About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Most Selfish Generation


This morning I read a an interesting thread on Reddit that started as a discussion of the decline of teen pregnancy, but ended as a Millennial Generation rant against Baby Boomers.  In this thread, almost every contributor shared a story about how their parents called them lazy, selfish, and entitled.  There were also a number of posts about how the Millennials have "ruined this country."  To this section of posts, the replies were almost universal that it was actually the Boomers who wrecked the nation.  This was an interesting point, and one which I want to explore in a bit more depth.

I should take a moment and note here, that I am writing this as a person who is solidly in the middle of Generation X.  We are an odd and relatively small generation sandwiched between the massive Boomers and the even more massive Millennials.  We, for the most part, have been a quiet generation.  We whine and complain, but for the most part, we do what is expected of us.   We don't make waves, and we really have never had much political lout.  We had a lot of cultural influence, but in terms of real power, we never had that much.  This is in contrast to the generations to either side of us, which had both cultural and political clout.

Gen X'ers, are the products of a similarly small and quiet generation called the Silent Generation.  The Silent Generation was unusually small because the combination of World War I and the Spanish Flu decimated the population and this was followed by the financial meltdown of the Great Depression, which made having a large family unaffordable.  Then to top it off for that generation, they were completely overshadowed by the Baby Boom of the 1950's, to the point where many of the members of this generation don't even know where they belong, the older ones think of themselves as part of the "Greatest Generation" and the younger ones think they are Boomers. 

And this returns me to my point, when the Baby Boomers came along, the entire cultural axis of the world shifted to accommodate them.  This shift is understandable.  Their parents were steeped in the horror that was World War II, they saw atrocities the likes of which had not been seen before, or thankfully, since.  And after they returned from that nightmare, they were set on making sure their kids never experienced that sort of pain.

And in doing this, they made their children the centers of their universes.

This was the birth of the profession of "child psychology" and, led by Dr. Spock, children became "special and unique snowflakes." Disciplining your children was out, letting them explore their creativity was in.  Austerity was no longer the rule when it came to toys, lavish playrooms became the norm.   And probably the most important, benign indifference ceased to be the standard in child care, now, heavy involvement became the expectation.  For the Boomers, it was typically just the mother that was heavily involved in the children's lives, because the father still maintained the traditional breadwinner role, but even back in the 50's fathers were expected to be more involved, coaching little league, going to parent/teacher conferences, and, as shown in "Father Knows Best," fixing all of the problems in the family.

And that created, in the children, an expectation that their every whim would be responded to.  Not necessarily accommodated, that didn't come until later, but they still knew that their voice was going to be heard.  I do want to say, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is just that it was taken to extremes with the Boomers.

Another important cultural shift that occurred at this time was the birth of Randianism.  Ayn Rand's books were becoming a cultural touchstone for many.  Atlas Shrugged  was being treated as reverentially as the Bible in the circles of the intelligentsia, and this book enshrined selfishness as a cultural positive.  When this was coupled with children who were never really told no, it created a force majeure in society; people who believed that they were the most important things in their own lives, and that nothing mattered except the "self."

The beginning of the impactful pole shift started in the Sixties with the Vietnam War.  The Boomers turned out en-masse to protest the war.  I do want to state here, that Vietnam was pointless and horrific, and many of the protesters were motivated by that, but to a large part, many of the protesters were against the war because they didn't want to go.  They were motivated by selfishness, and a legitimate desire to not die in the jungles of Asia.

I know this doesn't seem to fit with the myth that we are told about the sixties, that the Hippies wanted peace, civil rights, and flowers, but it is much closer to the truth.  For the most part, there were two separate civil unrest movements in the Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement, which was bracketed by he Watts Riots of 1965 and the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the Anti-War Protests which climaxed in 1972. 

