Protests Miss the Real Issue
The ‘proles’ are angry.
First we saw a populist uprising roughly centered on the traditional Republican/conservative view of too much government and too much tax. “The Tea Party”, not the original, which as Jon Stewart pointed out was a felony act(!), but the modern expression of anger about government intervention fueled, it turns out, by some very wealthy people (e.g. the Koch brothers), is composed of a seemingly disparate aggregation of right-wing malcontents. They now run the Congress, or at least so strongly influence it that it is a moribund institution.
Now the left rises to protest the wealth disparity that has been building for several decades and has culminated in Wall Street and banking in general stealing trillions of dollars from the middle and lower classes (the 99%). So, finally, we are seeing demonstrations. As with the Tea Party before them, they are the, essentially, disenfranchised whose votes seem to not count for anything anymore in our corporate owned political process.
Both groups share a similar problem with the conception of their protests, however. They both are expecting someone to do something, somewhere, to get the American economy “back on track”. They are protesting here and there because they believe somebody else is responsible for the mess and they want both justice and fixing the problems caused. They are both wrong on this count. There is no one to blame and there will be no fix.
Ultimately the decline of net energy per capita is at the root of all of our economic problems. Economists, business leaders, politicians, investors, and bankers have really just been responding to the cost-benefit structural contortions that have resulted in order to keep the profit engines working. They have had to take extraordinary measures to keep the sales going. Rising cost pressures, especially from high-energy consuming workers (and their families) in the US, and declining purchasing powers of those same workers was seemingly solved by moving manufacturing and some services off shore to lower wage populations. But, of course, since now more workers here in the US have even lower wage jobs, they also have become poor consumers.
Most of those people listed above deeply believe that it is corporate profits that trickle down (through jobs) to benefit all others. From the right, the thinkers believe the rewards lavished on the overlords are completely justified (don't tax the “job creators”). They believe this because, historically, it tended to be somewhat true. The capitalists received rewards in proportion to the risks they took and top managers earned high pay because they made things happen. The workers were lucky to have jobs.
From the left there is a deep belief that progress will always bring increasing rewards to society, which should be shared in some fair fashion. They are mad because they think it is this social contract that is being violated. And while they are right in one sense — the greedy really are taking more than their fair share — they are mistaken in the premise. With decreasing energy to do useful (economic) work there will not be material progress in the future. We are in decline (globally, in spite of the temporary burst of growth we see in China and India) and will be until the true bottom is reached.
I thought about this as I was working on the next blog in the series on future living — providing a map for the journey. What is taking place right now is completely antithetical to the sapient approach. Protesting with the expectation that we are going to “get our country back” is a distraction and a dangerous one at that. Understand that I completely get why people are climbing on the bandwagons. I certainly sympathize with their anger. But by holding onto the belief that somehow by taking this kind of action they are going to force the financial system and the political system to get us back to where everyone felt (somewhat) comfortable, say the apparent economic system of twenty years ago, they are wasting time yelling, camping out, and holding up signs. Would that they could realize the deeper and disturbing truth, they should be busy adapting their lives to the new reality — negative growth of material wealth.
I will be dealing with the issue of how those who really do understand what the future is about will be adapting their lives and expected standard of living so that they can continue to “make a living” in spite of a contracting economy. Material wealth, as it is currently conceived, is not the pathway. Learning to live by forming sapient communities and developing low tech skills, especially providing food security, is where the energy we have remaining should be spent. Protesting isn't getting the ground ready for spring planting.
Strangely juxtaposed with the Occupy Wall Street protests has been the death of Steve Jobs. I say strange because Mr. Jobs, while a great innovator and social force, was an anachronism. Just as the OWS protesters are missing the real problem, Mr. Jobs kept pushing the growth model, especially in terms of high rate churn of products, many of which were really geared to entertainment rather than real wealth production productivity. The almost continuous introduction of the newest, greatest incarnation of the iPhoneTM as an example, promoted and incited consumption of novelty just for its own sake. Did each incarnation really add anything to the real wealth of the world? Was the supposed increased functionality really that important? The model pushed by Mr. Jobs, and now emulated by so many other high-tech companies speaks to a world that is in rapid growth and high competition. And neither of these aspects are appropriate for the age we actually live in now. Like Congress, this model is moribund. The only reason it isn't yet following the rest of the economy in decline is that, being a relatively small portion of a typical consumer's expenditures, and motivated by the momentum of Wow-based buying, it just hasn't quite caught up with the dysfunctional aspects of a consumer economy. Moreover, the products actually are geared to helping consumers forget their other woes. As long as one can sport the newest model of iPhone, one can feel, for a little longer, like the world is still normal. But the angst of realizing otherwise will catch up, even with Apple.
Fortunately there are a (growing) number of groups who have realized the truth and are in the process of adapting (see, for example, Transition Towns). It starts with gathering enough information to recognize the problems. One has to adapt their thinking first. Then comes the need to adapt one's lifestyle. I think there is some time remaining for doing this with a minimum of pain. But that window of opportunity is closing rapidly. In fact if the OWSers and the Tea Partiers continue to disrupt or distract thinking by the rest of us, the window could actually close even sooner. Look at what Tea Party politics has done to our government (not that it was in great shape prior to their inclinations to shut everything down unless they got their way).
Still the Dream Lives On
As you might expect, Tom Friedman has a different slant on the juxtaposition of Jobs' death and the right and left protests (see: Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?, Sunday, 10/09 New York Times - may be behind a pay wall). In his naive but very solid belief in technology and innovation he laments that our government doesn't do more to support the people, like Jobs, who will invent the technology that will solve all of our problems, including (in spite of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) our energy source problems, which he has tried to liken to the revolution in information technology (IT) as energy technology (ET) in spite of the two kinds of technologies being extremely different in terms of the governing laws of nature.
And that is the dream the protesters, and nearly everyone else can believe in. We've always invented our way out of stagnant or negative growth before. And as the non-sequiter logic dictates, therefore we always will. What is alarming to the Friedmans and even the proles who buy this story is that this time around there seems to be a slight hitch in getting these inventions done and out to the market (I doubt that the über wealthy are even paying attention). Blame government regulations. Blame corporate greed. Blame socialist agendas. Blame conservative blockages and stalemates in Congress. Blame too much tax. Blame too little spending. Blame too much debt. Blame too much timidity.
Blame anything but the real cause. The real truth is that we “consumers” had a binge beyond belief. And during that binge we used up the cheap energy sources. All that is left is the expensive energy. And after a while even that will be gone, in the sense that what is left of fossil fuels will simply be uneconomic to recover at any price.
I hope the OWS (and everywhere else) protesters are having a good time. I hope they enjoy the party while it lasts. I hope their high-on-group-action is a real buzz. I hope the Tea Party members of Congress are enjoying their current power. I hope the folk in the Middle East are getting high on freedom. Because, in the morning they will all have major hangovers when the Arab spring, the Tea Party summer, and the Occupy * fall will give way to the economic winter, and a very long one at that.
[EDIT: Corrected Jon Stewart's name spelling as per commentator's "gentle nudge" below.]