The Best Way to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day: Question It (Over a Pint)

On this, the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it appropriate to read a book that’s been on my shelf for more than a year (having snagged it from table with a sign reading “free books—please take” in a hallway in the English department at the University of Texas down the street): Noel Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White. In the book, Ignatiev traces the weird history of how the “blacks of Europe” became to be considered white in America after major periods of immigration in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Ignatiev attempts (I think successfully) to debunk several myths, from the existence of “race” as a biological distinguisher (we’re all Africans, as Richard Dawkins’ tee-shirt often reads) to the idea that the Irish became white because of certain advantages over other immigrant groups (they had to learn English, too, for starters). Ignatiev’s conclusion is much harder to swallow: many Irish immigrants, in an effort to find inroads in the existing American caste system, chose to side with the elites and their mechanisms of authority—that is, armies and police forces. They were pawns in a game, that much I think can be safely said, but they were also, unlike the case for their ancestors back on the Emerald Isle, on the wrong side of history on more than one big occasion.

Here’s a section from Ignatiev’s (Marxist?) account of the Irish participation in the American Civil War:

The Civil War and Reconstruction were many things, but one thing they were, taken together, was an effort to redefine the basis of the republic. The war began, as Frederick Douglas remarked, with both sides fighting for slavery—the South to take it out of the Union, the North to keep it in. …But the demands of war compelled a change, and in 1863 Lincoln shifted from a constitutional to a revolutionary policy. Three measures signaled the turn: the Emancipation Proclamation (which in fact freed no one, since it applied only to those areas of the country then in revolt, that is, the areas where Union authority did not reach, but was important as a declaration of intent and an encouragement to the slaves); the enlistment of black soldiers; and the replacement of McClellan by Grant (who, at the battle of Vicksburg, introduced the technique of waging war not solely against the enemy but against the enemy’s capacity to wage war). …

The abolition of slavery called into question the existence of the white race as a social formation, for if the main underpinning of the distinction between the “white” worker and black worker were erased, what could remain to motivate poor “whites” to hug to their breasts a class of landowners who had led them into one of the most terrible wars in history? And if class interest replaced “race” interest in their hearts, who could say where it might end?

After the Civil War, Southern recalcitrance pushed the Republican Party to embrace Negro suffrage in the South (although many Republicans continued to oppose it in the North). That bold step opened the door to a far-ranging social revolution, the establishment of a degree of proletarian political power in the governments of Southern states under reconstruction. For a brief moment the abolitionists—men like Wendell Phillips, and women like Sojourner Truth and Lydia Maria Child—stood at the head of a nation struggling to find its soul. In this struggle the Irish threw their weight on the scales, and not, it may be said, on the side of the angels [the “angels” line referring to Benjamin Disraeli’s famous intervention in the 1860 Darwinian debate].

Many Irish northerners, Ignatiev points out, chose to abstain from supporting the Union—both ideologically and materially—even though they, or people from generations close enough to remember, were for all intents and purposes slaves themselves in the old country. But I don’t think you can really blame them. If I had been alive at the time, I would’ve fled to Canada or to the West, rather than choose between dying for industrial capitalism or for agrarian feudalism—both of which endorsed and profited from the ownership of people. However, this, and other chapters from the dark American story, will surely not be mentioned tomorrow at the pub (where you can rest assured I’ll be, wearing orange: more as an attempt to go against the grain than to show support for the Protestant King Billy—although, he did usher in a precursor to Parliament in a time of Divine Right of Kings, and resisted/contained what would more than a century later come to be known as the Ancien Régime).

So to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day fully, I suggest A. checking this book out from your local library, B. reading it over a good pint of your favorite ale, and C. using the occasion to ask your friends to question the holiday’s ideological origins (it is, after all, an American—not old Irish—invention). To most, the Irish are seen as resisters of the English empire, and who in America can’t get behind that? But perhaps the day could also be used to reflect on class solidarity, and on the need to create communities of support as our own empire not only tests political limits but ecological ones.

To be clear, I don’t mean to make a comprehensive or definitive statement about the many choices that Irish immigrants have made throughout the history of our country (how could I claim such authority?). I would mention here that I’m part Irish, but really, isn’t that a silly source of credibility on a subject? Human DNA is, in the scheme of things, not substantially distinguishable—not just from others in our own species but also too among the DNA of close cousins like Chimpanzees. Rather, I simply wish to break the otherwise unfettered momentum of the St. Patrick’s Day “proud to be Irish” train, which, as it runs along the rails laid down for it by fundamentalist Catholic bigots, among others, serves as a kind of code for insular identity politics, and glosses over a much darker (and if nothing else, fascinating) history.

