November 6, 2011
The current economic downturn has been called a housing crisis, a financial crisis and a debt crisis, but the simplifying logic of the political season has settled on what is really more a result than a cause. We are now, according to nearly everyone running for office, in a jobs crisis. Every politician currently has a “jobs plan,” very often a list of vague proposals filled with serious-sounding phrases like “budget framework” and “regulatory cap” that are designed, for the most part, to mean both everything and nothing at all.
Starting this week, I’ll be writing a regular column in the magazine that tries to demystify complicated economic issues — like whether anyone (C.E.O.’s, politicians, people running for the presidency) can actually create jobs. The fact is that creating them in a far-too-sluggish economy is practically impossible in our current capitalist democracy. No corporate leader is rewarded for hiring people who aren’t absolutely required. Most companies hire only when its workforce can no longer keep up with the demand for its products.
Even with all the attention on hiring, the government’s ability to create jobs is pretty dispiriting, no matter who is in charge. The most popular types of jobs programs involve state tax breaks or subsidies that seek to seduce a company from one state to another. While this can mean good news for “business-friendly” states like Texas, such policies don’t add to overall employment so much as they just shuffle jobs around. This helps explain Rick Perry’s claim that more than one million jobs were created under his watch in Texas while the rest of the country lost more than two million.
The federal government does something similar when it decides, for instance, to regulate oil drillers and subsidize windmill makers. Such a policy might help the environment but it just moves jobs from one sector to another without adding any. And while both Perry and Mitt Romney propose that further oil and gas drilling in the U.S. will transform the jobs picture, only 30,000 Americans work in oil and gas extraction, and about another 125,000 in support occupations. With more than 25 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, it’s unlikely that any changes in that part of the energy sector would make a real dent.
One reason we have so few ideas about job creation is that up until recently, the U.S. economy had been growing so well for so long that few economists spent much time studying it. (They’re trying to make up for it now. See this chart.) With no new theories, Democrats dusted off the big idea from the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes’s view that government can create jobs by spending a lot of money. The stimulus, however, has to be borrowed, and it has to be really, truly huge — probably something like $1.5 or $2 trillion — to fill the gap between where the economy is and where it would be if everyone was spending at pre-recession levels. The goal is to goad consumers into spending again. And President Obama’s jettisoned $400 billion jobs package, hard-core Keynesians argue, is nowhere near what it would take to persuade them.
Many Republicans follow the more fiscally conservative University of Chicago School, which argues that Keynesian stimulus can’t heal a sick economy — only time can. Chicagoans believe that economies can only truly recover on their own and that policy interventions only slow the recovery. It’s a puzzle of modern politics that Republicans have had electoral success with a policy that fundamentally asserts there is nothing the government can do to create jobs any time soon.
Of course, Romney, Perry, Herman Cain and the rest won’t come out and say, “If elected, I will tell you to wait this thing out.” Instead, Republican candidates fill their jobs plans with Chicagoan ideas that have nothing to do with the current crisis, like permanent cuts in taxes and regulation. These policies may (or may not) make the economy healthier in 5 years or 10, but the immediate impact would require firing a large number of America’s roughly 23 million government workers.
How bad might that be? The U.K., as part of its austerity measures, is in the process of firing about a half-million government workers under the notion that the private sector would be so thrilled by low taxes and less regulation that it will expand and snatch up all those laid-off public servants. But this plainly isn’t happening. The British economy continues to grow slowly, if at all, and few former government workers have found new jobs in the private sector…
November 6, 2011
Progressives and mainstream Democratic pundits disagree with each other about many issues at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but with few exceptions they are joined in their contempt for drum circles, free hugs, and other behavior in Zuccotti Park that smacks of hippie culture.
In a post for the Daily Beast Michelle Goldberg lamented, “Drum circles and clusters of earnest incense-burning meditators ensure that stereotypes about the hippie left remain alive.” At Esquire, Charles Pierce worried that few could “see past all the dreadlocks and hear…over the drum circles.” Michael Smerconish asked on the MSNBC show Hardball if middle Americans “in their Barcalounger” could relate to drum circles. The New Republic’s Alex Klein chimed in, “In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies….Wall Street survived.” And the host of MSNBC’s Up, Chris Hayes (editor at large of the Nation), recently reassured his guests Naomi Klein and Van Jones that although he supported the political agenda of the protest he wasn’t going to “beat the drum” or “give you a free hug,” to knowing laughter.
Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.
Since the mythology of the 1960s hangs over so much of the analysis of the Wall Street protests, it’s worth reviewing what actually happened then. Media legend lumps sixties radicals and hippies together, but from the very beginning most leaders on the left looked at the hippie culture as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a saboteur of pragmatic progressive politics. Hippies saw most radicals as delusional and often dangerously angry control freaks. Bad vibes.
Not that there is anything magic about the word “hippie.” Over the years it has been distorted by parody, propaganda, self-hatred, and, from its earliest stirrings, commercialism. In some contemporary contexts it is used merely to refer to people living in the past and/or those who are very stoned.
The hippie idea, as used here, does not refer to colloquialisms like “far out” or products sold by dope dealers. At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement. In part they offered an alternative to organized religions that too often seemed preoccupied with rules and conformity, especially on sexual matters. (One reason Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism resonated with hippies was because they carried no American or family baggage.) But most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism.
