Sunday, July 6, 2014

Forward to Social Structures of Direct Democracy

About a year ago, I was contacted by John Asimakopoulos, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He asked me to write an introduction to his new book, Social Structures of Direct Democracy. Professor Asimakopoulos had written an intriguing and probing analysis of new ways to promote democratic governance. It's a discussion that is more necessary and timely than ever, and I'm proud to have been a part of it. That book has just been published, which means I can share with you what I wrote last fall:

The absurdities of our present political moment would tax the capacities of the most fervent satirists. The body politic bleeds from a series of self-inflicted wounds. We lurch from crisis to crisis like a hyperactive adolescent, seemingly unable to come to reasonable agreement on matters from the vital to the trivial.
The wealthiest nation on earth appears increasingly ungovernable: we have one political party unable to say no to its base, and another unable to say yes. The forces of oligarchy and reaction exert ever-wider control over our political, commercial and communications systems, yet are unable to buy themselves any kind of stability. We have gone well beyond ignoring the lessons of history; at present the lessons of history are being beaten with a truncheon in a back alley.
Meanwhile (and not coincidentally), the USA’s mentor and patron saint, the Global Capitalist Empire, is having trouble putting the finishing touches on its 500-year project to unify the planet under its ethos. After five centuries of conquest, colonization, co-optation, coups, countercoups, and free trade agreements, the Empire was tantalizingly close to ultimate success, seemingly a just a few years away from KFCs in Havana and Pyongyang.
And yet no sooner do they tack down one corner of the carpet when another comes undone, necessitating further efforts to bring recalcitrant populations in line. This global game of Whack-a-Mole continues with storm clouds looming on the horizon, in the form of a permanent alteration of the weather patterns that made human civilization possible in the first place. This, to say the least, could affect the bottom line.
What these two conundra have in common is that they are the result of a massively unequal distribution of resources – indeed, of systems which virtually guarantee a massively unequal distribution of resources. The systems invite conflict, and sustain their own unsustainability. Stein’s Law tells us that “if something is unsustainable, it will stop.” But perhaps a corollary to that is that it will not stop until its unsustainability is as obvious as being hit over the head with a two-by-four.
Our body politic, however, continues to whack itself with the metaphorical lumber, and though it staggers, it does not stop – yet.
Or rather, it did stop, for a few weeks in October of 2013. Ongoing services to the Empire continued uninterrupted, of course, but programs benefitting ordinary citizens ground to a halt while their elected representatives engaged in a game of chicken, through gritted teeth, over how much austerity to impose on a struggling economy. Eventually the differences were papered over and the lawmakers settled back to prepare for the next crisis.
The United States of America has been papering over its differences for so long, it’s become our default mode. We started out that way, after all, with an unworkable kludge that created the undemocratic Senate and Electoral College, and a friendly compromise that African-American chattel slaves should be considered three-fifths of a person – strictly for the drawing of political districts, of course. We papered over the differences between the “loyalists” and the “royalists,” and kicked the can down the road on the issue of slavery for the better part of a century.
And, incredibly, even after those differences erupted into a fratricidal civil war, they were papered over once again. The stolen election of 1876 paved the way for a backroom deal to end Reconstruction, withdraw federal troops from the south, and – concerning the rights of the emancipated slaves – kick the can down the road for yet another century. And when Dr. King and the civil rights movement finally forced the issue to be dealt with, LBJ famously remarked, as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, “We have lost the South for a generation.” 
LBJ underestimated the force of that moment. For the next several generations, the nation’s electorate re-sorted itself, virtually eliminating Democrats from elected office in the South, while rendering nearly as extinct the Republican Party in the Northeast. LBJ’s successor, the machiavellian Richard Nixon, implemented a “Southern Strategy,” designed to appeal to the racial resentments of working-class whites.
This worked like a charm, until it didn’t. Over the half-century since LBJ’s prediction, the two parties, once overlapping fuzzily in ideology, became more and more polarized. African-American voters switched their loyalties away from the party of Lincoln (eventually voting Democratic by more than a 9 to 1 margin in presidential elections), while many working-class whites switched from Roosevelt Democrats to Reagan Republicans. Eventually, though, the GOP backed itself into a demographic corner, appealing to an ever-shrinking, anachronistically reactionary segment of the electorate – while simultaneously alienating the fastest-growing ethnic constituencies.
