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Test Your Strength

test-strength

Sometimes there’s just a little glint of something in the sand. A quotation is brought in to the stream of the conversation and it’s meant to provide support for some point being put across in an answer to an interviewer’s question.

In Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times interview with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, it’s the moment when he pulls Milton Friedman into the conversation. The question has to do with whether or not ideas from Burning Man have entered the larger culture. Harvey responds:

I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman. He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.

I don’t know the origin of the quote or whether it’s accurate or not. While I didn’t have much use for the rest of the article, I did find the Friedman quote intriguing. On the one hand we could make the case that the ideas we find lying around are the result of some historical process and therefore predetermined by their predecessors. The other case is that these ideas are lying around for a variety of reasons. Some are bought and paid for, others are the result of conspiracy theories, some are just random trends. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. As I look around me at the ideas lying around, that one seems to fit the bill.

When we consider Friedman’s idea about crisis and action and apply it to global warming, we run into a problem of scale. According to Friedman, action occurs when we perceive the crisis. As the crisis reveals itself, we humans look to the ideas lying around and hope to find something that might serve to blunt its force. Global warming is a large wave overwhelming the biosphere. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact moment this wave began gathering its force, certainly it’s a trans-generational event. The patenting of the steam engine (1781) serves as a useful marker of global warming’s beginning.

Objects of this size and complexity have been given the name hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton. Even our ability to directly detect the crisis is limited. We require a global network of sensors, computer climate models and a good measure of inference. The size and momentum of the global warming wave begs the question as to whether the ideas we might find lying around could possibly counter something of this size.

We look for an idea to counter strength with strength. We might believe through the use of leverage, physics and ingenuity we can create a force sufficient to provide an answer. Our instinct tells us that size and momentum of global warming must be overmastered.

In addition to the word “hyperobjects” Timothy Morton also has given us an idea of the value of “hypocrisy, weakness and lameness.” When confronted with something as large and powerful as global warming, perhaps we should take a different tack. Dinosaurs were the most powerful animals on earth during another global climate event. Strength didn’t result in survival. Perhaps as we look at the ideas lying around, we shouldn’t assume that it’s strength that will get us out of this crisis. To evade the power of a hyperobject, we may need to reverse our instincts and get small.

Super Intelligence

Some people, some very smart people, believe that through the magic of genetic engineering, we'll soon have a new generation of “super intelligent” people. There may even be a legal requirement to optimize the designated genetic make-up of new humans. Sounds like a science fiction novel, but the technology is close to making this kind of scenario practical.

Of course, it would take a “super intelligent” person to create a new generation of “super intelligent” people. And certainly, replication of “super intelligence” would appear to be the intelligent goal. How will we ever solve the great problems that confront us without a greater and greater supply of super intelligent people?

Apparently, no one is working on a genetic model for creating super compassionate people. Mostly because super compassionate people aren't a dominant force in the science of gene editing. And, after all, compassion isn't going to solve global warming, seas filled with plastic or the sixth mass extinction.

I wonder what would happen if you took two planets and filled one with super intelligent people and the other with super compassionate people of varying intelligence? After a few hundred years had passed, which planet do you think you'd prefer to live on?

 

Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

Only the Rich Can Save Us

The Sunday paper brings two related stories. Last year San Francisco was number one — it had the fastest-growing rate of income inequality of any city in the country. Now this year, it turns out that San Francisco's rich people are far richer than any other city's rich. Go us.

The other story is about a retired venture capitalist leasing a large industrial building in the Dogpatch district to create below market rate spaces for art galleries. San Francisco's art galleries are being priced out of the market, and once they're gone it will be almost impossible to bring them back. According to the article:

Andy and Deborah Rappaport, who have never been in the arts business, plan to invest “tens of millions of dollars” in a cluster of buildings that will include studios and other arts amenities under the umbrella of the Minnesota Street Project.

This for-profit business venture aims to lose as little as possible or at best break even. They have a 15-year lease and are offering galleries 3-year leases at below market rates.

One of the moral failings of the techno-rich, in the city with the richest of the rich, is that they've operated as though the city and the world around them has no relationship to them. They take no interest in the diversity of the city, the schools, the parks, no interest in the arts or culture, no interest local politics (except when it comes to tax breaks). It's possible that a few of these rich folks have looked up from their piles of cash and seen the city changing radically around them. The Minnesota Street Project was inspired by a conversation the Rappaports had with veteran gallerist Catherine Clark. Again, according to the article:

“We were talking about how we didn't want to live in a city that didn't have a vibrant arts community,” Deborah says. “There have to be galleries, and there have to be artists' non-profits, and artists have to be able to afford studios.”

Frankly, the real estate market doesn't care what kind of city you, or anybody else, wants to live in. The “market” gives the non-rich the option to move somewhere else, its invisible hand will determine what kind of city you will live in. If the market decides that art galleries, artists, non-profit workers, teachers, nurses, day-care workers and librarians are under-resourced to live in San Francisco, then they'll have to find somewhere else to put down stakes.

The non-profit achive.org has been studying the unaffordability problem and come up with its own solution to help its workers. According to their blog:

The Internet Archive and the Kahle/Austin Foundation are trying a new model to help. Foundation Housing as a name for a new housing class : Permanently Affordable housing for non-profit workers.

In this model, a new nonprofit, the Kahle/Austin Foundation House, has been set up to purchase apartment buildings. These rental units are then made available to employees of select nonprofits at a “debt free” rate– basically equivalent to the condominium fee and taxes. Typically, the debt makes up about 2/3 of the cost of a building and the other costs (tax+maintenance+insurance) makes up about 1/3. Since the employee does not pay the debt part, the monthly fee is now about $850-1000/month rather than $2700-3000 current market rent. This way, the fee to those employees is about 1/3 of the cost of market rent, and we believe more stable than market based rents.

In the face of ever expanding income inequality, these are the only solutions that seem to have a chance. Real estate is simply moved out of the real estate market to create affordability. If this kind of a proposal came from a community organizer it would be shot down as unrealistic — a socialist redistribution of wealth from the rich to the undeserving poor. And heaven help the elected official suggesting this kind of scheme. They'd be run out of town on a rail.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Inc., recently joined the ranks of the super rich who have pledged to give away most of their fortune. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are two other notable members of that clan. Technology money rarely supports the arts. It's more disposed towards funding medical advances. The possibility of immortality is a primary fantasy of the techno-elite. While often quite smart, most of them have the cultural outlook of an adolescent boy. Some believe that Bill Gates will outshine Steve Jobs when we look back at these years because of his post-Microsoft charitable work. For most of the rich, helping the poor is simply beyond their control — the market will do what it will.

To address the issue of income inequality, wealth will have to be redistributed. The gap has grown so wide there's no other way to bridge it. Despite the fact that the poor are in the majority, they seem have no voice in the matter. For the moment it's up the the wealthy to do things like the Minnesota Street Project. archive.org needs to do what it can for its employees and other non-profit workers. Perhaps another retired venture capitalist can address the other half of the problem for artists. While they welcome below market rate studios and gallery space, artists still need a place to live.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed building 1,500 affordable housing units for artists and creatives at a cost of more than $30 million. This action came after musicians David Byrne and Patti Smith commented that New York was no longer a good place for young artists. The same could be said about San Francisco.

Great wealth confers the gift of being able to interfere with market dynamics without being called a socialist. The invisible hand can be shoved aside, and other priorities can be manifested. The Minnesota Street Project will bear watching. Let's hope they make a go of it. And here's hoping the peers of Andy and Deborah Rappaport are paying close attention. They're the only players in this game that are allowed to make a move.

 

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