie” The Washington Post, April 15, 2011.
In Blame Victims For Lies, Robin Hanson had the following take:
Since gullible people tend to believe what they are told, other folks are more tempted to lie to them. So if one chooses to be gullible, one must accept a lot of responsibility for the lies one hears....
Much of that gullibility seems to me to be by choice; people seem to see themselves as good people if they give their leaders the benefit of the doubt.  Then they express righteous indignation if they discover that their leaders lied. But really, they are themselves mostly to blame.
I am not sure about the universality of the  outrage.  We tend to choose sides, and only get mad when the other side is caught in some sort of lie.  The excuses you see to justify the lies of ones own side can be pretty amazing.
I would argue that democratic leaders lie more because the system forces them to be more accountable to their constituents on a more frequent basis, and often they have a broader range of constituents.
People, in general, lie a lot. When they are placed in a situation of where there is an inequality or asymmetry of information or knowledge, you tend to see a lot of lying.   For example, in construction specialists often have unique knowledge about pricing and methods.  They have an incentive, and the system tends to work toward reinforcing that incentive, to use that information to their advantage.
Since the world is a big and complicated place, and most people would rather not take the time to learn much about it, there is an advantage to feeding them dross.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mental Medication (part 2)

The second part of an article we referred to earlier is online (see link below): Marcia Angell’s multi-book review of the psychiatric industry and its medicating ways.  This long review goes over the standardized (note standardized, not necessarily valid or correct) practices that have come into place over the last three decades.  I am only going to focus on the small portion that is relevant to some of our past discussions of medicating in the schools, and the problems with the Federal Disabilities programs.

It notes that the pharmaceutical industry has continued the practice of pushing medical uses of drugs for which they were never tested for.  It notes that 10% of boys take stimulants to correct their ADHD , and that one-half million children are prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

Arguably this could be put toward increases in diagnostic capability (we did not know we were crazy before) , except that there appears to be trends and styles that go in and out of fashion within the industry.  Once everyone had signed up all the boys for ADHS treatment, they changed their minds and decided that many of them actually had “juvenile bipolar disorder.” When questions came about all these new little bipolar monsters, a new disorder was created “temper dysregulation disorder (TDD)with dysphoria.” Based on the footnotes, this later trend was first noted in Science in 2010, so we will have to see how it plays out.

Marcia Angell, New York Review of Books, 14 July 2011 (hat tip NC).

One would be hard pressed to find a two-year-old who is not sometimes irritable, a boy in fifth grade who is not sometimes inattentive, or a girl in middle school who is not anxious. (Imagine what taking a drug that causes obesity would do to such a girl.) Whether such children are labeled as having a mental disorder and treated with prescription drugs depends a lot on who they are and the pressures their parents face. 

 As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid. According to MIT economics professor David Autor, “This has become the new welfare.” Hospitals and state welfare agencies also have incentives to encourage uninsured families to apply for SSI payments, since hospitals will get paid and states will save money by shifting welfare costs to the federal government.

Growing numbers of for-profit firms specialize in helping poor families apply for SSI benefits. But to qualify nearly always requires that applicants, including children, be taking psychoactive drugs. According to a New York Times story, a Rutgers University study found that children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.
The combination of money with expert opinion as to its necessity is a very persuasive force.  The fact that the earlier article in the series noted that the effects of these drugs are difficult to reverse, that they often not tested for the usage to which they are being put, and that the limited evidence (for those which are tested) that they actually do anything beyond a placebo and/or side effect (the confusion of side effects with medical effect) response is somewhat beside the point:  there is money to be made and a (self defining) industry that  needs to keep afloat.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Solar Panel Bust!

