Something Happened

Back in 2012 there was a vicious little display of Schadenfreude called White People Mourning Romney that showed endless photos of, well, exactly that. Extra points for deflating campaign balloons or peeling posters in the background, and of course unhinged tweets always welcome. The referent wasn’t just that the candidate lost, it was that somehow (went the meme) all these supporters had been so completely deluded by FOX news or Rush Limbaugh or some other conservative echo chamber that they had never quite realized their candidate was losing. Might lose. Could lose. The apotheosis was the moment Jon Stewart called “an avalanche on bullshit mountain” on election night. After an intimidating display of shaking jowls and shaky predictions, Karl Rove asserts that Ohio is in the bag for Romney, and Megyn Kelly asks “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?” Together Rove and Kelly walk down the hall, on camera, to the FOX news statistics room where the statisticians are clear- Romney lost Ohio. Ha ha, Karl Rove. Watch his face.

There’s a pretty clear analogy this week, after another candidate who ran on the basis of inevitability and snob appeal inexplicably failed to live up to the predictions smart people had been assuring themselves were airtight. Nobody’s started a photo tumblr yet, but I don’t know if people still do that. They’ll have plenty of material if they do: its tears, tears, latte tears all across the internet.

Let me apologize in advance for the rambliness of this post; I’m having a very hard time writing something here in response to the election that doesn’t come across as trolling. I should say right up front that I did not predict this outcome- my best guess, in friendly bets with assorted correspondents, was that the Republicans would keep both houses of congress, but Clinton would win the presidency. I expected the tallies to be challenged by lawsuits from the Trump organization and drawn out almost up to the oath of office, and I expected congress to impeach Clinton on everything they could find. I was pretty damned surprised that Trump won straight out. I’m still surprised.

I’m not happy about the outcome either- though I would have been probably about equally unhappy with a Clinton win, for different reasons- and among other things I’m probably going to lose my health coverage in the next few years over this. I worry that much of the “predictions” I’m hearing from liberal-leaning friends are really just imported from a Generic Bad Guy profile from some comic book somewhere. Really, E. J. Dionne? “Use the powers of government against the opposition” starting with protesters? Really, William Gillis, “Trump will begin turning the ICE into a military operation capable of the industrial-scale ethnic cleansing”? Really, I don’t expect mandatory straightness therapy for gay people, or bounty hunters rolling up everyone on the DACA list either. Everybody take a deep breath and remember you’ve been wrong a lot over the past year and you’re probably wrong again.

Me too, come to think of it.

Of Course There Is Something To Learn Here

Trent Lapinski absolutely nails this one to the wall. It turns out, conservatives who like FOX aren’t the only ones who can trap themselves in an echo chamber. To wit:

By ignoring [wikileaks], you ignored reality. By not listening to your fellow Americans, and accusing them of being “conspiracy theorists” and trusting the corporate media, you ignored reality. By only following other liberals on social media, and only reading liberal or corporate news, once again ignoring reality. When Hillary Clinton was caught rigging the primary against Bernie Sanders, and Democrats nominated her anyway they ignored reality.

Everyone was simply insulating themselves within their own echo chamber ignoring anything outside their bubble.

I am convinced that the opposite of “conservative” in this country isn’t “liberal” despite what conservatives will tell you. Neither is it something so abstract as Scott Alexander’s “Blue Tribe” (vs. Red Tribe). The opposite of conservative is “smart” and yes, the scare quotes are necessary. What’s the line about hegemony- hegemony means never having to admit you have an agenda?

The “smart” set believe that they know the facts, they are better able to interpret them, and most of all, that they are immune to bullshit- that their minds seek only to touch the very marrow of reality. I wrote the Unnecessariat in connection with a series of conversations I was having with more coastal friends. Repeatedly I said that it was the poorer, more working class people out here who loved Trump, and could talk a good line about him that never mentioned race, Muslims, immigrants, or Hillary being a woman. Nuh-uh said my smart friends, Trump’s support among the working class was a myth, he drew his backing from the rich. How’d that work out?

Another time, I mentioned Assange and a friend told me that wikileaks was BS because everything they posted kept playing into the “Clinton Cash” narrative. Or someone who told me in all sincerity that there was no class in America “other than race.”

Lets be clear. Even if you go outside the echo chamber, this was a narrow and surprising result, and I don’t think people who expected Clinton to win were all crazy or deluded, or only listening to news sources that kept clear of “conspiracy theories” or dubiously low numbers of degrees of separation from, say, the Washington Times. I am reserving my wrath not for those who were wrong -I was wrong, fer chrissakes- but for those who never imagined they could be wrong.

What do you do when you’re wrong, and you’re absolutely convinced that you are the one with the facts? Nate Silver’s being asked to “delete your accounts” after failing to… to what? conjure up a Clinton win? Give more advance notice than he did that margins of error are literally that? We’re hearing that we need to get rid of the electoral college, because surely a country in which the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area counts as much as Florida is going to be better, right? Or where increasing your turnout in Dallas-Fort-Worth by 5% gets you more votes than getting every single American Indian or Alaska Native in the US census? Why would anyone ever care what effect their actions had on Nebraska when Chicago is worth five Nebraskas and only has just fourteen broadcast stations to reach all of them? I’m sure there will be more retrenchment from the democratic party; some kind of explanation why the world really works the way we’ve been told and this was just a mistake or anomaly. I hope I’m in a better place then and don’t just mock it, even though it’ll probably be garbage…

Again, I really can’t write this post very well. Did I mention most of my friends have stopped speaking to me? I didn’t put Trump over the line- I didn’t even vote for him- but I kind of lost it over the smugness and lectures I kept getting about how all of my beloved flyover country was just a bunch of KKK rednecks who had no place in the America of the future. I failed to conjure properly and now I’m being held responsible. I guess I should delete my accounts? Nah…

For those who were concerned about my car, my friend was able to weld a patch on the frame, but it stayed bent and the suspension was never right again. Roads are terrible here, and at some point this fall it must have bottomed out on a rock and cracked the transmission housing. By the time I got it in, all the gear oil was drained and the gears were starting to grind. I found a different car on craigslist for less than a new transmission, so its sitting in the driveway getting alternately stuffed with random junk and stripped for parts.

Lessons Learned

I’m waiting for the page views to drop before writing anything. A few remarks: first, I’m now going to be suffering from elevated expectations whenever I write something here, meaning I’m going to be (subconsciously) trying to come up with another topic that goes viral and brings in gazillions of readers. I like readers! But that makes for bad writing, and I apologize in advance; I’ll try to keep my narcissism under control. Secondly, and relatedly, I’m going to leave myself out of these posts in the future. Too many discussions, both in the comments here and on pages that linked to this blog, centered around me, and what my career or chances were, and a few people even worried about where I live. I started to get drawn in to defending myself, but would that make any difference? I didn’t collect the data. We have this thing called the internet.

Third, I was gratified that the response didn’t degenerate (much) into the sort of blather one sees on reddit, where any time something bad happens to a poor person, there are immediately chains of trolls explaining how that person made bad decisions and everything is their fault. I don’t claim this was written about bad things happening to good people who did everything right- on the contrary, it was written about bad things happening to good people who do some things wrong, like everyone else (you never drank a beer before your 21st birthday? I’m exempting Muslims and Mormons from this bit of snark, of course). Or, as I said in a comment, good people who never had a right thing to do. I’m not going to pretend I can sit here on the internet and determine what someone who overdosed should have done, but I’m pretty sure “not heroin” is going to be on the list. And suicide is obviously a choice, albeit one informed by circumstances and, almost always, depression. That doesn’t make any of it- or the statistical prevalence or either form of death- less of a tragedy.

