“When GM goes bust, we’re all in trouble.” That way my father’s point of view in the mid 1960’s. At that point in history, GM was the biggest auto company in the world. Perhaps it was the biggest company in the world. Now it is in bankrupcy. Its bondholders, its retired workers, its suppliers, and everyone who had any kind of contractual relationship with GM will be severely burned.
The bankrupcy of GM ought to give us pause. How can a company that was once the world’s largest non-governmental institution be insolvent? If we answer this question well we might learn some very useful things about capitalism, about work, about power, and about anglophone culture. To the extent that we learn useful things and change our practices, we may prevent many more of America’s most powerful institutions from similar failures.
Returns to Scale - And its Limitations
The seeds of GM’s failure were sown early on in its existence. General Motors had grown to be the biggest car company in much the same way that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had grown - mostly by expanding its economic reach by using profits to buy up competitors and improve margins. It was a practice of using high level economic might that depended very little on other techniques. It required that one acquire competitors by whatever means were effective. Then, one exploited commonality between lines to decrease tooling and production costs. Usually the simple fact of being big enough brought sufficient returns to scale that GM as a firm did not have to be much better than anyone at anything. It did not have to be better at marketing or manufacturing or design or testing. It merely had to be almost as good. Everything else could be done by manipulation of the levers of power.
When Tucker set up a manufacturing line to produce cars in the mid ninteen fifties, GM and other Detroit auto companies used their pull to have him prosecuted for defrauding investors. They claimed he never intended to build cars. The actual cars that he produced were never allowed to be introduced as evidence. He was shut down. He posed a threat to the standard way of doing business. And he was shut down by a manipulation of the legal system.
When the movie was made about his story in the early nineties, a good portion of the dozen or so cars he manufactured, were still roadworthy. Tucker represented the independent, entrepreneurial spirit in America. His ambition was to give Americans the choice of a superior automobile. This represented the peak of Detroit’s power. But five decades of waning power may not have changed Detroit’s way of thinking about the business, much.
In the minds of auto executives, automobiles have just vehicles of exchange. One built them to the lowest possible standard at the lowest possible cost and sold them at the highest possible price. One assumed that the consumer was ingnorant of all he could not see. Beauty in cars was skin deep. And when the paint peeled because of corrosion, that just meant it was time to buy another one. In this view of the business, reliability, performance, and pretty much everything other element of value to a customer were irrelevant if the customer could not sense it at the time of purchase. That meant a kind of race to the bottom.
For decades, Detroit auto companies had their way with the American consumer. Things began to change in 1972. That was when the first oil crisis struck. That was the year the US hit peak oil as predicted by Hubbert in the 1950’s. This would mean that oil production in the US would necessarily decline, and that the US would have to import ever more oil in order to consume the same amount as ever. That was the year OPEC cut oil exports to the US. They did the same in 1977. Oil prices spiked. Jimmy Carter signed a law requiring disclosure of fuel efficiency on each new car. Small cars soon earned a significant market niche.
Detroit exploited that niche by introducing the forgetable Vega and the notorious Pinto. But the Japanese used the event to enter the US market in a different way. An early TV advertisement featured a couple slamming the doors of their Toyota. The implicit message was “It may be a low cost car that sips fuel, but it is still a car of high production value.” The message stuck.
During this decade three Japanese car companies introduced models into the US market: Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Each of these companies has grown. And, in fact, within the last few years - before the credit crunch - Toyota had already grown to be the world’s largest car company. Toyota has been building cars in the US for two decades using American labor and (some) American parts. And they have been building more reliable cars with less labor input than any other car maker. Honda’s cars are not far behind in terms of reliability. And they generally garner high praise for being fun to drive. Japanese car makers gained ground with American customers by building a reputation for high reliability and high value.
Given that they had serious scale disadvantages at the start, how could Japanese producers have hoped to be successful? There are many answers. The fundamental answer is that they paid less per car for labor and materials and they produced cars that earned for their brands a deserved reputation for reliability and value. And how did they do that?
US businessmen will argue that the labor unions were too strong and that they drew too much capital out of US car companies. This is probably true. But it is probably also true that this is more of an excuse than a reason.
There were two factors that made the labor cost lower for Japanese manufacturers. One is that labor rates were slightly lower. They ran non-union shops and paid wages that were high in local terms but low in comparison to union rates. The other reason was that Japanese had much less labor in their auto assembly processes than the US car companies. The Japanese had evolved a better manufacturing method.
The Stratification Problem
There are several related reasons the Japanese managers were able to get more value from American workers than American managers. One was the idea of KAIZEN. It is the idea of empowering workers to do things that allow them to become more productive. And its’s the idea that workers are invested in their work at every level. They work hard. And this work brings them not just a paycheck, but a meaningful place in society. They engage with all their talents.
Furthermore, position in society - i.e. status - is not a matter of categorical difference but one of function. The world is not split into nobility and “villains;” rather, people higher in the hierarchy have greater responibilities that account for their greater authority. They may have better educations and even better breeding; but they are not somehow categorically different from the people who labor in the factories. These are ideas that are deeply engrained in German and Japanese culture. There is a touch of this same idea in the French notion about work and place in society. It’s much less true in Anglophone countries where the notion of two classes still prevails.
A by-product of the classless workplace idea is that there is a constant dialogue that occurs vertically within an organization. It assumes that decisions are made closest to the groups that will be affected by them. And that competent people with strong training backgrounds, exercising good sense, and motivated by an interest in the success of the organization work out decisions in a way that gains the most advantages and avoids the most pitfals. Management is charged with enabling the virtually continuous flow of incremental improvements by providing financial and engineering support. Management, in this view of the world, derives power from its ability to make good decisions. And to make available the resources to implement.
Even if no practical business decisions were to come out of this dialogue, the dialogue itself creates a kind of shared interest in the business and its operations that knits together people at different levels of the organization. This sense of shared mission allows for give and take in all business arenas including negotiations about pay.
But it also produces good business decisions.
In this model good decisions are both the reason for existence of the power structure, and its product. This vertical dialogue keeps management in the loop about operations. It means that they stay connected with the part of the business that adds the real value.
In Detroit, by contrast, there was a kind of invisible line drawn between workers and management. Management was allowed to set goals and working rules for workers. They were required to make sure the raw materials showed up. And to make sure the finished goods got sold. And to make sure that new products were designed and tooling made. But if there were minor problems that cost time and money on the manufacturing floor, it was the workaround that ruled. The only thing that was to be negotiated between management and workers was compensation.
Similarly, it was assumed that a manufacturing plant, once it was built, was perfect. Nothing could be done to make it work better. Sure, there was an operating budget for keeping things in good repair, but there was no persistent attention paid to the question of how manufacturing processes could be streamlined to make them all better. All decisions were made by people at one level - the highest level with an interest in the outcome. And exempt employees rarely spoke to or saw non-exempt employees except at ceremonial functions.
Reinforcing this separation between workers and management was a culture of entitlement. Whereas in Japan the CEO’s of companies were rarely compensated more than 200 times what workers were; in the US 2000 times or more was not uncommon. Furthermore, the people who ran companies in the US were invariably promoted up through marketing and finance divisions. Anyone who actually knew about and cared about operations was treated as a second-class citizen. A manager might be “rotated through” an operating plant, but he was rarely expected to do much outside of learning what products it made.
Everyone knew that the real money came not from being good at making a product, but by being good at selling it. There may be some truth to that proposition when everyone who is selling cars sells cars that are essentially equivalent in terms of measurable value/cost. But the proposition becomes false when this is not true. Ignore operational excellence long enough and eventually you end up on the wrong side of the value proposition. You lose money. Then you go broke.
Denying the Value Proposition
This is where Detroit has been dangerously wrong for five decades. Early on it embraced designed obsolescence. Then, when Toyota and Honda began delivering cars with greatly enhanced reliability or with measurably superior fuel mileage; when Volkswagon began delivering cars with the road performance and feel that approached that of BMW; and when Volvo and Saab delivered cars with superior safety characteristics, the issue of quality began to plague Detroit. It was clear that one could not simply plead “Rich Corinthian Leather” and sell as many cars as you could ever make. One had to figure out how to deliver value in terms of reliability, drivability, fit and finish.
Improvements in reliability since the early eighties suggest that Detroit understood that it could not afford to be much worse than all its competition in every measurable quality; but it is not clear Detroit ever did get very good at managing the value proposition. When measured against most of their competition, they are both worse than the Japanese in terms of reliability - not just on average but in almost every product line - and worse than the Germans and Scandanavians in terms of performance. Instead of really trying learn how to be better, Ford and GM bought Volvo, Saab, Mazda, and Opel.
But even its foreign acquisitions did less good than they might have. There was enough expertise in those enterprises to teach American managers a few things. But it didn’t happen. Enough of the managers came up in Detroit country clubs that if any outsiders from Europe who understood operational excellence landed in the US, they were immediately gelded. Foreign ways were immediately discounted and failure was swift. The game was the only slightly different overseas. There was nothing to be gained by over-investing in foreign operations, especially in Europe. Rather, the slow strangulation of high profile brands served Detroit’s goal of focusing on high mark-up products without delivering high end performance.
What buying those brands could have brought was people who understood how one can cultivate niche markets and serve specific needs very well and competitively. They might also have brought people who understood how to hire and train highly skilled craftsmen, treat them well, and negotiate with them as adults.
But the idea of exploiting niches is one so foreign to GM that its very name denies the possibility. So what if the people who pay a high premium for a Volvo do so because they perceive high value in not being sliced to bits in the event of an accident? So what if they want to know the car has special features that help prevent accidents as well as limit injury?These all add costs. And they cannot be spread out over the entire product line. So why do it? The simple rule that governed their whole business was a kind of interchangeability of all components across all platforms that improved returns to scale. But it also led to a king of lowest common denominator thinking. The only possible place to spend in making a car better was in optional features that were bolted on at the very end of the manufacturing process
Niche markets simply could not exist in the GM framework of thinking. Then, when in the 1990’s more than half of the automobile market was “niche” markets: when Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Volkswagon, BMW, Volvo, Saab, Hyundai, and a few other companies sold most of the cars, Detroit made most of its money on pickup trucks and SUV’s. By denying the very existence of niches, Detroit had backed itself into a place where it sold niche vehicles. But the niche that they were selling into was soon to be a rapidly contracting one. Meanwhile their costs were higher than the competition because they had counted on returns to scale and consumer ignorance to save their bacon.
One question corporate strategists never quite wrestled with was this “Will the SUVs and Pickup Trucks supplant other kinds of autos?” Detroit simply did business as if the answer had to be “Yes.” But that is a daft proposition on the face of it, for it assumes that everyone is either a soccer mom or a farmer/construction worker. And that probably accounts less than 20% of the US population. In an age when fuel prices must rise because of limitations on natural resources, it is insane build a business model on the proposition of building ever larger, more fuel-guzzling vehicles.
By contrast, it is reasonable to argue that one must have at least a meaningful token position in small autos. Because the markups are so small, doing so forces one to hone manufacturing toward operational excellence. One might actually become a far better car company by competing in the economy classes and losing a token amount of money every year at it than by avoiding it and avoiding the whole question of operational excellence.
Furthermore, one knows that eventually fuel must become expensive. So making small cars keeps one in a position of being able to move toward smaller cars the next time fuel prices go up. This is but one strategic error Detroit has made. And it has been making it since the 1970’s.
By the mid 1990’s one might argue that Detroit must have chosen to build trucks and SUV’s out of necessity - the necessity of a set of companies playing a losing hand. Detroit’s niche had always been to make cars that were cheaply wrought or ones that were wasteful of resources. The Japanese had no domestic markets for these vehicles, so Detroit could still have some advantages here. So it focussed on these areas. But even here it was not safe. Toyota brought its skill in making reliable cars to the truck and SUV market. It leveraged it reputation for reliability and scored meaningful hits on Detroit’s home turf with the likes of the Toyota Land Cruiser.
Bad Decisions - Consequence of Culture
We might all disagree about which decisions were GM’s worst. Or which choices doomed Detroit to failure. But the simple fact that it has been losing market share to Toyota and Honda for four decades is a testament to the fact that it is making worse decisions than Toyota and Honda for four decades. Back in the mid 1980’s there was an article in a major business publication that told us Japanese management held US workers in high regard for their skill, knowledge, dedication, and energy; but they viewed US managers with contempt. Perhaps there is something to be learned from the way managers of Japanese and continental European companies manage.
Since that moment, the Japanese had their little problem with banking, suggesting that not all Japanese ideas are uniformly good. But we have had our own little problem with banking. And during the two decades of retrenchment in Japan, the Japanese have continued to invest heavily in their own automated manufacturing lines. The Japanese have more industrial robots per capita than any nation on earth.
Whether this is a good business practice remains to be seen, but there can be no question that the Japanese are serious about being good at manufacturing. Americans, on the other hand, are serious only at being good at investing. It’s good to be good at investing. But it’s a short-sited view. The people who invest capital usually get the short term return; but it is generally where manufacturing operations are profitable that great wealth is generated. When a nation ships its stock of capital offshore, the bulk of the wealth generated from that capital accrues offshore. The Germans and Japanese understand this well. Americans seem completely oblivious.
The idea of investing to improve on-shore productive capacity fits hand-in-glove with the idea of Kaizen. For example, if one finds that one is paying manufacturing workers too much to make a good profit, then the goal must be to improve the productivity of the workers by increasing automation. Or by using some other high impact technique such as building out the product line so that even with marked increases in productivity, there is still a need for each worker. But in every case it requires a kind of joint interest in the long term success of the business. One cannot manage from quarter to quarter or year to year. One must take a long term view of the the business that , in ten years, sets one’s own organization far ahead of where it is today. In the case of the Detroit car company, long term is defined as being roughly the duration of a labor contract - a couple of years, maybe. And every technological change is fought because it increases business risk -especially changes that would bring big improvements in anything.
A great example of this is the Fiero. In the early 1980’s an ambitious manager decided to build a mid-engine two-seater sports car within the Pontiac brand. For reasons that are impossible to understand, he got enough support to start production. The car was ambitious for a number of reasons. One was that it used all plastic (through color) body panels that were virtually immune to denting, rusting, or scratch damage. The car was well received by the press. During its one or two years in production it sold well and it had even garnered its own cult following. What was truly amazing was that it broke every rule in the book. It was well built, reliable, sporty, stylish, and yet it sold for about the cost of a subcompact. When Pontiac stopped production everyone outside Detroit asked “Why?” To many, it seemed like the best answer was because it simply went too far. It appeared that the most compelling reason for its being withdrawn was that it was so good it made everyone else look bad by comparison. And, if the rumor is correct, that was the end of that particular manager’s career at GM: he was fired because he was so damn successful at creating customer value.
