Everything Was Stripped Away

The Story So Far

I was originally going to use the week’s edition of Five Futures to begin considering some of the trickier aspects of the notion of “growth”, and why I think that proponents of a “zero growth” world are proposing something significantly more radical than most of them actually realize.

But then the federal government here in the U.S. went into shutdown, and some observations seem warranted.

The first is, of course, that a government shutdown doesn’t mean that everything stops, even at the federal level. The military’s still out there doing it’s thing, Social Security checks still get cut, Robert Mueller will continue his investigation. But while a set of “essential” services continue, the bureaucratic neural tissue of the government has now been largely anesthetized, with the result that the beast will now shamble on like a slowly decaying, half-alive zombie until a deal between the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate is reached. For most folks this is just political theater right now, but if the process of resolving the current impasse lasts much more than a few days then people are going to start to notice that something’s actually up. After a few weeks things will really start to fall apart.

But I don’t think that the current “impasse” will last all that long, and the reason for this is also the reason I think this little bit of local news is worth commenting on.

Just this past weekend, I remember talking to my mother and worrying out loud that the Democratic Party was beginning to evolve in a similar way as the Republican Party during the Obama Administration - basically, becoming a Party that was defined not by a set of ideas, or even interest groups, but rather purely in opposition to the (current) President. This was a strategy that seemed to work well for Republicans at the time, but has served them poorly once they regained power: Without an enemy to rally against, party discipline broke down and we learned that the better part of a decade without ideas beyond “whatever the opposite is of the black guy in the Oval Office” has effectively pithed the intellectual capacity of the GOP. Once back in power, the Republican Party has proven itself essentially incapable of actual governance. The Democrats have likewise begun to play the role of the “Party of No” during the first year of the Trump Administration, not that it’s mattered much until recently, as Republican ineptitude has left them with very little to do at the federal level.

The proximate cause of the current crisis is President Trump’s cancellation of the Obama-era DACA program that shielded people who had been brought to the U.S. as children without going through the proper channels from deportation. DACA was always a bit of a band-aid, and so everyone seemed to agree that Congress needed to come up with an immigration bill that would actually fix the situation DACA was intended to address. The only problem is that in the months since Trump canceled DACA have been filled with an almost Herculean level of goal-post moving that means that nobody is quite sure what Trump is actually willing to sign into law. This has lead Democrats to insist that some sort of immigration deal needs to be part of the present budget bill, which the Republicans aren’t willing to give them, probably because it’s a contentious internal issue for them with an unclear payoff, and they don’t have the party discipline anymore to actually line up the votes on.

Instead, the Republicans have offered a budget bill that includes re-authorization for a different program the Democrats favor, CHIP, which provides health care for poor children. Now, keeping the federal government running is pretty important, and I’d honestly expect people to vote on any budget bill that kept the lights on so long as it didn’t have some kind of absolutely terrible rider on it. So in my mind the expectation is that the Democrats (hell, everyone) should vote for the current “continuing resolution” even if the only thing it did was keep the federal government’s lights on, and the fact that the Republicans were nervous enough to give Democrats one of their priorities as part of the deal should be considered a free win.

Instead, we have a federal government shutdown, as far as I can tell for the sole reason that Democrats can hold the Republicans’ collective feet to the fire right now, and have thus decided that they must do so, and damn the consequences.

Which is why I don’t think this impasse will last that long: The Democrats don’t have a good reason not to vote for this bill, and I expect that there will be enough defectors (or threats of defection) to get a short-term spending bill passed by the end of the week at the latest, and probably by the end of the weekend. I would be very surprised if there’s anything extracted beyond a “promise” to consider immigration legislation in the near future.

(Of course, Trump could come out with some kind of inflammatory statement that makes everyone feel like they have to dig in their heels, but I’m really hoping that he’s too focused on golfing right now.)

Even if the current shutdown doesn’t last very long, it strikes me as an important milestone in hollowing out of the Democratic Party into a tribal “anti-Republican” vehicle, similar to how the Republican Party was hollowed out during the Obama era. That I happen to largely agree with the Democratic Party’s priorities gives me little solace here, as ultimately the reason that governments and societies continue to function has more to do with the strength of their institutions rather than the relative merits of their ideas. Should the Democratic Party truly become a mirror-image of the modern Republican Party, I fear the worst when it comes to the fate of the Republic.

The Deep Past

Iridescent dinosaurs!

Ants rescue their injured.

Some Australian birds of prey may use fire as a tool when hunting.

The Near Past

20% of trees in the modern Amazon rain forest appear to be the result of human domestication.

There are (vertical!) windmills in Nashtifan, Iran that were built over a thousand years ago, and are still used to grind grain today. The windmills have been maintained by generations of custodians, but the last custodian has been unable to find an apprentice, leaving the future of the windmills in doubt.

The New Yorker reviews a suite of new books that suggests that question the benefits of modern agriculture and ask if we can recapture the egalitarian spirit that seems to allow some cultures to live a life of “affluence without abundance”. The answer is a tentative “yes”, but suggests that doing this would require a significant social shift in how we construct hierarchies. But perhaps we are already seeing the beginnings of such a change?

The Present

Two barn-burner pieces on social media and the attention economy this week. The Globe and Mail begins by exploring recent research and revelations around the extent that social media companies manipulate our behavior and some of the consequences of the decisions on our behavior. It’s a good piece, albeit one that indulges in the strain of alarmist neo-luddism that is increasingly (and, I think, counter-productively) linked to critical perspectives towards technology. Fortunately, Zeynep Tufekci is having none of it, pointing out that the social failings of smart phones and social media are the result of choices we have made to exploit aspects of human behavior, not intrinsic features of these technologies. It is possible, as a society, to choose differently.

Of course, absent the sort of market correctives that Tufekci advocates, it’s not surprising that social media’s attempts to self-regulate might actually make the situation worse.

Meanwhile, terms like “fake news” have now been weaponized to such an extent that continuing to use them may be counter-productive. The way that “fake news” has come to mean “something that conflicts with my tribal loyalty” probably signals an acceleration in the process by which modern political parties are being hollowed out.

The Near Future

As our ability to automate common tasks increases, one option we could take as a society is to work less. Several Swedish towns have been experimenting with this, but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) it turns out to not be a cost-saving move. There are still significant, albeit more personal, benefits though.

The New York Times ponders, “Can You Have a Good Life if You Don’t Have a Good Job?” It’s a good overview of the current state of thinking about how to make sure people have access to the “benefits” we typically associate with work, and why it’s so difficult in the U.S. to move things like healthcare from being provided by employers to being provided by the government. But by focusing on our biological needs (food, shelter, healthcare), the piece misses the larger question of what it means to have a good life - feeling needed. How can we construct a society that lets people feel engaged and needed if they can’t find a steady job?

Apparently the World Bank has been down-ranking countries just because of lefty politics.

This profile of Rod Dreher and his new book, “The Benedict Option”, is fascinating.

The Deep Future

Iceland is working to restore its lost forests.

The “worst-case” IPCC scenarios for global warming look increasingly like the most likely case.

All of the interesting futures live between the unsustainable business-as-usual and utter doom.

A throwback to the second issue ever of Five Futures: A deep sea Greenland shark may be over 512 years old. As I noted then, repairing the Earth’s ecosystems is a job that will be measured in millennia, not centuries. It is the largest engineering project our species has ever attempted.


A city becomes poetry.