Another observation: the Unnecessariat post was as popular on the right as on the left. Initially that surprised me, since like everyone else I’m accustomed to the internet being my private bubble, but honestly it makes sense. Rural America is overwhelmingly conservative, so these are the people the right should pay attention to, and more than that, this is something the right is good at talking about. When people have lost their sense of participation in or meaning relative to anything larger than the day-to-day, I have no problem calling that a spiritual crisis, even if the roots can be found in hard economic and political realities. The right, unlike the left, can talk about spiritual crises. When the left tries, it quickly runs out of language and gets tangled up, swerving widely between churches, participatory social capital, metaphysics, and shopworn self-help promo blather. This is not to say that everybody needs god (which one(s)?) but that there are needs beyond the material, which can’t be forthrightly addressed if one is afraid to dance too close to the axiomatic assumption that secularism is going to win out in the war of ideas.

This is NUTS!

The Unnecessariat post has been picked up by more websites than I could ever have imagined. So far, I haven’t gotten any really bad comments, or any spam, but I’m going to leave moderation turned on (I had some bad experiences when writing about Ebola) and since I am going to be away from the Internet from Thursday to Sunday, that means some of you might see a long wait before your comment appears. Fear not! I’ll get to it.

Unnecessariat

I remember AIDS. I’m older than you probably think I am, and I remember what AIDS in America meant in the eighties, when William F. Buckley suggested all “carriers” be tattooed, and the Wizard of Id got in trouble in Canada (fr) for a joke in which Robbing Hood’s “Merry Men” were rounded up into quarantine camps. Mostly what I remember is the darkness- the world seemed apocalyptic. Everyone, at least in the gay men’s community, seemed to be sick, or dying, or taking care of someone else who was sick or dying, or else hurling themselves headlong into increasingly desperate and dramatic activism the like of which has hardly been seen since. I was actually watching the MacNeil/Lehrer news hour when ACT-UP broke in and nearly handcuffed Robert MacNeil to his desk. The tenor is just unreproducible; you get a taste of it in some of Sarah Schulman’s fiction, or Diamanda Galas’ Plague Mass, but it didn’t feel like a disease, it was an… unearthly detonation.

We forget this era now. If anything, people remember the Team America parody “Everyone Has AIDS!RENT came out in 1996, not coincidentally the peak of the epidemic was 1995, a year when the CDC reported 41,699 Americans died of AIDS. To put that in perspective, that’s about 70% of the number of Americans who died in all nineteen years of the Vietnam War combined. The first year for which statistics are available (1987) 13,329 Americans died, which is actually more in one year than the total number of deaths attributed to the West African Ebola outbreak from 2013 to the date of this writing (11,325).

Lets dwell on that date, 1987, for a moment. The first report of “a cellular-immune dysfunction related to a common exposure that predisposes individuals to opportunistic infections” was published in 1981. A year later, the term “AIDS” was coined, and a year after that, in 1983, HIV (known as HTLV-III or LAV) was isolated as the cause of AIDS. Four more years, however, went by before reliable death numbers are available [note: AmFAR has published estimates for every year since 1981]. Why? What was happening in that interim? Why was the initial official response only to scare, and not to inform people at risk? Why were AIDS information materials censored (or more properly defunded) if they did not simultaneously condemn homosexuality?

Good genetic analysis has identified the origins of the virus, and put to rest the conspiracy theories, both the plausible (an attractive, malicious airline steward, or poor sterilization of serum used in polio vaccine production) and the unlikely (biowarfare) but looking at the history, its clear where the theories came from. For much of the 80’s, AIDS was killing thousands of people every year, and the official government response seemed to be: Who cares? Let the fags die.

More Death and More Silence

Prince, apparently, overdosed. He’s hardly alone, just famous. After all, death rates are up and life expectancy is down for a lot of people and overdoses seem to be a big part of the problem. You can plausibly make numerical comparisons. Here’s AIDS deaths in the US from 1987 through 1997:

The number of overdoses in 2014? 47,055 of which at least 29,467 are attributable to opiates. The population is larger now, of course, but even the death rates are comparable. And rising. As with AIDS, families are being “hollowed out” with elders raising grandchildren, the intervening generation lost before their time. As with AIDS, neighborhoods are collapsing into the demands of dying, or of caring for the dying. This too is beginning to feel like a detonation.

There’s a second, related detonation to consider. Suicide is up as well. The two go together: some people commit suicide by overdose, and conversely addiction is a miserable experience that leads many addicts to end it rather than continue to be the people they recognize they’ve become to family and friends, but there’s a deeper connection as well. Both suicide and addiction speak to a larger question of despair. Despair, loneliness, and a search, either temporarily or permanently, for a way out.

Did I mention there’s a geographic dimension to this?

blog-suicide

drug-map

See any overlap? I do.

AIDS generated a response. Groups like GMHC and ACT-UP screamed against the dying of the light, almost before it was clear how much darkness was descending, but the gay men’s community in the 1970’s and 80’s was an actual community. They had bars, bathhouses, bookstores. They had landlords and carpools and support groups. They had urban meccas and rural oases. The word “community” is much abused now, used in journo-speak to mean “a group of people with one salient characteristic in common” like “banking community” or “jet-ski riding community” but the gay community at the time was the real deal: a dense network of reciprocal social and personal obligations and friendships, with second- and even third-degree connections given substantial heft. If you want a quick shorthand, your community is the set of people you could plausibly ask to watch your cat for a week, and the people they would in turn ask to come by and change the litterbox on the day they had to work late. There’s nothing like that for addicts, nor suicides, not now and not in the past, and in fact that’s part of the phenomenon I want to talk about here. This is a despair that sticks when there’s no-one around who cares about you.

The View From Here

Its no secret that I live right smack in the middle of all this, in the rusted-out part of the American midwest. My county is on both maps: rural, broke, disconsolated. Before it was heroin it was oxycontin, and before it was oxycontin it was meth. Death, and overdose death in particular, are how things go here.

I spent several months occasionally sitting in with the Medical Examiner and the working humour was, predictably, quite dark. A typical day would include three overdoses, one infant suffocated by an intoxicated parent sleeping on top of them, one suicide, and one other autopsy that could be anything from a tree-felling accident to a car wreck (this distribution reflects that not all bodies are autopsied, obviously.) You start to long for the car wrecks.

The workers would tell jokes. To get these jokes you have to know that toxicology results take weeks to come back, but autopsies are typically done within a few days of death, so generally the coroners don’t know what drugs are on board when they cut up a body. First joke: any body with more than two tattoos is an opiate overdose (tattoos are virtually universal in the rural midwest). Second joke: the student residents will never recognize a normal lung (opiates kill by stopping the brain’s signal to breathe; the result is that fluid backs up in the lungs creating a distinctive soggy mess, also seen when brain signalling is interrupted by other causes, like a broken neck). Another joke: any obituary under fifty years and under fifty words is drug overdose or suicide. Are you laughing yet?

And yet this isn’t seen as a crisis, except by statisticians and public health workers. Unlike the AIDS crisis, there’s no sense of oppressive doom over everyone. There is no overdose-death art. There are no musicals. There’s no community, rising up in anger, demanding someone bear witness to their grief. There’s no sympathy at all. The term of art in my part of the world is “dirtybutts.” Who cares? Let the dirtybutts die.