The Civil Right protests, although containing a fair number of whites, were primarily organized and populated by the African-American Community.  In general, white America either protested in support or against the Civil Rights Movement, but on the whole, this battle was won by the black community and by a group of lawmakers who supported the changes to the laws.  Also, by the time that the Baby Boomers really started to come of age in 1968, significant progress had been made in this movement, schools were beginning to be integrated, Jim Crow and the Poll Tax had been eliminated, and, most importantly, the massive Civil Rights act of 1964 was the law of the land.  Although equal rights remains a problem today, after the death of Martin Luther King Jr, the nation's attention on the issue began to wane.

On the other hand, the Anti-War protests were really just beginning in 1968.  This was the point when the war was really heating up, after the Tet Offensive of 67, and when public opinions of the war were beginning to change.  This was the age of "one, two, three, four! We don't want your fucking war!" and "Hell no, we won't go!"  While the Boomers had been on the periphery of the Civil Rights Movement, they were at the heart of the Anti-War Protests.  Further, they had learned from the Civil Rights Movement how much public demonstrations and even riots can effect change.

But at the core, the protests were against the draft and conscription, not against the war itself.  This can be seen from the fact that after the draft ended in 1973, so did most of the mass protests.  In this, Richard Nixon was correct, end the draft and you will end the demonstrations.  The Boomers had successfully agitated to achieve their own ends, which was the right to vote at 18 and an end to forced military service.  Although this goal served society as a whole, it served to reinforce the idea that what the Boomers wanted, the Boomers got.  Basically, they threw a massive national tantrum and changed the law and a century of public policy of national service. 

But it didn't stop there.  As the Boomers came of age, they began to redefine the family and family ties.  Free love, polyamory, swinging and ultimately divorce entered the public discourse.  Where before, adultery was a public shame and divorce indicated a failure of the people involved, now they became normalized and more or less accepted.  The last gasp of this what when Bill Clinton could screw an intern in the Oval Office and watch his poll numbers go up, not down.

Again, I am not saying that there wasn't good in this.  Sex was no longer a dirty and shameful thing, and people could get out of abusive situations with dignity, but the positive aspects of these transformations was not the driving influence.  Driving it was the desire of the Boomers to have whatever they wanted.  If they were board in their marriage, they wanted a "get out of jail free" card.  If they wanted their secretary or their pool boy, they could have them, without social shame, and even more, with a certain cachet that they were sophisticated and modern.  Again, it should be noted that the Boomers had the highest divorce rate of any generation, and among the generations that bracket them, the divorce rate has remained lower.  In fact, among the Gen X'ers, the divorce rate is below the national overall rates. 

The next wave of the Boomers transformation of society was arguably a very bad thing for the nation as a whole.  Unlike the earlier movements that spawned positive social progress, the next actions would turn back the clock with the "Regan Revolution."  Once the Boomers were settled into their comfortable middle class adult lives, they decided that they no longer liked taxes.  They began to say, "if you are a Republican when you are twenty, you have no heart, and if you are a Democrat at age 40, you have no brain." 
As the edge of the Boomers entered the 80's, they became caught up in the Regan Trickle Down Economics.  Again, this was not because of facts (the Laffer Curve was rattled off on a cocktail napkin) it was because they wanted to keep more for themselves.  Suddenly, they no longer cared about a social safety net, helping the poor or anything else, they just wanted more for themselves.  The movie "Wall Street" became an instruction manual as opposed to a cautionary tale. 

Step by step, throughout the 80's the young guns, led by people like Karl Rove began to dismantle institutions that had existed since the Depression.  All of the protections that were put in place after the Crash of 29 were lifted, and Wall Street again returned to a free wheeling casino.  And this made the Boomers rich.

They even subverted the teachings of the Christian Church to validate their selfish worldview.  The Prosperity Gospel is a product of the Boomers, and teaches that God wants you to be rich, and if you are not rich, then you are evil and God has turned His Grace from you.  This way, they can feel smugly satisfied with their own goodness as they look at all they have.

But rather than follow in their parent's footsteps and sacrifice for their children and for their futures, they piled on loan debt on their kids while they vacationed in Belize.  The Boomers have the lowest rate of savings of the modern era, and the highest debt, while still raking in the bulk of the wages.  (And in this, Gen X again exceed the previous generation, investing in 401K plans, IRA's and generally being pretty frugal.) 