This has been going on for a little while now.  There is a lot of finger pointing over this one, so it is a little hard to get to the bottom of this one.  Then I had to go and sit on it a little bit before posting and it got even more interesting.  Now I have sat on it even longer and well.... I give up.
The story is something like this.  Feds give a loan guarantee of a little over ½ -billion dollars to a high-tech solar panel manufacturer.  Note that the program was started in 2005 under “W”, not the current Whitehouse resident.  None-the-less, their prospects are so exciting that Obama visited with them in Fremont last year.
The problem is that they just declared bankruptcy. They now are added to a list that includes Evergreen Solar Inc., and Intel spinoff SpectraWatt, Inc.
Yuliya Chernova, Wall Street Journal, 1 September 2011  -page B1.
Despite receiving a $535 million federal loan and about $1 billion in venture capital, high-profile solar-panel maker Solyndra Inc. plans to file for bankruptcy protection, undermined by a weak global economy and competition from China.
The Fremont, Calif., company said Wednesday it is suspending manufacturing operations immediately and laying off 1,100 full-time and temporary employees.
Solyndra's planned Chapter 11 filing is a black eye for the clean-technology industry and for a federal program to guarantee $25 billion in loans, showing the danger of investing in a capital-intensive sector in which products can quickly become commoditized.
About 3,000 construction workers were employed to build a new factory. But amid competition from larger panel makers, Solyndra subsequently laid off staff and recapitalized...
Not all U.S.-backed solar companies are struggling. First Solar Inc., one of the world's largest manufacturers and developers, is getting more than $5.3 billion in loan guarantees to build four large solar farms. The company has a solar-panel factory in Ohio, but makes most of its products in Malaysia. First Solar didn't seek a loan guarantee for a second U.S. factory under construction.
The Chinese can beat us because they undervalue their currency, and instead of buying back product, they buy up our bonds.  If we did not have bonds we needed to sell, we could put trade restrictions on their panels without cutting our own throat.

Remember, new technology is generally the answer that both Republicans and Democrats state will be the way we get out from under the hydro-carbon conundrum.  The Democrats may think it needs to come sooner, but the Republicans are generally quick to say that the miracles of capitalism will allow us to invent our way out of energy problems.

As the Druid noted in a recent post, in science fiction the use of an improbable plotting device (technology solutions that violate the laws of physics being his specific reference point) it is referred to as alien space bats.  Well the the Solyndra case is looking even more improbable.

It appears that Thursday 8 September 2011, the FBI raided their HQ and seized documents and computer equipment as part of a previously undisclosed investigation: apparently on the direction of the Inspector General of the Department of Energy.
A spokesman said they had no idea what the FBI was looking for, and that they were cooperating fully.
FBI Raids Solar-Panel Maker: Probe of Solyndra Centers on Actions In Obtaining U.S. Loan Guarantees
Thomas Catan and Deborah Solomon, Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2011
House Republicans have questioned whether the White House interfered improperly with the Solyndra deal. One of the family funds of billionaire investor George Kaiser, who was a bundler for the president's 2008 campaign, invested in Solyndra and lent it money to keep it afloat.
On Sept. 1, two House Republicans investigating the Solyndra deal said they had evidence the White House monitored the loan deal and communicated with the Energy Department as it was being reviewed. The White House has denied any impropriety.
Given that the White House (any White House) is not usually very interested in investigating its own political cronyism, one can only suspect that it is some sort of witch hunt.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Friendly smiles for difficult times

A lot of signaling goes on within the context of social situations. Humans are the most social of animals. The importance of not only sending the correct social signals, but reading them correctly as well is of paramount importance. Further, the greater the stakes, the more important the signaling is.

The following paper is on ‘smiling’ as a social signal; but its conclusions could be broadened to other forms of social signaling. The ability to gain allies and cooperation within a group is of extreme importance in challenging environments.

Smiling is a Costly Signal of Cooperation Opportunities: Experimental Evidence from a Trust Game (pdf)
Samuele Centorrino, Elodie Djemai, Astrid Hopfensitz, Manfred Milinski, Paul Seabright, 11 April 2011. Ht MR.