Facing the Unnecessariat

You probably missed this story about the death of a woman in Oklahoma from liver disease. Go read it. I’ll wait here until you come back. Here, in a quiet article about a quiet tragedy in a quiet place, is the future of America:

Goals receded into the distance while reality stretched on for day after day after exhausting day, until it was only natural to desire a little something beyond yourself. Maybe it was just some mindless TV or time on Facebook. Maybe a sleeping pill to ease you through the night. Maybe a prescription narcotic to numb the physical and psychological pain, or a trip to the Indian casino that you couldn’t really afford, or some marijuana, or meth, or the drug that had run strongest on both sides of her family for three generations and counting.

In 2011, economist Guy Standing coined the term “precariat” to refer to workers whose jobs were insecure, underpaid, and mobile, who had to engage in substantial “work for labor” to remain employed, whose survival could, at any time, be compromised by employers (who, for instance held their visas) and who therefore could do nothing to improve their lot. The term found favor in the Occupy movement, and was colloquially expanded to include not just farmworkers, contract workers, “gig” workers, but also unpaid interns, adjunct faculty, etc. Looking back from 2016, one pertinent characteristic seems obvious: no matter how tenuous, the precariat had jobs. The new dying Americans, the ones killing themselves on purpose or with drugs, don’t. Don’t, won’t, and know it.

Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!

The Rent-Seeking Is Too Damn High

If there’s no economic plan for the Unnecessariat, there’s certainly an abundance for plans to extract value from them. No-one has the option to just make their own way and be left alone at it. It used to be that people were uninsured and if they got seriously sick they’d declare bankruptcy and lose the farm, but now they have a (mandatory) $1k/month plan with a $5k deductible: they’ll still declare bankruptcy and lose the farm if they get sick, but in the meantime they pay a shit-ton to the shareholders of United Healthcare, or Aetna, or whoever. This, like shifting the chronically jobless from “unemployed” to “disabled” is seen as a major improvement in status, at least on television.

Every four years some political ingenue decides that the solution to “poverty” is “retraining”: for the information economy, except that tech companies only hire Stanford grads, or for health care, except that an abundance of sick people doesn’t translate into good jobs for nurses’ aides, or nowadays for “the trades” as if the world suffered a shortage of plumbers. The retraining programs come and go, often mandated for recipients of EBT, but the accumulated tuition debt remains behind, payable to the banks that wouldn’t even look twice at a graduate’s resume. There is now a booming market in debtor’s prisons for unpaid bills, and as we saw in Ferguson the threat of jail is a great way to extract cash from the otherwise broke (thought it can backfire too). Eventually all those homes in Oklahoma, in Ohio, in Wyoming, will be lost in bankruptcy and made available for vacation homes, doomsteads, or hobby farms for the “real” Americans, the ones for whom the ads and special sections in the New York Times are relevant, and their current occupants know this. They are denizens, to use Standing’s term, in their own hometowns.

This is the world highlighted in those maps, brought to the fore by drug deaths and bullets to the brain- a world in which a significant part of the population has been rendered unnecessary, superfluous, a bit of a pain but not likely to last long. Utopians on the coasts occasionally feel obliged to dream up some scheme whereby the unnecessariat become useful again, but its crap and nobody ever holds them to it. If you even think about it for a minute, it becomes obvious: what if Sanders (or your political savior of choice) had won? Would that fix the Ohio river valley? Would it bring back Youngstown Sheet and Tube, or something comparable that could pay off a mortgage? Would it end the drug game in Appalachia, New England, and the  Great Plains? Would it call back the economic viability of small farms in Illinois, of ranching in Oklahoma and Kansas? Would it make a hardware store viable again in Iowa, or a bookstore in Nevada? Who even bothers to pretend anymore?

Well, I suppose you might. You’re probably reading this thinking: “I wouldn’t live like that.” Maybe you’re thinking “I wouldn’t overdose” or “I wouldn’t try heroin,” or maybe “I wouldn’t let my vicodin get so out of control I couldn’t afford it anymore” or “I wouldn’t accept opioid pain killers for my crushed arm.” Maybe you’re thinking “I wouldn’t have tried to clear the baler myself” or “I wouldn’t be pulling a 40-year-old baler with a cracked bearing so the tie-arm wobbles and jams” or “I wouldn’t accept a job that had a risk profile like that” or “I wouldn’t have been unemployed for six months” or basically something else that means “I wouldn’t ever let things change and get so that I was no longer in total control of my life.” And maybe you haven’t. Yet.

This isn’t the first time someone’s felt this way about the dying. In fact, many of the unnecessariat agree with you and blame themselves- that’s why they’re shooting drugs and not dynamiting the Google Barge. The bottom line, repeated just below the surface of every speech, is this: those people are in the way, and its all their fault. The world of self-driving cars and global outsourcing doesn’t want or need them. Someday it won’t want you either. They can either self-rescue with unicorns and rainbows or they can sell us their land and wait for death in an apartment somewhere. You’ll get there too.

In Sum, Despair is the Collapse of Forever into the Strain of Now

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: county by county, where life expectancy is dropping survivors are voting for Trump.

What does it mean, to see the world’s narrative retreat into the distance? To know that nothing more is expected of you, or your children, or of your children’s children, than to fade away quietly and let some other heroes take their place? One thing it means is: if someone says something about it publicly, you’re sure as hell going to perk up and listen.

Guy Standing believed that the Precariat heralded a new age of xenophobic nationalism and reaction, but at the same time hoped that something like Occupy, that brought the precariat together as a self-conscious community, would lead to social and economic changes needed to ameliorate their plight. Actively. The gay community didn’t just roll over and ask nicely for recognition, they had their shit together enough that they could fight their way, literally, into the studios of one of the top news shows in America, into the US capitol, the UK parliament, into the streets of every major city at rush hour. AIDS galvanized them, but it was their mutual recognition as friends, allies, comrades-in-arms from years of fighting for urban space to hook up in that made that galvanic surge possible. The disease blew a hole in an entire generation and the survivors kept fighting. HAART attenuated the death rate, and the survivors kept fighting.

So far, the quiet misery of the unnecessariat has yet to spark its own characteristic explosion, but is it so hard to see the germ of it in Trump’s rallies? In the LaVoy Finicum memorials? Are we, and I don’t mean this rhetorically, on the verge of something as earth-shaking as ACT-UP?

On primary election day, I wrote the following to a professor friend (edited):

I am despising myself for a coward today. I stopped for gas on the way to the polls, and noticed a hole in the frame of the car that you could push a parrot through. Dammit, I can’t afford a new car, and I don’t know if I can afford a welded patch- I don’t even know what would be involved, since so much has to be stripped off before you can bring a torch near a car body. I was in a pretty bad state when I got to the polls.

Let me explain my conundrum: all democratic primaries are proportional, among candidates who get 15% or more of the votes. The republicans have a whole slew of delegate procedures, but ours is winner take all. [I could contribute one fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a delegate to Sanders, or help push Trump over the top.]

What’s the outcome here? Sanders isn’t going to win. He doesn’t have the delegates- hell, he doesn’t have the votes. Doesn’t have the support. Clinton is the democratic nominee, and frankly she’s favored to win in the general election, even though in a head-to-head she gets trounced by Cruz, Kasich, or Rubio. Right now she polls ahead of Trump, but Trump is the one factor in this race that could completely kick the whole thing over. What happens if Clinton wins? For me, nothing- nothing good anyway. I still can’t afford car repairs, I still have to buy medication in cash raised by selling hay bales. No, I didn’t bale them, I trucked them across the county. If you bale them yourself, you make money at it, but I just had some extras to unload. That’ll still be the shape of things in a Clinton presidency.