Inside American business, the problem of making bad decisions, is not just an issue of choice. It is an issue of identity. The process is lampooned weekly in Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon strip and the BBC program The Office. Americans make bad decisions partly because we have embrace bad mental habits in our mental conception the workplace and the various relationships that exist in that context.
The Wrong Work Ethic
One of the issues is that management in many companies in the US operates on a “clubby” mentality: The company is viewed as a club. The offices are its clubhouse. (We are tempted to think of nine-year-olds and treehouses…) Exempt employees are its club members who are elected for their good looks, brains, and athletic prowess. Or maybe because they are well connected. Education at an exclusive, expensive private university is a kind of imprimateur marking suitable club members.
Issues of technical competence are of little or no importance. Showing up at work matters not because it allows one an opportunity to work and produce wealth, but because it is symbolic of commitment to the club. It is possible for institutions to get by on this sort of culture for some time. But when they are pitted against rivals that have more productive ethics, they are doomed to failure.
A friend of mine worked in the IT branch of a major financial company in Manhattan. He joked that people showed up at 9:00. They would drink coffee and hang out in each other’s offices until lunch. Then, to look industrious, they would have sandwiches delivered to their offices. Then they would hang out in each others offices until about 3:00. At about 4:00 everyone would realize that they had a day’s worth of work to do. They would go to their own offices and work until 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Then they would go home. They would return the next day dog-tired and incapable of mounting any meaningful effort. So they would spend most the day going from office to office bragging about what long hours they worked. One’s work status depended most on being present and visible. And maybe on being good looking or witty.
In a business publication some time ago I remember reading of how German workers who came to the US were shocked at the lax culture. They were shocked to see how US workers treated the work place as a place for socialization. In contrast, when in Germany they would go to work, hardly ever talk to their cohorts at work, and then leave promptly at 5:00. Evidently the French do much the same, except they leave earlier. Paris’ afternoon rush hour starts around 2:30. The European conception of the workplace is that it is a place to work. It is not a place to socialize. Europeans work hard, expect results, and go elsewhere to socialize.
Common to the European and Japanese cultures are ideas that value training, competency, focus, and hard work. It assumes specialization and specific spheres of influence based on technical competency. This body of thinking has many consequences. One is that Japanese and European exempt employees can be quite effective during their work days. The French, for example, have the highest GNP per hour worked. Another is that when one views the work place as a place to produce output rather than a place to acquire status, one behaves toward problems differently.
This idea of technical competency allows all decisions to be made at the lowest level possible. It assures that exceptions are handled more quickly and in ways that will typically have the leas possible negative impact on the business.
By contrast, in “clubby” cultures, decisions are management’s reason for existence. And problems are signs of failure. Should ever a problem rear its head in an institution with clubby nature, the management reaction is simply to make the problem go away. The first two or three steps involve a denial of the problem’s existence. In some cases evidence of a problem disappears after it has been denied effectively at high levels. A good chain of management is defined by its ability not to cause problems to be solved, but to cause them to disappear. If nothing else works, one simply silences the person who brought the problem to the attention of others. There are hundreds of techniques to doing this ranging from discrediting the person to firing them. There are firms where such techniques are much more useful in acquiring positions of rank than are demonstrated ability in actually making the reason for the complaint disappear.
In such an atmosphere, the very act of observing a problem tempts disclosing it. And disclosure means punishment and tempts dismissal. This trains the whole organization to be oblivious to problems and to deny problems in the face of any and all evidence of problems. Only management consultants are allowed to see problems. But even here, management consultants must go around to every business of the same kind, see that everyone’s business is in serious danger of collapse because of the same problem, then they must recommend to all their clients some incremental solution that poses no threat either to the entrenched power structure or to the way the company sees itself. In such a culture, it is only a matter of time until the institution collapses.
Specialization and Technical Competency
Not every US company has this sort of a problem. A friend of mine worked at Hewlett Packard in the early nineties. HP had come up as a maker of high-end electronic instrumentation. It had a reputation for no-holds-barred product excellence and high margins. It had just gotten into the laser printer business, and it had brought its culture of excellence into that business. This friend would tell me stories about the way business decisions were made at HP.
One of the questions that people frequently asked in business discussions was “Are you technical or non-technical?” The assumption behind this question was that two kinds of issues bear on a business decision. One is technical issues. These are ones that require a deep understanding of the way things actually are. You cannot convince a broken glass that it is not broken. You either have to repair it or get a new glass. Technical people are good at understanding this sort of thing - much better than non-technical people, usually. The other type of issus is non-technical issues which deal much more with the way things are perceived, the way people are influenced, the way power and resources flow within an institution. Technical people are sometimes much less good at understanding these sorts of things. So when a person makes an assertion in a business meeting, it is helpful to know whether that assertion is backed by the authority of expertise.
No good business plan of action could go forward unless the technical people understood how to overcome the technical obstacles. No business plan could go forward unless the non-technical people understood how to overcome other kinds of business obstacles. The question implicitly gives credence to this idea. ( We note in passing that the question could persist long after the practice of managing in the way we just mentioned has ceased. For instance, it could be used to disqualify people from voicing legitimate concerns. And in such cases it would serve a purpose opposite to the one we attributed to it..)
The question itself betrays a number of bits of brilliance that might help explain HP’s early success. It suggests that business decisions take into consideration technical and non-technical ideas. It suggests that competence and good judgment in one’s field of expertise ( technical or non-technical) are highly valued. It demonstrates an implicit assumption that people are expected to come to the table with core competencies, and that decisions rely on the competencies and good judgements of all specialists. This is a sign of a workplace where work is defined in terms of delivering value to customers more than it is in terms of gaining personal status.
Decisions are not imposed from the top down. They percolate up from the operating groups of the company. It is suggestive of the idea that people at all levels are expected to voice objections and suggest problems before decisions are made.
This is an idea completely consistent with the Japanese idea of kaizen. It is an idea consistent with the continental European idea of highly trained crafts-people. It is an idea NOT consistent with the idea of business place as club. It is not consistent with the Adam Smith idea that a person in a craft or trade can learn all that there is to know about it with three weeks of on the job training.
Canary in a Coal Mine
The failure of GM is not a result of the financial crisis. My wife, who spent twenty some years as an executive in a health-care company predicted six years ago that GM would collapse if it did not get its health care related expense problems fixed. And, in fact, a huge part of GM’s financial collapse owes to financial obligations it owes in support of health care costs. Had the UAW been served by the Japanese health care system, those costs would already be something like half of what they are today and GM might not yet be entering bankrupcy. So GM’s failure ought to tell us something about the cost of not fixing health care in the US.
But Rick Waggoner, until recently the chairman of GM, insisted right up until the day he was thrown out that GM would never seek bankrupcy protection. Either he was completely delusional, or he was unwilling to publicly admit a serious problem. What is scary is that within the clubby atmosphere of the Detroit business world it is precisely this aspect of his behavior that was the most likely to get him the chairmanship. And it was the most likely to keep him there while that mentality was responsible for filling the chairman position.
The clubby practice of denying problems has kept Detroit from being as good as its competition at design, manufacturing, or reliability for something like five decades. It has imperilled American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and GM. AMC went out of business long ago, though its Jeep brand - still plagued with reliability problems ( ironically ) staggers on as part of an ailing Chrysler.
It is inevitable that a few brands will disappear over the next decade. It will not be long before the category “commuter car” becomes a special category. And, in fact, it will not be a great surprise if some cities begin to try to create special incentives to drivers to use smaller, cheaper electric powered commuter cars.
But the bigger question is how far will the Anglophone world need to fall behind the rest of the world in order to discover that:
1) Operational excellence and technical competence counts. The notion of continuous improvement implicitly acknowledges the idea that problems exist and need to be solved. It implicitly depends on technical competence and good judgement.
2) Decisions must be made on the basis of information not just on the basis of preserving power. When considerations of power usurp the decision making process, bad decisions are made. And the consequence is a more serious erosion of power. Power is a natural consequence of good decisions.
3) The workplace is a temple for the sacred purpose of generating wealth, and power is a natural consequencs of being good at this. If one thinks of the workplace as being a place to gain status or power first, then one risks trading business assets and advantages for personal gain. That’s a morally reprehensible point of view.
4) Entitlements don’t create wealth; they create fiefdoms, slave plantations. What creates wealth is an efficient means of production or distribution. And what creates excess wealth is an incrementally more efficient means of production or distribution. Once everyone else has learned your tricks, you need to create new ones; so you must cultivate expertise and set it to work within a culture that is very good at defining and implementing low risk incremental change.
GM’s failure ought to teach us these lessons. If we learn them well, we might yet forestall a general economic disaster. Apart from the sheer monumental good fortune of its accidental discovery five centuries ago, America’s good fortune as a nation stems from healthy institutions of all sorts. It depends completely on a low level of institutional corruption and on a high level of sanity, wisdom, expertise, and business intelligence. It depends on hard work at all levels. It depends on productivity at all levels. It depends on management that is actively engaged in identifying problems and fixing them. It depends on capital and on a continuous re-investment of profits in the efforts that improve effectiveness at all levels. It depends on a high level of trust and trustworthiness among all interested parties in an institution.
All of these attributes were compromised by the clubby atmosphere that smothered Detroit. GM is bankrupt. So are the practices that got it there.
When the word came to Shabu that his father’s powerful friends had convinced him that Shabu’s governance had been so terrible, and that his advocacy for the tribe had been so inept that Shabu could no longer rule the great city, Shabu was very angry. He called a great council of his advisers to find out what action to take.
“In the first place, there is no hope of defying your father. He is a god to the most powerful families in both military and commerce. Most of the men loyal to you owe their places in your government to your father; and they are, therefore, more loyal to him than to you. But you can stall for time. Tell him you need four years to prepare the new prince to rule the Great City. “ This was the first item of unanimous consent.
“In the second place,it is imperative that we reward our friends for their support. So we must write IOU’s from the public coffers to those who supported us. These must be such great sums of money that there is no hope that all the people of the great city now living will be able to pay them off in their lifetimes. And so their children will be forced to work as slaves to fulfil the promises we made to our friends.”
And so the arms merchants and the prayermakers and the owners of great estates were given heaps of gold and promises for more gold than was in the whole kingdom.
“In the third place, there is no question of your leaving the Great City in a condition that can be easily governed. You must divide its inhabitants into factions. The rich vs the poor. The north vs. the south. The uplanders vs the valley dwellers. The worshipers of Vall against the heathen. The old against the young. The men against the women. Even the blind must be turned against those who might help them navigate the world in blindness.” Shabu’s men hired prayermakers to shout from the towers of the minarets. In the rich neighborhoods the prayermakers heaped scorn on the poor for being stupid, uneducated, dirty, shifty, lazy, untrustworthy, and poor. In the poor neighborhoods prayermakers heaped scorn on the rich for being greedy, insensitive, lazy, criminal, and abusive of public trust. The educated were turned from issues of policy to issues of personal well-being. The underclasses were taught to trust only the prayermakers. The heathen were taught to despise the simplicity of the faithful. The faithful were taught to dispise the waywardness of the heathen.
“Finally, we must present the new prince with a problem so big that no other problem seems important and so difficult that there exists no acceptable solution. Then, when he takes power we can mock him from every corner of the Great City both for what he does and for what he does not do. And we can mock him regardless of the choices he makes.”
Shabu’s advisers were at a loss to know what sort of problem would be big enough, serious enough to satisfy these criteria. But Shabu had a quiet adviser with a bald head and a gravelly voice named Ynech. “Suppose the great city were on fire.”
“But we have well trained men. We have equipment. We have procedures. We have firebreaks. We have water in great vessels.”
“So, we need to move the trained men into another country to fight a war. We need to hire mercenaries who are actively hostile to procedures and training and who love nothing better than to get drunk while on duty. We need to sell the equipment. We need to store cooking oil in great open pottery vessels all along the firebreaks so that a single rider on a horse with a torch and a great hammer can ride from vessel to vessel at night, lighting the oil and breaking the pots. And in this way he can set light to the whole of the Great City in an hour’s time. Have the prayermakers invent reasons for each of these new policies.”
So it was ordered. So it was done.
Even before the day of that Shabu was to hand governance of the Great City over to young prince Ambao who would replace him, citizens of the city were nervous about the pots of oil lining the great fire-breaks. A few of those pots had already been set alight “to light the darkness and make the city safe at night.” But it was evident there were cracks in many of the pots, especially the ones that were lit. Where were the firemen? The firemen had been sent away. What about their untrained replacements? They were lying in a stupor in the brothels.
What about the idea of men taking up their own fight against the threat? The pots of oil had their own guards whose public purpose was to keep the pots safe. These guards would let no man near the fire breaks. But little known to the citizenry, each guard had hidden a hammer nearby. And on the agreed signal, they would break the pots. It would not take an hour to set the whole of the Great City alight. It would take twenty seconds. Ynech’s plans were always technically brilliant.
Finally the day arrived. Shabu and his small council left the Great City. As soon as they were outside the city walls, the signal was given. And in twenty seconds the whole of the Great City was in flames.
Young Ambao had seen it coming. But he was not in a strong position. If he accused Shabu of orchestrating the fire, he would lose his place to a prince less able and less principled than he. All he could do was to fight the fire. This would not be easy. Not only were the firefighters gone, but a year back Shabu had imported slaves who, bucket by bucket had drained the lake to irrigate a crop of indigo that his minions had processed into dye and sold to Distant City. There was only enough water for drinking and bathing until the next seasonal rains. The only other resource was a huge heap of heavy twill fabric.
So Ambao organized the people of the city into brigades. Their goal was not to put out the fire where it burned out of control - these areas were lost - but to keep the fire from spreading to new places by beating out young flames with the heavy twill cloth. A tiny amount of water was applied to the cloth until it was just damp. Then the cloth would be swung at tongues of flame as they moved into new territory. This effort would save great swathes of the city, even as others were lost.
It was a great gamble since the twill cloth had some value on the open market but there were few out-of-town buyers for Great City real estate. He was destroying a thing of commercial value to save something that was not. So maybe from a purely commercial standpoint it was not a sound decision. But before the rainy season would come winter. And people of the Great City would die of freezing weather if too many of the homes were destroyed. Furthermore, Great City did much business with entities from far places. And if the whole city burned, all of this would be lost. Much more than the value of the buildings would be destroyed by fire. And hundreds of time the value of the cloth would be lost.
Still, it was a gamble. It might not work. Groups of untrained men, women, and children swatting flames with wet twill was not a pretty site. People did not know how to wield the twill well. Some tried to take on flames that could never be put out this way. Others simply folded up the twill and planned to sell it at a profit when the stocks ran out. But many of the citizens fought the flames well and bravely. Many homes were saved. And many places of business with their stocks of goods survived, too.
This did not, however, cause the prayermakers and the other friends of Shabu to issue utterances of praise. Instead, they mocked the efforts.
