New feudalism?

Way back in the grimey fog of history (2001, I think), a lecturer of mine mentioned new feudalism. It's an idea reflected in the neon-drenched sci-fi of Gibson and cyberpunk before that. It meshed well with dystopic futures (and presents) like those described in Monbiot's Captive State, as well as my old discipline's natural focus on the nature of the state and sovereignty.

An anecdote in this piece by David Simon reminded me of those arguments, and of the occasional old flicker of dystopic visions I get (or possibly utopian, depending on one's particular view of corporations). He's talking about how US health care politics plays out in people's minds:

"The argument comes down to: `Goddamn this socialist president. Does he think I'm going to pay to keep other people healthy? It's socialism, motherfucker.' What do you think group health insurance is? // The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you're able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you're relying on the idea of the group.

"When you say, OK, we're going to do what we're doing for your law firm but we're going to do it for 300 million Americans and we're going to make it affordable for everybody that way. And yes, it means that you're going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm... Their eyes glaze. You know they don't want to hear it. It's too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected."

But maybe it's not about anyone's view of a whole country being connected. It might well just be what people view as acceptable collectives. Here in the UK, the European Union abjectly fails to garner that kind of sense of collective purpose, but we are generally more favourable to viewing the country as connected (and, generally, value the NHS as a reflection of that connection).

Perhaps the idea that healthcare and other life benefits should be provided by the firms we work for is simply more politically acceptable to many than expecting the US government to do it. One might speculate on reasons. What makes a certain kind of collective sovereignty, felt rather than theorised, more-or-less function in the UK, in a bimbling fashion? (Or, England, or... um.) Would an EU-wide health insurance scheme face the same problems Obama has? On the face of it, America clearly has a massively more developed collective sense of itself than Europe does - so what's going on?

At any rate, any new feudalism of corporate fiefdoms would miss most: the majority of businesses are still SMEs, much less able to provide large-scale cover. That still looks a fair bit like both David Simon's vision of two Americas, as well as Gibson's worlds of towering corporate castles hugged at ground level by an excluded underclass.

Osborne vs OBR

Osborne: "thanks to the sacrifice and endeavour of the British people, I can today report the hard evidence that shows our economic plan is working."

Office for Budget Responsibility (PDF), from first two paras: "we judge the positive growth surprise to have been cyclical, reducing the amount of spare capacity in the economy, rather than indicating stronger underlying growth potential. We do not expect the quarterly growth rates seen during 2013 to be sustained in 2014."

Osborne sets up OBR. Osborne ignores it, picks own message.

Note also: mainlymacro picks up on the OBR deducing Osborne's current plans imply "government consumption of goods and services falls from 23.2 per cent of nominal GDP in 2009 to 16.1 per cent by the end of the forecast period [2019], its lowest on record in data back to 1948."

The next five years

Kevin Anderson via the Tyndall Centre's radical emissions reduction conference page:

"The next five years for the principle emitting countries of the world - in that I also include the 300 million people in China who live lives like those of us relatively wealthy ones within the EU - if the high-emitting people on the planet have not radically reduced emissions [within 5 year's time] we will have effectively locked ourselves into a high carbon future. We will have locked the poor people around the planet, our own children and most other species into a future that will be somewhere between detrimental and disastrous. It's hard to know exactly how that's going to play out, but it's not a future you'd want to bequeath to your own children, let alone other people's children, let alone the planet itself. I think we're on that cusp. The rate of emissions growth is so rapid, if we don't come off that curve in 5 years from now, the emissions will be so high that we're talking about 3 to 4 degree type futures."

Wind: £3.33 billion per GW (cancelled) vs nuclear: £5 billion per GW

We just lost a proposed £4 billion, 1.2 GW offshore wind installation. RWE cite `technological challenges and market conditions'. We're spending £16 billion for 3.2 GW of nuclear and a whole load of uncertainty about waste the taxpayer appears to be responsible for.

Offshore windfarm: £3.33 billion per GW vs nuclear: £5 billion per GW. Oh good. (Looking here the windfarm output figure is an annual average output based on meteorological models/data, not peak output, so should be comparable.)

Let's hope this was more `technological challenges' than `market conditions' and that the market conditions didn't include mixed signals from government. Losing 1.2 GW of carbon-free generation right now? Madness. (Yeah, I know there's carbon in the production of wind turbines...)

I'm for nuclear too: despite the issues involved, Hinkley Point is still 3.2 GW, whatever the per-watt price. But it's awful to see projects like the Atlantic Array get so close to reality and then fail.

Don't know enough about fires

"You have millions of people here in the affluent part of the planet who turn their heads. They see the house on fire; they see the child screaming from the upstairs window, and they say: I’ve got to go to the library and read a book about combustion because I don’t know enough about fires."

