Archive for December, 2014

Michael Levi’s “The Power Surge” and Why Everything We Think is Wrong

December 5, 2014

Ever since I began to ideologically identify myself as an anarchist thirteen years ago, I have always felt a distance from almost every political discussion. I find myself in almost every political debate having to go back to the very basic principles, because in fact our whole discussion of almost every political debate we have is basically wrong. From abortion to LGBTQ rights to military and security policy, we always have the wrong arguments. I intend to write an entire book about this topic at some point, but for now let me offer an example.

Michael Levi in The Power Surge examines very carefully many competing factors in energy policy, mostly as regards the United States but also considering the way that corporations dominating the energy sector (both in sustainable energy and in petrochemicals) certainly has implications for inequality and for power consolidation in the hands of economic elites. Ultimately, Levi tries to take a position that’s fundamentally centrist. He criticizes both “purists” of green energy and of traditional energy, as well as purists in many other domains.

Don’t get me wrong: This is actually a really fascinating book. He really goes into depth about both green and traditional technology. As a scholar for the Council on Foreign Relations, it’d be ludicrous to reject Levi’s position outright.

However, as I read the book, it becomes clear to me Levi assumes certain metrics that actually makes it so that many of his conclusions are too easy to defend. In fact, when considering energy, we must go beyond traditional measures of economic efficiency and prosperity, precisely because it is so hard to measure long-term and chaotic effects.

I know this is a complicated idea, so it bears repeating: Every statistic you usually hear about the economy is basically useless. GDP, GNP, corporate profits… they only ever capture the idea of “efficiency” in an extremely limited way. The United States could double GDP by building trillions of dollars’ worth of bombs or by building trillions of dollars’ worth of supercomputers. Sure, you do want to have some kind of measures that are basically “value-free”. But if the only way you measure the economy and the “growth” of that economy is by a metric that says that pollution is good while a family saving money for their child’s college is bad, you have a massive problem.

Market systems have a gigantic failing. If a cost is external to a buyer and a seller, then the buyer and the seller reap benefits that other people have to pay for. If there’s one principle of microeconomics everyone should know, it’s the idea of the externality.

With that in mind, we have to read Levi’s book very critically.

Consider, for example, Levi quoting without critical comment Chevron CEO John Watson’s opinion that “on a per-unit basis, stripped of subsidies, [green energies] are not cost-competitive with fossil fuels”. Watson’s argument may seem to make sense by a very strict market analysis, but it is actually the height of idiocy. It is exactly the “per-unit” and “cost-competitive” metrics that are the problems with really creating a balanced energy policy. It’s cheap at the pump to buy gasoline, for example, but why is that the case? It’s “efficient” for energy producers to extract petrochemicals, for gas stations and other stores to sell them to the consumer, and for the consumer to pump it into their cars. But the pollution that makes people have asthma, the cost of individualized transportation instead of mass transportation in terms of road maintenance and congestion, the destruction of habitats… those aren’t efficient. Those have immense and real costs.

It may not really be Watson’s fault on this front, of course. It’s difficult to measure something like the impact that a species going extinct may have. Any one individual species going extinct may not be a keystone species that impacts the whole ecosystem, but enough species go extinct and there can come a disastrous tipping point. And it’s actually impossible to really measure the impact to quality of life that can emerge from certain kinds of pollution. Can someone reasonably put a price tag on a child suffering from asthma, or the loss of natural beauty from pollution and roadways being created?

Levi doesn’t touch on these issues sufficiently, which makes it easy to criticize those who advocate green energy and consider a “balanced” approach. The very reason why we are now seeing a “balanced” approach in the market economy is precisely because the way that we count productivity, whether it be corporate profits or the GDP, makes it so that sustainable energy is now starting to make some money. But the efficiency of petrochemicals, given that they are a non-renewable resource, may never have actually really been higher than any renewable energy. Every single petrochemical that is used will never be recreated.