Further, unlike previous generations, the Boomers have declined to step off of center stage and allow the youth to begin to take the reigns.  They cling to jobs, locking younger people out of lucrative careers.  They insist on remaining the target demographic, leading the TV to be filled with ads for Viagra and Lexuses rather than ads for diapers and Priuses.  And ironically, the generation that got its start on the public stage protesting war became the biggest cheerleaders for perpetual war.

And most importantly, they continued to dominate the national discourse, as they have since they were about 20.  The older generations are patted on the head and treated like they are demented, and the younger generations are told to shut up because they don't know how the world works.  They dominate all of the discussions.

And that brings us to the modern era.  The world is shifting with the election of Barack Obama.  For the first time in their lives, a man was elected President without the majority of them supporting him.  Suddenly a broad coalition of "others" elected someone who they did not want as President. Even worse, he isn't completely one of them.  Being born in 1961, he is on the cusp between the Boomers and Gen X, with as many experiences in common with the X'ers as he has with the Boomers.

And what followed was the biggest tantrum that the Boomers have ever thrown.  You have 60 year old women on TV screaming and crying "I want my country back."  You have major politicians claiming the President is literally an illegal alien.  You have Tea Partiers shutting down the government to get their way.

If they can't run things the way THEY want them run, then they will destroy everything.  It doesn't matter if the country is ruined, they would rather see it completely collapse before they will let the power shift from their hands.

And this is the biggest caution I can give, power WILL pass from their hands; each generation has it's hour on the stage and then is heard no more.   The question is, what will they do when the power passes from them.

Based on what we have see so far, it will not be pretty.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Man Behind the Curtain Has His Own Agenda


Right now, the real danger of monopolies and trade syndicates is on display.  OPEC has refused to cut oil production, which is driving down prices.  This is, on the surface at least, a very good thing.  It is good for my pocketbook, and good for the pocketbooks of every struggling American in this era of rising income inequality.  It is going to curtail inflation, keep interest rates low, fuel construction (pardon the pun) and a number of other things that will help the lower classes, and disadvantaged countries.

Unfortunately, this action is not occurring for benevolent purposes, it is happening for the most cynical and selfish of reasons.

If you dig deeper into economic policy, you see that this is a deliberate strategy to cripple emergent industries and to maintain hegemony.  While it is not being done to commit deliberate evil, the ultimate results will do nothing but strengthen the hold OPEC has on the nations of the world.  Further, at the end of this path, these low prices that we are enjoying will skyrocket, because that is the effect of a commercial syndicate when they have achieved market dominance.

To understand why this is occurring, you need to look at two important things that are altering the landscape of the fossil fuel industry.  The first thing is more or less a short term impact, the second is a much more sweeping change that will permanently alter the energy sector if it continues.

First is the significant exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands.  (I want to note here, that I am not in favor of this project.  It is an environmental horror that SHOULD be stopped.  In this piece, however, I am exploring the economics, not the ethics of this project.)  The Alberta Tar sands have shifted the balance of fossil fuel extraction to Canada, making North America both a net exporter of petroleum and the USA the top producer of oil.  And yes, we even beat Saudi Arabia.  Also Russia, which, if you dig into the Ukraine Crisis, there are probably petroleum undercurrents in that conflict as well.

To be blunt, if the USA is the world's number one oil producer, it dramatically changes the authority that OPEC has held since the 1970's.  Then, the OPEC oil embargo collapsed economies, brought down a presidency, and led to a decade of stagflation.  Now, an OPEC tantrum would be problematic instead of a crisis.  It might cause difficulty in some parts of the world, but the US and Europe would weather the storm, at least while the Tar Sands deposits can still be harvested profitably.

The second change is much more significant.  Country after country is transitioning to a fully renewable energy grid.  Right now, the German region of Schleswig-Holstein is on target to be 100% renewable by the end of the year, with all of Germany and Denmark to be there no later than the year 2050.  Even though that goal is 35 years away, the infrastructure is beginning to be put in place now to achieve that end. 