Lets be honest- Clinton doesn’t give a shit about me. When Clinton talks about people hurt by the economy, she means you: elite-educated white-collar people with obvious career tracks who are having trouble with their bills and their 401k plans. That’s who boomed under the last president Clinton, especially the 401ks. Me, or the three guys fighting two nights ago over the Township mowing contract, we’re nothing. Clinton doesn’t have an economic plan for us. Nobody has an economic plan for us. There is no economic plan for us, ever. We keep driving trucks around and keep the margins above gas money and maybe take an odd job here or there, but essentially, we’re history and nobody seems to mind saying so.

And let me be honest again- Trump doesn’t have an economic plan for me either. What Trump’s boys have for me is a noose- but that’s the choice I’m facing, a lifetime of grueling poverty, or apocalypse. Yeah I know, not fun and games- the shouts, the smashing glass, the headlights on the lawn, but what am I supposed to do, raise my kid to stay one step ahead of the inspectors and don’t, for the love of god, don’t ever miss a payment on your speeding ticket? A noose is something I know how to fight. A hole in the frame of my car is not. A lifetime of feeling that sense, that “ohhhh, shiiiiiit…” of recognition that another year will go by without any major change in the way of things, little misfortunes upon misfortunes… a lifetime of paying a grand a month to the same financial industry busily padding the 401k plans of cyclists in spandex, who declare a new era of prosperity in America? Who can find clarity, a sense of self, any kind of redemption in that world?

Fuck it. Give me the fascists, I’ll know where I stand…

But I went ahead and took a democratic ballot regardless. And voted for Sanders. And as long as chumps like me keep doing that, we’ll keep getting the Clintons we deserve.

I am of two minds. On the one hand, Trumpism is unspeakable. On the other hand the status quo is silence and death. I had hoped that Trump himself would collapse and the populist movement he unwittingly inspired would find some less terrifying (and less racist) organizing principle, but now that the nominees are essentially decided, that seems unlikely. For the unnecessariat, what is to be done?

Caveat #1: This blog post is talking about the AIDS epidemic in the US. AIDS is a global disease and has social and political ramifications far different in countries where poverty, rather than Teh Gay, is the defining stereotype of infection. Also, in the US deaths have declined since the introduction of HAART, a treatment package not available in most countries. There’s a lot more to say about AIDS, but this is the AIDS I remember from my own childhood.

Caveat #2: The increase in mortality and decrease in life expectancy is so far limited to white people, and much of this post is about white people. Rural white people. This has led to some rather disgusting spectacles, well-caricatured as politicians who were “tough on drugs” when it meant arresting black kids, but supportive of treatment and recovery when its white kids in the crosshairs. However, not to speak for black people, but I think the sense of being seen as unnecessary to the functioning of the country, and a speed-bump at best, is something that black Americans have experienced for years, and what’s changing is that (some) white people are joining them. Over at hipcrime they’re blaming automation, but in my experience in flyover country, white folks are predictably blaming everyone of color for their plight. That’s a bigger issue than I can talk about here, but in brief I disagree with (and hate) the argument that a white sense of economic disenfranchisement is somehow separable from a racial narrative. It isn’t. Rural white people, in my (ethnographic) experience, see their economic circumstances as a result of the rich/the government taking “their” stuff and giving it to the “undeserving,” which is as racially marked a definition as exists in the American vernacular. We can talk about this later.

Caveat #3: I don’t think discussions of “fascism” are useful here. I almost left Trump out entirely but that county-level link was too good to pass up.

Caveat #4: My professor friend wishes to clarify that he is a post-doc. Also, in addition to the frankly absurd odd jobs I do for money, I am still a graduate student. We can talk about this later too. And yes, I found a guy who could weld a patch on the frame, thought its still bent.

Snitch

In a patriarchy, order is maintained by the threat of hierarchical violence. In a matriarchy, order is maintained by gossip.
-A Radical Faerie

Note: I may edit this over the next day or so

I worry that in writing the last post I may seem to attribute the rise of what Sterling (and others) call “The Surveillance State” to the growth of technology. Nothing could be further from my intent.

I have worked on ambulances and currently with a (volunteer) fire department for much of my adult life. While the local demography may change, the job is essentially standardized nationwide, and has provided me, at least, a decent sense of the inherent variation in organization culture and some of the associations that go with it.

For instance, I can say that I have worked, generally, for two kinds of companies. In one, individuals may participate with varying degrees of attentiveness, or acquire various specific skills, but by and large there is enough slack in the system that people can be recognized for what they do well. For some, this is a certification, such as ACLS Instructor, or a skill, like fluency in Spanish that directly benefits the work. For others, this may be something useful but not directly related to EMS, like grantwriting or fixing truck engines. Some people may be notable for modifying uniforms (sewing in elastic expansion panels for pregnant EMTs is a good skill to have!) or barbecuing in the back parking lot or just being a funny person to hang out with.

In the other, this sort of individual personality, for lack of a better word, isn’t part of the plan- either people are swapped around so often that they never get to know each other, or all possible services are provided from outside the department, or else some other implicit hierarchy excludes the majority of the department from recognition. In these workplaces, look out- people write each other up for virtually any infraction. If people aren’t given the chance to differentiate themselves by achievements, they will differentiate themselves by turning everyone else in.

I live, of course, in an individualist culture, though I don’t necessarily support that as a political goal, and its worth noticing that subcultures, even the most stable ones, where individualism is subsumed (say, the Amish) are also those where stepping out of line is the most policed. The Amish exist as a people precisely because Jacob Amman thought the other Mennonites weren’t shunning dissenters strongly enough. You would think that with everyone already striving to avoid vanity and self-aggrandizement, small things would be less of an issue, but you’d be wrong.

It isn’t just religious pressure or poor management that can turn a group culture to snitching. One tragic observation of the twenty-first century history of environmentalism is that the tendency to call-out/shut-out other activists within and across campaigns happened almost exactly as soon as the Green Scare began curtailing the willingness of individuals and groups to “push the envelope” in terms of radical or effective actions. Earth First! at least has managed to grow from this experience, by making a serious effort to include more people on better terms in their campaigns, but the campaigns themselves have yet to recover.

Two Caveats

First, as implied by the opening quote, mutual surveillance, aka gossip, can provide a stabilizing force in a non-hierarchical culture. A significant distinction between guilt culture and shame culture (other than guilt culture just being shame culture where people don’t get caught as often- sorry, I’ve wanted to say that ever since I first heard the theory) is that when people’s faults are known, but there’s no central control organizing that knowledge (i.e. when everybody knows everything, rather than I know all about you and you know nothing about me) society seems to get along quite well, possibly better than when secrets are hoarded by the powerful.

Secondly, I know I’m going to get crap about the question of individualism. Look, the Amish and the Hutterites are doing fine with almost no individualism at all. Could I hack it in that situation? Maybe, probably not, but that’s my damage and I often wish it were otherwise. I don’t want to be claiming that it is better or worse or innate or atypical or whatever to think primarily of oneself as a knot of goals and desires rather than of obligations and connections. In fact, that’s another post and probably one I’ll never write.