Rather than adapt to the new electorate, the GOP has instead doubled down, and then quadrupled down on the Southern Strategy. Party leaders keep trying to appeal to their steadily crankier constituency, herding them into computer-drawn gerrymanders to maximize their waning geographic strengths, resorting to ever more arcane campaign financing schemes to continue stoking resentment at non-white “takers.” Their incumbents fear primary challenges from the right far more than they do general-election voters, and the result has been an ongoing lurch rightward with every election cycle, and an increasing isolation, as more and more voters are alienated from the tarnished GOP brand. As one outflanked GOP Senator put it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
This made the nihilistic showdown of Autumn 2013 virtually inevitable, as placating the ever-more-resentful base of the GOP required ever more brinksmanship. What we have evolved today is a parliament without a parliamentary system. The two parties are more ideologically distinct than ever, and subject to increasingly rigid party control over voting blocs in the legislative branch. But our political institutions are made to function within the deal-making, ideologically diffuse coalition politics of the 20th century. And in contrast to a parliamentary system, we have no prime minister; the president is not in control of Congress, which is often dominated by the opposition party. In short, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure.
This is just as apparent in the pressures faced by the demographically advantaged Democrats as in the rump Republican Party. The ostensible “party of the people” is perplexingly unable to deliver a better life to its constituents, idling the economy in neutral for the first half of what promises to be a lost decade of low growth and high unemployment.
How did it come to this? Like the Republicans, the Democratic Party relies on a coalition of donor blocs to fund their media campaigns during election cycles. The GOP’s ascendency in the 1966-2008 political era coincided with the erosion of US labor unions, and their position as a counterweight to corporate influence over the Democrats. So the Democrats have become more beholden than ever to their corporate patrons. Unlike in other countries (which provide public financing and access to the public airwaves), US elections are staggeringly expensive. US politicians spend the majority of their waking hours in fund-raising activities, and precious few in legislating. They instead go hat in hand to one set of corporate donors in order to buy media access from another set.
Democrats were handed a huge electoral gift in 2008 when the global economy melted down on the Republicans’ watch, mere weeks before the presidential election. It turned out to be the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression – which should have been relatively straightforward to address, given the example of how we recovered from the Crash of ’29, the deepest in series of financial “panics” that had beset the US economy over the years. Keynesian economics, as yet unformulated in 1929, was available in 2009 to inform us of the optimal policy response: an ongoing stimulus, anchored by government spending, to put people back to work, with multiplier effects leading to a swift recovery.
History teaches us that austerity and budget-cutting only exacerbated the effects of the crash, and that historically high levels of income inequality had led to a collapse of aggregate demand. With businesses failing to hire, the government could be the employer of last resort. Moreover, a steeply progressive tax on the fortunes of the super-rich would flatten out inequality and finance the stimulus. Despite some backsliding into austerity during 1937, it had worked well under FDR, and had led to a broad-based prosperity and flattening inequality during the 50s, 60 and early 70s.
But flattening inequality, broad-based prosperity and steeply progressive taxes were exactly what US elites did not want. They’d seen that movie before, and did not want a repeat. Not only would they fight like a cornered mongoose to (successfully) retain their positions of privilege, but they also feared the political empowerment of the masses that would arise from decades of rising living standards. The last time that happened, it had led to increased demands for civil rights and an organized opposition to US military adventures. In the parlance of 1970s think tanks, this was a “crisis of democracy” – meaning entirely too much democratic participation – and US elites had worked, with considerable success, to reverse it ever since.
Ever since the 1970s, and the high-water mark of the middle class, the US political system has struggled with the contradictions of trying to formulate policy that enriches elites, while crafting campaigns to appeal to the mass of voters whose interests are being sold out. New Deal restrictions on financial chicanery were steadily undone, and workers’ incomes stagnated for decades, and the gains from increased productivity were hoarded at the top of the heap.
After a series of baroque financial bubbles, scandals and crises during the 80s, 90s and 00s, the Crash of ’08 devastated the working people of America, and while their recovery was slow and halting, elite fortunes – both personal and corporate – returned to all-time highs. Even if the Democrats could have agreed on an economic path to prosperity within their own governing coalition, the “loyal opposition” retained enough veto points over the process to stymie any such effort. The Republicans have even less regard for Keynes than for Darwin, and so have dragged their feet, insisting on further austerity during every budget negotiation.