We test the hypothesis that "genuine" or "convincing" smiling is a costly signal that has evolved to induce cooperation in situations requiring mutual trust. Potential trustees in a trust game made video clips for viewing by potential trusters before the latter decided whether to send them money. Ratings of the genuineness of smiles vary across clips; it is difficult to make convincing smiles to order. We argue that smiling convincingly is costly, because smiles from trustees playing for higher stakes are rated as significantly more convincing, so that rewards appear to induce effort. We show that it induces cooperation: [convincing] smiles strongly predict judgments about the trustworthiness of trustees, and willingness to send them money.

It is an honest signal: those smiling convincingly return more money on average to senders. Convincing smiles are to some extent a signal of the intrinsic character of trustees: less honest individuals find smiling convincingly more difficult. They are also informative about the greater amounts that trustees playing for higher stakes have available to share: it is harder to smile convincingly if you have less to offer.

I also like the quote that starts their work:

The man who indulges us in this natural passion, who invites us into his heart, who, as it were, sets open the gates of his breast to us, seems to exercise a species of hospitality more delightful than any other. No man, who is in ordinary good temper, can fail of pleasing, if he has the courage to utter his real sentiments as he feels them, and because he feels them. Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiment.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Californication: the rural version

What I am trying to do here is to bring together a few strands of thought that I have brought up at various times. The first is that as population increases, and there becomes a general need for more food and water, it is not the rural agricultural interests that will necessarily win the water wars. In fact it is far more likely that it will be urban interests (in whatever form they take) that will win.

The second strand of thought is that the rural areas are undergoing a slow decline that is not generally recognized. This decline brings to the rural areas many of the same problems seen previously in urban inner city environments.

Finally, the idea that the countryside is inherently a safer place to be in times of trouble. In some situations it may very well be. But it is all a matter of time-and-place rather than concrete rules.

I have a weakness for Victor Davis Hanson because he brings a fair amount of historically relevant materials into his arguments. In my estimation, and somewhat mis-paraphrasing Twain, if history does not exactly repeat, it certainly rhymes. Where Hanson aggravates me is that he starts for with some very sharp observations, and then veers off into the conservative version of political correctness rather than taking them to their logical conclusion.

The California Corridor: Some Lessons on Government Largesse From the New Frontier
Victor Davis Hanson, Pajamas Media, 12 September 2011 (hat tip: WRSA).

This summer it has been a softer, modern version of living in a cabin on the Great Warpath circa 1740 near Albany or Montreal (in this regard, take a look at Eliot Cohen’s new book Conquered into Liberty on the origins of the American way of war), readying oneself for the next break-in — so our inland “California Corridor” has become from Bakersfield to Sacramento. 

More specifically, I have been on the lookout around my farm for a predatory, nearly new, grey/silver Toyota truck that drives in and then speeds out — always a day or so before the nocturnal theft. He’s clever, this caser — and audacious too, like a wily Sherman tank prowling through the hedgerows. (Why, if poor, is he not home growing a tomato garden or scouring the roadside for the ubiquitous tossed aluminum cans and plastic bottles?)

On three separate occasions from June to August, I have had copper wire stripped out of pumps, the barn ransacked, and the two locks pried off the shop and various things stolen. (Why did they steal buckets of 1900 antique bolts and square nails and leave alone a drill press and grinder? Ease of recycling? Ignorance?)

Two Californias
Victor Davis Hanson, National Review Online, 15 December 2010

There has been a general depression in farming — to such an extent that the 20- to-100-acre tree and vine farmer, the erstwhile backbone of the old rural California, for all practical purposes has ceased to exist.

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed.

Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards.

Many of the rented-out rural shacks and stationary Winnebagos are on former small farms — the vineyards overgrown with weeds, or torn out with the ground lying fallow. I pass on the cultural consequences to communities from the loss of thousands of small farming families. I don’t think I can remember another time when so many acres in the eastern part of the valley have gone out of production, even though farm prices have recently rebounded. Apparently it is simply not worth the gamble of investing $7,000 to $10,000 an acre in a new orchard or vineyard.