Danaher, K., ‘Changing Culture: Choosing Life over Money’, in Welton & Wolf, (Eds.), Global Uprising, (2001, Canada, New Society Publishers), p.28

Cars shape places. So what will places look like in a hundred years' time?

A quote from Ed Glaeser:

"The internal combustion engine was more than just another, faster commuting technology. The car is a point-to-point transit method while all of the older technologies were essentially hub-and-spoke, where people walked to a stop and then took the bus or train. The car made it possible to live at lower densities since it was unnecessary to walk to any bus stop or to walk to get groceries or perform any other function. The second impact of the internal combustion engine was to break down the traditional monocentric city. These cities were generally built around a port or a rail yard but that transportation infrastructure became increasingly irrelevant over the twentieth century. Trucks don't require central stops and as a result, factories could be decentralized. The decentralization of employment has led to much flatter cities that look and feel completely different from the monocentric cities of the past." (Glaeser, `Cities, Agglomeration & Spatial Equilibrium' 2008 p.46)

Denialism, climate, economics, power n ting

Oops, another P3 comment, discussing this lovely little refutation from Krugman today.

Yes, that's the clearest bit of refutation I've seen recently (and the FRED data is awesomely accessible), though Krugman's been doing the same day in day out for years: "you say x about economics? Here's the evidence and here's the macro 101 that we've known for decades that says y."

This is excellent: "it’s not often that you see an economic theory fail so utterly and completely. Yet that theory’s grip on the GOP has only strengthened as its failure becomes ever more undeniable."

Krugman's work - and the post you highlight here is a fantastic exemplar of that - illustrates what's wrong with another recent take on `economic denialism' (I wonder what you think of this?) by Aditya Chakrabortty. From this point of view, all neoclassical economists (Krugman's one; my PhD uses his core-periphery model extensively for spare parts) are merely "high priests" blessing existing power structures with their otherwise meaningless mathematical incantations.

Which, if it were true, actually matches what Krugman's accusing Republicans of. As Phillip Ball puts it, it's all “citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality” (Ball 2007 p.647). This Krugman post is a nice illustration that's not true of all economists - and I think the difference isn't in the models, it's in the modellers' understanding of their uses and meaning. In that respect, it's quite different to, say, climate modelling (I think). (Nice Marshall quote on that: "economic laws and reasonings in fact are merely a part of the material of which conscience and common-sense have to make use in solving practical problems, and in laying down rules which may be a guide to life.” Marshall 1895.)

Which is not to deny there's a definite relationship between power structures and a particular, brittle set of economic concepts - Krugman himself acknowledges this when he explains why he pursued a general equilibrium form for the core-periphery model as a way to entice others in his field to consider geography: "mainstream economics isn’t going away: like it or not, the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, not a Council of Geographical Advisers, the World Bank hires lots of economists and not many geographers." (The New Economic Geography, Now Middle Aged, 2010, PDF.)

So yeah - we're looking at much the same process that I mentioned standing out so clearly in the Boston Globe's coverage of Willie Soon. Economics, climate... doesn't matter. Evidence seems to end up like a butterfly in a gale when it approaches power centres.

The obvious answer seems to be to remove the influence of money in politics - but to get that via any current democratic route, you'd need politicians to vote for who eschew major donations. They would lose. Or you would need politicians to vote for imposing, say, modest but even state-funded campaigns - and again, of course, if they're already on the money, how will that happen?

Make more political space in climate change discussions

Another second-hand post via a P3 comment. I wish I could let those rants loose here a bit, seems commenting elsewhere lets them out. Anyway, here's the second half of the comment:
Update: this thread's picked up over at Stoat's blog.

I've been having a rather odd week listening to some people who, in theory, accept the science of climate change but have bought a truckload of political assumptions with them. I never used to think this was a problem: so, some left-leaning people accept the science, perhaps for non-scientific reasons? So what? Now I'm not so sure. A recent example from Naomi Klein that kind-of captures what I mean - actually citing Tyndall Centre scientists too, arguing for degrowth as the only effective response.

I have no problem with scientists having views on what should be done, but I am worried about lazily assuming climate change just happens to support your political view. Right-wing laziness is its mirror: reject the science rather than think about political solutions that would work.

