The Lifeboat

2007-Nov-16

I’m watching Titanic again… When disaster strikes, we head for the lifeboats. If we have no lifeboats everybody dies. If the lifeboat takes off with too few people in it, people die. If a lifeboat tries to carry more people than it can hold, it capsizes and everybody in it dies.

I’ve been suggesting that this country (and the entire world) might just collapse, whether soon or half a century from now. When the cheap oil runs out, our food (which is totally dependent upon cheap oil) runs out, and world population , currently six billion and soon to rise to nine billion, will die off, possibly down to one billion.

I have no problem with my hope that those I love, family and friends, will be among the one billion who live rather than the eight billion who die. But life will depend on lifeboats, whether those lifeboats be countries or small tribes. I see our country as one lifeboat, but the lifeboat is already overloaded, at least once the oil runs out. Before cheap oil our country was able to support one or two hundred million people. We have over three hundred million and soil sadly depleted by use of petroleum-based fertilizers instead of sustainable agricultural practices.

Gee, it would be wonderful if the capitalists were right, and we could support an infinite population, with everybody supporting their family with jobs at WalMart. But I doubt the future will come out that way.

What I see currently is the normal split between Conservatives and Liberals. The Conservatives want just a couple lifeboats (perhaps in Paraguay) to hold themselves and maybe their immediate family, and the Liberals eagerly inviting everybody in the world to jump on in.

Between them, I’m not feeling hopeful.


Desperate Shortages?

2007-Nov-12

Every time corporations want to increase the quotas on guestworkers they repeat the same tired old lies about a supposed “desperate shortage” of workers in some field or other. Actually under capitalism there can never (by definition) be a labor shortage in any field. Any temporary shortage is quickly followed by a rise in wages and benefits until the shortage is alleviated. No wage increase, no shortage.

So should you send your kid to college to study science and math and engineering to alleviate the “desperate shortage” showed by current lowering enrollments in those fields? Hmm:

…the fact is that university enrollment in science programs has historically risen and fallen in almost perfect correlation to the opportunities in the job market.

…the U.S.-born scientist as a practical matter really only has access to the scientific job market in the United States, whereas his or her European counterpart has access to opportunities in the United States and the European Union.

…if there were indeed an undersupply of scientists, you?d see hyperinflation of salaries, which of course is simply not the case in any field of science. For example, a graduating Ph.D. in physics at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California currently receives a starting postdoctoral salary between $39,312 and $55,788. The other national laboratories and the National Institutes of Health offer similar salaries. According to the laws of labor economics, if there is no hyperinflation of salaries, then there can be no labor shortage. However, I do think that there is a shortage of U.S. citizens who are willing to spend 10 or more years to get a Ph.D. in physics for a starting salary of $39,312 a year.

…we were able to identify only 11 African American Ph.D.-level physicists with career positions in the major DOE-funded national laboratories. This was out of a total of 3200 Ph.D.-level physicists employed by the laboratories. Out of the top 20 physics departments, there are only two African Americans in tenure-track faculty positions. What we conclude from this analysis is that foreign nationals are preferred over African Americans in hiring at these facilities.

…the income of a foreign national with a J-1 visa, typically used for postdoctoral appointments, is not subject to U.S. income taxes. This puts the foreign national at a 15% salary advantage compared to the U.S. citizen in the same postdoctoral position.

My daughter went to a high school whose purpose was to persuade kids to major in science, math, and engineering. I’m glad she resisted the temptation. She’s better off.


“The Best and Brightest”

2007-Nov-12

Quote without comment (none needed):

The best and the brightest in the eyes of business and government seem to be the cheapest and most pliable.


Reinventing Collapse

2007-Nov-09

Ever the optimist, I am awaiting the collapse of the American empire which looks like it could come within decades rather than centuries, and we may get to watch. Dmitry Orlov got the opportunity to watch the fall of the Soviet Empire, and in his book Reinventing Collapse, due out next year, he discusses his view that Russia was much more resilient and able to survive the collapse of its empire than we will be.

For those who just can’t wait, he gives an outline of his views in Energy Bulletin, and I’ll just give a few of his thoughts. The article is worth reading in full, and I’m waiting for the book:

All empires collapse. No exceptions. Like Russia there will be widespread shortages of the basics, and no help in sight. Unlike Russia there is less secrecy here, so we will get to watch it all.

When faced with such developments, some people are quick to realize what it is they have to do to survive, and start doing these things, generally without anyone’s permission. A sort of economy emerges, completely informal, and often semi-criminal. It revolves around liquidating, and recycling, the remains of the old economy. It is based on direct access to resources, and the threat of force, rather than ownership or legal authority. People who have a problem with this way of doing things, quickly find themselves out of the game.

In the Soviet Union, government ownership meant that the collapse would be cushioned, because governments collapse more slowly than private companies. And the very incompetence and inefficiency of the soviet economy meant the people were better prepared than we are to make do for themselves. Our efficiencies will work against us as corporations efficiently cut us off.

And in our differences in family structure (multi-generation versus nuclear), food production (home gardens versus fast food), medicine socialized versus privatised, and even educational system (free for all versus crippling debts), we are much more vulnerable to a deeper, more devastating crash.

His suggestions: forget the government, forget corporate enterprise, rely on ourselves, and expect to make do with much less.