Monday, October 12, 2009

Regarding the calls to "redefine progress"

 . . . 

Those of us in the peak oil community might have 'got it', and we may share Hagens' assumption that we have passed the peak, but as we so often forget that most people aren't there yet. 'Peak oil' may no longer be relevant in a 'look what's coming' kind of a way, but as a 'look where we are', and 'when planning where we are going we need to bear this in mind' way, it is still vital. For those of us who have been onto peak oil for 4 or 5 years, it is clear that if we have peaked, it doesn't look like we expected it to. No blackouts (yet), no riots, no clear and present disaster, the economic crash having, ironically, cushioned many of its worst impacts. While the peak oil analysis is correct, as Sharon observes, it is one element in a mix of issues converging simultaneously, each of which pulse with varying intensity.

upside of down

This is for me why the most important focus for the Transition response is on resilience. Whether the current pulse is the economy, climate change, peak oil or any other of a range of issues, the fact remains that we are desperately unresilient at a time when that is really something you don't want to be. The point is that building resilience, moving towards localisation, building parallel public infrastructure, is the best response to all these challenges, and can be justified whichever issue happens to be pulsing the strongest. In the wonderful 'The Upside of Down', which I have recently picked up again, Tom Homer-Dixon writes "if we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative". Although he acknowledges that, in so far as society is currently configured, economic growth is critical for the world's economy, "it must not be at the expense of the overarching principle of resilience, so needed for any coming transformation of human civilisation". I often argue that resilience is the new sustainability, a far more appropriate principle to underpin future planning.

Neil Adger, writing in 2003 (in an academic paper which is not available online unfortunately), wrote that "resilience also requires communities and societies to have the ability to self-organise and to manage resources and make decisions in a manner that promotes sustainability". It is this self-organisation and community empowerment that Transition focuses on. Yet in doing this work, peak oil as a term and as an analysis offers a vital lens through which to view the world, as does climate change. Peak oil offers a concise analysis of resource depletion in a visceral way that most people can really 'get'. Presented in the context of a historic-feeling, self-organising, positive, solutions-focused process such as Transition, peak oil begins to lose its association with 'doom and fundamentalism', instead being seen as a clarifying insight into what is afoot in the world. Yet like all these other issues, it will pulse, one week being centre stage, the next week being overtaken by other issues, yet all the while, in communities across the world, the process of building resilience from the ground up continues, becoming more articulate, better networked, more effective and more able. Ultimately, it will be that pulse that will be the strongest of them all.

Did the spread of TV cause rising crime rates?

Amusing Ourselves to DeathJust one generation after TV became omnipresent, our politics collapsed entirely and we elected a bad actor who played a sunny optimist to replace a serious person who dared warn us that we weren't going to like the ending if we kept up like we were going. Image via Wikipedia

The sequel to the much-overrated "Freakonomics" includes one claim that is likely very well-founded, even if the "freakonomists" (blarg) are too much creatures of pop culture to see the reason:
Less controversially, and even less categorically clear, is the research that links the rise in crime with the spread of television across the US, which was staggered over the 1940s and 1950s and thus offers the social scientist a rare opportunity to observe human behaviour with a "control" sample. Yes, for every extra year a young American was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, there is a 4 per cent rise in the number of property-related crimes later in life, and a 2 per cent rise in violent crime arrests. But the freakonomists are at a loss to say why this should be; the biggest effect is among those who watched TV from birth to age four – little of it violent. However, anyone who has a second look at the sadism, mutilation and torture see in the average Tom and Jerry cartoon might beg to differ.
The issue has nothing to do with the content of the shows/cartoons, it has to do with brain development or lack thereof. The "Golden Years" of brain development (age 0-3) are followed by a long period where there is still some brain development (albeit more slowly). Exposing children's brains to TV during those formative years is not just child abuse, but societal suicide.

I don't think it's a coincidence that we, as a society, are falling well short of meeting the challenges of our age, such as in our failure to respond to the freight train of climate chaos that is hurdling towards us. As a class, the Americans not yet retired from work are greatly handicapped by brains that spent years anesthetized in a soothing, sleep-like trance, rather than developing problem-solving skills.

As the late, great Neil Postman put it, we're "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Americans today keep waiting for the magical solution to ride in just in the nick of time, right before the final commercial break . . . after all, we spent years learning that this is how all problems get solved.

UPDATE: Turns out the "Freakonomist" is really just a junk-scientist spewing nonsense about the greatest challenge we face.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Awesome Matt Taibbi: Sick and Wrong

HealthAn American rates Obama and Congress's performance on reforming health care financing. Image by IntangibleArts via Flickr

Matt Taibbi is on fire lately:
Let's start with the obvious: America has not only the worst but the dumbest health care system in the developed world. It's become a black leprosy eating away at the American experiment — a bureaucracy so insipid and mean and illogical that even our darkest criminal minds wouldn't be equal to dreaming it up on purpose.