Note that he blames water wars and environmentalists in particular about the lack of water that is killing parts of the Central California farmland. In his own piece he notes that the area used to be dry scrubland before it was “ingeniously irrigated”. Of course he does not address that it was government decisions that brought in and paid for the water into the area in the first place. The whole settelement of the West was pretty much dependent on government support. But never mind, I am getting distracted in the way that I accuse Hanson.

The Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean.

From Wikepedia:

The last stream gauge is at the Southerly International Boundary (SIB), where the river leaves the United States altogether. Although the river flows about 76 miles from the SIB to its mouth, no discharge data has been collected since 1983. The amount of water that reaches the mouth of the Colorado River is not known. It is often estimated to be similar to that recorded at the SIB even though this is probably inaccurate. Accounts of flow below the SIB range from zero to a level equal to that recorded at the SIB. The average annual discharge at the SIB from 1975 to 2004 was 1,928,000 acre feet...There has been no measurable flow at all at the SIB for extended periods during many years. In 1996 no flow was recorded on any day of the entire year. Nonetheless, a small amount of water flows into the Colorado River below the SIB, mostly from irrigation returns, the Hardy River, and effluent from the cities of San Luis Río Colorado and Mexicali.

I don't know if the Colorado Rivers is one of the bodies of water that irrigates Mr. Hanson's area. It seems like it might be a little too far south. But I think it is a pretty good indicator of the water problems the West is having. What is important to note is that they are willing to sacrifice the farmland before they are willing to sacrifice the urban areas. Regardless of the need for food, and potential shortages, the urban areas have  more votes, and more money. So it is a very clear indication of where the priorities can expect to be laid.

Because Mr. Hanson's observations are region specific, they only show a specific instance of rural economic decline. However, the general tone of his article I would hope would be a wakeup call to people who somehow view agricultural areas as populated with safe little cozy hamlets. The safest rural hamlets I have seen are the ones geared toward urban big city folks weekend get always (see Washington, Connecticut) , and tend to have more in the way of knick knack, or arts shops, than farming supply stores.

Dovetailing into our final point, there is no obvious security to be had in this rural area. One or two guys do quick snatch and grabs out of their pickup truck; likely to avoid the potential of a gun toting landowner. But if they were desperate enough there is nothing to keep them from bringing more people with them. American farms are not fortified against Indian attacks, and cost saving mechanical devices generally mean there are not enough people around on the farm to still make a go out of defending them. Most small towns around here only have a couple of police officers, or if unincorporated, the local sheriff’s office. In North Carolina they are still a force to be reckoned with; In other areas maybe not as much, as local departments are shut down by budget cuts. We do not have Mexico's rural problems, but we are potentially shading closer in that direction.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Modern Moral Decay and Early Christianity

I saw an interesting piece by June Carbone (hat tip: Naked Capitalism). She is a law professor who writes extensively on marriage, divorce and family obligations, especially within the context of the recent revolutions in biotechnology (Access to her papers). I don’t think she thinks of herself as a conservative, and I would agree.  But I also find that it is often is often the scholars with “liberal” interests are the only people who look deeply enough at some types of social issues to actually draw any conclusions from their work: in other words there may be some hand-waving but there is some substance to go with their hand-waving.

In her piece she takes exception to a David Brooks New York Times column that has “modernism” being a primary culprit behind the “’relativism and nonjudgmentalism’ of the young”. In her mind it is the poor economic conditions that are creating a decline in values and community, not modernism. In fairness, she brings substance to her views. I think she does show that people within economically depressed communities do suffer from a moral decline.

However, I within her point about economic decline, she actually makes a strong case that modernism does lead to a collapse in societal values toward individual and relativistic-driven moral attitudes. Note that there is something to be said for individual and relativistic-driven: some would call it being open minded.

Thirty Years of Class Warfare Against the Working Class
June Carbone, New Economic Prospective, 19 September 2011 (hat tip: NC) [my emphasis in red]

Brooks writes as though the country has – or should have – a set of shared values. Yet, he ignores class and cultural differences in the way values are formed and expressed. In doing so, he fails to address the most critical question the country faces: how can we maintain a sense of shared values when the institutions that support one part of the country flourish at the expense of those critical to the part of the country in decline. In short, the decline of the middle class and the soaring poverty rates … are far more significant issues than anything in Brooks’ column.