In all of the analysis of biofuels, for example, Levi barely discusses the fact that biofuels are renewable (pages 22, and 120-138). Levi notes that the challenge for biofuels has been “expense” (page 120). But the expense is not really important when compared to the fact that oil will go away while corn can be grown year-in and year-out. Market systems by their very nature don’t ration: Future generations, or even present people a day from now, don’t have any say in a market system because they don’t have any dollars. And governments have proven loathe to actually properly ration and control non-renewable resources. Maybe non-renewable resources should be allowed to be extracted at an unlimited rate, or a very high rate. But the fact that Levi doesn’t even note that there is an issue of rights of future peoples to be debated is a big issue.

Hell, why does one person get to pump oil from the ground at all? Or, even more pointedly: Why do immortal persons with more rights than people – yes, corporations have more rights, even if just by dint of the fact that they’re people that don’t die – get to pump oil out of the ground at all? One could easily argue that everyone has a common right to the benefits of a non-renewable resource. The United States has had a huge energy supply, for example, which has brought it prosperity. But the fact that there is one United States now, instead of, say, a Lakota nation-state and an Iroquois nation-state, is because our ancestors took the land by violence. Why should corporations in the United States now have the right to that oil? Why should the government?

Yes, the right to “private property”, you might say, justifies all that. But you can see how you actually have to have the discussion about exactly how far the right to private property should ever extend to really make the discussion meaningful. Do you think that people like John Locke envisioned hundreds of years ago that the private ownership of resources could lead to that entire category of resources not existing for anyone else ever again, across all of time and space?

Similarly, in the entire book, Levi mentions Native Americans once. Yes, I’m doing this based off of Google Books which isn’t a perfect search engine, but the search terms “indigenous” and “aboriginal” don’t even appear. Nor does “First Nation”.

Anyone who knows about oil politics in any real capacity knows that you can’t talk about oil without talking about the indigenous peoples who often live on the land where oil is being extracted. Ecuadoran native peoples and their conflicts with Texaco are just one example.

Okay, so Levi can’t review every part of oil politics, even in a book that’s about two hundred pages worth of content. But it’s always illustrative what people talk about and what they leave out.

So Levi’s basic conclusion, that (as according to the summary) “Both unfolding revolutions in American energy [traditionalist efforts to get more gas from fracking and similar efforts on the one hand and green energy on the other] offer big opportunities for the country to strengthen its economy, bolster its security, and protect the environment… [and Americans should] seize those with a new strategy that blends the best of old and new energy while avoiding the real dangers that each poses” can’t be supported. The values of many people who want green energy just aren’t Levi’s values. I don’t have the same values as John Watson. I don’t care about what he cares about. We’re not likely to ever be in the same room.

Until we can consider that tens of thousands of children more having asthma as a result of smog can’t just be measured as an impact by the cost of doctor’s bills, we can’t talk about green energy in any way that makes sense.

Until we can find some way to measure the heartache that comes from someone seeing their favorite forest being destroyed to make way for a new bypass, words like “efficiency” are just propaganda.

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Banishing Cynicism

December 5, 2014

Cynicism needs to be banished from humanity’s collective thought process.

I don’t mean the classical Greek concept of the Cynic with a capital C. Diogenes  had many great traits and his philosophy had wonderful components to it. The legend of him telling Alexander the Great to “Stand out of my sunlight” is a fantastic example of a man speaking truth to power with courage. Diogenes rejected property, challenged    Plato’s interpretation of Socrates, and violated social rules. Though often unpleasant, his personality and his philosophy battled social hypocrisy.

No, I mean modern cynicism, with a little “c”.

You know the kind of cynicism I’m talking about. The reaction to an atrocity that states, “That’s just what human beings do”. The idea that “those people”, whoever they are, just can’t possibly change. We see it everywhere: On Facebook walls, from the mouths of pundits, from our elected officials.

It’s the reaction that expected that the Egyptian revolution would end with them returning to a dictatorship, and that that therefore meant that the whole enterprise was worthless.

It’s the reaction to police brutality that states that people with power just tend to beat others.