So the Democrats have instead focused their energies on a Byzantine health-care plan, designed to move somewhat closer to the ideal of universal coverage enjoyed by all other industrial democracies, without incurring opposition from entrenched stakeholders. The result pleases neither its supporters nor its opponents, and will be the subject of endless wrangling for years to come.
Again, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure. This Rube Goldberg system – with its ostentatious financial shenanigans, bloated tax code, corporate welfare, ineffectual representatives, stymied voters, and brobdingnagian inequality – would be laughable (or rather, more laughable) if it were not sputtering into engine lock at such a portentous historical moment. Just as our political institutions become less and less responsive, the ecological bill is coming due for the Industrial Revolution.
The science behind greenhouse gasses has been known for over a century. And scientists have been warning of the planetary danger of increased carbon in the atmosphere for over a quarter century, with increasing evidence and certainty of the calamity that awaits. But in the face of warming polar regions, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, and increasingly catastrophic weather patterns, our political system continues to hit the snooze button on any attempts to ameliorate the situation.
Worse, the forces of oligarchy and reaction are actively organizing to prevent any such attempts. Fossil fuel barons and the politicians they sponsor are on the warpath against fuel economy standards and gas taxes, let alone any efforts to transition to renewable energy sources. This recalcitrance has cost us so much time, we have only a decade or two, if that, to halt and reverse the dumping of carbon into our atmosphere. It would require a coordinated international effort equivalent to executing a hairpin turn on a one-lane mountain road, while driving a 20-story high ocean liner.
So there you have it. If our political or economic systems don’t collapse first, our ecological system certainly will. This is as much a problem for the Global Capitalist Empire as it is for the majority of humanity who happen to live under its auspices. Already shifting agricultural patterns are leading to food and water shortages, and restless populations have forced political crises and toppled governments across the globe.
But this is only the beginning. The insurance payouts alone for the demise of coastal communities worldwide will be staggering. And the necessity of adapting and re-adapting to changing weather patterns will play havoc with agricultural interests. But the massive refugee flows, spreading tropical diseases, and, inevitably, the rising tide of warfare, will massively disrupt business as usual. All this is staring us in the face, and yet our political institutions simply stare back.
And as with our economic problems, solutions to the crisis of climate change are available; it’s only political will that is lacking. Moreover, converting our economy to renewable energy would ignite a new round of job creation – at a time when the supply of labor far outstrips demand. Still, as with our economic crisis, obvious solutions are not just ignored, but actively opposed.
This is all so glaringly, head-whackingly unsustainable that something has to give. In the face of this uncertainty, we can only be certain that change is needed. And luckily, the book you hold in your hands represents a good deal of thinking about what kinds of change we require. Our institutions are failing us; we need new, more responsive institutions. Herein is a considered outline of how a more representative system might arise.
The discussion within about direct democracy contributes to the important conversation we need to be having about what will replace the political and economic systems that are so obviously failing us. Not only do we have the lessons of history to inform us about what not to do, we have generations of thought to guide us in formulating a blueprint for a better world.
We don’t have a crisis of democracy, as our elites complain; we have a shortage. But at this point we have the technological tools to enable greater voter empowerment in plebiscites and referenda, as well as the experience of proportional representation systems, fusion voting and instant runoffs to guide us. We can even use a lottery system, as with our jury pools, to select representatives; could we do worse than we do now?
And as much as capitalists like to claim that “there is no alternative” to their exploitive system, we have the experience of countless worker-owned alternatives across the globe, from Mondagron to Gaviotas to Kerala. Worker-owned cooperatives, democratically elected corporate boards and other arrangements have worked across the globe, and their failures and successes strengthen our ability to plan a more responsive economy.
If we’re going to save ourselves from ourselves, we all need to be part of the solution. We can, in fact, do more than survive. We can thrive – if we have the will to create more egalitarian institutions. We know more than enough about the mess we’re in, but we have far too little discussion about the ways ahead. Let that discussion begin on the next page.