“Ha! Ambao has undertaken to fight fire with combustable materials! He is a fool. And those who follow him are slaves and idiots.”
“Ha! Look how Ambao is wasting water. All that water is going to be needed for spring planting of indigo, if the rains are late.”
“Great City never burned like this while Shabu was prince of the city. What kind of ineptitude on the part of Ambao caused this conflagration?”
These kinds of questions and comments were yelled from the minarets by the prayermakers. They were shouted from the high windows in the quarters where men of commerce lived. There were even men in the poor neighborhoods who earned their meager livelihoods by whispering these same doubts to whom might listen.
Even as we speak, the Great City is burning. Even as we speak, Ambao is fighting the fire. Even as we speak Shabu’s friends are mocking his efforts.
What must prince Ambao do next?
It’s broken. Not just a little. The media in America is fundamentally broken. The most essential social purpose of media is open public policy discourse. Open public discourse is vital to a democratic way of life. Yet the US has repeatedly failed to attain and maintain a high level of public discourse in most of its media. A few magazines prove an excption. And there are some minor bright spots in TV and radio. What started out being not particularly good has lurched from mediochre to insipid and then veered toward destructive. It is not uniformly so, but to a remarkable extent main stream media is a wasteland. Too many of its offerings actively gnaw at the fragile fabric that holds society together.
The Shallowness Problem
In 1832 Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American newspapers were principally commercial rags. He noted that Continental newspapers were full of thoughtful commentary, political analysis, and generally good writing but that American newspapers had only stripped down stories about trivial events, and ads. He did note that, at least east of the Hudson, people tended to live in vital communities that assembled regularly and engaged in political discourse orally. He admired the vitality and inclusiveness of such a system, even if he imagined the level of discourse to lack sophistication. In some ways, we might suppose it worked just a little like the internet of today, except that common interests tended to be geographically shared then, whereas today they are based more on interests, competencies, and political inclinations.
Much has not changed in America. In all but the most specialized media, trivia trumps thoughtful analysis, commerce trumps all. There is one nationwide newspaper that gets delivered free to a lot of hotel rooms whose level of discourse is so shallow I have never been able to make it through the first paragraph of any story. But I am not a patient reader; maybe the good stuff starts in paragraph 13. We must imagine that this free newspaper meets the needs of its advertizers, else the paper would fail. Yet does’t a newpaper by virtue of its mode of circulation have some obligation to inform?
Quid Pro Quo
It seems to me there is a quid pro quo here. America is a democratic republic. The only way that it can hope to be governed well is if its citizens - the ones who choose the political leaders - make good choices. They do not choose once and then stop. They keep on choosing. This choosing process offers a chance of sweeping corruption, bad behavior, and bad policy out of office. The process only works to the extent that most of the people are both effectively educated and well informed. Montesquieu would point out that they must also be truly virtuous - knowing what is good for society and striving to get that. It’s a crucial point, but part of another discussion. In order for Americans to be well informed, the press is policed almost not at all by the government. This is both good and necessary. But it implies a return obligation. It requires that media operate in a way that does not sabotage good public discourse. It is not a very odious requirement. But it is a strict one.
Substitute Products for Good Discourse
It is a categorical mistake to imagine that the sole purpose of media is to inform the political process. In fact, this may rightly be just the tiniest bit of what it does. But in the grand scheme of things, one can judge all media content the basis of whether it is particularly helpful to a society, innocuous, or harmful. And a society that fails to make this judgment risks self destruction.
There are several sorts of media content that stand in the way of good discourse. One is pablum. It is soporific to good sense and sensibility. Its mode of operation is to lull people to sleep. It is not a physical sleep, but a moral one. It is a kind of secular “opiate of the masses.” In a society full of the pains of inequality and injustice, a modest consumption of such opiates may be a necessary part of the cost of living in a socially cohesive society. I Love Lucy was mindless; but it was fun. But it has the same side effect as an opiate. It makes us want more of the same stuff. And it draws us away from doing harder but more necessary thinking.
In small doses pablum is pretty innocuos. One person’s drivel is another person’s fun, sometimes. There is a scene in a recent indy film that illustrates the point. The main character has a crazy brother whom we find mischievous, bright, fun. He is very quirky, and very lovable. In the middle of the film he commits suicide while watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” because he cannot figure out why anybody would. I understand his quandry. The observation both helps us understand a bit about what pablum is and what it is not. If I am not mistaken, the television show ran for a number of seasons and was considered a commercial success. It may still be running. And judging from the twenty eight seconds I endured of one episode long ago, it seemed about as harmless as it was vacuous. There is no reason to place any sort of sanction on this stuff. We imagine that good editors and program managers know it when they see it. And we must hope that they prevent their particular media channel from being completely overcome by it.
Another form of media product is shill fill. Shill fill is content that masquerades as news or information but whose purpose is primarily commercial. The purest and most open example is the infomercial. But at least the infomercial has the decency to inform us of the provenance of the material, so we may judge it accordingly. There are more subtle forms. If one picked up a newspaper in the mid 1980s and for five years running could find a new story about how high cholesterol was a ticking time bomb and a silent killer, one might reasonably ask whether the story had any connecton to a new family of patented pharmaceuticals designed to lower blood cholesterol. I remember the cholesterol scare of the mid 1980’s. I still have a cookbook or two written by then prominent nutrition writers at prominent newspapers advocating low cholesterol or low fat diets. One writer fumes at how the egg industry stood in the way of progress. Today we find informed writers telling us to eat eggs to lower cholesterol.
There is no question that commercial interests sponsor media that support political points of view most consonant with their interests. Consider rags like “National Review” and “Weekly Standard.” It’s hard to go a week without seeing a number of new articles in each advocating for making our military “Bigger” or “Harder.” I get emails about the same thing every day. But I would not mistake them for good journalism. And these “papers” are very generously supported by a passel of military contractors.
Shill fill can actually serve a public good. But for it to do so properly, it must be written in a way that informs the reader of the special point of view of the writer. And it must be edited with more than a modicum of skepticism. Cholesterol-lowering drugs proved a success in lowering cholesterol. There is more question about whether they saved lives or cured heart disease. The hype generated to make room for the drugs shifted us from eating meat to eating fried potatoes and corn meal. This made us fat. It may or may not have changed our risk of heart disease on account of cholesterol, but it raised the risk of heart disease and on account of obesity and triglyceride levels. The drugs that started this conversation were a raging commercial success. But society has paid a high cost for it.
I can read a prominent city newspaper and find what appear to be shill fill articles several times a year. I may not pick up that paper as often as two days a week. I rarely read more than the front page of two or three sections. I wonder how many articles really are shill fill. Especially if we expand the definition to cover private interests of government officials.
A third category of media product that gets in the way of good public discourse is trash talk. This is typically a radio or television format designed to lampoon “people who are not like us.” It tends to have a more rural audience, although one could argue that at times SNL has wondered into this territory. Rush Limbaugh may be the early prototype. But Rush, at least in his early days, did try to be funny. And while the general thrust of his work I believe is mistaken, some of his points are worth considering. But what started out as lampooning morphed into attacks. And what once were subtle attacks now occasionally turn into open calls or incitations to do violence.
I spent perhaps a minute with Michelle Malkin once. Having stopped viewing television some years before, I had never seen her nor heard of her. I had no idea what I was in for. By forty five seconds I began feeling mounting nausea. By sixty my entire concentration was focussed on suppressing the impulse to put a chair through the televison. No idea what she said. And that’s the point.
It is one thing to lampoon the foibles of people. We all have them. And each group in a society will specialize in its own sort. Sometimes they need to be laughed at. This is probably both a desirable and necessary form of political discourse. Lampooning people simply to put down their behavior or qualities because “they are not like us,” however, has already stepped over the line. This is the stuff of racism and race baiting. And it is not the race part of it that makes it the problem. It is the way in which it destroys respect for ways of being that are different from “ours.”
Fundamentally it has nothing to do with race; it has rather to do with identity groups, tribes. Call it fundamentalism, provincialism, tribalism, ethnic intolerance, red-state wretchedness, wingnutism, whatever one calls it, the act is morally degrading. It degrades the person talking. It degrades the listener. It degrades the target of the trash talk. Each person or group in the equation turns out to be worse off as a result of it. Even the advertizers lose. Their markets are splintered in the process and their brands’ goodwill is defiled. The former raises the cost of advertizing by requiring more careful targeting. The latter simply tarnishes the luster of the brand with everyone. Being respectful breeds respect. Being disrespectful breed disrespect.
A good analyst might be able to produce seven, ten, or five hundred more categories descriptive of media practices that either actively or passively degrade the level of public discourse. But I am going to stop with three because I set out intending to talk about the third one.
Shredding the Fabric of Society
Bad media behavior has a number of insidious effects. First, there is the opportunity cost. Each time something meaningless fills pages, it diverts attention from real problems.
As interested as I am in good political discourse, I imagine my limit to be a few hours of it a week. I am fond of programming that gives me insights about society and my own humanity. I am tempted to reduce “good programming” to “BBC shows produced before commercial TV in Britain.” And good journalism to “the several Economist articles a year that are not obvious apologetics for completely unregulated lassez faire economics.” Sure, there is a lot of good information out there. But very little of it is soundly synthetic. When pieces are good at synthesizing lots of information, they too frequently ignore ideas and evidence that contradicts the point of view. It’s hard to get a really balanced view of an issue. Even most of the pieces in the Economist do a perfunctory job of presenting an opposing view.
But even such feeble pretenses passed out of media practice when the Reagan administration withdrew the “fairness doctrine” that required media outlets that used public airwaves to give multiple points of view on an issue. With the advent of FOX network, we get “all bias all the time.” It’s a network that actively promotes narrowmindedness, provincialism, bias, anger, bigotry, and hatred. And one of its products is trash talk. For example, characterizing people who have a differing point of view as Nazis. Or comparing moslems to fascists with the term “islamo-fascist.”
The real, monstrous cost of trash talk is that it destroys civil society. It tears down bridges that span gaps between groups in society and it builds walls between them. It fosters intolerance. It closes minds. It reinforces prejudices. It encourages ingorance and rewards closed-mindedness. It drives us to be as stupid, and intolerant as we feel naturally inclined to be. It nurtures fundamentalism. It cultivates ethnic hatred. This is the path we must follow if we wish our society to be reduced to the behavior of the Tutsis and Hutus of mid 1990’s Rwanda.
Ethnic hatred is seductive. Every group tends to think of itself as being superior. It is human nature. If there is any social or political area in which America has clearly outstripped the rest of the civilized world it is in its ability to amalgamate disparate cultures - suppressing the tendencies of groups to behave destructively and separately as political entities and economic entities, while encouraging ethnic groups to retain positive cultural practices and identities. It is not the primary reason for success, perhaps; but had America failed here, failure in other areas would have followed. Trash talk threatens failure. Hatred breeds repression. And repression strangles freedom. It’s not a many-stepped process to get from bad discourse to bad government. The latter sticks to the former like a shadow.
The moment we let this impulse toward fundamentalism, tribalism, parochialism be the singular impulse governing political discourse is the day we doom American history to follow the trajectory of the history of the Balkans. Or of Rwanda. In both of these cases ethnic hatred and tension is endemic. A recent book review in the Economist talks about the latest definitive history of Montenegro. It mentions how the book’s author, who was in the state in 1990 witnessed its occupants wantonly killing, pillaging and plundering with a kind of gusto that clearly communicated ” This is what we do. Our ancestors have done it forever; our descents will do it forever more. It is a time-honored and much loved tradition. It is our life; to kill and plunder” This is the end to which trash talk must lead us. Society splinters into tiny mobs whose reason for existence is killing the “other,” pillaging, plundering. It explains the perpetual strife in the Balkans going back 500 or 1000 years or more. And it explains “going Hutu.”
Trash talk will lead us to ends we can neither imagine nor endure. Democracy is not stable under a cascade of trash-talking media. It will come crashing down. And when it does, the government will put a whole new world of programming directors in charge. The irony will be that there is a good chance that they will lack imagination. Programming will become dull and utilitarian, but it may better serve the public interest to some extent than the programming of today that features the Limbaughs, the Colters, and the Malkins. Still, to those who view the media as a cash cow, such events would prove a catastrophic. Thus, it is in the media’s best long-term interest to act with at least a modicum concern for the public interest. If it fails to sustain democracy, it will lose its own franchise in the process. For society at large, the blow promises to be every bit as severe.
Rampant political and economic opression will probably be part of the mix. The nightmare scenario is that the rich upper class might manage to get the miserable lower class to hack the middle class right out of existence, either literally by “going Hutu” or figuratively by voting for disastrous public policies. Perhaps it could not happen today. But the trash talk we now hear has edged perilously close to driving precisely this scenario. What one is left with in this scenario is a banana republic like the worst Latin American countries of long ago where unstable governments swing perpetually between opressive Fascism and opressive Communism. There has been a thirty year economic trend in the US in this direction. And it has been driven by media chants of and ritual offerings to the greedy gods of laissez-affaire economics. Under Dubya the chants and drumming have grown louder. And the offerings of blood and treasure more costly.
This is all speculative. But the recent trend is worrysome. If things go in the same direction and at the same rate for thirty more years as they have done for the last thirty, democracy as we experience it is doomed. We may not have that long. There is no reason to believe that the trend must continue. If we are really lucky, long before that America will experience a series of shocks that will begin a process in which we re-examine the assumptions that set us on a destructive path. And we will begin to make course corrections. Iraq may be the first of them. It may also be the least. So some of the correction is likely to come about without media help.
Still, the media plays a vital role in shaping political discourse in America. And if it does not owe a duty to the democratic system to which it owes its very existence or to the people who make up its audience and buy its advertisers products, at least it owes a duty to its shareholders to preserve long-term equity. For one reason or another, the media must act responsibly. If it loses its soul completely, permanently, irrevokably its franchise must follow close behind.
For some years the people who staffed and oversaw the FCC viewed broadcasting as a use of a public resource - the electromagnetic spectrum - which required in return some augmentation of the public good. In this view of the world free speech reigned, but there was a civic obligation a broadcaster had to fulfil. A television or radio station would have to provide a certain amount of programming that met certain public needs to satisfy licensing provisions. This did not require much. It did not guarantee much. But it did require something. It amounted to much more than nothing.
Over the last decade or two, and especially under the Dubya administration, the view expressed publically by the FCC has changed. Today it more closely resmbles the notion that the broadcast system is a public resource to be exploited to maximize profit - like a vein of copper ore. And that any provision that the FCC imposes on broadcaster ought to be exclusively to that end. The result is higher media concentration, less programming variety, more homogenaity, and less local content. And a brand of political discourse that is clearly biased and destructive. Almost all of this may rightly be seen as harmful. Homogenaity, assuming innocuous programming, could actually serve to reverse forces of Balkanization. But most of the rest of the trends sacrifice public social goods for private ones. This defies the purpose of good governance.