I’ve had people insist to me that they shouldn’t bother telling others how they feel because every person, without exception, would react by telling them to shove it. I’ve had people insist to me that there’s no point in talking to anyone in the Middle East about trying to improve their gender relations or work with them to develop a better way of living because they’re just like that. If I suggest anything, from the idea that we could improve the foster care system to the idea that we might be able to have better economic and political institutions, one of the major reactions is, “It’s all fucked, there’s no point in trying”.

Okay, I’m picking some of the most extreme examples. But I invite everyone reading this to consider: Was there something that they’ve heard from others or even said themselves in the last week that simply assumed that something couldn’t be accomplished, with no real research or evidence to back it up? Did they hear someone just assume that another person was irredeemably stupid or angry or flawed?

We can all recognize, as individuals, that we can’t do anything to advance ourselves unless we believe in ourselves. Though it is a cliché, Henry Ford’s statement, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right”, still points to powerful wisdom. No matter how hard people believe in themselves, they can never flap their wings and fly into the sky. But if humanity had therefore given up on the dream of flight, we wouldn’t have helicopters and airplanes.

In educational theory, it’s often said that students rise to the level of our expectations. If a teacher thinks that a student is stupid, that student will absorb that concept, that self-image. Meanwhile, if a teacher insists that a student has potential, that student will be able to find it. Sure, not every student will be a budding Mozart in music. They may not be a young Picasso. But those students will surely do better if they are given the tools to succeed.

Cynics are like bad and hopeless teachers, but for the whole human race.

Every single time someone says, “People are just like that”, without having exhausted every way of perhaps making it so people aren’t like that, a ceiling is being built on all of our aspirations.

Think about it. The cynic saying, “People just suck, they just commit violence, rob, steal and rape” has just lowered their hurdle to a simple step. As long as the cynic doesn’t do any of those things, they’re fine.

Whenever people I know discuss ethics, I almost always hear about what ethicists call “negative duties”: What we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t kill, we shouldn’t steal, we shouldn’t lie.

What should we do?

How many people have honestly looked inside and asked, “What do I owe this world? What should I do to improve my community? What are my values, not in the sense of what I think is wrong but what I know is right?”

We need the answer to that question to be, “Everyone”.

Every time we make some snarky comment on Twitter that racists will always be racists, we let those racists off the hook for losing the battle against their own ignorance and hatred.

Every time we respond to some problem that someone is expressing by noting that there’s a lot of other problems, we’re impeding the ability to solve every single one of the problems we mention. No one says, “There’s no point in doing the dishes because we also have to take out the trash”.

I’ve been guilty of this cynicism too. Cynicism is so warm and safe. It justifies our cocoon of inaction. It leaves us free from having to be hurt if we try to fix things and fail. It lets us distantly comment from a place of safety instead of having to admit that we care about something and then having to defend that passion from those who disagree.

I’m not saying that every person should become an inveterate optimist. I’m not even suggesting that every person must adopt the maxim of “Optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect”.

Nor am I saying that every solution that someone suggests should be adopted. Some solutions are just harebrained. Others are plausible on their face but are unworkable or not possible to achieve within a reasonable timeframe.

I would never accept anyone telling me, my friends, or anyone I love, “You can’t achieve your dreams”. No good parent would ever sit by while an authority figure told their child, “You’re just not good enough to do what you believe you should”.

We should stop accepting that for everyone’s children.

Police Psychology and Popular Culture: The Aftermath of Ferguson

December 3, 2014

As the Ferguson protests die down, I return to a question that I have been preoccupied with. How can we explain the emergence of a police culture that seems responsible for violence? Moreover, given that we’ve known about the problems of police brutality for decades, what keeps making good men choose to go into the force? I think the interesting question isn’t so much why people in an organization go bad, but rather, why they would want to choose to go into an organization in the first place.

My background both in sociology and in left politics has caused me to try to look at society institutionally. When we see a pattern, even within a single organization let alone across a nation, we know that there has been to a problem that goes beyond any individual.