Even in the US, where there is much less institutional support for eco-friendly energy, utility companies are now suffering economic losses due to rooftop solar.  This loss is spurring American energy companies to also act to the same ends that I will be outline shortly.  The only difference is they are not depending on market pressure, they are just outright legislating an end to renewable energy.  (Which is ironic, because the controlled economies of OPEC are using the free market, while the "capitalist" bastion of the United States is depending on market controls to maintain energy hegemonies.  More on this later in this post.)

So taken together, the power of OPEC is likely going to be eviscerated if these trends continue.  We have already passed a point of no return, at least right now, because, as I stated earlier, an Embargo would no longer have the desired effect.  In fact, it would likely hasten the collapse of the petroleum regime.  If they tried to cut us off, it would do nothing but spur more development of Oil Shale and Tar Sands, and also expand the push for renewables.

So how do they combat this shift?  Unleash the power of the market.

This is, by the way, the same tactic used by Wal-Mart and Amazon to crush their competitors, just written on a global scale.  Wal-Mart crushed local businesses by moving into small (and not so small) towns and underselling all of the competition.  They could afford to take massive losses while they monopolized the market, making them up through volume and from distribution of profits from areas where they already had complete market control.  Local businesses could not afford to run at a loss for months or possibly years, and so they folded, ceding the market to a single retailer.  Amazon is still doing this, and has yet to turn any real profits while they are exterminating all competition.  They are even going after Wal-Mart, because in the end, Wal-Mart will have to pay for brick and mortar stores that have to be constructed, maintained, powered and staffed.  In the end, they will not be able to compete with a website, and the mighty retail giant will go the way of Montgomery Ward and Sears.

But to return to the point, OPEC has a vested interest in killing off the upstarts.  In this case, it is almost as if Wal-Mart, sensing what Amazon was about to do to them, turned the tables, and made sure that Amazon was bankrupted before it could execute its master plan. 

In the beginning of a market shift, the old players hold all of the cards.  They also have two ways to fight back. 

One is through regulation and closing of the market via legislation.  This, by the way, is the tactic that the Koch brothers are employing, by getting states to take actions like that in Florida, where, at this point, living off the grid isessentially illegal, and it is worthless to try to go solar.  Coal companies are also trying this, to make it difficult to convert or replace coal fired power plants.  By making it harder and harder to change the paradigm, they hope to stick the energy sector in amber and preserve their market share.

Interestingly, this action is something that both the Far Right and the broad Left agree on; there are as many survivalists who are moving toward off the grid living as there are eco-warriors.  When a broad spectrum of the American population agrees on a course, the people who are trying to legislate it into submission are generally going to lose.

But, in the end, OPEC has no power to alter governmental policy, at least on the global scale.  Therefore, they must fall back on a quasi-market solution.  And that solution is to run the competition out of business.  This is a quasi-market solution because it is a corruption of the "free market" of Adam Smith.  In this case, a syndicate is functioning as if it were a monopoly because it is moving in lockstep.  If any one of the members were to buckle, the scheme would collapse.  However, at this point, that seems unlikely.

So, in the end, what is going on is that OPEC is making all their competition unprofitable.  The Tar Sands, and even more Oil Shale, require a certain market price to be economically viable to launch.  There has to be a massive investment of capital into the infrastructure needed to even begin to extract the petroleum.  If there isn't a clear indication of profitability, the investment capital will dry up or go elsewhere, possibly back to OPEC countries where most of the infrastructure and technology has been developed, and all that is needed is expansion. 

The Keystone Pipeline is a massive boondoggle for environmental reasons and because it will only produce a handful of permanent jobs, but that isn't the issue here.  OPEC is going to kill off the project economically, by making it so unprofitable that no one will invest in it.  As I said before, you have to have a certain expectation of return on investment, and if that threshold can't be met, no one will put money into it.  They don't expect a guaranteed return, but if it is unlikely to turn a profit in the foreseeable future, the money will be invested elsewhere.