The most insidious problem is media concentration. It creates a world in which a single entity or a small group of people controls all of public discourse. Under the best of conditions this is undesirable. Even the best and brightest people are either good and bright only in one tiny area of expertise, or they are less good and bright about lots of things. It takes a lot of experts and a lot of conversation to Most people are mostly wrong. To make matters worse, power corrupts. So if one starts out as a well meaning media mogul, the likelyhood of remaining one for a long time is infinitessimally small.
But the really big problem is that public discourse is made of a huge number of views. Our tendency in America is to think dualistically, giving to each question two possible answers. Our whole dualistic mindset is badly adapted to all political discourse. Real world issues never pose such questions. The hard part of getting hold of and mastering an issue is creating meaningful categories and relationships, then formulating questions based on these categories and relationships. A concentrated media is just barely able to do lip service to the second side of a dualistic problem. It has no hope of framing good questions in a many dimensional concept space.
The more parties there are working on a problem the more hope there is of getting real and effective answers to real social problems - not just faux answers that suit the needs of special interests. A highly concentrated media has no hope whatsoever of doing this well, even if they set out to do so. Especially not in a land where political discourse is already a characterized by tradition of dualistic, shallow and simplistic thought.
So the first part of the solution is to change the political philosophy of the FCC board so that it represents public interests over private ones. Once the FCC is properly constituted to represent public interests over private ones, it might be better at reconning the costs of media concentration and at requiring broadcasters to air programs that encourage broad ranging and vitally varied ideas and formats that either serve the public interest or do not blatantly undermine it.
The second part of the solution, and probably the most important, is for the media to view its mandate to deliver discourse on political subjects that is broad, deep, far ranging, multifaceted, thoughtful, penetrating, well informed, and concensus-building. It must do this because of its perpetual debt it has to a free and stable open society. And to its stockholders. It is a huge responsibilit. There are only a handful of publications that come close to meeting this high standard. And only a few programming channels who have, from time to time done so with certain programs.
Finally, government needs to do someting about trash talk. It is a touchy issue. There are a number of cases in which trash talk is clearly political and by virtue of that is presumed unconditionally protected. My guess is that Limbaugh, though he is mostly mean, his facts are frequently wrong, and he does encourage tribalism, does at least some good in making us aware of questions that are useful to contemplate. For the most part he is subtly divisive; not openly so. I neither like him nor agree with him; but what little I know of his work suggest that he is generally not over the line. There are others who would not agree. And they might be right.
But there are a number of cases in which trash talk is clearly incendiary: it openly provokes violent behavior or attitudes. Spocko’s Brain had a collection of such cases until a large media conglomerate shut down his site with a cease and desist order. Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter come to mind; but I may be confusing my own reaction with that of other people. My guess is that if I watched enough, I could find places where they clearly cross the line; but it is a prejudice, not an informed judgment. If there is no case in which Malkin or Coulter’s language is simply incendiary, herding people into tribes or provoking them to plunder, then there certainly are cases with other radio or television talk shows. And they need to be stopped.
Bad words offend. But they do no lasting damage to the fabric of society. The government has chosen to ban them on air. And this is a supportable position. I find the ban convenient to my own tastes but I am not sure I agree with it. Hate speech, trash talk, language that tribalizes America, however, needs to be banned because it shreds the fabric of society. A free society cannot endure it for long. And once it is shredded, only one thing can put it back together: a terrible, repressive regime. We might have learned this from the disintegration of Yugoslavia. But we didn’t. We might have learned it from the disintegration of Iraq. But it seems we haven’t yet. Let us hope we can learn it before their fates have become ours.
Hillary Clinton came within a handful of votes of being the first woman to clinch the Presidential nomination from a major political party in the US. That’s an accomplishment all of us can be proud of. It changed the assumptions of electoral politics and creates many reasons to hope for a bette future. Hillary stands to be the proudest for she put the most at risk. It was her talents more than those of any other single person that led to her success.
Clinton’s monumental achievement came with great investment by people who identified with her ideals and with investment by people who paved the way for her. It would be a grave mistake to imagine that Hillary’s success depended exclusively or even primarily on women; for that would severely underestimate the breadth of support she had. She had support from every identifiable group.
If one is looking at Clinton’s success in terms of gender, one would trace the line of history backwards. In recent history there are womens’ organizations such as NOW that contributed much in terms of effort and in terms of helping us see society in a way profoundly different from how it was seen just fifty years ago. But the arc of change goes back much farther.
In the early twentieth century one finds women campaigning successfully for voting rights. Thier sucdess brought women into the political arena in an explicit way, a way that was unprecedented in agricultural and post-agricultural societies.
Before that one can find the successful reigns of Victoria and Elizabeth as examples of female leaders who proved both more durable, more serious, and more wise than almost all their male predecessors in the same role. During Elizabeth’s reign Shakespeare wrote, the British started permanent settlements in the new world, and the Spanish Armada was defeated. By the time of her successor, England was a very different place. A century ealier it had been a forgettable minor appendage to Europe. A century later it had become one of Europe’s most powerful and influencial nations.
In a similar way, England was transformed under Victoria into the world’s most successful and sprawling empire. In light of recent American history, what is remarkable about this feat was the fact that one could send British aristocrats into foreign lands such as India for decades at a time and they would persistently and energetically pursue primarily the interests of the crown, subjugating and suppressing the impulse to take unfair advantage of the situation. And when corruption occurred, it was generally dealt with in effective ways. The durability and scale of the arrangement is sufficient testimony to the greatness of the enterprise. Victoria’s dogged sense of decency and restraint was crucial to the success of the enterprise. It is almost impossible to imagine England managing the task under a male monarch.
The extraordinary level of common sense we find in the writings of women authors of the early ninteenth century, most notably Jane Austin, does much to aid the cause. Austin digs deep beneath the facades of wealth and privilege to get to the essential qualities of humanity - the qualities that create durable society.
This whirlwind tour we use to suggest that in Anglophone history women have proven themselves repeatedly in the political sphere. There is little question that the world is better off when intelligent, well-educated, and serious women play central roles in culture and politics. There ought to be more of them.
Our purpose here, however, is not to talk about identity politics, but to show how feminism and the values that women preferentially hold are essential in a well-functioning political arena. And to suggest that women and men alike might be better served by focussing less on identity politics than on ideas of justice and fairness.
In some hypothetical ideal world gender would be irrelevant. Leaders would make good choices. And most reasonable people would agree with those policy choices seeing them as effective and just. A good leader would be a leader who could identify the most effective and just policy positions and who could best persuade others to follow, to adopt those policy choices.
When we say effective we are thinking in a sort of utilitarian way, the most good for the most people. Or, when it comes to the obligation of governments to minimize certain kinds of dysfunction and dissatisfaction, the least amount of ill of any given sort for the most people. When we say just, we mean that policies are completely blind to all the sorts of factors that divide people: race, gender, ethnicity, class, wealth, build, amount of hair, and so on. Or, if they are not blind, they compensate to some degree, for societal factors and practices that might be judged unjust. And they do so in a way that knits society together more closely.
Many things stand in the way of such an ideal world. One is that people generally choose to associate with people who are - in some way or another - like themselves. It’s why men associate with men. And women associate with women. It’s why people with common ethnic backgrounds tend to associate with other people with similar ethnic backgrounds. It’s why people tend to hire people who remind them of themselves. It’s also why people tend to vote for people who remind them of themselves. It’s a natural tendency. But it can produce unfortunate outcomes. Because men tend to care most about power, they seek it most vigorously and are over-represented in all the seats of power. Powerful men, then, tend to promote other men for reasons we just explained.
Feminists complain about a persistent, insular, and dysfunctional patriarchy. It plagues politics and corporate governments causing the same kind of pain and difficulty in good reasoning that a perpetual migrain headache might cause.
It’s an accurate observation in many cases. The problem with men arises from the fact that in agricultural and post agricutural societies the culture is almost completely derived from principles of individual property ownership. And property ownership is one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of mating priviledges for males.
In this context it is nearly always (assumed to be) in the male’s best (evolutionary) interest to magnify the power difference between himself and the next male lower on the economic scale. Thus, males tend to build highly vertical heirarchical societies with great inequality. And they tend to be cruel to those of lower status. It’s a tendency that is deeply embeddeed in the psyche; it is one that we inherit from other primates such as the ancestors common to us and baboons. It is one we share with most social mammals including most pack and herd animals.
The grave problem with this culture is that it tends to produce a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor ones. This leads to social unrest and ferment. And this, in turn, leads to violence. That this is almost entirely absent from North America’s history is an artifact of the huge bounty of natural resources its European settlers have enjoyed by virtue of settling a huge almost empty continent. But when that bounty becomes sufficiently depleted, the process will be observed here, too.
Societies have responded to pressures of shortages in two ways. One is primarily suppressive. Armed forces put down the revolt and suppress violence. Experience in Latin America over the last century might teach us that so long as there is profound inequality and widespread social discontent, there cannot be peace in a society.
By contrast, some societies have worked over the millennia to inculcate a strong sense of interconnectedness and interdependence - one that drives a kind of personal industry. It’s not hard to see this in certain northern European and Oriental societies. One of the side-effects of this culture is that there is more of a sense of shared purpose and shared destiny. The differences between the upper and underclasses are smaller. There is a stronger sense of group identity.
So what does all this have to do with feminism? If one views feminism through a Marxist lens, seeing it as a kind of class struggle in which men are cast as the boursoisie and women as the proletariat, then what we have talked about has nothing to do with feminism. But recall that Marxism calls for the total destruction of the bourgoisie and the elimination of capital. Metaphorically speaking it’s a kind of “kill the patient” practice of medicine. Most males would like to believe that most females might actually be just a little happier with some kind of male presence. If this were so, a different model would be called for. What kind of society are we aiming for? And what kinds of cultural practices will serve that end? These become the central questions.
These questions lead us to explore a little more carefully the complementary roles that men and women play in society. We have already pointed out that the role men play is primarily competitive. By contrast, we might see that historically the role that women have played has tended to be more cooperative. That this tendency exists is a fact of nature. How we channel it is a matter of culture.
The ideas of fairness and justice, of cooperation and interdependence, of an interconnected and roughly equal society are ideas that tend to be more closely linked with the female psyche. It would be wrong to assert that they are exclusively female impulses or ideas. But it would be just as wrong to assert that they are so prominent or find expression so persistently in the male population as they are and do in the female population. On average, women tend to view the world a little less competitively and a little more cooperatively than do men.
It’s a pattern with deep biological roots. The differences can be seen in many mammalian species. It is quite common for sibling females to care for each others’ young. It is a practice observed in primates, in bats, and in felines. We observe here the evolutionary foundation for the general tendency of women to be just a bit more sensitive to the needs of others, to be just a little more cooperative, to be just a little more fair, to identify just a little more with the needs of the downtrodden is a tendency that leads us to reasonably expect women, on average, to be better at creating and executing policies and practices that are fair, inclusive, broadly based, just.
Arguably, it is precisely this impulse that enables humans to form societies. And it is our sense of empathy that makes possible the deep level of cooperation that holds society together.
Society needs to balance competetive and cooperative forces. Competetive forces, properly managed, tend to disribute power. They tend to spur economic and personal development. They tend to drive change. They tend to move people and institutions toward excellence. They even drive societies to exercise cooperation on ever larger scales.
But if they are not managed scrupulously they have a tendency to concentrate power. When combined with a sort of laziness and a sense of entitlement, competition creates social classes and class barriers. And this leads to societal inequities. Cooperative forces can interfere with the negative effects of competitive forces. The happiest and most durable societies strike a careful balance between these two impulses and practices.
When one sees a homeless person freezing on the sidewalk it is a sense of fairness that prompts one to get city council to designate some warm building for the purpose of housing such people on cold nights. And to use tax dollars to heat the building. At one level, to take up the cause of the less fortunate is a simple act of human kindness.
At another level it is an act of enlightened self interest. The economic and societal forces that caused this person to rot in the street no doubt are at work elsewhere. If the collection of such people becomes too large and if their plight becomes too hopeless, discontent and dispair will create violence. At first it will be private and incidental. But eventually it will become public and general, if the underlying causes are not addressed.
It is a sketchy argument, but we have established at least some reason to believe that ideas about fairness, justice, and cooperation strenghthen society and make it a happier and more productive place. Some of the cooperative ideas we talk about are ones that have seen little expression in the political arena in over three decades. They are ideas we need to relearn in context of contemporary political and economic realities.
Feminism’s great success is that it has allowed women to adopt the methods used by men to get and hold on to power. It has made women economically and poltitically powerful as they have never been since the dawn of the agricultural age. This is a great and laudable achievment. It rightly ought to be celebrated. And its gains ought not be easily or frivolously given up. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is proof of how far modern feminism has brought our society. It gives us cause for celebration.
But the gains have come at a cost. And everyone has paid. In some sense the cost has been paid most by the ones who have gained most from the change. Women who have gained economic power have too frequently had to trade away important relationships. Or they have had to adopt corrosive methods. Or they have had to live dual lives as homemakers and as professionals. The whole experience leaves many feeling empty, drained, exhausted, incomplete.
Men have been slow to make the paths easier for the women they care about. As John Fowles put it “the great failure of feminism has been its failure to free men” from their assumed gender roles. That is not a criticism that any feminist who finds some sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo ought to dismiss lightly. Or any man who loves a woman with any modicum of independent spirit. Yet it is a criticism rarely taken up. Feminists, even when they see all the problems being caused by men seem to imagine that all the solutions lie in women becoming more like men rather than the opposite being true.
The consequence of this has been that many women who gain economic power lose things that women hold more dear; a rich relationship with a spouse, a stable home environment, a secure space in which to raise children. It is an unreasonable cost. In many cases an unbearable cost. And it is little wonder that many women have rejected the whole game. They are not necessarily stupid or lazy or slavish or backwards.
It might mean, instead, that they cling to a set of values that embrace things that many people find more meaningful than power and wealth. They forgo some measure of these things for a kind of personal satisfaction that comes from close relationships. The feminist ideal, if it is concerned with a broad well-being of women must honor this choice and work for societal institutions and structures that ensure those who make such choices do not get left behind economically or politically. Doing this well will encourage men to adapt better to a world of more equally shared experience.
The more hidden consequence of this game is that the most powerful and influencial women, as they moved onto what once was seen as men’s turf, needed to adopt mens’ competitive methods to be successful. They needed to frame their actions in the same dog-eat-dog terms. To a profound and sometimes disturbing extent they had to become men not just in the best senses, but also in the worst of them. The side effect of this practice has been that influencial women have actually been much less effective than their predecessors in promoting ideas of fairness and cooperation in the political marketplace.