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NASA Confirms the Obvious

According to a recent NASA-funded study, our civilization will collapse—as so many before ours have—unless major policy changes are enacted to address growing inequality, resource extraction, and consumption.

As the Guardian article points out:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

Man, I hate being right all the time.

But wait, there’s more (sorry for the long quote but it’s almost a summation of this entire blog):

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”

…The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:

“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

I almost feel like I need not elaborate on this article, since, after all, brevity is a virtue. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how unlikely it is that governments will enact policies that reduce both production and reproduction. If only because of standard game theory, the arms race of competing nation-states dictates that no oligarch wants to blink first. Therefore, corporations (who really run governments at this point) will continue to promote increased “growth,” increased reproduction, increased consumption, and increased extraction and distribution of resources via unsustainable—and toxic—means. If the history of civilizations has taught us anything, it’s that civilizations don’t wind down and gradually ease into new eras; they are thrust, violently, either through revolution or starvation (which, actually, are usually two sides of the same coin). Our current civilization is only unique in the sense that when it comes down, it’ll take not only most other civilizations, but most living beings down with it.

What Jobs Will The Robots Take?

Here’s a great piece (“Inside the Barista Class“) about working in the service industry, but as a barista: a kind of alternate dimension between servant and chef. As the author recounts:

You can always tell when a customer is the kind who really Likes to Know His Service People. When he’s new to the neighborhood he’ll stroll in and start asking questions; about your favorite bar, your tattoo, what’s playing on the sound system. In an uncomplicated set of cultural cues—calling people of both genders “man,” reminding you about his DJ set at such and such bar down the road, reminiscing about that great cup of joe he once drank in Seattle —he’ll mark himself as totally down, a member of the just-recently-completely-bohemian creative class. He tips well, which is a plus, but you probably lose that money in time when he parks himself in front of the counter and stalls the line. He’s complimentary in a way that probably isn’t meant to be condescending about how totally awesome it is, the way you spread the cream cheese on his bagel just so.

When I was a barista, I used to make everyone the same drink (a latte) no matter what they ordered, because it’s one of the easiest drinks to make, and I assumed that nobody really knew what they were asking for. My assumption proved to be correct; not only did no one complain, but they all complimented me on my attention to detail, as if I had made the order exactly to their specifications. I’m still not quite sure why that happened like that.

But speaking of the service economy, here are some useful links: 1. the rise of the service economy and its promotion of highly skilled—not unskilled, as one might expect—processes, training, and development; 2. the top 10 hospitality industry trends will (or should) make you gag; and 3. “What Jobs Will the Robots Take?” from The Atlantic.

From the robots article:

We might be on the edge of a breakthrough moment in robotics and artificial intelligence. Although the past 30 years have hollowed out the middle, high- and low-skill jobs have actually increased, as if protected from the invading armies of robots by their own moats. Higher-skill workers have been protected by a kind of social-intelligence moat. Computers are historically good at executing routines, but they’re bad at finding patterns, communicating with people, and making decisions, which is what managers are paid to do. This is why some people think managers are, for the moment, one of the largest categories immune to the rushing wave of AI.

Meanwhile, lower-skill workers have been protected by the Moravec moat. Hans Moravec was a futurist who pointed out that machine technology mimicked a savant infant: Machines could do long math equations instantly and beat anybody in chess, but they can’t answer a simple question or walk up a flight of stairs. As a result, menial work done by people without much education (like home health care workers, or fast-food attendants) have been spared, too.

Of course, if you’ve read even one other post on this blog, you can adequately imagine my eye roll at the prospect of robots doing anything in the farther-than-immediate future, if only because they require an oil infrastructure to be manufactured and to operated. But beyond the obvious material limits, artificial intelligence is most likely not even possible—maybe even less possible than time travel, which is by all available evidence virtually impossible.

The author of the article disagrees, pointing out that “…that’s the most remarkable thing: In a decade, the idea of computers driving cars went from impossible to boring.” But of course, this decade in question was a decade in which cheap oil was possible. There won’t be too many more decades like that.

Sidenote: on my screen, the sidebar article to the robot one is one called “Not all leaders are bossy.” I would venture to think that no leaders, if they are truly leading—inspiring, educating, encouraging, supportive—are bossy. Yet, to take heed of the end of the robot article, “It would be anxious enough if we knew exactly which jobs are next in line for automation. The truth is scarier. We don’t really have a clue.”, would be to also buy in to the notion that we need bossy people in the first place.