The system doesn't work for anyone. It cheats patients and leaves them to die, denies insurance to 47 million Americans, forces hospitals to spend billions haggling over claims, and systematically bleeds and harasses doctors with the specter of catastrophic litigation. Even as a mechanism for delivering bonuses to insurance-company fat cats, it's a miserable failure: Greedy insurance bosses who spent a generation denying preventive care to patients now see their profits sapped by millions of customers who enter the system only when they're sick with incurably expensive illnesses.

The cost of all of this to society, in illness and death and lost productivity and a soaring federal deficit and plain old anxiety and anger, is incalculable — and that's the good news. The bad news is our failed health care system won't get fixed, because it exists entirely within the confines of yet another failed system: the political entity known as the United States of America.

Just as we have a medical system that is not really designed to care for the sick, we have a government that is not equipped to fix actual crises. What our government is good at is something else entirely: effecting the appearance of action, while leaving the actual reform behind in a diabolical labyrinth of ingenious legislative maneuvers.

Over the course of this summer, those two failed systems have collided in a spectacular crossroads moment in American history. We have an urgent national emergency on the one hand, and on the other, a comfortable majority of ostensibly simpatico Democrats who were elected by an angry population, in large part, specifically to reform health care. When they all sat down in Washington to tackle the problem, it amounted to a referendum on whether or not we actually have a functioning government.

It's a situation that one would have thought would be sobering enough to snap Congress into real action for once. Instead, they did the exact opposite, doubling down on the same-old, same-old and laboring day and night in the halls of the Capitol to deliver us a tour de force of old thinking and legislative trickery, as if that's what we really wanted. Almost every single one of the main players — from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Blue Dog turncoat Max Baucus — found some unforeseeable, unique-to-them way to fuck this thing up. Even Ted Kennedy, for whom successful health care reform was to be the great vindicating achievement of his career, and Barack Obama, whose entire presidency will likely be judged by this bill, managed to come up small when the lights came on.

We might look back on this summer someday and think of it as the moment when our government lost us for good. It was that bad. . . . (much more here).

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MinnPost: Good health may have less to do with our health-care system than you think

From MinnPost: Good health may have less to do with our health-care system than you think

By Eric Black | Published Mon, Oct 12 2009 9:41 am

Should failure to finish high school be punishable by early death and by poor health for the dropouts' children?

Who deserves a healthy heart more, the rich or the poor?

My opening questions are ridiculous and absurd, designed to be provocative in hopes you are will take some of the facts below as hard as I have.

  • Fact: On average, in America, college graduates live about five years longer than high school dropouts.

  • Fact: Rates of poor or fair health are about seven times higher among children in poor families than among children in affluent families.

  • Fact: In America, low-income adults are about 50 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, than are affluent adults.

  • Personal responsibility? Yes, maybe, to some extent, but tell it to infants who won't reach their first birthday.

  • Fact: The rate of infant mortality (defined as death before the first birthday) for babies whose mothers did not graduate from college is almost twice the rate for children whose mothers graduated from college.

This post is not, at least not fundamentally, another one about the importance of expanding access to affordable health insurance. It is a prism held up to that debate to deflect attention for a nonce to another set of facts and ideas about health (not health care) in America.

Two weeks ago (and I'm embarrassed its taken me this long to write about it) I attended a fine but poorly attended and mostly un-covered presentation at the Humphrey Institute. The main speaker was Wilhelmine Miller, associate director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. It was titled "Beyond Health Care." Perhaps you can understand why it attracted only a couple of dozen and was ignored by the news media.

Even among the health-care obsessed, most of us are not ready to look "beyond health care" to look for other difficult ways to "build a healthier America."

Furthermore, Miller was mostly presenting data from a 2008 report by the Healthier America Commission documenting the kind of health disparities by income, education and race that I sensationalized above, along with a follow-up report from April of this year in which the commission offered recommendation for reducing those disparities.

But as I watched Miller's powerpoint presentation and its graphics illustrating those disparities of health by income, education and race, I was hit hard by this:

America's horrible showing in all international comparisons of health outcomes (despite spending by far the most on health care of any nation) is not just about who has access to a doctor. Probably more than it is about the absurd shortcomings of the U.S. system of health insurance, those disparities are about class and, to a lesser degree, about race.

Take a look at the table just below. It shows how many more years an individual can expect to live, on average, beyond age 25, sorted by gender and family income.

More education, longer life
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The first -- and shortest -- bar in each gender group reflects the life expectancy of individuals in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. The fourth and tallest shows families with incomes at least four times the poverty level. The gap between the the tallest and shortest bars, on the men's side, is eight years. Eight extra years of life for the affluent. Eight fewer for the poorest. Eight years. That's a lot of years.