The cost has been borne by the poorest 99% of Americans. Unemployment, ineffective systems of health care, crumbling infrastructure, failures in education, ossification of the social class structure, environmental degredation, erosion of the middle class, these are but few of the devastating effects of this shift in focus away from cooperative ideas of fairness and justice that corresponded temporally with the coming of age of the modern womens’ movement.
Even the current banking crisis can be framed in relationship to this idea. If one views banking as being primarily a service for creating and preserving capital on the broadest scale, then the stodgy regulated bank of pre-deregulation days (i.e. pre-1996) could be seen as a powerful social institution in service of a primarily cooperative ideal. It would never create a great deal of financial wealth for the bank itself; but its social purpose was to enable others to build and accumulate wealth. And this it did well, efficiently, dependably. It’s a very conservative point of view. And it is one that puts cooperative and broad societal needs ahead of the needs of shareholders in banks.
As we have already suggested, this is but one of dozens huge policy areas in which America’s most powerful and influencial women, by moving onto the same turf as America’s most powerful men failed to check a potentially harmful policy change.
All of these changes were part of the Reagan Revolution. It is, of course, completely inaccurate and unfair to lay the blame for all of the failures of the Reagan Revolution at the feet of feminists. In fact, women have become an ever increasing portion of the political resistance to that revolution. The Reagan Revolution was simply a kind of reaction to several decades of moderate liberalism. Americans had forgotten the costs of unchecked greed and institutional corruption in government. And the false promises of the that revolution had a kind of seasonal appeal to a vocal, if slight majority. But the return to sanity in public policy will be achieved most expeditiously if women can succeed in changing the cultural values.
If we are to achieve the noblest of ends to which the feminist cause aspires, namely, to elevate the dignity and fulfilment of all people to the highest level possible, it will become important to refocus on the ideas of shared causes, common good, fairness, and justice. And women, as always, are in the best position to start that societal change by demaning fair treatment of each other from their children. ( We say women neither because it is necessarily or uniformly women who wil do this - some men are in a better position - but because we have identified the ennobling cooperative ideas with women. If the message is to stick it needs to come from men just as clearly and broadly as it comes from women.)
Even as the Bush administration proves beyond a doubt the blatant bankrupcy of the pure laissez faire approach to economic development; even as it proves the corrupting power of concentrated media in service of big government and of an avaricious military industrial complex; even as it is locked into a tailspin of lawlessneess and degeneracy; even as it attempts to commit America ot an endless and counteproductive war; even as it proves the wanton destructiveness of its policies on all fronts - political, social, and economic, the traditional approach of feminism fails to attack the doctrine common to all of these failures.
It’s a doctrine eschews all cooperative principles that spring from empathetic impulses and embraces instead world bounded entirely by force and coercion. If feminism is to serve best whom women love most, it must learn to reach us where our noblest impulses originate. It must learn to cultivate and nurture these impulses; to educate them in ethics and civic-mindendnesss. And it must school us again in the study of the arts, for a society that cannot sing or write or paint or dance is a society impoverished beyond imagination. The only mode of expression left is violence.
It must learn to train men and women alike to be able to think in corporate, cooperative terms. It must teach men and women alike to take ethics seriously and to judge all transactions with a view to fairness. It must help us realize the power of associative joy.
The only hope for America as a democratic society, the only hope for the West as a bastion of freedom, the only hope for the ideals of equality and personal dignity enduring as principles of government is for the empathetic ideas, the cooperative ideas, the inclusive ideas that draw us together with the noblest of intentions to displace the meaner spirited ones of the Reagan Revolution - the ones realized in the housing bust, the perpetual war in the mideast, the lawlessness of the executive, the endless trampling of Constitutional rights.
These are the ideals that women preferentially bring to the political arena. Not all women do so. Nor are the ideals absent from men. But women as a group tend to be just a little bit better here than men are as a group. If we focus like a laser on building up the importance of cooperative ideas, of creating members of society who understand not just how to gain advantages but also how to preserve the benefits of a deep and broad societal interconnectedness, we can rebuild a society in which the satisfactions for which feminism rightly aims are expressed more naturally and broadly within society.
If we promote values that women preferentially possess, we shall arrive at a political point where women naturally hold a large portion of the most important positions in government and commerce. Neither men nor women will think twice about gender or race; but only in terms of the right mix of personal characteristics and competencies for these positions. The ultimate goal of identity politics will be satisfied; and the solution will be one that is neither forced or unnatural. The solution will be robust, sustainable, pleasing. It will produce a world that we all can find more satisfying. It will make Hillary Clinton’s success both more durable and more ennobling.
When is farming about connecting with nature; and when is farming about overcoming nature? It’s a question Don takes up in the case for and against industrial agriculture. Specialization and returns to scale make farming economically efficient; but they tend to take the joy out of the task of farming. Is there a kind of “middle ground” in which economic efficiency and the satisfactions of a connection to nature can happily coexist? Don’s commenters suggest there might be.
The power of Don’s piece is that he has hit upon a metaphor of the modern era. The question he asks is one that has been central to western culture since the Renaissance. We develop the question here, in a slightly different way.
In engineering, efficiency is defined clearly against some ideal. For instance, in thermodynamics first law effficiency describes the ratio between the energy released as heat and work extracted from that heat source. In the comments that accompany Don’s essay, there appear a number of ideas about efficiency. Each idea is important; and it is useful to understand how rational choice causes one to substitute one sort of efficiency for another.
1) efficiency of labor - how much food can be produced with an hour of labor. This is an essential idea. If a people is to produce arts and sciences, it only does so on a world-class way when a large portion of the adult workers are engaged in tasks not related to farming and raising children. Civilizations since the Sumerian have flourished in the brief intervals where new agricultural techniques or new lands have produced food in bountiful amounts and reduced labor to a minimum.
2) efficiency of land - how much food can be produced on an acre of land. In densely populated areas this becomes the limiting factor to sustaining a population. North America’s great blessing is that we have a few more decades, perhaps a century, before this issue is so constraining as it is now in China, Haiti, Bangladesh, or Rwanda. Recall that many historians believe that the Renaissance really got in full swing in Europe after the Black Death had wiped out a third of the population. Having lots of fertile land per capita has been the constant factor in the rise of the west for most of the last three millennia.
3) efficiency of energy - how much food can be produced with a given amount of exogenous energy input. Michael Pollan estimates that fully 15% of the food energy calories that Americans consume can be traced directly to ammonia used to fertilize the soil in which corn grows; and this ammonia is derived from natural gas. We are eating petroleum. This fact explains, too, why ethanol from corn is not such a great idea as a primary energy source.
In a purely economical sense, we would strive to create farms that have high efficiencies in all three areas. Artificially cheap oil has pushed us to substitute energy for labor. Similarly, artificially cheap land has driven us to substitute land for labor. We have enjoyed a huge number of material and cultural benefits from this: only two percent of Americans work the soil for profit. The rest of us enjoy other pursuits. But we have also created industrialized agriculture which has its own set of problems.
One problem is the lack of sustainability. When the oil and gas run out, the system crashes. Or when monoculture creates a primary food source that can be wiped out by a single organism - as potatoes in pre-famine Ireland or maize in current US agriculture, the system crashes. There is, therefore, a great need to move toward cultivation techniques that are much more sustainable.
A large enough collection of incremental improvements will position us well to make the leap when the energy crunch materializes. Some will increase the number of choices of seedstock and the number of kinds of primary foods. Some will allow us to run farm equipment and food distribution machinery on vegetable oils. Diesel engines were originally designed to run on vegetable oils, so this is not a great technological leap. But wind, nuclear, and solar energy will all play essential roles as well.
On the farm, soil fertility will be sustained less by addition of chemicals derived from natural gas and more from biogenic processes. We will learn to cultivate plants and use farm animals in ways that naturally keep soil fertile. We will learn to cultivate flora and fauna that keep nature balanced. We will cultivate beneficial insects such as honeybees, parasitic wasps, lady bugs, and beneficial nematodes. We will use the balancing techniques built into the natural world to bring balance to agriculture.
This brings us to the striking idea in Don’s piece. He establishes farming as something more than a simple economic activity. He establishes it as a means of connecting with nature. I have filled a suburban lot with roses, shrubs and flowering plants and I enjoy hearing birds sing in the morning, so I understand the satisfaction that comes from this connection. It seems to me that this is a factor missing from modern life, industrial farm not excepted.
But instead of interacting with nature, we do what is expected of us in a society that exists purely as an economic machine. Don, having once failed at creating a fully sustainable farm in which land is tilled using mules, moves on to other agricultural activities. At one point he contemplates working on a chicken farm. One of his tasks on the chicken farm would be to cull the flock. It involves moving through the chicken super-dome whacking underdeveloped chickens with a PCV pipe, collecting the carcasses, and recycling them.
Even while we may understand that this culling plays a vital role in keeping chickens big enough to provide us with large Sunday meals, the genius of his piece is that Don succeeds in making the act of popping underdeveloped chickens on the head with PVC pipe the metaphor of the current era. He gets us to understand that when we are no longer affected by this image, we cease to be fully functional as empathetic human beings. And society - no matter how economically successful - ceases to create meaningful relationships. We have been dehumanized.
“Missouri Loves Company” Would that be any better as a marketing slogan than the much more suggestive “Show Me,” I wonder?
Good thing I’m not in advertising. I’m always peddling the wrong thing.
We got the papers from the realtor, complete with a little passport. A passport? Yes a passport. This passport one must present if one steps into a house. Any house. I kid you not. What does the passport say? It says you are represented by a buyer’s agent. Instructions inside the passport clearly prohibit one from speaking with the owner of the house except to say that one is represented by a buyer’s agent. If homeowner were to sell his house to the bearer of this passport he would owe the buyer’s agent 3% of the price.
Does it matter whether the seller has a contract with another realtor stipulating three percent to the selling agent and two percent to the buying agent? Does it matter whether the buying agent was involved in the negotiations with the seller? Does it matter whether the buyer’s agent showed the house? Does it matter if the buyer’s agent never even knew the house in question was for sale? No. In all cases the agent gets his three percent.
That’s bad enough. But the language of the contract also seems to oblige the person signing the contract to actually buy a house. One provision states that the signatory will “negotiate in good faith,” but this is not contingent on whether he makes an offer. So the most literal interpretation of the contract obliges one not just to make an offer, but to keep raising it until a transaction takes place. Any other behavior might be judged not to be “negotiating in good faith.”
It is completely reasonable to have contracts that oblige signatories to perform in a certain way. It is completely reasonable to have a buyer’s agent get paid for any work they do on behalf of a client. And, of course, it is easier to enforce a contract that simply stipulates that any house that a buyer purchases requires that an agent be paid. But the implications of this design choice mean that we cross the boundary from being reasonable to being unreasonable.
For example, the contract stipulates that the buyer’s agent be paid 3%, and it obliges the buyer to pay any part of this 3% not paid by the seller. Now, suppose that I, a buyer, am driving through a community I like and I see a “for sale by owner” sign. Suppose further, that I contact the owner, I tour the house, and I buy the house. Suppose that my buyer’s agent plays no role in the transaction. The contract obliges me to pay the buyer’s agent, regardless of the reason he did not show me the house.
What might be some of the reasons? Maybe this house was too cheap: he hoped to steer me to a more expensive one to pad his fee. Maybe he did not know about this house. Maybe he lived in this community and didn’t want me to be part of it, and so was steering me in another direction. There are an infinite number of ways in which the fact that the listing agent did not show me the house might result from his failure to perform in my interest. And any one of them would mean that he has failed to meet the intention of the contract from my point of view. Regardless of the reason for the agent’s failure to perform - ignorance, malice, or mischance - the buyer owes his agent the three percent.
It’s not that the buyer’s agent, the firm he represents, and his lawyer have not thought of this class of contingencies. That is precisely why they send the passport with the papers to sign. The passport is an instrument whose sole purpose is to make sure that the buyer informs the seller that he works with an agent and secures payment rights for that agent before seeing any house. The passport is a document that exclusively serves the interest of the buyer’s agent; and its use is enforced by requiring a prospective buyer to pay any part of the three percent that the seller does not pay.
It is evidently the case that too many buyers were somehow cutting their realtors out of the deal and saving three percent on the cost of a new house. I understand that a realtor would wish to be protected from such abuses. And they should be. but if that behavior is as broad as the language is unreasonable, then my own guess is that neighbors I am going to have if I move into this area are more predatory than I can comfortably live with. Maybe I don’t want to live there. Maybe I want to live somewhere else.
In my own experience with this agent I have already found a number of prospective homes in the area by doing searches on the internet. It may be that some of the homes that I found were also found by the realtor, but he judged them to be unsuitable for some valid reason. Or it may just be that I have been spending more time at this than he has. It may be that this realtor is representing my interests; but the language of the contract creates an expectation that he might behave differently. Still, I expect that if I buy a house in the neigborhood I will do it through the realtor and he will get his three percent. Even if I found the house by myself.
What’s the solution? A reasonable solution would be to bill for time. Suppose a buyer’s agent billed at $70 per hour payable by the buyer, regardless of the outcome. It’s a fee for service arrangement. But that can never happen. The two parties who would have to agree on such a scheme never will. The prospective buyers don’t want to pay up front to look. And realtors will never agree to get less for their services. So we are stuck with a bad way of doing business. The contracts simply protect agents from customers who want to end-run the system and shave three percent off the price of a home. But they also make the contracts and the people they represent seem ridiculous.
Our purpose here is less to discuss the case in point than it is to point to a more general problem. It is a problem with the way contracts are written. And it is aproblem with the frame of mind that causes them to be written this way. Too often they make completely outrageous claims. Sometimes that’s because of some other ridiculous outcome earlier in history. Sometimes it’s just because the notions of law and fairness have drifted ever farther apart.
I once read the fine print on a contract from a fence company. It was full of strange provisions. One provision was that if I failed to pay any part of the contract price, the fence company could reposess the whole fence. Imagine that. I wonder if they have some special tool for pulling the posts out of the ground or if they simply cut them off with a chainsaw. I marked up the contract, adding clauses that would impose on the fence company obligations that were materially as bizarre as the ones it would imposed on me. Then I sent the marked up contract with a check for the 30% deposit. Three weeks later I received the check back uncashed; no note, no explanation.
The reason for writing contracts like this one is to give the people who write them a kind of punative leverage over people who fail to pay. And it is generally true that if everything goes exactly as planned, then the contract is fulfilled and everyone is happy. The unreasonable parts of the contract are never invoked. But the whole reason for the contract language is because sometimes this does not happen. Contract language governs what happens. Again, it is sometimes true that the parties who write unreasonable contracts do not necessarily exercise the unreasonable clauses even when the language might allow them to do so. Or that they do it in a way that is not completely unreasonable.
The result, if judged only on a transaction - by - transaction basis may be satisfactory; but the consequences are more far reaching. Contracts that over-reach degrade the trust people place in legal agreements. If the purpose of a contract is to describe what each party must do and if it is to describe the remedies of non-performance, then the best contracts do not prescribe unreasonable remedies. The consequences of prescribing unreasonable remedies are many and they are unfavorable to the people who are nominally supposed to benefit from them.