It's a severe cultural problem. Last night I heard Duncan Clark lecturing on his and Mike Berners-Lee's book, the Burning question. Spot-on stuff. The follow-up round of questions from mostly left-leaning academics (of which I'm one) made me uncomfortable. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that anyone sees an issue through the prism of their own views on how the world should be - of course we do that. But there's something about the climate change issue that really makes me want to run in the other direction: there are solutions that have naff all to do with, say, getting rid of consumerist culture. I keep on posting this, but David Mitchell nails my feeling on it. There's a version of the future where - hmm, maybe not the North Pole - but where Jeremy Clarkson gets to drive a 4x4 to the South Pole while drinking gin - only it's not powered by a carbon fuel. That's culturally unacceptable to many on the left, but climate change absolutely does not rule it out. (Maybe some other environmental issues might intervene...!)

The future may the constrained - but it always has been. The problem isn't the existence of constraints, it's backtracking from our current position. I still want a future where, if someone happens to want to spend all their money on some awful gas guzzling monster that I hate because I'm a tofu-knitting Guardianista, they're fecking allowed to. This may be self-justification. I don't fly or drive, but I'd quite like to pay the 5p ish an hour for my stupidly power-hungry graphics card, so I can play childish games, without being made to feel like I'm stealing winter fuel from an old age pensioner. (I'd also like policies that protect OAPs from the cold, but again: climate change doesn't actually stop us, if we want, from marching old people out onto freezing moors and letting them die of exposure as a way to conserve resources...)

I suppose this is just a variant of the hairshirts vs techno-utopians thing, but... well, not really. That's the thing I like about the price system: me getting to decide I'm OK with my 5p-an-hour watt-guzzling eternal adolescence and someone else being OK with their stupid 20 foot high truck with wheels the size of small cars. There's a bigger question there about distribution of wealth - but that's emphatically NOT a climate change question, despite what anyone may argue.

Urgh. Leftie guardianista arguing for more space for right-wing ideas in climate discussion.

The transition movement = groovy (but not just for the reasons it says it's groovy)

Just a quick clarifying post, following the previous PhD wiffle, where I picked on the transition movement to come up with some modelling questions. I want to say this now so I don't keep on repeating myself in later posts: it's not my intention to try and disprove the relevance of what the transition movement is doing. Whatever the merits of any assumptions its actions are based on, I have nothing but the highest respect for people working to reclaim some direct control over their own economic destinies. I am acutely aware that one of the historic roles of quantitative modelling (whether implicitly or otherwise) has been as a tool to justify robbing people of agency. This is especially true in its most pervasive form, finance-ministry-condoned economic methods: incredibly consistent across the world, and something no-one has a great deal of choice in since the vast majority of political parties do little more than tinker at the edges.

That use of models is, unsurprisingly, not something I have any desire to contribute to - but I don't think that should mean rejecting quantitative methods as a tool for helping steer our direction of travel. Economic self-determination is a good thing - I see no reason why quant methods shouldn't support it. We should have a future where quant planning tools work with the grain of democratic decision making and public action. There are reasons why, theoretically, quant tools have tended to go against that grain; again, that's a topic for later.

It's not an easy problem to solve. Here's an instructive example I hope to study in a bit more depth, off the back of this paper (a colleague of mine is a co-author). It aims to probe the idea of `smart cities'. The concept has, it seems, gained a lot of traction in US planning circles; David Roberts has argued strongly in support of the idea and his articles via that link give a good overview.

But the `takeaway for practice' from the JAPA article is:

Urban form policies can have important impacts on local environmental quality, economy, crowding and social equity, but their influence on energy consumption and land use is very modest: compact development should not automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy.

That's quite a modest set of conclusions: `compact development' is not necessarily a carbon and energy cure-all. The fundamental reason the paper finds this is that it actually adds some economics of land use to the problem. I need to get a special symbol for "I'll come back to this"... but the crucial part of this story has been the reaction: it seems to have caused a pretty intense ruckus among those with a deep commitment to the smart growth / smart cities idea.

Which leads me to wonder about the problems involved in linking quant/economic modellers and decision-makers - not just policymakers, but the kind of people working at a local level in the transition movement. It's easy enough to envision some perfectly healthy relationship between the two, but the reality is (and has always been, actually) pretty dysfunctional.

One solid reason for that: it's much harder to roll a boulder up a hill when someone's following you up questioning your rolling method the whole time. Social action benefits from having an agreed set of assumptions to work with. Despite these thoughts on the transition movement I am still, when it comes down to it, quite unsure about some of the fundamental assumptions that drive it. But like that climate cartoon ("what if its a great hoax and we create a better world for nothing?") dense economic webs made up of a froth of small-scale activity stand entirely on their own merits. Cop out? Hmm.

Update: but I reserve the right to change my mind about quant models. There's a small but definite risk that, on further investigation, it might become obvious that the democratic downsides outweigh any actual insight they might supply, and we should thus break the fingers of all coders attempting to model society. Harsh but fair, and I'll offer my own fingers up for the hammer first.

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