Brooks misses the connection between the two because he conflates a centuries-long phenomenon – the development of modernism -- with more recent changes that are appropriately a source of concern: the decline of community. Studies of the difference in values between modernists and traditionalists emphasize, as does Brooks, the importance of community. These researchers find that traditionalist communities, whether they consist of specific church groups, developing world nations or working class neighborhoods, tend to be characterized by close kin networks, while modernist communities have networks more likely to be defined by something other than blood ties. These differences mean that the source and content of moral transmission varies: modernists tend to rely on individualized internalized values transmitted within private networks while traditionalists depend more on the health of institutions that articulate and reinforce pubic values.

She goes on to give some excellent examples of the distinction in value systems based on her own life experiences. She notes that a system of individual values takes a lot more effort than a system based on “revealed, inherited and shared,” values based on community base institutions.

Her (partial) conclusion:

What Brooks doesn’t tell you is that the real crisis in contemporary American society is the weakening of the institutions that serve those on the losing end of the American economic ladder. One of the startling observations in the Moynihan Report of the mid-sixties was his finding that as jobs disappeared from rustbelt inner cities so, too, did church attendance. A half century later, Brad Wilcox has found the same thing among the working class more generally. With economic decline that has disproportionately affected traditionalist America, the institutions that produced cohesive communities, including churches, schools, families and civic organizations, are in decay. Modernity with all its faults, however, is not the principal source of the problem.

I am not defending Carbone. He is at times a simplistic hand-waver of the worst type.

However, the problem with Ms. Brook’s thesis is that she ignores the mechanics behind the decline.

Your classic traditionalist community will generally be found as a small stable group within a much larger grouping (Chinatown), or as a small isolated group unto itself (small town U.S.A.).  As I highlighted above, they tend to be characterized by close kin networks.

Part of our current version of modernism is increased communications and globalization.  Within the expansive network that makes up our modern economy, the centralized large nodes tending to get larger with time. These trends have led to larger and larger megalopolises with the population coming from the small once active vibrant areas. The function of this network also tends to lead to increased work specialization.  The specialist must follow the work, and that work will typically be at the core. These modernizing trends tend to cause a break up of traditionalist communities. We have discussed this "large driving out the small" a number of different times (here, here 2, and indirectly here3).

Economic, or demographic, decline can also lead to “values” problems in a traditional community that hits economic hard times (Black Inner City circa 1960).  Generally the individuals with best opportunity and the most ambition are the ones to move out. Today for example, rural communities in North Carolina have a continual problem in that they spend money on their children’s education, but that the best educated move on after graduation to somewhere with more opportunity. And since American children do not have a tradition of sending remittances home, as might a migrant worker, there is not a lot of up-side for the community.

I don’t suppose it would be axiomatic (self-evidently true) that the loss of the best educated and most motivated would lead to a moral decline, but it shouldn’t be taken as a complete surprise. It is not that the people left behind become worse, it is that a portion of the best are skimmed off the top. If the economic and/or demographic pressure were to continue, it does not take a lot of imagination to see a self reinforcing downward spiral setting in.

So both the thesis that modernism can lead to a collapse in traditionalist moral values, and that declining economics lead to a collapse in traditionalist moral values might very well both be true. It is not even necessary to argue (as some might) that some elements of modernism cause the economic collapse.

What I find interesting is element of modernism changing the behavior of a traditionalist society has occurred before.  And you can even see where stress within the modern setting can lead to rabid breakdown or change. 

A similar set of modernizing circumstances and stresses in the Roman Empire after the death of Jesus, were in part responsible for the rise of a new religion and religious organization in Western Europe: Christianity and the Catholic Church [We are leaving aside the issue of Devine will as it brings up thorny issues of agencies and free-will].