For example: Defenders of police officers will often suggest that there are only a few bad apples in most departments. In fact, it does seem likely that a lot of the brutality that we hear about is probably committed by a minority of cops. These officers likely keep on moving up the line from minor acts of abuse to major ones. Darren Wilson, the officer in the Ferguson case, is illustrative: He was on what the Washington Post called a “troubled police force” in Jennings. Studies of police in the field find that the norms that are instilled in them in the academy tend to go away fairly quickly. That’s because people in any professional arena tend to learn the norms about what define a good worker from their fellow workers. A cop, then, learns what defines a good cop and a bad cop from other cops: Their partners, members of police fraternities, and so forth.

I have known many police officers. A dear friend of mine became a police officer, and I would be absolutely confident of his compassion, his sensitivity, and his awareness of issues like race, gender and class. He was and is an informed, intelligent person. And of my interactions with police officers, the majority have been positive, even at leftist rallies. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a white, straight male of a middle-class background, so I’m definitely not in the sociological risk categories for police abuse.

I keep reminding people who I feel get vitriolic about police officers: These are our neighbors. They are friends and family. Cops are workers in blue suits. Any meaningful left politics should be building solidarity with police officers and soldiers along labor lines.

So how can our neighbors, our friends, our family, get so misled when they join the force that they graduate to what appears to be an unfortunately all-too-routine pattern of misconduct and violence?

We as leftists often fail to really consider the way that popular culture and the trends in our society impact the way that people think. It’s easy when we’re talking about officers to talk about individual bad apples or to talk about racism writ large. But real people aren’t defined totally by their individual characteristics, nor are they defined exclusively by huge forces like “racism”. They’re always defined by the interactions in their real environment, with their real social network and with their real lived experiences.

There’s two data points that I think are very important in this discussion. The first is one of the most interesting statistics Cop Block reports. In 2010, the majority of police misconduct claims that involved excessive force were about firearms, not about tasers, police dogs, or even any kind of excessive unarmed blows. The other is the idea of the “thin blue line” and the way many officers have stood in what they view as solidarity with Wilson.

In the United States, we’ve had generations of culture that has emphasized the danger of society, of both the city and the country. From Death Wish to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’ve seen the idea that there are dangerous people everywhere become a staple of films, books and television shows. Some of our most popular characters are vigilantes. Batman has eclipsed Superman in the eyes of many (especially whites) as the most iconic superhero. Superman’s idealism was born from a New Deal idea of solidarity: A true superman would devote himself to protecting his neighbors and advancing the dreams of mankind. Batman’s ambitions are markedly less optimistic. Especially in his incarnations as imagined by Frank Miller and those who followed in Miller’s footsteps, Batman is a nuclear option against criminals, an ultimate deterrent who tries to keep the filth of Gotham under control. Most Americans don’t psychologically live in Superman’s Metropolis anymore: They live in Batman’s Gotham.

So, let’s say you’re a child like me or Darren Wilson, children of the 1980s. (Me and Wilson were both born in the same year, 1986). We watch films like Death Wish or Dirty Harry. We tune into Law and Order and hear about how the “city” (yes, New York, but New York and Los Angeles become stand-ins for the entirety of America outside of our safe spaces) is becoming a cesspool. We read Batman, play with the Batman toys.

Nor is it just the idea of vigilantism against domestic foes that infiltrates popular culture. In shows like 24 and films where terrorists are the villain, we as a culture are taught to root for the American hero against the foreign threat. I love Commando. It’s a fantastic piece of cheesy popcorn cinema, and a film I share in common with the cop friend I mentioned earlier. Commando has an American (okay, Schwarzenegger, so an “East German” immigrant) dealing with the threat to his family of a Latin American dictator.

Then Cops comes on, and even as we laugh at both some of the officers and suspects, we are seeing a narrative being reinforced: Cops have to deal with dangerous, stupid, intoxicated people in the ghetto and in trailer parks.

I can go on with these examples. Boondock Saints, for example, features Irish vigilantes dealing with Russian and Italian mob scum. Even though the specter of race isn’t involved

The Commando, Death Wish, Batman and Dirty Harry style of masculinity combine with the cultural messages that we as Americans routinely get that there are dangers everywhere to form a toxic cultural combination.

Now, what if we are compassionate people being bombarded with this idea of being a masculine hero cleaning up the streets?