And further, OPEC is doing this to all of the North American oil production.  The new oil fields here are either going to cost a lot of develop, or they will cost a lot to extract.  Tar Sands and Oil Shale are not easy to get, and require a high oil price to be viable.  If OPEC can suppress those prices long enough to drive the upstarts out of business, they guarantee market dominance for themselves.  Once the companies pull out of Alberta, and other areas, it will take a decade to crank it back up, and that is only if people think that the past won't be repeated.

On the longer horizon, high oil prices make people more interested in renewables.  When gas was pushing $5.00 a gallon, Toyota couldn't keep Priuses on their car lots.  They sold as soon as they came in.  As oil prices have dropped, sales of hybrids have declined.  People aren't as concerned about gas mileage when gas is cheap.

Similarly, when energy costs are high, wind and PV are very appealing, but when they are low, people don't see a return on their investment.  Low electricity and gas costs mean that the PV array will never pay for itself; high costs mean a rapid return.  And as with the oil field development, if you kill the viability of renewable energy infrastructure, it will take a long time to ramp it back up, and that is only if people don't think it is a losing proposition.

And now we get to the final horror of how a cartel executes the killing stroke.  They kill off their competition by driving them into bankruptcy with low prices that they can't match.  Once the viable competition is gone, the prices go back through the roof, because the possibility of an upstart that could compete is gone. 

And this game will continue, lather, rinse, repeat, until no one challenges the hegemony.

I'm not saying here that we should be pushing the domestic oil production, because it is a dead end road.  What I am saying is that we need to fight back to preserve the renewable industry.  Only the government has the resources, and the lack of profit motive, to fight back against the cartel and break it.  By subsidizing the renewable energy market to the point that OPEC can't compete, we will do to the oil industry what Wal-Mart did to the local businesses.

In the end, subverting the free market will actually open it wide.  And that is the greatest irony of all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Know Of What You Speak


The first and most important thing that should be taught in schools, and that is no longer discussed, is epistemology, i.e. the science of "how do you know what you know."  More and more on facebook, I am seeing completely inflammatory posts, designed to outrage people into taking one side or another.

This is why epistemology is essiential.  before sharing that crap, do some research, from legitimate sources (and FYI, Buzzfeed, The Drudge Report, or the Daily KOS are not legitimate sources, they have a political agenda.)  Find out who is behind the information, and if they have an iron in the fire.  Find out if there are facts to back it up.

The most appalling one I saw recently was a statistic that "82 million American soldiers died to defend this flag."  Until the middle of the 20th century, there weren't even 82 million people in this country, let alone, 82 million who died.  The entire casualty count from WW2 was somewhere around 12 million, and that includes the deaths in the Concentration Camps.  US deaths were only a small fraction of the casualties.  

The deadliest war for Americans was the Civil War, which had more soldier deaths than all of the other wars America fought in COMBINED.  The total number of dead in that war came to about a million.  Therefore, 82 million is total BS, even 8.2 million is BS.  Also, since the South was not figthing to defend the American Flag, they can't be counted either.  A lot of brave soldiers have died to defend this country, but not that many.

And that is the point.  You need to know what you are saying is true before you spout in on FB, or anywhere else.

Also, don't fall for the BS that every story has two sides.  Facts are facts, and if the story is about facts, there will not be two sides.  To go back to the Civil War, there is no actual controversy about why it was fought, it was fought about slavery.  Period.  Not about states rights, not about the government, just about the fact that some people felt that it was their God given right to own other people.  

How do I know this?

I have read the statements of the people involved at the start of the war, Robert E Lee, Abraham Lincoln, and others.  They make the reasons for the war VERY clear.  They state clearly that it was about slavery.  Any other idea is just twisting the story to a specific end.

Similarly, there is no question about these things: we landed on the Moon, Hitler killed 6 million Jews, Global Warming is real, and the Earth is round.

Anyone who wants to dispute these actual facts is living in a world of invention and fantasy.  You can shoot lasers at the mirrors we left on the moon, you can see the meticulous records of the Nazis, you can talk to any ACTUAL climate scientist, and you can get on an airplane and look at the horizon.  

This is the core of epistemology: how do you know what you know?  If you can't answer that, then you don't actually know what you are talking about.