Roman world was an amazingly “global” empire. People could, and did move all over the place. A person could easily move from one end of the empire to another in one summer’s time.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Harper Collins, Princeton NJ, 1996.

Anyone could cross the empire from one end to the other in a summer, and travel was common Meeks (1983:17) reports a merchant's grave inscription fond in Phyrygia that attests to his having traveled to Rome seventy-two times, a distance of well over a thousand miles, and Ronald Hock 919080) estimates that [the Apostle Saint] Paul covered nearly ten-thousand miles on his missions. As Meeks put it, "the people of the Roman Empire traveled more extensively and more easily than anyone before them did or would again until the nineteenth century"(1983:17).

The Romans were also a very commercial economy. As John Dominic Crossan (1998) has noted, contemporary pottery factories were located in (Kefar Hananya) Galilee. Rome also produced industrial pollution.  After its collapse, pollution levels of Rome would not be matched until the 18th century in Europe.   Even by the standards of some very glorious ancient empires, there size and reach was extraordinary.

Now just as modernism today has its good and bad points, so it was with Rome.  In a settled agricultural community, if the population rises beyond a certain carrying capacity, people begin to starve. Even in good times, a family with too many sons either has sons who have to go somewhere else, or sons with very small plots of land. In the Roman Empire, the extra people generated by the rural hinterland had the option of moving to the cities. Cities were unclean places, and until the 20th century advances in bacteriology, cities needed a constant influx of people to keep their enterprises going.

To illustrate the effect on a traditionalist community, the Jewish community, unlike the pagans, had a very pro-life attitude that tended to a very large number of females growing to adulthood, and correspondingly a lot of children.  They also had rules, adopted in a more expansive form by Christianity, about helping those in need.  All of this would tend to lead population pressures, and the need of many of the young families to find employment away from home.

Thus, much as today’s rural communities educate their children so that they can leave for the big cities, the Jews likewise moved into the cities of the Roman Empire. By 1 A.D. there were more Jews living in the Diaspora (outside of the area of the ancient Kingdom of Israel) than within.  As Stark notes, the population of the Diaspora was likely around five to six million, compared to about one million in their traditional homeland.  Thus you can see an ancient example of a modern global economy helping to break up a traditional culture based around the Temple in Jerusalem.  If you want to look for a more modern example, you could note the number of Puerto Ricans in the United States passed the number of Puerto Ricans on their home island in 2003.

The cities that these Jews moved to were a complete chaotic mish-mash. Using Rome's fourth largest city, Antioch, as a model: Stark continues:

Historians have tended to present a portrait of the Greco-Roman city as one in which most people-rich and poor alike- were descended from many generations of residents. But nothing could be further from the truth, especially during the first several centuries of the Christian era. As noted, Greco-Roman cities required a constant and substantial stream of newcomers simply to maintain their populations. As a result, at any given moment a very considerable proportion of the population consisted of recent newcomers-Greco-Roman cities were peopled by strangers...

When founded by Seleucus I, the city [Antioch] was laid out in two primary sections - one for Syrians and one for Greeks [the Macedonian ruling class] - and, taking a realistic view of ethnic relations, the king had the two sections walled off from one another (Stambaugh and Balch 1986). According to Downey (1963), the ethnic origins of the original settlement consisted of retired soldiers from Seleucus's Army [one of the successor armies to Alexander the Great's] Macedonian army, Cretans, Cypriots, Argives, and Harakleidae (who had previously been settled on Mount Silipius), Athenians from Antigonia, Jews from nearby Palestine (some of whom had served as mercenaries in Seleucus's army), native Syrians, and a number of slaves of diverse origins....And of course a substantial number of Romans were added to this mixture when the city was seized by the empire in 64 B.C.E. During the days of Roman rule, the city drew an influx of Gauls, Germans, and other "barbarians," some brought as slaves, others as legionnaires.

Although the various peoples did tend to segregate themselves into ethnic quarters, the turnover in these cities did not lead to the type of stable kin groups needed for a traditional society founded on institutions. 