In 2009, for a family of four, a lowest bar would cover families with incomes at or below $22,050. The top bar therefore covers families at $88,200 and up.

Please note that while the figure shows a huge gap between top and bottom, the overall graphic shows not just a disparity between the richest and the poorest but a steady increase in life expectancy at each step. The poorest families qualify for Medicaid, whereas the middle two bars include many families that do not qualify. In class terms, the "working poor" families -- too rich for Medicaid but holding crummy jobs with little or no health benefits -- are the group mostly likely to be living without health insurance.

That's another short-cut to the argument that poor health outcomes are not just, and maybe not primarily, about access to healthy care. Of course it is better, speaking health-wise, to have insurance than not. I hope that our Congress and our country will soon complete the short-term legislative task of removing various barriers to health access, whether caused by unaffordability or by pre-existing conditions or some other cause. But this graphic and those to follow make a strong argument that simply being poor is bad for your health, even if you have access to health care. I suspect it also means that the United States will continue to look bad in international health comparisons, even if more people have health insurance, because our country has more poverty.

If you can stand this stuff, the full report (pdf) slices and dices the comparative health data many ways, including by education level and race and many combinations thereof. The graphs in this post are just a selection. Below is the infant mortality rate for children born to mothers who reached various levels of education.

A mom's education, a baby's chance of survival
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Education and income are obviously highly correlated. I include this one because for the benefit of those whose thinking on issues like these runs strongly toward the idea of personal responsibility. America is a land of opportunity. Education, at least through high school, is free. If you stay in school, don't join a gang, stay off drugs, get a job and have a good work ethic, you do not have to be poor. So to what degree should the relatively affluent taxpayer have to pay for the poor life choices made by a stranger? It's a complex discussion.

It is certainly easier for some young people to get on and stay on the path to the middle-class American dream than others. In the context of the larger liberal-conservative argument over what the government should do, this is important. But it is also complicated by issues such as those illustrated by the graphic above, which I sensationalized in my opening. A significant factor influencing the odds that a newborn child will survive to its first birthday is whether its mother has a high-school diploma. Without being cavalier about the challenges facing a particular young woman versus another, the mother has some control over whether she stays in high school. The baby has none.

The Robert Wood Johnson commission also found that if you ignore income and education but focus on race, there are significant disparities. Among black adults, 20.8 percent report that their health is poor or only fair. Among whites, just 11.4 percent say that. Hispanics are in between with 19.2 percent.

So race matters. Members of minority races are also more likely to have low incomes. But if you sort by both income and race, it's pretty clear that class is much bigger than race as a predictor of health. In other words, poor blacks are still more likely to report poor health than poor whites, and the same for higher income groups. But income still appears to be the more powerful factor of the two, as illustrated by the figure below.

Racial or ethnic differences in health regardless of income
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Blacks and hispanics with poverty-level incomes are much more likely to be in ill health than members of the same racial groups who have higher incomes. The gaps by class are bigger than the gaps by race. The RWJ commission went out of its way to make this point, perhaps because differences by race, that may be purely genetic, are more difficult to overcome, or perhaps because the politics of race are deep-seated.

But poverty and poor health -- even unto early death -- tend to run together. This is probably true for all countries but is especially costly to health outcomes in our country because we have so much more poverty. Take, for example, this graphic displaying the rate of child poverty in the 25 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, basically a club of the wealthy nations of the Western world, plus a couple of other nations that we don't usually think of wealthy or western.

More child poverty in America
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As you can see, in this data from the second half of the 1990s, the United States ranks 24th out of 25. In Denmark, which has the lowest rate, 2.4 percent of children live poverty. In the United States: 21.7 percent. This is really a national disgrace, for such a wealthy nation as ours.

So, after amassing and analyzing all of this data in 2008, the Commission to Build a Healthier America published in 2009 a second study, titled "Beyond Health Care," which I take to mean that we need to move beyond just trying to get more Americans insured and get them into the health care system. The commissioners compiled a list of 10 recommendations toward a healthier America that don't have much to do with doctors and hospitals but are targeted more on reducing the deficits that cause poor people to be less healthy. The recommendations focus on things like diet, exercise, smoking cessation, healthy housing and on developmental education for small children.

We're talking about things like feeding healthier meals to kids when they are in school, requiring that every kid get some exercise every day during school.

Here's another example that wouldn't occur to middle-class folks who have easy access to plenty of good and healthy groceries. From the report:

"Many inner city and rural families have no access to healthful foods: for example, Detroit, a city of 139 square miles, has just five grocery stores.Maintaining a nutritious diet is impossible if healthy foods are not available, and it is not realistic to expect food retailers to address the problem without community support and investment. Communities should act now to assess needs to improve access to healthy foods and develop action plans to address deficiencies identified in their assessments."