The Zuboff Trap

To get back to the Sterling talk I think this is the trap a surveillance state finds itself in. Reducing the above examples to their commonalities, you have a situation where for whatever reason, due some kind of social or political/economic stagnation, where people can’t find a way to distinguish themselves as critical nodes in their local social networks- can’t develop their social capital, in other words. You have a common experience of alienation or anomie. Without a strong sense of mutual recognition, people begin to mistrust and surveil each other, and use their knowledge of each other’s mistakes and shortcomings in place of social capital, and since the powerful are best able to leverage this sort of thing, they become the core of a surveillance state.

Once this process begins, you have a vicious cycle, because without mutual trust, people within a society are afraid to expose themselves further to getting caught. Less exposure necessitates fewer connections, more alienation, and less positive social capital. The surveillance state becomes a Zuboff trap from which escape seems… poorly documented. As noted in the last post East Germany went straight to hell and only came back when it became completely untenable to continue.

Technology is barely even part of the equation. It is possible to report on one’s neighbors indiscretions ruthlessly, even without facebook, and as Sterling points out, cryptography is no defense against your mom calling the cops on you. I’m fairly convinced that the Dread Pirate Roberts guy got caught not because the NSA can grab server images through Tor, but rather because one of the many people he pissed off over the years sold him out. The crucial tools of a surveillance state are eyes, ears, and determination.

Fear Makes You Snitch; Snitches Make You Afraid

So what does trigger the Zuboff trap and potentiate the surveillance state, if not your addiction to instagram? In the seventies Bob Putnam began charting the connection between the arrival of television in a region and the collapse of social capital- the inability of individuals to recognize each other for their personalities, abilities, and individual narratives. He reasoned that this was because the time people had once spent in clubs, churches and (famously) bowling leagues had been replaced by time sitting on a couch alone. That process has developed further with the arrival of new tech, yes, but it was probably underway throughout the twentieth century due to suburbanization, changes in the workplace, basically the whole industrial package. To an extent, what started the cycle is irrelevant now.

At this point, what enables the surveillance state is you- your sense that other people are impediments, problems, doing it wrong, or otherwise in need of correction. The parent-shaming on twitter, the mockery when “smart” people talk about the election, the sneering about poverty or “greed”- all these are symptoms of a world where individual social capital is precious and vulnerable, and secrets are hoarded instead of friendships.

What gets the Snowdens and the Mannings up in arms is that as with any other large-scale managerial task, there are economies of scale in the marketplace of shameful secrets. The bigger you are, the better you are at it, and the US government is the biggest of all. This should be opposed, yes, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise, and it shouldn’t be expected to disappear with the next lawsuit or public disclosure of improper snoopery. As long as the underlying lack of social capital persists- as long as you can’t Be Somebody without worrying or complaining about the people around you, a surveillance state is inevitable. You may need to join the VFD instead.

A Naked Lunch in Brussels

Yesterday, I listened to, and forwarded to Ran a talk by Bruce Sterling at this year’s south-by-southwest. Sterling (aka Chairman Brucie) is a subtly infectious thinker- along with his classic cyberpunk writing and advocacy he has also dropped little cultural interventions like the PDF-only White Fungus or Taklamakan and the character of Leggy Starlitz, all of which have tumbled about in my brain since I first read them. He also has a creepy habit of being right about things: his Reboot 11 speech resonates seven years later, for instance, as a description of life in the 20-teens.

Sterling’s latest talk is panoptic and wandering, like pretty much everything else he ever produces, and it hasn’t been transcribed yet (I don’t have time!) but it has a few standout moments. He talks a lot about the dynamics of failed states, for instance: generally, they want to be respected as states, and they can dress themselves up in the costumes of states, but they’re unable to ensure the exclusive right of force within their boundaries, they can’t provide meaningful services to populations, and most importantly, they can’t respond to the people the think they want to serve. There’s no participatory point of entry- they sort of exist, and people sort of negotiate their lives around them, but it comes down to the old Soviet “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us” which Sterling glosses as “we pretend to govern, and you pretend to pay taxes.”

He links failed states to the concept of the “surveillance state,” one in which the putative government relies on information about the population- preferably, total information about the population- in order to guide its interventions towards whatever its goals may be. This is a hip topic now, as people are realizing (again!) that it is possible to track and influence people without a court order simply by determining what people do and don’t see. Again, this isn’t new.

What Sterling points out is that the surveillance state is, by any measure, a failed state. Despite the Orwellian predictions of a post-wikileaks post-Snowden world, data-driven surveillance and control really sucks as a method of government. It just doesn’t work- for all we complain about Apple or the NSA tracking our phones, there are entire populations where literally everybody has a satellite, a Persistent Surveillance System or a drone following them at all times, and they are (among) the least controlled, the least served, the least governed people on earth. Quoth The Chairman: “Is there anyone with a drone over their head who is actually doing what guys with drones want?”

This is fascinating because the move towards a surveillance state seems completely irresistible. The talk refers frequently to social psychologist and philosopher Shoshana Zuboff (who wrote the “track and influence people” article linked above) whose famous third law states that any technology that can be used for surveillance and control will be. This explains a lot- the FBI and Apple are actually converging on the same status.Both are data-driven control systems that can’t quite claim legitimacy or respect, and neither one has any real influencing ability beyond their capacity to make a few individuals’ lives hell at any given time. In fact, Sterling places Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the US government in the same failed-surveillance-state category. All are fundamentally undemocratic despite their best intentions, all unable to provide the actual services people want, all focus their energies on collecting data about their constituents, and all exercise control through webs of weird, incomprehensible legal snarls that make no prima facie sense and end up being lawyered out to the point of absurdity. Also, all fancy themselves diplomatic powerhouses.

Wait, the title of this entry was…

burroughs1-300x228So that was my thought last night. Then this morning, I got the news from Belgium along with everyone else and because Bruce Sterling is such a good writer, I started hearing everything coming over the Beeb in the context of a failed surveillance state. You see, there are lots of theories as to why the Middle East is blowing itself up and declaring war on The West and I can’t quite buy any of them. We’ll just discard the racial/cultural/”these people just aren’t ready to be free” crap out of hand, and move on to the slightly more comprehensive. Is this a legacy of colonialism? Somehow no. The Kuwait war clearly was. The “Great Game” in Afghanistan continued well into this century as a colonial (i.e. not even “post-“) conflict without a doubt. But the Islamic State seems to be as much within the west as it is a resurgent nationalism, or opportunist regional resource grab, or other classic power struggle played out in the formerly colonized world. The Islamic State is a creature of the twenty-first century, not the twentieth or the nineteenth, and it reflects the deracinated, globalized, cosmopolitan world in which it arose. It may even be a critique of it- in fact I think it is.

I have meant, for several years, to write an argument against GMO crops. Not because they are or aren’t dangerous for consumers (I’m more interested in the question of farmworker safety) but because of what they represent to farmers. GMO crops do not exist in isolation- the same companies that produce them also produce the associated amendments and treatments, sell insurance packages, and manage elevator and commodity markets, so that any farmer in a market where GMOs exist is trapped in a net of conditional subsidies, market adjustments, legal liabilities, futures contracts, and other intangible constraints that make it virtually impossible to reject the seeds or the terms of sale. Worse, like Comcast subscriptions and payday loans, the nets of contracts and regulations are intentionally obscured and complex, exposing any would-be dissident grower to legal or criminal action by any entity with better lawyers, which in real life means the companies that produce the seed. There are even rumours about One Particular Seed Company: if you are a local rep or preferred customer for them, and you covet your neighbor’s ground, they will cheerfully sic their legal team on them using all the fine print at their disposal to bring your neighbor to his knees and ensure you pay a low price at the inevitable auction. The ostensible reason for this is the legal framework of intellectual property- all this exists to protect the labor and investment of a few thousand biologists somewhere- but the actual reason has more to do with Zuboff’s Third Law above.