The hippies were heirs to a long line of bohemians that includes William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, utopian movements like the Rosicrucians and the Theosophists, and most directly the Beatniks. Hippies emerged from a society that had produced birth-control pills, a counterproductive war in Vietnam, the liberation and idealism of the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, FM radio, mass-produced LSD, a strong economy, and a huge quantity of baby-boom teenagers. These elements allowed the hippies to have a mainstream impact that dwarfed that of the Beats and earlier avant-garde cultures.
In the mid-sixties rock and roll’s mass appeal fused with certain elements of hip culture, especially in San Francisco bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (as well as Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix). That mood was absorbed and expanded by much of the popular music world, including the already popular Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. John Lennon’s songs “Instant Karma,” “Give Peace A Chance,” “Across The Universe,” “Revolution” (“But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out”), and “Imagine” are probably as close to a hippie manifesto as existed, and the Woodstock festival as close to a mass manifestation of the idea as would survive the hype.
It is easy to cherry pick a few idiotic phrases from stoners in the 1970 documentaryWoodstock, but what made the event and its legacy meaningful to its fans—aside from the music—was the example of people in the hip community taking care of each other, as shown in the Wavy Gravy documentary Saint Misbehavin’. No two hippies had the same notion of what the movement was all about, but there were some values they all shared. As Time put it in 1967, “Hippies preach altruism and mysticism, honesty, joy and nonviolence.”
Like any spiritual movement (or religion) hippies attracted pretenders, ranging from undercover cops to predators such as Charles Manson, who used their external trappings for very different agendas. By October of 1967, following the so-called “Summer of Love” (during which more than a hundred thousand long-haired teenagers overloaded and permanently changed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco), exploitation of the word “hippie” had become sufficiently prevalent that a group of counterculture pioneers in the Bay Area held a “Death of the Hippie” mock funeral. A flier announcing the ceremony warned young seekers against the existential perils of hype.
Media created the hippie with your hungry consent. Careers are to be had for the enterprising hippie. The media casts nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV. Your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the [San Francisco] Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am. Narcissism, plebian vanity.
The pure of heart were exhorted to “Exorcize Haight-Ashbury. Do not be bought by a picture or phrase. Do not be captured in words. You are free, we are free. Believe only in your own incarnate spirit.” Woodstock shows that by 1969 even the long-haired masses had taken to calling themselves “freaks.”…
The earthquake that tore through eastern Turkey on Oct. 23 was as inevitable as it was shocking. It was inevitable because Turkey lies in one of the world’s most active seismic zones, crossed by numerous fault lines. As much as in Northern California or Japan, earthquakes are a fact of geological life in Turkey. But it was shocking because so many people — at least 279, many in the city of Ercis — died in the 7.2 temblor. It was a strong quake, but hardly a monster like the 9.0-scale disaster that hit northern Japan this spring. Yet scores of multistory buildings simply collapsed when the latest quake hit, burying hundreds of Turks.
“The buildings around us, the coffee house all went down so quickly,” 42-year-old Abubekir Acar told the Associated Press. “For a while, we could not see anything — everywhere was covered in dust. Then we heard screams and pulled out anyone we could reach.”(See photos of the devastation from Turkey’s earthquake.)
The quake was yet another reminder that the damage and death toll from a natural disaster often has much less to do with the strength of a quake or a storm than it does with the preparations — or lack thereof — among victims. For earthquakes — which still can’t be predicted, and may never be — the best preparation is strong building design. Turkey is home to some sturdy, earthquake-ready architecture that’s by no means the rule there. Buildings made of unreinforced brick simply pancaked, turning schools and apartment buildings into tombs. “In recent earthquakes, buildings have acted as weapons of mass destruction,” the seismologist Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado wrote in a Nature article last year.
That’s a horrifying thought, but what’s really scary is that the threat from quakes like the one that struck eastern Turkey is only increasing. It’s not that there’s any evidence that earthquakes are becoming stronger or more frequent. Instead, it’s us: global population is growing, set to pass 7 billion at the end of the month, and we’re concentrating in megacities that are orders of magnitude bigger than any human settlements in the past. There are now more than 380 urban areas with at least 1 million people, and according to Bilham’s work, more than 400 million people live in cities that face significant seismic risk.
Some of those cities you’ve heard of, like San Francisco, Los Angeles or Tokyo — all of which have suffered major quakes over the past several decades. But the great wealth of the developed nations mostly — but not always — means better building designs. San Francisco may sit near the powerful San Andreas Fault, but years of experience with quakes mean that not just buildings but citizens are as ready as they can be for the Big One. Ditto Tokyo; strict building codes in Japan kept the death toll from this spring’s quake and tsunami much lower than it might have been.(See how social media is helping quake survivors in Turkey.)
The real danger is in poor but rapidly growing cities in the developing world. Much of the population growth in the next several decades will occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — and in the slums of emerging megacities. By midcentury, most of the biggest cities on the planet will be in the developing world — places like New Delhi, Dhaka or Karachi. That’s a lot of poor people living in densely packed conditions that are not built for major quakes — a recipe for catastrophically high death tolls….
November 6, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.