That leads to this recommendation: "Create public-private partnerships to open and sustain full-service grocery stores in communities without access to healthful foods."

When most of us think about improving health in America, we probably don't start thinking about the shortage of grocery stories in Detroit.

The only thing we learn from history

Is that we never learn from history -- even history as painful and as present as the looting of America (and the rest of the world) by the financial elites, led by the "Invisible Bankers" known as insurance companies and other titans of finance. Jerome a Paris has a brilliant discussion of our blindness. This excerpt from his column at The Oil Drum:

To extend on this a bit, here are a few items worth noting:

  • there's very little discussion of the fact that this is an income crisis namely, stagnation/lack of income, which was dissimulated for a long time by increased access to debt. All the endless debating about replacing private debt by public debt and whether that's a good thing or a sustainable one ignore the underlying problem: middle and lower class wages & incomes have been squeezed and need to be supported. Instead, we get savage budget cuts in social spending, ie in the very programmes that supplement or complement most people's incomes, and yet more talk about making the labor market more "flexible" (which only ever means pushing wages down). Public spending in collective infrastructure that would support living standards (including energy-saving plans such as support to home efficiency, or public transport), backed by real income (ie taxes on those who do not spend all their wages) is not seen as something necessary like the bank bailouts were;

  • there's been very little talk of the profound underlying responsibility of the financial world in that drive to reduce the cost of labour. This is usually presented as an inevitable consequence of globalisation, when in fact it's been a clear policy choice to focus policy priorities on improving returns on capital (at the expense of everybody else), and to take decisions that justified these choices. For instance, the permanent push to make pensions market-based rather than government-run: this creates new markets for the finance industry and, at the same time, helps justify return on capital requirements as something good for everybody's pensions; stock market performance and short term returns of investment managers then become key numbers for everybody and further drive the focus on short term profitability;

  • the massive call upon public resources, and the apparent "success" of bailout/stimulus plans (ie governments succeeded where the private market failed), as touted by the markets and politicians, has not lead to a real change of mood about government being a solution rather than a problem. Consistency is not the hallmark of our times. Already the talk is about too-invasive regulation, and unhealthy public debt burdens, as if these had been caused by reckless civil servants. The most obvious point is that higher taxes to pay for government saving the day are still seen everywhere as inconceivable or inacceptable. Just like the War on Terror did not apparently require any financial effort, the Big Bank Bailout cannot be allowed to touch upon taxpayers - or banks, which are too-big-to-failer than before.

  • the oil price increases prior to the crash are now dismissed as aberrations caused by speculators and not a signal of anything deeper happening; similarly climate change worries are often dismissed by Serious People as a "luxury" in today's tough times. As a result, we're doing even less than we could on these problems - and so much less than we should. Oh sure, there's a nice bit of spending on green technologies in the various stimulus plans, but it's still dwarfed by help to traditional sectors of the economy (ie it's not really a game changer yet) and it's nothing compared to what we know can be done. More importantly, it's still seen as a sideshow, and more of a necessary PR exercise than actual policy; more generally, the focus on short term needs eclipses any long term thinking and planning; the past blanket discredit thrown upon government prevents it from fulfilling that natural role (and brings about a slow decay of infrastructure, generally);

  • in that context, the impact of deregulation on energy markets, which encourages investment by private sector (at private sector cost of capital) rather than by the public sector (at discount rates close to long term sovereign debt cost) is never discussed. That means that energy spending is focusing, structurally, on investment-light but fuel-rich technologies, as it is easier to keep such investment profitable in the face of volatile prices even if it's not the cheapest technology. Thus we stay on our oil (and gas)-dependent trajectory through investment that can tie us in for decades. Additionally, private decisions on infrastructure generally lead to boom-and-bust cycles as supply reacts in exaggerated fashion to short term demand and price signals. But the financial world get to trade, hedge and finance to its heart, and apparently this is all that matters;

  • throughout, progressive ideas and parties have been discredited - either by having Serious People call the bailout of the financial world and other current regressive policies "socialism," blaming the continuing crisis on Big Government while preventing actual public intervention where it would matter (public investment, increased transfers to the poor and unemployed, better and/or more universal public health care, etc) - followed by the knockout blow: claiming very loudly that the crisis somehow discredits alternatives to unfettered markets;

  • behind all this, of course, is the agenda of large corporations - old industry incumbents, financial behemoths, not to mention the healthcare insurance juggernaut in the US - and their shareholders, and the twin overridding imperatives of return on equity and "competitive" management pay. They lobby, they run the debate and they outright buy off politicians. The grip of money over politics and policy has, if anything, tightened. But it's not seen as related to the crisis in any way - at least not by the Serious People (ie those that buy Serious People or are bought by them)