Friday, April 25, 2014

No, nukes will not save us from climate change

A lot of people have been touting nuclear power - and more specifically, the “next generation” of nuke plants, powered by thorium instead of uranium - as the solution to climate change. Proponents claim these thorium-powered plants will be safer, cleaner and cheaper, and ameliorate issues with proliferation and long-term waste disposal.

But you’ll have to forgive me if I remain skeptical. We’ve had these kinds of promises of the nuclear panacea for generations now, and we should all know better than to take industry claims at face value. Last Sunday’s episode of Cosmos was a sobering reminder of how polluting corporations can buy the science they want, and how successful they can be at moving their PR through the media.

Far from answering all my concerns, the overstated claims of thorium reactor proponents raise a whole set of new ones. First, as far as cost goes, the thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. Thorium is not itself a fissile material and thus requires either U-235 or Pu-239 to kick-start the chain reaction; some part of the thorium then has to be converted to U-233 to take over the job. So thorium reactors will still require uranium enrichment or plutonium separation in addition to the costs of thorium mining and thorium rod production– all of which have a carbon footprint of their own. In a breeding configuration thorium reactors will need reprocessing, which is both costly and produces significant disposal issues. Moreover, the thorium fuel cycle creates highly radioactive U-232 as well as U-233 in the reactor, which raises worker safety issues that will be expensive to address.

All of this while the cost of solar and wind power continue to plummet - more than 75% over the past five years, and still falling. Germany’s solar array produces as much as 20 nuclear power plants on any given day. And if nuclear power is going to save the planet, the existing 400-odd reactors are going to have to be decommissioned (at taxpayer expense) and thousands of thorium plants costing billions of dollars apiece will have to be built to replace them, as well as the fossil fuel plants.

Second, the idea that nuclear waste can be turned into the next generation’s perfect fuel raises concerns. Nuke fans are talking about reprocessing, which is, as mentioned, both costly and toxic. You take the spent fuel rods and dissolve them in powerful solvents, and then you’re left with some new fuel, but also with leftover radioactive solids, liquids and gasses. All this nasty stuff still has to be stored for generations and/or transported to storage (at taxpayer expense), with the attendant risk of leaks and spills, overseen by corporations fueled by the profit motive, or mortal governments with uncertain oversight.

Third, thorium proponents are claiming that there are no proliferation issues. But as mentioned, the fuel cycle involves the production of U-233, which is just as useful for bomb-making as plutonium. Some proposed thorium fuel cycles require as much as 20% enriched uranium, which governments could easily divert for further enrichment to weapons-grade material. Thorium proponents are claiming that it can be less of a proliferation risk is the U-233 is mixed with U-238, but that will result in the creation of more Pu-238 as the reactor operates. So if you want thousands of these nukes all over the planet, you will also need hundreds of reliable governments and non-government actors who will avoid the temptation to divert either of these byproducts. And let me just add: no terrorist organization has ever planned to attack a solar array.

Fourth, this brings up the question of safety. A recent Forbes article claims solar and wind cause more deaths - throughout the entire production cycle - than does nuclear. The article doesn’t discuss the risks involved in solar energy production, but the mortality rate for wind and solar comes mainly from mining the raw materials, which would of course also increase for nuclear even if we switch to thorium fuel – first, because there’s more of it than uranium, and second, because we’ll be needing thousands of new thorium reactors.

Which also means that the risk of accidents will be going way up as well. And meanwhile, taxpayers still have to pick of the insurance tab. But new solar and wind technologies are already improving their safety rates, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Either way, industry-friendly tables like the one in Forbes rely on deaths per kilowatt-hour, which makes nukes look safer because they have produced comparatively far more energy than renewables (so far). The total number of deaths from wind and solar is surpassingly small in real terms, while there have been 20 nuclear and radiation accidents resulting in fatalities, including over 4000 deaths from Chernobyl (Moreover, avian mortality from nuclear plants is double that from wind turbines).

I think the nuclear industry has been highly successful in getting friendly treatment in the press, not just lately, but over the past sixty years. Spinning tempting tales of how we can have all the energy we need with little downside distracts us from the hard work of converting to a sustainable economy. One way or another, we have to face the limits of global production capacity, and it’s still true that conservation is our number one source of untapped energy. We can’t go on pretending we can live on cheap energy forever, with the attendant wastefulness built into our transportation, construction and agricultural systems.

I will toss the pro-nukes crowd this one bone, though: since we’ve squandered the last 25 years when we could have been addressing climate change, avoiding a 2 degree increase in global temperatures will be nearly impossible at this point, and weaning ourselves off of nuclear may have to take a back seat to massive carbon reduction efforts. But putting all our energy needs into the nuclear basket would be yet another dangerous mistake.