Where people actually read the contract, it creates the risk of losing business. In the case of the fence company, I would have actually done business with the company had the contract not been so outrageously one-sided. In the case of the realtor, if the contract is one of his own making, I am tempted to chose another realtor. If it is a contract standard to that region of the country, I am tempted to chose another region of the country. For I know that there are places where I do not need to sign unreasonable contracts to look at houses. And I wonder whether this is reflective of differences in local culture. Maybe if I live where contracts are reasonable, I will live among people who seem more reasonable to me in other respects. Suppose my realtor was acting in a “reasonable” way to protect himself from abuses common among people who move into that neighborhood, then I may not want to live with that set of neighbors.
Most people who actually read the contract will simply imagine that there is a distinction between what a party is claiming to be able to do in the legal language and what they will actually do in practice. Again, on a once-off basis this is not unreasonable. But when this discrepancy gets very large, it means that the contract language is unbelievable or incredible or fantastical. In all cases where a person signs a ridiculous contract, he cannot reasonably be bound by it. People believe this instinctively; and it is one of the reasons they do not read contracts.
People sign contracts because they trust in the person with whom they sign the contract; and part of the reason for the contract is to help assure that the trust is actually warranted. Contract language that is too sweeping or aggressive makes a party seem devious or greedy; and this materially degrades trust. Sometimes the claims are so broad as to be unbelievable.
There surely must be a legal principle about believability in contract law. Unless I am mistaken, there is an idea that if any reasonable person ( i.e. not a contract lawyer ) were to read and understand a contract and believe that it was so ridiculous that it could not be taken seriously, then a signing party cannot reasonably be held to its provisions. This problem of credibility is, or at least it ought to be, a serious impediment to making unreasonable contracts. But it happens all the time; the idea of reposessing the whole of an installed $15,000 fence for failure to make the last $200 payment, for instance. Or of carrying around a passport issued by a buyers agent that must be presented upon entering any house that might be for sale.
The fact that certain kinds of contracts are so ridiculous as to be unenforcable serves everyone badly. Not only does it besmirch the reputation of a entity that gives such contracts to people to sign, it reflects badly on their lawyers. To write remedies into contracts that are not only blatantly oblivious to questions of fairness but also openly hostile to them makes lawyers seem like unreasonable creatures. And it has the consequence of making people not read contract language and not believe their provisions when they do. This renders the contract effectively meaningless; for it makes claims that people who sign the contract would never agree to.
But if this happens with every contract, it means that reasonable people stop taking contracts seriously. Contracts cease to be agreements about anything material to commerce. They are agreements about how my lawyer will interact with your lawyer. Only lawyers take them seriously. Thus, they are irrelevant, except to lawyers. People signing them are oblivious to their provisions.
Everything, then, becomes subject to negotiation. The contracts, then, are no longer agreements between two reasonable people so much as they are starting points for litigation. And litigation is just one more form of negotiation.
There was, not long ago, a book that grew very famous. It argued that people do not get what they deserve; they get what they negotiate for. It went on to advocate pushing negotiation as far as it will go. And there are whole industries built upon positioning to get the most out of any negotiated anything.
The premise of the work is valid. It describes the world in a way that is materially correct. But this does not mean that it’s the best way of organizing society. When people resort onnly to power and eschew ideas of fairness, the facilities of good judgment about fairness atrophy in society, then the only thing that is brought to play in commerce becomes negotiating power. Cartels form. Power concentrates among the richest and most manipulative.
Sometime after this happens broadly in a nation, power imbalances wipe out its middle class and the nation becomes one of slaves, peons, and destitute people scratching for scraps that fall from the tables of the hyper-rich. Such a world has little need for contracts or for lawyers or for fair play. Only power matters. That is the world one gets when legal language fails to measure up to a reasonable standard of fairness and when everyone thinks in that same way.
So if one looks out far enough in time, not only is the degredation of reasonable contract language bad for the people who are actually involved in the business of reaching agreements and performing accordingly, such degredation is bad for the class of lawyers. When viewed in this light, unreasonable contracts are not instruments that can so easily be ignored. Their unreasonableness becomes an impediment to trustworthy behavior both inside the context of the contract and outside it.
Their unreasonable provisions promote within society the idea of taking what one can get rather than taking what one imagines is fair. By contrast, fair thinking promotes fair and balanced provisions in contracts. Fair contract provisions reinforce the notion of acting fairly as a central principle of behavior. A society that wishes to promote fair and reasonable behavior needs to produce fair and reasonable contracts.
In a legal context, there are compelling technical reasons for things to move in the wrong direction. The more one can claim, the better one is likely to fare in litigation. But there is a sense in which this puts the cart before the horse. To the extent that the legal provisions regarding failures of performance directly or indirectly make it more difficult for well-meaning parties interested in the transaction to trust each other and to do business, bad legal provisions actually stand in the way of commerce.
What seems good in a technical sense is bad in several larger senses. The legal contract is a device or an instrument whose whole reason for existence is to promote constructive business transactions by building trust. But too frequently it seems that contracts written to reflect this point of view are a quaint anachronism.
The following is a liturgical mass for the neocon. It celebrates the neocon God. It orients the neocon to his goal. It binds together the neocon practitioners into one practicing body.
The Chicago School Mass
- In memory of all the guys who taught us how to get power, manipulate fear and greed, and make tons of money.
(Enter to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie)
Masters of the universe, rulers of worlds known and unkown, imagined and yet to be imagined, makers and destoyers of the world and its inhabitants, men of money, power, wealth, glory, intelligence, and incredible sexual apetites, we are gathered here together like Apollo and Zeus on Olympus, like Odin and Thor at Valhala, like Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage. Here today we celebrate Everlasting Omnipotence of the Glorious Greed, dedicate our selves to its hegemony, and promote the men who promote the cause.
Sprinkling of Money
Let us now share a moment of silence to allow our hearts to fill full and overflowing with the power of greed.
(Visual: Hundred dollar bills fall from the sky. An old man sits motionless. “What about greed,” asks a younster “look at all this money” “You call this money? Ha. Show me a government contract.”
Maynard Ferguson’s “Primal Scream” plays in the background. Huge projection screen shows tanks powering across the landscpe, airplanes in the sky, shiny glass cities in the desert.)
Greed is Great
Greed is Good
Let us Shove
And be Rude
Invocation of the Greed Spirit
Gregorian Chant (3 times)
You have got some and I want it.
You have got less but I need it.
I’ve got power; I’ll take it.
Open your wallet and shake it.
And Greed spoke to His People and they answered.
We are nice People — No were not!
We are good People — No were not!
We help the infirm — No we don’t!
We give to the poor — Nothing they might use!
We love our neighbor — When her husband’s away!
We work to make the world a better place — For us!
We believe in justice — So long as we always win!
We believe in fairness — So long as we have the advantage!
We believe in mercy — We will not incinerate a corpse twice!
Greed and Fear — the irresistable forces
Greed and Fear — the immovable objects
Geed and Fear — Our Janus God of yesterday
Geed and fear == Our Janus God of tomorrow
( Sung to All You Need is Love)
There’s nothing you can want that can’t be had.
There’s now way you can take that isn’t “bad.”
There no thing you can want that isn’t yours to take
All you need is force, pal.
Force is all you need.
Force is all you need.
The ripe fruit of greed in the abstract
Takes great skill and cunning to extract.
To get you top dollar
Get a starched collar
And a Single Source Government Contract.
Ritual of Fear
Fear, the Holy Spirit of Greed Spoke; and the People Responded.
We fear nothing — but Brown Poople.
We loathe nothing — but penury.
We despise nothing — but foreigners.
We hate nothing — but weakness.
The world is full of hungry — Brown People
The world is full of penniless — Brown People
The world is full of foreign — Brown People
The world is full of weak — Brown People
They hate us for — Our liberty
They hate us for — Our cars
They hate us for — Our money
They ought to be — Behind bars.
We believe in one power,
Greed, the almighty,
Maker and mover,
We believe in one Lord, Reagan,
The only son of Greed,
Magnificently begotten of the almighty:
Power from Power, Might from Might
Greed from Greed , Right from Right,
Self-made through sheer force of will.
By his Way are all things made.
For us and for our triumph
He rode out of the West.
By power of Trigger
He was borne across Flickering Screen,
And was made heroic.
For our sake he was elevated
to the highest post, then
was transmuted into pure spin.
In accordance with Prophesy
He transformed back into flickers
And rode off into the sunset.
Today he lives in our dreams
Protecting us from libruls and
the terrors of brown people.
We beileve in the reality of the Flickering Screen
from which Greed is fashioned
And by which eternal fear of brown people
Is transformed into a living, daily reason for existence.
It has spoken and Prophecied.
We believe in the Holy Neocon Church
We immerse ourselves in the perpetual baptism of Fear
We anticipate the resurrection of
A world controlled by Rich White men with Good Hair,
In this life and the Flickering Next.
Gloating over the Loot
Look! This is the End of Want.
Look! This is the Promised Land.
Look! A pile of loot bigger even than your own imagination:
A fleet of Humvees stretching past the horizon,
A airport full of airplanes.
You sit in the best seat, with the best company at the Opera
You sit in the best seat, with the best company at the Show
You command the best table at the restaurant
You command the highest commission at the firm.
A trail of attorneys makes you omnipotent
A train of accountants keeps you rich.
An ocean of fools makes you invincible
An endless supply of idiots hangs on your every word.
Who can touch you now?
Who can touch you in your glory?
Who has holds a candle to your flaming sun?
Your God Greed has made you pure
Your God Greed has lifted you to the heavens
In your towering greedmobile you overrun the cowering masses
You go where you will, and need no brothers.
Psalm of Inspiration — Eulogization of Chutzpah
In the desert of my want I call out to Greed:
Greed, Greed, give me what I want,
Greed, Greed, give me what I need.
The fire of lust then fills my being;
The fire of desire burns bright within.
Greed’s energies infuse my limbs;
Greed’s impetus makes my plans.
Before me stands the city
Rich with ripe fruit
Plump with voluptuous wenches.
I will enter the city
I will take what I want.
This man objects “It is not yours”
But I reply “Greed blesses most who takes most boldly.”
This man objects “You have no right”
But I reply “I have the charter signed by the King. What’s yours is his. What’s his is mine.”
This man objects “I will file in court”
But I reply “I own the judge. He eats or dies at my command.”
This man objects “I will creep into your house at night and murder your babes.”
“Ha Ha!” I reply “Report to my castle for guard duty tomorrow at ten.”
I approach the city.
I will enter its gates
I will spare nothing.
The Ritual Awarding of the Contracts
We now celebrate the fruits of our efforts
We now celebrate the Gifts of Greed.
Here are this week’s contract awards
- A Systematic Method for the Creation of Irresistable Memes.
Ichabod Asher. $360,000 Congratulations
- Invisible War: Planning, Prosecution, Preventing Disclosure
Norman Galichnakov. $275,000 Congratulations
- Electronic Surveillance of the Brain. New method of Inquisition.
Franz W.G. Schiller $150,000 Good Job
- Cloak of Invisibility an Evaluation of the Technology
Ludwig H Kerfufflemuir $80,000 — Sensing an invisible theme here.
- Out of Sight, Out of Range - Invisibility on the Ground
Norman Galichnakov $120,000. — There’s a busy fellow!
The Check Writing Ceremony
Let us open our checkbooks in praise of the almighty Greed without which our lives would be empty and our accounts would be overdue.
Though I live in a world filled with brown people
I will fear no evil:
Greed’s invisible hand will produce handcuffs
To stay their hands.
Greed’s invisible hand will produce radar tracking towers
To protect me from their intrusion.
Greed’s invisible hand will fill my house with automatic weapons and vigilant guards.
My pantry overfloweth with C-Rations
My fatigues are pressed and spotless
My alarm system is tested and functional
My guards tote tasers and Berettas
They do a thousand push-ups a day.
Greed’s invisible hand will keep me connected with the powerful.
Greed’s invisible hand will make me popular and necessary.
Greed’s invisible hand will fill my electronic devices with contacts.
Greed’s invisible hand will deliver me the government contract.
Greed’s invisible hand will get me the lucrative book advance.
When dark clouds of fear roll over the land -
Clouds wrought by this same invisible hand,
Greed’s spirit of fear will produce nuclear bombs
That I might incinerate the cities of men in need
And vitrify the sands on which they breed.
May Greed bless you and keep you
May Greed’s countenance shine upon you
And bring you Gold
And everlasting lust
Go forth into the land that Greed hath wrought
Go forth and take the loot none other could have bought
Go forth and make fools of men dumber than soil
Go forth and make trillions capturing oil.
Form derived from — Mass in a moment, a real mass that otherwise has absolutely nothing to do with this one.
Apropos of nothing: “Well, yes” he replied, “I can think of one difference between us and Nazis: we might have the benefit of learning from history, if we were inclined to do so. They made the same mistakes for the first time and did not have that opportunity.”
Eagles soar. Winds blow. Storms surge. Sands shift. Rats travelling in packs, swim across hundreds of miles of open ocean; navigating by starlight and using other keen animal sensibilities they find and settle a previously uninhabited Pacific Island where they fell trees and light fires. Which of these statements is not like the rest? And why?
One of these statements is a necessary conclusion of a recent article about Easter Island, otherwise known as Rapa Nui. Three more of these statements will prove useful in interpreting that article. The statement about eagles is purely rhetorical and has nothing at all to do with Easter Island. There are no Eagles there, but if there had been seven hundred years ago, perhaps we would not be having this discussion. That said, it is the two word statements that we find believable. The statement about rats we do not.
Collapse. - The Original Thesis
In his landmark book Collapse, Jared Diamond talks about how various populations have caused environmental degredation and then how they have reacted to the effects of environmental degredation. He talks about contemporary Montana. He discusses the Maya in Mexico ‘s Yucatan several centuries before Cortez landed. . He examines the cases of Vikings in Iceland and Greenland, of the Chaco Canyon people, of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and of Easter Island. While the book would be interesting and its case compelling in the absence of the last example, this example drives home the point better than the other stories do. . His point is that if we do not pay close attention to the way we interact with nature, the results can be disastrous.
Diamond draws on archeological data, on oral history, and on some research of his own to paint a troubling picture of Easter Island. At some point in time, roughly a thousand years ago, a few canoes full of people landed on Easter Island, numbering about 50. They were Polynesians travelling from some other Pacific Island, and they had travelled many hundreds of miles, presumably following flocks of birds or schools of fish. Their dugout canoes - of the sort one saw on the trailers to the old police-detective classic Hawaii Five Oh - were laden with vegetable and fruit seeds and plants. And with small animals. They carried chickens and rats.