We also have an example of stress causing an increase in the breakdown in values.  In this case we will change from looking at the Jewish community, and look at the broader pagan community that made up the majority of the population.

As we don’t have detailed GNP reports on the various portions of the Roman Empire, we will look at another type of stress:  epidemics.

In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire.  Some medical historians suspect that it was the first appearance of smallpox in the West [Zinsser[1934] 1960). But whatever the actual disease, it was lethal. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, from a quarter to a third of the empire's population died from it, including Marcus Aurelius himself, in 180 in Vienna (Boak 1947, [et al]). Then in 251 a new and equally devastating epidemic again swept the empire, hitting the rural areas as hard as the cities (Boak 1947; [et al]). This time it may have been measles. Both smallpox and measles can produce massive mortality rates when they strike a previously unexposed population (Neel et al. 1970).

Although, as we shall see, these demographic disasters were reported by contemporary writers, the role they likely played in the decline of Rome was ignored by historians until modern times [Zinsser et al]. Now however, historians recognize that acute depopulation was responsible for policies once attribute to moral degeneration...

The pagans within the cities, with the very loose social structure of immigrants, and had a religion that (usually) did not subscribe to the possibility of a better afterlife.  Not too surprisingly they tended to panic.  And much as today, people who are able to leave economically depressed areas to look for a better place, pagans with the means left the cities- just a whole lot faster.  Those who could, would flee. Stark quoting the Bishop Dionysus at the time of the second epidemic (circa 260 A.D.):

At the first onset of the disease, [the heathen] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

When these plagues occurred, the pagan society within these cities did not react very well. Presumably the pagans that lived in the countryside had the usual community and cultural ties that would allow them to help each other, and assure that people who were recovering from their illness would not starve. But the cities had no social services, and very little community.
Although the causality is different, you have the same breakdown in leadership which you do in a modern setting when the local economy collapses.

The Christianity of that day was the perfect fit for this situation. Because the Christians of that time were occasionally persecuted, it was not a religion of slackers.  A group that is self selecting toward the possibility of facing death-by-torture, or death-in-the-arena, is not going to have a problem staying with those invalided by illness and nursing them back to health. Christians would also, to the extent of their resources, do their best to help their pagan neighbors. Thus, even discounting for increased death rates among the caretakers, the estimated 30% increase in survival rates of the invalids will go a long way toward increasing both the relative number of Christians and grateful pagans within the city.

Christianity thrived within the urbanized industrialized global economy of the Roman Empire. Beyond its care-taker advantages derived from its views of the hereafter, its pan-ethnic nature, and singular philosophy brought stability to an unstable situation.

Today, we use government to bring that stability. But Government tends to have a free loader problem.  As modern governments have extended their reach and power, the desire to co-opt the government to the purposes of powerful special interest groups is very strong.  Many of the complaints about our current situation center on issues of who is free loading, and who are the deserving parties.  The Romans “helped” the early Christians by making it just dangerous enough to keep the non-serious away, but not so dangerous that it actually forced Christian activities underground.

Ms. Carbone and I would likely disagree on who is deserving.   I doubt my list is a long as hers.  However, one point I will concede to her (though I am not thrilled about it) is that our government does act to prop up many small traditional value communities.  It also acts in such ways as to promote large business interests (the corporate persons) at the expense of the individual: crony capitalism if you will.  So while I am not exactly thrilled with the form of our current government, it can act as a break on further erosion of traditional values by taking away the government incentives that drive much of today’s corporate policies.
When the Romans found that their old ideals of civic virtue were not working, and began looking for social norms and community to fit their changing circumstances, they turned to Christianity.  It took about 300 years.  Although Christians have not always lived up to their own ideals (to put it mildly) they did shift the bar toward a much more benign helpful way of viewing society.
When the Germans began looking for new social norms after their World War 1 defeat, and the economic collapse of the early 1930s, they moved very quickly, and found an entirely different type of solution.
If we move quickly to collapse our current society, whether by accident or design, which type of solution do you think modern Americans are most likely to find.