I think Zimmie said it best, in coherent summation of both articles: “Don’t follow leaders, and watch yer parkin’ meters.”

Living Standards Are Going Up… Didn’t You Notice?

This week a friend sent me this article by TV-villain-lawyer-looking Kenneth Rogoff about “keeping living standards on an upward trajectory.” (We like to exchange articles that we think will rile the other up, with some David Foster Wallace and articles about the bitcoin crash thrown in.)

Okay full disclosure: I took one look at this guy’s picture and immediately hated him. His 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics didn’t help. But while I didn’t go to Harvard, my humble opinion is that his assessment (admittedly just the tip of the iceberg, fit into a 1,000-or-so-word article) has some underlying assumptions that are deeply flawed.

Judging from his experiences and world-view (and face), he most likely does not understand what it’s like out there on a daily basis for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, who don’t go to elite universities and who don’t work for fancy international banks. So I guess I wonder if his version of a higher standard of living is slightly skewed. When he looks around, life must look pretty good. But when a Mexican farmer looks around (if he isn’t decapitated by vigilante drug lords), not so much. These rosy glasses let him write something like:

“By and large, most advanced economies have fulfilled this promise, with living standards rising over recent generations, despite setbacks from wars and financial crises.”

Which “advanced” economy is fulfilling this promise, exactly? I look around and see a national student loan debt bubble. I see Greece, Ireland, and Spain. I see no new major transit projects developed in my town or in any town. I see people with chronic stress and joint pain from being overweight, people with 1,000 Facebook friends but no real friends, people who will literally step on another creature, just to cross the street. I see no living wage, more part-time employees without health insurance, Wal-Mart having a food drive for its own employees. I see confusing, expensive (and arbitrary) medical costs. I see violence over shortages in The Ukraine, in Venezuela, and even at The University of California. I see Americans—AMERICANS, the least likely group to substantially protest anything that doesn’t involve clicking the “like” button—sitting in the streets, sitting in front of the White House, sitting in front of Wall Street, because they realize that they’re probably the first generation that won’t have it as good as their parents.

But don’t fret, Rogoff assures us:

“And, despite a disconcerting fall in labor’s share of income in recent decades, the long-run picture still defies Marx’s prediction that capitalism would prove immiserating for workers. Living standards around the world continue to rise.”

I’m no economist, but I don’t think you can just say that living standards are rising, based on numbers on a computer screen at Goldman Sachs. And if service-sector Americans (so, Americans), let alone the global community, can agree on one thing, it’s that capitalism is pretty fucking immiserating. Informal poll: how many people do you know who love their jobs? Corollary question: How many Asian pre-teens mining metals for cell phones like theirs? Here’s something you won’t read in any stock market report: in America, more people now die by committing suicide than they do in car accidents.

“A leading example is food supply – an area where technology has continually produced ever-more highly processed and genetically refined food that scientists are only beginning to assess. What is known so far is that childhood obesity has become an epidemic in many countries, with an alarming rise in rates of type 2 diabetes and coronary disease implying a significant negative impact on life expectancy in future generations.”

But wait, I thought things were getting better because of capitalism?

“Capitalist economies have been spectacularly efficient at enabling growing consumption of private goods, at least over the long run. When it comes to public goods – such as education, the environment, health care, and equal opportunity – the record is not quite as impressive, and the political obstacles to improvement have seemed to grow as capitalist economies have matured.”

So to produce cell phones, capitalism is A-Okay. But for everything that actually matters, like water, “the record is not quite as impressive.” No wonder this guy worked at the IMF.

Cf. this insipid bullshit from The Guardian, Technology has created a flat earth where we can participate as equals, which ends with—and I’m not making this up: “We are all particles in the wave of a future that is ours to make.” Oh, well then, what am I so worried about?

Food Forest

Check out the plans for Austin’s new food forest.

What is a food forest, you ask? Well, every forest is a food forest, technically, but according to the article:

Though often perceived as a more feral form of a community garden, a food forest is actually highly organized, made up of tiers or families of plants with a symbiotic relationship, naturally contributing to a healthier, more productive ecosystem. These tiers, referred to as guilds, are integral to the overall health of the food forest as each component (soil, microbes, insects, birds, etc.) is essential. If done correctly, a food forest should be self-sustaining without the use of fungicides, pesticides, or herbicides.

Though the specifics are not nailed down, the idea is that people will have open access to what is grown on the site. Aided by educational signage to help people know what is available to eat and when, the concept is, more or less, “take what you will eat today.”

Sounds good to me. Once it’s up and running I’ll be sure to take photographs. Stay tuned.