They landed, found a suitable place to settle down with good soil and fresh water. They cleared some land. And they began to raise their fruits and vegetables and to feed their chickens and rats. When, exactly, this happened is one matter of some controversy. What happened next is another.
What we know with certainty is that the island was densely covered with trees when the islanders arrived. A native palm, for instance, was ubiquitous. We know with certainty that most of the trees were gone when the first Europeans landed in the eighteenth century, and that it was almost mistaken for a barren, uninhabited desert island from a distance. We know that it once had a flourishing civilization that carved massive 80 ton stone figures called moai out of rock and transported them from quarries to seaside perches. These towering stone faces are emblems of Easter Island. And the Rapanui people carved and erected 887 of them. In a machine age they are wondrous..But how a tiny population of 3000 without so much as wheels or beasts of burden or iron tools might hew, transport, and erect almost 900 of them in two or three centuries is all but incomprehensible..
Diamond tells a story about this island that is informed by a lifelong study of Polynesian cultures. Some of these cultures he talks about in his earlier book Guns, Germs Steel in which he discusses the geographical advantages that allowed Europeans to colonize the Americas with such overpowering might. He observes throughout both books the importance of soil fertility on agricultural success. And he observes in both books the crucial importance of agricultural success in creating dense populations. Finally he observes how it is vital to acheive dense populations if one is to create a specialized society with a rich cultural life, one capable of so much as contemplating the construction of 80 ton moai. This linkage between rich, productive, fertile soil, dense population, and speciallized society is an idea Diamond painstakingly develops; and his reasoning is vitally useful in understanding the account he gives of Easter Island.
Using these observations about societal organization,, observations about how difficult it is to carve and move moai, and ideas about the capacity of the island to support people, Diamond reasons that Rapa Nui was home to as many as 20,000 people at a time during its cultural peak.
Various workers have suggested that the islanders cut down trees for several purposes One purpose was shelter. There are accounts by Europeans suggesting that palm fronds were used as roofing. Presumably the wood was used also as posts or as rafters or in other structural senses. A second use of the wood might have been in the transport of the moai. It might have been used as levers to gain mechanical advantage. It almost certainly would have been used as rails. Split logs can be quite slippery; and this can decrease the number of workers required to move these giant stone sculptures by at least a factor of three. A third use of wood was to make dugouts. But for this purpose, only the largest trees were suitable. Finally, they used wood for fire. And this might have been its most ubitquitous use.
It is well understood now by Diamond, it was well understood by Adam Smith, and it it was understood by Plato that the amount of food one recovers from a plot of land in a given geographical location depends upon at least three major factors:
- Whether it is wooded or cleared.
- Whether the soil is fertile.
- Whether it is cultivated; and if so how and how well it is cultivated.
Smith observed that a plot of land in England yielded a hundred times as much food if it was cleared and cultivated as it would do as woodland. Plato observed that eroded and badly cultivated soil did not produce crops in nearly the abundance that fertile soil did. And Diamond has made the same observations in both of his landmark books. But Diamond goes on to make another observation. In some low-lying places where there is always ample water, sunlight, warmth, and the occasional influx of silt from points upstream, soils are almost unconditionably fertile. In places where conditions are less favorable, fertility is more dependent upon the suitability of cultural practices. On Rapa Nui, for instance, he observes that stone slabs were used as mulch in gardens. This practice would be used to preserve soil moisture. It might also help moderate temperature swings on the soil surface, making soil biota more effective.
Diamond reasoned that as the Easter Islanders colonized the Island, they would have begun cutting down trees and planting gardens in the cleared plots of land. They would have raised chickens, perhaps feeding them talble scraps. As there was very little seafood on the island, and not many birds, most of the animal protein would have come from the chickens they cultivated. And from the rats. Diamond painstakingly describes the chicken coops which, in his account are among the few remaining permanent artifacts of an old culture. The houses have long since disappeared; they were made of wood. But the chicken houses were made of piled up rocks.
As they cleared new land, the newly cultivated soil would be relatively fertile. And it would have yielded relatively plentiful crops. But clearing of the trees had other effects. It caused soil erosion which swept much of the fertile soil into the sea. It also may have made less organic material available to the soil. One of the difficulties of warm soils is that they tend to “burn” organic materials quickly. Some farmers deal with the problem by incorporating leaves and other tree products into the soil. As trees became more scarce, getting organic materials to turn into the soil would have become more difficult.
Some workers have suggested that the Mayan obsession with white plaster caused them to burn too many trees, a step in creating the plaster. The paucity of trees, suggests Diamond, might have caused a material problem with soil fertility for the Maya; for they, too, lived where moisture was not too plentiful and soils burned organic materials quickly.
If, in the case of Rapa Nui one used this body of reasoning and plotted the potential food production in time it would be a mound-shaped graph whose peak would lie close to the point of maximum clearance rate; and close to the point in time at which half the island had been cleared: for that is when the most fertile soil would be under cultivation.
One could similarly look at tree usage. Early on it would be small. For some time it would grow in rough proportion to the number of island inhabitants. But then as large parts of the island became barren of trees, it would necessarily decline because the islanders had no pack animals to move wood. So if wood was vital to daily living, sections of the island would have to be abandoned once they were stripped of wood.
What we see is that the two essentials of daily life: food and fuel production could, hypothetically peak. The consequences for the Rapanui would necessarily be some combination of the following
- There would be violent contention for remaining resources.
- People would cut back on consumption, possibly to the point of starvation
- The Rapanui would forsee the production peak and respond accordingly, reproducing less and cultivating the resources they would need to live sustainably.
What happened would depend on a large number of factors, but it would depend highly on how sharp the peak in food production was, especially how precipitously it might have fallen in time - perhaps in response to drought or widespread plant disease. If one examines the moai one discovers that many are erected, but almost as many are work-in-process in the quarry. And some are in-transport. This is not consistent with the idea of a slow near-equilibrium process of decline; it is much more suggestive of a change of condition prompted by an acute, blow to the system of life. Something changed overnight. Or over the period of a year. And it changed Rapanui culture forever.
Diamond, using oral traditions of the Rapanui argues for the first scenario. He also notes that one eighteenth century explorer finds the islanders to be small, underdeveloped, undernourished, cowering, slavish. Bear in mind that this is before the Europeans were useing the island as a source for slave laborers for the Peruvian silver mines. Diamond connects this behavior with the oral tradition of wars and cannibalism. Another explorer, whose account Hunt quotes, suggests that groups of Rapanui made “threatening” gestures. These, too, might be reasonably interpreted as belonging to the same cultural context. If cannibalism exists, there are two groups: the hunter and the hunted.
In Diamond’s account the soil fertility collapses. Food production plummets. Starvation is widespread. Order breaks down. Wars and cannibalism sweep across the island. To westerners this is unthinkable. It is so because we have no parallel experience. But Diamond has lived among populations where wars over food or over things much less important were common. And where cannibalism was still practiced - at least during his own lifetime. And he developed high regard for the capacities of the people in these cutlures. In his mind they were no more savage than we are. No less intelligent. Their savagery was simply governed by a different set of cultural rules. Their intelligence was simply about a different body of knowledge.
An Alternative Hypothesis
Not many years after Diamond’s Collapse was written it began to attract fire from a lot of quarters. The implication of Collapse is that while pure, unadulterated, laissez faire capitalism might possess glorious strengths in times when resources are plentiful and human production can grow much faster than human population, when resource pinches threaten that same ideal is not very good at getting people to plan for, cooperate, and cope effectively with those threats.
Diamond is clear about this. In cases where societies have been proactive about vigorously protecting the environment, things have turned out better than in cases where they did not. People analyzing the way societies prepare for the imminent problem of peak oil make precisely the same observations; cooperative efforts coordinated by government policy can be started much earlier and can lead to timely results much more effectively than last- minute rush-jobs. In fact, if one waits long enough to respond to a shortage of food or fuel, there simply is no chance of recovery; the resources to do so have been used up. So the general welfare of society at some point in the future depends upon acting thoughtfully, in concert and in a timely manner. Free markets rarely are good at this. If they are or ever can be requires a great deal of honesty in discussion of the problems. Sadly, there are huge excess profits to be made by companies in the resource industries if they can sustain their businesses through long periods of resource shortages. And they do not always care if this kind of activity might actually lead us to the same ends as the Rapanui.
In so many words, Dr. Terry Hunt, in the same paper in American Scientist Online calls Diamond “wrong.” He disputes the “traditional timeline.” But the connection of the timeline to Diamond’s thesis ranges from tenuous to completely nonexistent. He disputes Diamond’s notion of “collapse,” and he blames any ecological deterioration on rats.
Hunt’s main thesis is that “It was the rats..” He argues that rats caused the paucity of trees on Rapa Nui. A significant part of his argument hinges on the fact that rats eat seeds and nuts. A favorite food of theirs was the palm kernal of an indigenous palm unique to the island, the Jubaea palm. He asserts that rats could have reached an extremely high population density, covering the island to a level of 40 per acre or more within three years of arrival. And from there on in history they might have eaten every nut or palm seedling.
Not only did the rats eat almost all the fruits tha the trees dropped, if any they missed sprouted, the rats ate the sprouts, too. It may sound strange, but humans eat the core of a palm native to Costa Rica. One can buy hearts of palm in almost any large supermarket.
Were this the end of the argument, we would thank Hunt kindly for giving us another useful thing to think about. We would acknowledge that rats, brought by the settlers for food, played a key role in the environmental degredation of Rapa Nui. And we would take his advice about worrying about invasive species. We would think about biodiversity and about how to naturally re-balance systems that have gone unbalanced by our own interventions. And that would be the end of it.
Sadly, however, Hunt presses the point.
I believe that there is substantial evidence that it was rats, more so than humans, that led to deforestation.
He spends a huge amount of effort demonstrating that the rats might be wholly to blame for the problem. He compares Rapa Nui to the Hawaiian island of Oahu that also had rat problems. In that case, Polynesians settled the damp windward side of the island and only centuries later established colonies on the leeward side. Meanwhile, rats colonized the leeward side on the Ewa Plain . And they brought several forms of flora to extinction., one of which was a palm, a species of pritchardia. The lession is, of course, that rats can cause serious, lasting environmental damage. Rats can make species of flora extinct.
Speaking of Rapa Nui he asserts:
Reason to blame rats more than people may also be revealed in the analysis of sediments obtained at Rano Kau, which, like the Hawaiian evidence, appears to show that the forest declined (leaving less forest pollen in the sediment) before the extensive use of fire by people.
In asnother publication he establishes quite clearly that on the Ewa plain of Oahu pollen declined essentially to zero before smoke showed up in a number of pond cores. Given a few centuries of free-reign of the plain the rats had all but made that a palm extinct.
But there are a number of distinctions between the two cases. Either Hunt is arguing that the rats arrived on Rapa Nui some centuries before the human settlers. Or he is arguiing that the rat’s population on Rapa Nui was completely unaffected by the fact that humans ate them in great quantities. One cannot grant both.
If humans ate rats in great quantities as his own work suggests, the predatory pressures on the rats of Rapa Nui would have been significant. All populations that are persistently hunted exist at a population level that is a fraction of what it would be were they not hunted. That fraction depends on many factors, but it can easily be a tiny fraction. If a typical Rapanui ate three rats per day, a population of 3000 humans would consume 3 million rats in a year. And that exceeds the peak population Hunt ascribed to the rat. Clearly, the rats could not have sustained that population level much more than a century after the arrival of settlers. And at that point, most of the trees were still intact.
Our first reading of the article tempted us to believe that Hunt was asserting that the rats preceded the humans. Were this true, then, of course, they could be fully responsible for the damage. But there are some problems with this idea. In several of his articles he painstakingly develops the example of rats on Oahu’s Ewa plain.
On the Hawaiian island of Oahu the rats, over a number of years, walked from the damp and human-populated side of the island ten or fifty miles. across the island to the drier leeward side, the Ewa plain. Only centuries later did humans make the same motions in settlement. In the mean time, the rats caused the almost total destruction of a species of pritchardia palm. In this case it is easy to understand how the rats settled the plain: they walked.
But extending the Oahu reasoning to the case of Rapa Nui requires that a band of rats on an island many hundreds of miles away jumps into the ocean, swims for weeks, and arrives to find the palm-filled wonderland of Rapa Nui. Rats can swim. But they generally stay out of the water except when pressed. There might be conditions under which rats would jump into the water: a slow but very large lava-flow or a wildfire.. The idea, however, that a whole clan would successfully navigate the South Pacific to to reach Easter Island is, hmmmm fanciful. So the idea that rats arrived two centuries before humans is implausible..
The second problem is that while it is easy to believe that rats, once on the island might materially retard the reproduction of some of the species of flora, it is impossible to believe that the rats actually felled the trees. We hesitate to compound one absurd requirement with another, but if we are to believe as Hunt wants us to that the rats bear the entirety of the blame for the barreness of Rapa Nui, we have to believe that he is telling us that the rats felled the trees. Or that they caused them to fall down. The palms in question can live for many hundreds of years. Under favorable conditions one might reach mature size in two centuries. Some researchers claim that the palms persist for ten times that period of time. In order for the rats to bear full responsibility for their demise, the rats would have to persist on the island for many hundreds of years eating up every last palm kernal that dropped to the island floor.
Hunt, in a later paper claims that he never actually says that the rats were completely responsible for the collapse of the tree population. Yet the distinction between this and what he actually says above is more of a nuanced one than it is a fundamental one.
A Third Hypothesis
It is worth noting that in his detailed technical paper in the Journal of the Archaeological Science (Vol 24. 2007) Hunt painstakingly makes the case that the decline of the pritchardia on the Ewa plain was all but complete before the first humans arrived. But when he uses the same graphing technique with Rapa Nui, the data is very different. There is a very strong temporal correlation between rates of change in pollen count and evidence of burning p487. The graph shows two very tall, very narrow pulses of charcoal in the archeological record. Just above these - later in time - one finds the pollen counts of the trees materially less..
Put another way, integrate the first charcoal pulse and see a proportional and almost instantaneous drop in pollen. It is not quite a perfect data set to illustrate a model that burning trees without replacement eliminates their pollen from the atmoshphere; but it is a reasonably good one. The second chacoal pulse creates a different pollen response. Pollen levels start to fall superlinearly with time. It is as if a catastrophic event that caused a lot of charcoal had removed all instances of the wood the Rapanui preferred to use and they resorted to using the Jubaea palm instead. If the rats are wholly to blame for the paucity of Jubaea palms on Rapa Nui, then this graph demonstrates that rats are highly competent at burning wood. Or they may be blamed for forest fires.