And this is global- thanks WTO/NAFTA/FTAA/TPP/ETC!- and it comes from the country that once distributed the Green Revolution. Say what you like about the Norman Borlaug and the oil markets that inevitably followed him, he fed a lot of people without entrapping them in this kind of crap- but that was when the West had a brand to uphold, the Alternative To Communism, the World of Plenty, a sociological product package that was carefully vetted, improved, developed, calibrated, and essentially made as valuable as possible to our friends. Now that the cold war is over, however, we have intellectual property restrictions and facebook’s Terms of Service. I am inevitably reminded of William S. Burroughs heroin-as-capitalism metaphor:

“The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”

And that’s what we offer the world. Something you think you can’t do without, but which comes with an inherently extortionary involvement with a surveillance-and-control system that thinks it’s a state. Several of them actually- and don’t give me that “golden rice will save children/facebook created the Arab spring” excuse bullshit either. The West no longer makes the world better, the West closes off alternatives. That’s the Western brand.

Does it work?

But as Sterling pointed out, surveillance states suck. Not just ethically, not just as a consumer experience, surveillance states suck at governing, surviving, sustaining themselves, growing.. basically doing any of the things a state should probably think about doing. The classic nightmare state is East Germany, which for all its depth of surveillance, wiretapping, informers’ networks, interrogations, and terror, lasted only one year longer than the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. When the wall finally came down in Berlin, at least a third of living East Germans were older than, and outlived, their own country.

If surveillance states can’t actually guarantee security (or roads, bridges, health care, migration, economic mobility, equitable policing, …) they do seem to be able to piss people off, and also, weirdly, to atomize resistance activities. Sure, facebook can catalyze large-scale uncoordinated actions, but it also seems to impair the structural development of movements. In truth, social movements are easy to break apart, using the same data-driven tools we think we can use to build them. The Islamic State is described as being a social media nation, but in fact its resilience where so many others have collapsed (the April 6th movement, for instance) comes from its very selective use of social media, and its primary reliance on actual social networks of people who know, meet, and give orders to each other. Unlike the twitterati, the Islamic State is willing to go offline and use established leaders. In fact, I think, the temptation to be offline- to be outside the network of legal precarity, debts, terms-of-service, arbitration-only contracts, intellectual property lawsuits, patent trolling, and other exploitative forced choices- is the primary appeal of organizations like IS- or individual actions like walking around with a firearm shooting your coworkers and neighbors.

It works, too. A few determined freedom fighters/terrorists who don’t carry phones, use facebook, or appear in face-recognition databases are completely unstoppable. Even people who are known seem to be hard to stop. What can you actually do to someone with a bomb strapped to their belly? I mean, you can kill them, then they blow up, then they’re dead. Or, you can not kill them, then they blow up, then they’re dead. You can destroy their family’s housing, the way Israel does, or try to embarrass them on social media, the way the US and UK do in their “deradicalization” programs (worthy of another post, those), but you can’t really take anything away from someone who’s already determined to die. You can offer something positive to people who stay alive, but we don’t do that anymore- its not as tempting as punitive control.

Essentially, IS and the assorted mass shooters of North America have hacked the critical flaw in the surveillance state. It offers nothing in terms of narrative, no meaning, no identity, no collective self worth participating in, no compensatory opportunities, just an addiction that knows everything about you. Even that’s only available as long as you don’t, say, want to move to Germany. Anyone wanting something better than this needs only sneak behind the curtain and see that it only functions when people can be deterred by lawsuits, jail time, or police bullets. When people, in other words, have more than a status update to live for.

Bringing it Home

To be honest, I’m not as worried about ISIS as you probably think I should be; like most telegenic horrors its much less relevant to my life than car accidents or heart disease. I am a bit worried about Donald Trump, though, who makes up the other major topic of Sterling’s talk. To hear Sterling tell it, Trump is an American Berlusconi– a comical sort of reality-show replacement for the “face” of the political system, able to absorb the blame for the failures of the deeper machinery but not implicitly a threat. I’m not entirely sure about this, because I think that Trump, and his supporters, many of whom I live and work with, have clued into something similar to what IS are seeing: the US is not actually for real anymore.

Dmitri Orlov described the end of the Soviet Union as the lifting of a dream, a sudden realization that what was ludicrous was in fact powerless as well. How Trump wins is by recognizing this ludicrous unreality in the established “norms” of political behavior. The control system, the “donor class,” the “party [that] decides” are paper tigers, dreams, ridiculous. The US government is on equal footing with Apple- neither could “build a wall” across Mexico, or bomb another state into compliance, or “fix” the economy, and every claim to the contrary is both risible and, most likely, the loss leader for another round of extra-legal exploitation and entrapment. But hey, neither one can keep the bridges from falling down either, or maintain a reasonable life expectancy or low infant mortality rate. Trump is not a fascist or a clown, he simply gives the panopticon no more respect than it can actually command in the real world. Against this, the Clinton and other republican campaigns can manage only  a half-throated reassurance that rules and traditions aren’t bankrupt, should matter, and there’s nothing important behind the curtain. Those claims evaporate, USSR-like, with the first throw of a fist.

The Islamic State, the playground killers, Donald Trump, may all be varying degrees of ugly, pointing out varying degrees of failure in the various states they inhabit, but they matter because they’re an indication of something: they are the face of post-surveillance worlds. They are what will replace the failed states we don’t yet realize we live in.

 

Donald Trump is NOT Hitler

Okay, folks. Donald Trump is not Hitler. Donald Trump is not Stalin. Donald Trump is not Mussolini. Donald Trump is not Berlusconi. Donald Trump is not Putin (though he’s weirdly similar to Zhirinovsky) and its way past time to dump all those stupid analogies.

The other day I was assured that Trump can’t win the presidency because women and people of color will rise up against him if he wins the GOP nomination. I don’t know if Trump can win a general election, but I’m pretty sure that prediction adds nothing to the debate either way. You would think that after a year in which everything people said about how social systems work has proven inutile that we’d see a bit more humility but we don’t. So I’m going to say something and put it on record: to date, Donald Trump is sui generis and we’re about to learn a shit ton about ourselves.

My Love Affair and Partial Breakup with FiveThirtyEight

Four years ago I was infatuated with Nate Silver. No, not in person, but as a writer. For those who missed the story then, or who absorbed one of the weird retellings circulating on reddit (can’t find the link) Nate Silver took a bank of computers to the polls and came up with very good predictions in a series of elections leading up to the defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012. More importantly, he published (most of) his methods.

Silver’s approach was simple: he looked at the polls that had come out in the past, labeled components of pre-election polls (how they were conducted, who they covered, who developed the questions etc) and then conducted an extensive analysis using their accuracy at predicting an actual vote as the criterion. From this not only was he able to assign “accuracy scores” to the polls themselves, he was able to disassemble and reassemble parts of the polling to interpolate results where no poll had been conducted. This required a lot of mathematical heavy lifting and Silver has always been a bit coy with his models, but the results, especially in 2012, speak for themselves.

To some extent Silver had it easy. Polls are considered self-report predictions, which are the fatal flaw in every goddamn “stages of change” study I read (you know the ones: on a scale of one to five, how likely are you to continue eating three cups of oat bran per day?) but the act of voting is much like the act of responding to a poll, plus it requires no more effort or social capital to vote X vs Y when the voting is secret.