We can be cops , or we can be soldiers.

I have to admit that, if my background were slightly different, I might very well have become a police officer or a soldier. The idea of going out and solving problems appeals to my sense of knighthood and of heroism.

So a cop joins the force, filled with ideas in his head of cleaning up the streets, of stopping rapists and child molesters like those featured in Law and Order: SVU and True Detective, maybe getting a handle on the problems of society.

And that’s when the bad training by other officers takes over. That’s when the subconscious bias that we all deal with as people in a society with racial caste structures begins to come into play. That’s when toxic elements of police culture and the eroding effect of seeing inhumanity day in and day out cause officers to begin to compromise and lose their innocence.

What does that all mean for leftists?

It means we need to start with a different cultural narrative.

We need to keep reminding our fellow countrymen that some of our biggest threats are not from the inner city, or from trailer parks, or from creepy rednecks, but from men in corporate boardrooms who may never even conceive of committing violence directly and yet whose prosperity depends on that violence. We need to keep reminding our neighbors that, as Tim Wise has so often put it, the trillions that disappeared as a result of malfeasance and idiocy in 2008 weren’t vanished by black retail criminals but by overwhelmingly white executives and financial managers.

We need to give our officers perspective. It isn’t the 1970s and 1980s anymore. Violent crime declined in the 1990s. The crack epidemic has run its course. Of course there are problems with all sorts of crime in the United States. But, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, this is the only country where crime is a political issue. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the country that produces the world’s action movies.

We need to be helping our fellow voters to stop rushing to the ballot with ever more “tough on crime” solutions. As one of my Professors, Sasha Abramsky, put it regarding the Polly Klaas case that ultimately led to three strikes becoming the national albatross that it has become, very few people remember the tragic case of Polly Klaas anymore. The 24-hour news cycle leads people to want their kneejerk reaction of fear to be transmuted into a policy to make them feel safe temporarily, and all too often policymakers listen.

We need to be training officers and teaching those people interested in being officers and soldiers to be more compassionate, more aware of the humanity of people who they may interact with in a capacity as criminals, and more interested in the process of transforming society to be more positive and loving than just picking up messes.

We of course must be undermining the narrative of racism that still pervades our culture. Officers need to look at a young black kid in a nice car and not think, “Drug dealer”. We need to be training people to overcome stereotypes. That may include going beyond a narrative of “sensitivity” to include the fact that using stereotypes in any capacity, whether as police or as private citizens, is just a terrible security policy. We need to be reminding people that the vigilance that we expend on the racial Other has a direct cost in reducing the vigilance that we have for the threats in our immediate social network and geographic space, the threats we are actually likely to have to deal with.

We have to be helping young boys find a better model of masculinity. We should be teaching them to embrace role models like Dr. King. I love the idea of being a knight. But because of my particular history, my idea of knighthood as an aesthetic to live toward includes the usage of violence only as a last resort, the belief in redeeming others through word and deed, patience, forbearance, and love.

Of course, we do have to be making reforms to police departments: Better oversight, body cameras, empowering officers to be able to come forward when they see their fellow officers engaging in violence (as, unfortunately, the majority report according to a Department of Justice study), making sure that officers who commit violence take their share of the legal and financial burden so that the problem isn’t shifted to taxpayers, and so forth.

Finally, we need to be taking our politicians, our policy advocates, and leaders in the police department to task for constantly suggesting that a punitive legalistic approach is the best way of solving our problems. There’s certainly a lot to fix in the United States. There’s a lot we could do to make our society more free of rape, of sexual abuse, of theft and violence. I’ve spent ten years of my life trying to repair the damage in people who have endured the failure of our society to protect them from sexual predators.

But better policing is only part of the solution. We need to solve the root evils of poverty, militarism, patriarchal violence and values that lead us to believe that the best way to solve a threat is to beat it into submission, and psychological pain. We need to embrace better social welfare policies, mental health infrastructure, educational policies, policies that will provide for the professional development and employment of every person ready to work so that no one has to resort to an underground parallel economy. And, as leftists, we need to be encouraging others to hope that a better world with better institutions is possible.