The Rano Kao data that we are talking about here is a bit eeirie. It shows two distinct charcoal peaks that are narrow and tall and separated by some time - perhaps hundreds of years. The story those two peaks tells is consistent with neither Diamond’s nor Hunt’s account. Either the population flourished and collapsed magnificently on two separate occasions or it stopped using wood as fuel for several hundred years The trouble with this idea is that the peaks are also very narrow and steep. They might, perhaps correspond to peaks in rat populations; but humans simply cannot reproduce that fast. The fires cannot correspond to normal human activities.
A much more likely possibility is forest fires. Rapa Nui is a dry place much of the year. Stone mulch was required for successful gardening in order to conserve water. Droughts, either of the normal seasonal type or of some unusual type could have caused susceptibility to fire. Lightening or human activity might have ignited them. Those peaks in charcoal data could represent large swathes of forest being burnt in forest fires. Were this true then the Rapanui would have been victims of several forces of nature: rats, droughts, forest fires, and lack of foresight. This happens sometimes.
The Disputed Time Line
Hunt’s major archaeological contributution to our understanding of Rapa Nui may lie in his work at Anakema, a site he chose to excavate because it was one of the few locations on the island well suited to landing canoes.
In 2004,we began new excavations at a locale called Anakena. This white sand beach would have been the most inviting spot for the first colonists to land their boats (the shore in other places is for the most part made up of cliffs or rocky crags). Hence most anthropologists suspect the areas around Anakena to be the site of the earliest settlements. We intended to study subsistence and environmental change, not basic chronology, which we assumed was already settled.
We dug through sand whose beautifully undisturbed stratification proved to be an archaeologist’s dream. The integrity of the layers would be helpful in determining when things happened, both in an absolute sense and relative to other events. But the excavations were not easy. The sand at Anakena is soft and unconsolidated. As we dug down a few meters, the pits became increasingly dangerous. ,,,
Finally, we reached the bottom of the sand. In the top 3 to 5 centimeters of the underlying clay we unearthed abundant charcoal fragments (indicating the use of fire), bones (including those of the Polynesian rat, a species that arrived with the colonists) and laked obsidian shards (a clear sign of human handiwork). Below, we found nothing suggesting human activity. Instead, the ancient clay was riddled with irregular voids—places where the soil had once molded itself around the roots of the long-gone Jubaea palm tree.
The bones and the charcoal were dated to 1200 AD. establishing this as the arrival date of the Polynesians.
But not so fast. Hunt’s team is excaviting beach sand. How did it get here? It was washed up by wave action of the ocean. The bottom is “several meters” removed from the top. There is every reason to believe that the bottom of this layer was scrubbed by the waves of storm surges quite regularly before the sand washed in. And when did the sand wash in? Well, it must have done so after the soil erosion from the settlers was well along.
This excavation tells us that before 1200, the extent of soil erosion on the island was minor. And that soil erosion has been sufficient to accumulate “several meters of sand, silt, and other fiinely divided material much coarser than clay since then.
Hunt may be right that this is where the settlers would have landed. Where they landed and where they settled are not necessarily identical, however. Were this island rich with seafood, there would have been a motivation to stay near the sea. But it was not. And of more immediate concern would have been fresh water. Other workers suggest that crater lakes farther inland would be better suited for early settlement. If this were the case, then the inevitable action of ocean waves would not be required to wash away traces of human habitation at this spot prior to 1200 AD; there would be none to wash away. Nevertheless, this beach - known as Anakena - was once inhabited. People cooked their rat meals there before the sand arrived. And if the Polynesians arrived here in 1200 AD instead of 800 AD, their culture was no less remarkable for its successes and no less tragic for its failures.
If we are to believe that those artifacts dating from 1200 AD are the earliest to be found on the island, then it is impossible that deforestation and the resulting erosion could have preceded human habitation. Humans were cooking rats on that stretch of shoreline before the erosion started. If one is to blame the rats for the erosion, one must blame the humans. for bringing them.
Twenty thousand years from now I am sure archaeologists will be arguing over the question of whether it was cows or humans who deforested Northern Europe, Eastern United States, and Brazil. For it was clearly the cows who gained the first benefit of the grasses and grains that deforestation produced. And there is no doubt that grazing lands are bad places to cultivate saplings.
The 2.5 Percent Solution.
There are two arguments Hunt dismisses in his work. One is Diamond’s argument that the population peaked at some level between 15,000 and 30,000. As far as I can tell, the evidence that he gives for this point of view is … that it just didn’t. In one paper he draws a graph of population level that looks flat as a table, almost. He provides no mathematical models to suggest how this might happen. ( We will readily admit that at least one classical population model does behave in precisely this way.) He provides not a shard of data. His proof for the idea that the peak population was 3000 members is that this was the population when Europeans arrived.
Nor does he demonstrate that any aspect of human activity denies Diamond’s peak theory. He stays well away from discussing the moai. Our own guess is that this is because societies with just 3000 members simply do not build almost 900 stone monuments weighing 80 tons each in their spare time. It is a little ironic, for in at least one of his defenses Hunt chides people for ignoring evidence, but in terms of sheer mass, the moai amount to the first 999,999 parts in a million of evidence. And he ignores them completely.
How many people are required to carve and move an 80 ton stone sculpture? We start first with the moving task. If one assumes that the coefficient of friction is .2 , and that a person can exert 50 lbs of horizontal force, then one can calculate how many people would be required to move the moai from the quarry to the final site.
N= 80 *2000 *.2 / 50 = 640
We must assume that this is 640 healthy males between the ages of 15 and 50. Assume a life expectency of 45 and more than a third of the population must be children. Half the adults are female. This sets the theoretical lower limit on the population of Rapa Nui at about 2000. But in most agricultural, pre-industrial nations the portion of non-agricultural workers rarely exceeds twenty percent of a population. One might argue that the transport workers were incidental; but the carving of the stone without metal tools or explosives must surely be no less daunting a task than transport. So most of the workers involved in transport would have likely been involved in carving. This suggests a population no smaller than 10,000 individualls. To argue as Hunt does that there simply is “no evidence” to support the thesis that more than 3000 people ever inhabited Rapa Nui at once is to overlook almost 12,000 tons of evidence. And for a small island with a short archeological history, that’s a lot of evidence to ignore.
One suspects that the real purpose of ignoring the moai and ignoring the peak is to be able to deny the violence that would have accompanied severe shortages. Such shortages would have occurred had the population level rocketed far above the level the island could easily sustain, and if this was followed by some catastrophe that made food viirtually unavailable for some number of seasons. Diamond does not discuss the possibilities, but we recall that the potato blight in Ireland was blamed partly on monoculture and partly on a very low amount of biodiversity in the crop. A similar problem might have afflicted the Rapanui. Only, in their case, there was no place to go.
The only adaptive solution would have been war and/or cannibalism. In a published rebuttal of his own work Hunt argues:
Published studies of hundreds of skeletons show that evidence for violent injury or fatalities is minimal. Based on a study of 2,618 human bones, Owsley et al (1994:164) report that only 2.5% of crania show antemortem fractures with evidence of healing or perimortem breakage caused by traumatic injuries. Owsley et al (1994:174)
The first time I read “only 2.5 percent “ of the heads had been broken at some point before the subject died, I responded the way the writer intended. But then I realized: “only 2.5 percent of Iraqis” have died as a result of the recent invasion of that nation. Iraqis are not very happy about it. Few Iraqis will argue that there is no war in Iraq. So a 2.5% excess mortality is, in fact, suggestive of a violent conflict. There are, moreover, dozens or hundreds of kinds of mortal injuries one might sustain in a war that do not involve cranial fractures. Puncture wounds are a classic example. They may leave no telltale archeological evidence. Wounds by axes might be the same, especially if they were delivered to the neck and severed the carotid artery without contacting any vertebra.
Hunt’s account of the survey does not suggest how old these crania are. If they were all from a short period of time during which a war was reputed to have taken place, then we might reasonably conclude “only 2.5 percent of the fatalities in the war were due to head wounds.” Or something like that. But if they span the whole time range during which the Island was occupied, then they suggest quite a different story. If one imagined that one tenth of the island’s total population was alive at a point in time when there was a conflict. And if all the head wounds came from such a conflict, then twenty five percent of the population at that one point in time could have suffered head wounds. It is hard to explain such data in the absence of violent conflict.
Conversely, if these fatalities were spread over the life of the Rapanui, they would indicate a very violent people. In what other human population do 2.5 percent suffer fatal or non-fatal head wounds throughout a four-century history?
By comparison, Detroit’s murder rate is less than about 400 per million in a year. Extending over a life expectency of 75 years, that puts the probability of dying a violent death in Detroit at 3%. But at Rapa Nui 2.5 percent is only head wounds. And cudgels are not among the implements I have seen listed that Rapanui might use for murder. So we might reasonably believe that they chose to use tools that were less widely available and less effective than they otherwise might have. Or we must believe that they used these more available and more effective tools at an even higher rate. This leaves us a picture of a society so bloody that one wonders how it could survive six centuries. Why would they do this? Are we to believe the Rapanui were more violent the people of Detroit? Even as they live on a Pacific island paradise with near-perfect weather? And, if Hunt is correct about there not being any collapse, the islanders are this violent without having any other evident reason to resort to violence. How do we explain that they work together to construct and transport the moai but murder each other at extremely high rate? The picture simply is not coherent.
One has to make a choice: either it is true that during normal times of plentitude the Rapanui were among the most savage humans in the history of mankind, randomly fracturing one skull in forty for petty reasons we cannot explain; or one must agree that there was a point in time when great violence descended on the Rapanui, probably in response to great shortage. Since the latter explanation is consistent with their own oral history, since it makes more sense intuitively, since there are other examples of societies devolving into this kind of violence when faced with severe shortages, and since such behavior is better explained in the terms of evolutionary biology; it seems reasonable to believe it.
All available data indicate settlement sometime between 700 and 1200 AD. For approximately one to two or perhaps three centuries the number of inhabitants on Rapa Nui grew. As the population grew, they chopped down trees, grew fruits and vegetables, and raised chickens. And they cooked their meals on wood fires. The many moai are suggestive of a large and stable population with much exess leisure time. For both physical and sociological reasons it is virtually impossible to imagine that the nearly 70,000 tons of sculptures could have been put in place by a population smaller than 10,000 people. By the mid fourteen hundreds, however, even Hunt’s data suggests that wood was growing scarce and substitute fuels such as grass were being used more frequently. Certain settlements were abandoned and there are other signs of either diminution of standard of living,or diminution of the number and/or quality of places of habitat, and/or diminution of population level.
There is no carefully constructed time series of archeological data that convincingly suggests that both the population level and the standard of living of the Rapanui in 1722 - when they were observed by the Dutch - was comparable to or favorable to their standard of living four hundred years earlier. There is no European account, for instance, indicating that the Rapanui were actively working on constructing moai. And as this is the most striking feature of the island, it is inconceivable that Europeans would have overlooked ongoing work.
Hunt’s own corrected time series data for fires made with wood suggests that by the mid 1600’s wood fires were rare or unheard of. Hunt is certainly correct in asserting that rats might have played a pivotal role in the story. Under ideal conditions, a palm can grow to mature size in under two hundred years. So if, the newly arrived Rapanui had painstakingnly cultivating palms and tried to protect soil fertility, there is a good chance that they might have overcome the handicaps imposed by the rats they brought with them. The conditions enjoyed by the Rapanui upon their arrival might have persisted for centuries longer. In this sense arguing that they “caused” environmental degredation is, perhaps, less helpful than arguing that they failed to recognize and respond constructively to it.
Hunt’s distinciton regarding the role of rats may be important. But one cannot sit back and say “The whole thing was the fault of the rats,” and leave it at that. Hunt, to his credit, denies claiming that the rats had anything to do with the actual felling of the palms. That was the fault of other factors. Perhaps droughts and forest fires proved the demise of much of the forest. Or perhaps the Rapanui cut them down. Either eay, the failure to cultivate the palm was a human choice. We can argue that at each point in time the choices were reasonable ones, even if they did not prove to be robustly wise and forward thinking. In this respect they might remind us of choices our own society makes.
Nor can one actually blame the Rapanui for bringing rats to the island. Even hindsight on this question is not quite 20-20. In some respects it was a good choice. Perhaps only a person who has lived in a land where something like one in seven young children dies due to lack of adequate animal protien - kwashiorcor in the Bantu languages of southern Africa - can fully appreciate the vital nutritional value a rat might represent. As warm-blooded animals go, they could be relatively efficient in terms of calories consumed per calorie of food. There were compelling reasons to bring the rat. Yet it was a decision of the people who colonized the island. And they bear some culpability for the consequences, even if those consequences were both terrible and completely unforseen. Here again, we see parallels with our own time.
Finally, the data in Hunt’s JAS article is clearly suggestive of two catastrophic, wide-spread fires, forest fires. These could have been started by humans or they could have been started by natural conditions. But the toll they took was huge owing to the fact that the natural forces that would allow the palm to rejuvenate had been undermined by the rats.
Whether we view the Rapanui as victims of two natural disasters or as victims of their own choices is an arbitrary choice. One can make an argument for either point of view. But the consequences of believing one model over the other are different. If one believes they were victims and that they did not have the choice to cultivate trees on which their great grandchildren might depend for shelter and fuel, then one is doomed to make the same kinds of mistakes.
Hunt presents some interesting data and some interesting arguments. But his assertion that Diamond was wrong is itself wrong in two respects. In one respect Diamond’s argument was fundamentally that environmental decay made the lives of the Rapanui worse. Hunt makes the same point. So if Diamond is wrong, then Hunt is as well. In another respect, there is nothing about Hunt’s analysis that brings any more evidence to the question s of peak population or to collapse. His avoidance of the question about how the moai got there seems almost systematic, studied. And, in fact, if his time line for colonization of the island is correct, and if it is taken in context with the amount of labor required to erect the moai, his work might actually suggest a higher peak population than Diamond suggests. And that would mean a bigger collapse.
In a short but provocative essay at Alternet, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the way natural beauty has been monopolized by the very rich and the reasonably rich. She ends the essay recalling Woodie Guthrie’s old classic “This Land.*”
In the spirit of fourth of July and of being subversive we rewrote the song to match the Eherenreich idea.
This land is their land, it is not our land
From the Brentwood Mansions to Manhattan Island
From the Jackson ski slopes to the Tampa condos
This land was made for him and her.
As I was walking along the mallway
I heard above me the floutist Galway
I smelled the lattes and frappucinos
This land was made for him and her
I drove my Prius across the nation
And on the radio they preached salvation
And all around me I got the message
This land was made for him and her
I saw a forest, a sign said “Posted”
The land was private, the owner boasted.
The owner visits a week a season
This land was made for him and her
The traffic jammed up as I was driving
A driver gestured “Go dumpster diving”
He pulled a pistol from his glove compartment
This land was made for him and her
Which, ironically must have been written in the 1930’s, bears its first copyright notice in 1956, and has been renewed over and over, leading one to wonder whether this folk song is made for you and me.
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