Much has been made of how Silver “beat the pundits” but this is a bit of a misunderstanding. He wasn’t studying politics at all- he was studying the relationship between how people respond to polls, and how they vote. That was it. The “pundits” he was outguessing were trying to predict voting behavior from news stories, demographic trends, old wives’ tales, and other random bits of wisdom and weren’t playing the same game at all.

Then, sometime between 2012 and 2015, Silver lost the plot and decided to be a pundit himself. I won’t join the dogpile on his (persistent) Trump skepticism except to say that, had he looked at the polls blinded, the Trump phenomenon was there all along. What stood between the numbers and the prediction was the conviction, broadly held by Silver and a whole lot of other people who should know better, that a Trump victory in a party that didn’t want him was impossible.

So Who Was Hitler Anyway?

I actually think this is a history problem. I, and probably both of my readers, have grown up in an era in which the behavior of large groups of people is a scientific field of study, and we rarely reflect on how anomalous that is. Charles MacKay wrote The Madness of Crowds in the 1840s, and both Durkheim and Weber preceded the second world war, but for the most part the study of sociology, especially systematic sociology, has been a post-war phenomenon. That means it has also been a post-nazi phenomenon, and this has had an effect.

What do I mean? In 1945, Germany was in ruins, the world had entered the atomic age and the cold war, Americans were starting to realize exactly how many civilians had been exterminated in “labor” camps, and yet no consensus narrative had emerged how such an unthinkable sequence of events could have happened. (For a modern analogy, ask yourself how you would explain to an eight year old the causes of WWI- if you have a good and honest answer I’m curious to hear it.) Within a few years, though, Adorno had published The Authoritarian Personality and a decade after that we had Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Milgram obedience experiments and the first rumblings of an antipositivist philosophy trying to act on the lessons of fascism in a meaningful way.

Just as wars provoke developments in trauma medicine, cataclysmic social crises provoke developments in sociology. The third reich was a very good reason to go out and learn more about how humans behave in groups.

By the time I was old enough to give a damn, “we,” meaning the western intellectual tradition, thought that we had a thorough understanding of how the nazis came to be, how they had commanded such adoration and power during their brief reign, how they had compelled such horrific acts from the German people, etc. We had a system, custom-built to explain the nazis, that explained the nazis. A side effect is that now, every large-scale bad social movement looks a bit like nazis, but that’s overfitting for you.

We Don’t Know What Will Happen With Trump

So why did WWI? That frustrating sense of not really getting it is what you should be thinking about the future career of Donald Trump. Everything we think we know about how “women and people of color will rise up” is based on the same kind of modeling that assured Nate Silver that the party would decide, or that Bush’s endorsement hat trick would prove critical, or that Rubio’s early lead over Clinton in head-to-head matchups would guarantee his eventual nomination. These are narrative rules based on prior observation, but we don’t actually know the moving parts of how individuals behave, or even how large groups behave.

One weird analogy I’m seeing compares Trump to The Mule, from the Foundation books. If they were written today, Foundation would be the embodiment of Hubris and the Mule would be the unprovable truth that demonstrates the incompletness of the psychohistory model. Asimov wrote a long time ago, though, so the Foundation survives the anomalous Mule. There’s a whole history of positivism and anti-positivism wrapped up in these two interpretations that’s not worth going into here, but what makes Trump The Mule so compelling is how he’s anomalous. He isn’t anomalous in how he behaves, he’s anomalous in that he’s invisible.

Lets get back to Nate Silver. Since I first thought to look at the numbers, Trump has led in the polls in virtually every state, consistently and by large margins. A mechanistic understanding of history would see this as an indication that people were going to vote for Trump and Trump was going to win. However, we’re all too smart for that- we want a narrative understanding in which the forces and powers and trends that we believe in can derail mechanisms, rather than vice versa. We want to believe that parties decide, that there is a political force called “women and people of color,” that there exists a trait called “presidential” that somehow matters here. This is supposition on top of humbug (or, consistent precedent, but that can be the same thing) but it blinds us to the mechanisms of what we’re seeing. Frontrunners tend to win- Trump is behaving like a frontrunner, and his supporters are acting like supporters of the frontrunner, and somehow when people try to write up the election in terms of social systems and organizational theory, all this becomes invisible.

And don’t scoff at the general yet either. If turnout to primaries and caucuses is any guide, the next president will be a republican. If head-to-head matchups in polling are a better guide, Clinton wins against Trump and loses to anyone else (Sanders beats Trump, but its hard to find a poll that shows him winning the nomination). I’m not sure what I think will happen here.

If a Trump presidency is as catastrophic as some pundits are predicting- and remember, they don’t know- then one thing is for certain: we’re about to learn a whole lot more about how humans behave in groups.

By the way…

Apparently my new project is called “clumsy writings about why history doesn’t work the way you think it does.” I tried this earlier, trying to explain how whatever is happening that feels like a “collapse” its outlines, structures, mechanisms and causes will only be apparent in retrospect, and we should stop looking for analogies in the past. Actual historians don’t tend to think history repeats itself, or if they do, they find celebrated yet incomplete examples that don’t assume the world began a century ago and only one bad thing every happened in it. I welcome challenges to this but please don’t limit your scope to Western Europe in the Twentieth Century, okay?

Oh, and whenever I mention the Nazis I have to mention two things: Godwin’s Law and my enduring admiration for the German people’s willingness to accept, over several generations, collective responsibility for the fact that the most intellectually and scientifically advanced country on earth went crazy, declared war on the planet, exterminated twelve to thirteen million people for being “undesirables,” and left their entire continent a smoking ruin. Genocide is not uncommon in human history, a willingness to confront responsibility for genocide is, sadly, quite rare.

Oilmageddon!

Citigroup’s analyst team wins the coinage of the month award for “oilmageddon.” Seriously, that’s cute. Thanks, citi! Back me up- are more analysts talking like they spend all day on reddit or what? I mean, they might actually be. You know, these kids…

Oilmageddon means, if I understand correctly, that developing countries (resource extraction economies) are suffering from low commodity prices, meaning low export income, and a strong US dollar, meaning capital flight and low investment. Plus, even with the fed raising rates interest rates are still very low or even negative worldwide, so simply leaving money in a bank won’t keep a country, or more importantly that country’s sovereign wealth fund, in anything like good shape. The report itself doesn’t seem to be public, but apparently suggests that a global deflationary recession will leave “nowhere to hide in equities. Cash wins.”

What the Bloomberg story doesn’t mention is that many of these same emerging markets owe a crap-ton of money to international lenders, particularly the IMF and World Bank, and those debts are denominated in dollars. In a good year, those can be burdensome, but with reserves and incomes so low, and dollars so expensive, you better believe the third world will be slashing social programs, health programs, environmental programs, probably law enforcement and ag/food subsidies as well. If they do have to “restructure”- privatize stuff to make the WB/IMF happy- they’ll be doing it at fire sale prices, too. Remember, a key feature of “oilmageddon” is that those tropical hardwoods and iron ore just aren’t worth much per tonne right now.

Oilmageddon! might just end up being another way of saying “a really bad time to be poor.”

The Azeri Question

Which reminds me of another question I’ve had for a bit now. Why are the IMF and World Bank lending to Azerbaijan? I’ll wait while you look up where Azerbaijan is (hint- just west of that burning oil platform above). Okay, back?

To understand how weird this is, it helps to understand what the Bretton Woods institutions are supposed to do. In theory, countries with undercapitalized economic sectors (that means stuff they could make and sell, if they had more tools) are able to get loans from private lenders. If you have proven oil reserves, and lots of petroleum engineers, and not enough derricks, you can go to citigroup or somebody and ask for a loan, and they’ll buy you the equipment to bring the oil to market. Then, you use the profit on the oil to pay back the bank. Capitalism, in theory.

Where the IMF and World Bank come in is when this process doesn’t seem to be working, because of political barriers. Sometimes these barriers are actually infrastructure related- you need a good highway to get to the oilfields, or a deepwater port to load tankers- but mostly they relate to corruption and human rights concerns. If a debtor country could produce a crap-ton of oil, but doesn’t want to massacre the indigenous people who happen to live on top of it, for instance, the WB and IMF help them “restructure” the problem away. If the country got a grant or a loan to build health clinics and water treatment centers for those indigenous people in their new camps, and instead somehow the money ended up “for safekeeping” in US CDOs and hedge funds in the name of the Finance Minister’s son, well, the World Bank and IMF will offer a new loan to cover the cost, but only after the Finance Minister’s entire family have been restructured as well. The term of art is “lender of last resort” and the two institutions assume a great deal of control over how a country’s economy is set up as part of the terms of the loan.

If you’re curious about how this works, Maarten Troost has written a bit about his time with the WB. There are other sources, but not quite so colorfully written.

By all accounts, Azerbaijan is suffering from low oil prices. The IMF’s own report is pretty devastating in its assessment, with plenty of specifics:

The near-term macroeconomic outlook has deteriorated considerably. Non-oil GDP growth is expected to decelerate to 3.5 percent this year as the sizable fall in export revenue and the slow down in public investment will spillover in the private sector demand, already weakened by some loss of confidence after the devaluation. … With low oil prices, the current account surplus will narrow to 5 percent of GDP while the fiscal balance will swing into a deficit of about 7 percent of GDP. A sharp and possibly sustained decline in GDP cannot be ruled out if oil prices fall further or the post-devaluation stress in the banking system is larger than anticipated.

(The devaluation they’re talking about has to do with the decision last year to float the Manat after a decade of currency protection- it went badly)

When it comes to what, specifically, the IMF and WB think should actually be done, though, the language becomes much more obtuse:

Progress on structural reforms has been insufficient in many countries, both AEs and EMDCs. More determination is required to implement these reforms and thus eliminate key impediments to growth. Many of these impediments, such as low productivity, insufficient competition, a lack of good governance, and inadequate business conditions, are long-lasting and deeply rooted. On top of this, new head winds to growth due to important long-term trends, such as population aging, have emerged. Current accommodative monetary policies and low oil prices provide a very favorable environment to implement structural reforms and bolster potential growth in many countries.
A prompt implementation of structural reforms would also have beneficial effects for strong, balanced, and sustainable growth through another key channel- confidence. In implementing these reforms, policymakers would demonstrate both their commitment to, and their capability of, putting in place necessary measures, thereby going beyond demand-side policies, exploiting complementarities, and rendering macroeconomic policy frameworks more balanced and credible. This is essential in order to convince financial markets and re-launch private investment, both domestic and foreign.

(from here)

Some of that is the usual impenetrable financialese (AE=advanced economy, EMDC=emerging market/developing country) but some of it is deliberate obfuscation. What should jump out at you is the line about “[c]urrent accommodative monetary policies and low oil prices provide a very favorable environment to implement structural reforms”- essentially dollars look good and the poor suckers don’t have any other options.

Shortly after the Soviet era, there were a lot of picturesque abandoned oilfields in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan shouldn’t really need the World Bank. With a land area just smaller than the US state of Indiana and just larger than Belgium, it produces more oil than every former Soviet republic except Russia and Kazakhstan. Oil prices are very low, but under the official capitalist model they should be able to get loans from private lenders, and pay them off in the future when oil rebounds. The oil, after all, isn’t going anywhere, and the engineers and roughnecks are only going to get better at extracting it. Why go with the IMF/WB at all?

I can see only two answers here, though I welcome suggestions on others. First, Alijev is enough of a crook that the Bretton Woods folks might, out of the goodness of their democratic hearts, want him gone, and if the process nets them a great big oilfield to contract with Shell, BP, or some other donor-nation stalwart, well, fantastic. Basic predatory international finance.

The other answer, though, is the one that brings us full circle back to the citigroup report at the beginning of this post. The only way any of this makes sense is if the financial world believes oil really isn’t coming back. Think about it- if you were Ilham Alijev, and the IMF offered you a $4bn loan conditional on leaving office, removing currency and capital controls, privatizing the CBA, killing wage controls, selling your roads to Kellogg Brown and Root, and maybe Halliburton takes over the Baku terminal on the Caspian, why would you take that deal? Why would you take it if you could just offer a cut of your enormous oil revenue stream to Royal Bank of Scotland in exchange for a few years of supports to get through the down cycle? Why would the IMF even make the offer?

Oilmageddon the word is new. I’m not sure the concept hasn’t been kicking around for a while now…

If you’re in the storm…

Just putting a few things out there for people who are in the path of the Big OMGSCARY Winter StormTM, from my own experience having lived outdoors through a few hardcore winters. First, charge all your devices now. Second, if you have a wood stove or fireplace, bring some wood inside the house, and chop a bit of it up into kindling. Wood that has been split small and kept warm is much easier to light than cold wood, especially cold wood with snow on it. Third, put some water in metal pots on the counter- in a pinch, if the water freezes to ice, a metal pot can be put directly on a heat source, even a flame (bonus if no plastic or wooden handles!) Fourth, if there’s anything you might need in an attic or a basement storage space (or an outbuilding) go get it now while you don’t need a flashlight. This is mostly about extra blankets, boots, batteries if you like listening to the radio, and those books you’ve been meaning to read (I fully expect the number of people in the affected area to have finished Thomas Piketty to double in the next few days). If you have municipal water, you will want to turn on the faucets a small amount so the pipes won’t freeze, but you can wait to do this until after the heat goes out, if in fact that happens.

(Your furnace and your oven, even if they’re gas or woodburners, probably use electricity to regulate the thermostat or feed fuel and won’t work if the power goes out. Your hot water heater definitely won’t work. Municipal water pressure probably has backup power but if you have a well-pump with a diaphragm tank your water pressure will only work for a little while, so don’t waste it!)

Now, that being done, go outside and make snow angels. Make a snowman. Challenge your neighbors to a snowball fight. Bake cookies (assuming of course that the oven still works) or hard-sugar candy (mix equal parts sugar and water, boil for a while, then drizzle over snow- bonus if you add flavorings). Bring some to the old lady upstairs, or down the street (and make sure she’s got enough blankets too).

And finally, something that went out to friends in an email last summer but never got moved to the blog. Based on my experience in fire training, and probably completely irrelevant to the Big OMGSCARY Winter StormTM, but worth putting on the record:

When the government says evacuate before disaster strikes, go- they are not kidding around. The cost of shutting down even a small suburb, let alone defending against lawsuits over the decision to do so, is insanely high, well beyond the budget of any municipality. The guy who makes the decision has already endured days of lawyers and bean counters arguing that shelter-in-place or watchful-waiting are acceptable and far less costly alternatives, and the military has probably weighed in saying that an evacuation order would cause “panic.” If they say evacuate anyway, its not a joke. The first rule of any disaster, from a hurricane to a famine, is that the first one to leave is the last one alive.

Stay warm and have fun.